Asia in Review Archive (2019-2020)


Date of AiR edition

News summary

29 December 2020

Malaysia: Ex-finance minister pleads not guilty to amended charges

(lm) Lim Guan Eng, who served as the Minister of Finance in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has pleaded not guilty to two amended charges of corruption involving an undersea tunnel project. Lim is charged with receiving approx. $825.000 in his capacity as the then Chief Minister of Penang as an inducement to help a company secure the undersea tunnel project. He also alleged to have solicited 10 percent of the profit from the company’s director for helping it to secure the project. [The Straits Times]

29 December 2020

Malaysia: Youth movement MUDA to take legal action over registration delay

(lm) The recently established youth movement Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1] threatened to legal action against the Registrar of Societies (ROS) over the delay in registering the group as a political party. The group had applied to be registered as a party in mid-September and has not received an update from the ROS since then.

A multi-racial and youth-based movement, MUDA was officially announced shortly after former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had applied to have his newly founded Malay-based PEJUANG party (The Homeland Fighters’ Party) registered [see AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4]. Among MUDA’s co-founders is Syed Saddiq, a former BERSATU lawmaker who served as the Minister of Youth and Sports in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration under Mahathir. [The Straits Times]


29 December 2020

Malaysia: UMNO treasurer found guilty in corruption case

(lm) The Treasurer-General of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the biggest party in Malaysia’s ruling Perikatan Nasional (PH) alliance, has been found guilty by the country’s High Court on charges of corruption. The offence, under Section 165 of the Penal Code, carries up to two years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both, upon conviction. [The Straits Times]

The verdict comes after a former UMNO top leader was sentenced to 12 months in prison and fined $495,000 last week, after he was found guilty of graft. [AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]

22 December 2020

ASEAN and the South China Sea in 2021

(nd) Against the background of ongoing tensions and significant developments in and regarding the South China Sea over 2020, a recent article in the [East Asia Forum] by Sourabh Gupta argues for an increased potential for ASEAN to play a more meaningful role in the conflict.

22 December 2020

Malaysia: Graft sentence for former Umno top figure

(nd) Following the slim passage of the 2021 budget last week, former leader of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) Tengku Adnan Mansor has been found guilty of graft and sentenced to 12 months in prison and fined 2 million ringgit (US$495,000). Umno is not officially part of the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition, but Umno politicians form part of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s cabinet. MPs are disqualified if sentenced to a jail term of more than a year or a fine exceeding 2,000 ringgit, unless it is overturned by the highest level. Tengku Adnan could retain his position but will not be able to run for office in possible elections. [South China Morning Post]

22 December 2020

Malaysia, China to send new ambassador

(nd) China’s new ambassador to Malaysia is expected by some analysts to engage with the Malaysian stake in the South China Sea dispute, an issue he seems to be thoroughly experienced in after having served in the boundary and ocean affairs department during China’s dispute with the Philippines which was concluded by the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016. Malaysia claims the seabed and waters extending 200 nautical miles from its coast, which is objected by China on the basis of the 2016 invalidated nine-dash-line, which stretches 2,000 km from the Chinese mainland and reaches waters close to Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. In September 2019, Malaysia and China agreed already to set up a bilateral consultation mechanism on maritime affairs.

The new Chinese ambassador is also expected to work both countries’ economic cooperation with regard of Belt and Road Initiative projects in Malaysia, including the US$11 billion East Coast Rail Link. China was the primary destination for Malaysian goods in 2019, with a value of 140.9 billion ringgit (US$34.85 billion), making up 14.2 per cent of Malaysia’s overall exports. [South China Morning Post]

15 December 2020

ASEAN, US relations: challenges and prospects

(nd) A recent report analyzes the challenges for the incoming Biden administration to enhance US ties with Southeast Asian nations. The report sees a great deal of skepticism in the region with regards to the US commitment and wariness of China’s reaction. China has immense strategic interests in the region and advanced to become its major investor through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Such investments, although seen in all their ambiguity by many local observers, are badly needed by the region’s Covid-19-shaken economies. Also, militarily China is increasingly present in the region according to the report and demonstrated its willingness to use force when it comes to its geopolitical interests. The new administration’s call for multilateral engagement is therefore understood by the authors as a call to active participation with ASEAN nations rather than an attempt to develop US leadership as too much engagement is seen as potentially triggering more aggressive counter-moves by China. Given these obstacles, a revival of US-ASEAN ties requires a clear vision and assessment of limitations, patience and political will according the report. [East Asia Forum]

15 December 2020

Malaysia: Budget bill won majority in third reading

(nd) In the third parliamentary deliberation on the 2021 budget, it was passed with a slight majority. The budget vote was commonly seen as a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, which finally disproved claims by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to dispose of the backing of a majority of MPs. The US$78 billion budget is the country’s largest-ever on record amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The deliberations were fraught by politicking, with the PM facing pressure from multiple side, including within his ruling alliance.

In the five weeks since the budget was first tabled, Muhyiddin has come under questioning from multiple quarters, including from within his ruling alliance. Particularly, ex-prime minister Najib Razak (Umno) exerted pressure on the budget bill. Umno supplies the majority of MPs to Muhyiddin’s coalition. Additionally, Anwar and his Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance were pressuring the PM. After surprisingly winning the polls in 2018, PH was ousted from power in February by a coup directed by Muhyiddin. Mahathir Mohamad commented his belief the government would collapse on Tuesday, offering his help to advise the next administration.

After clearance by the upper house of parliament and assented to by Sultan Abdullah, the budget will be passed into law. [South China Morning Post]

15 December 2020

Malaysia: Concerns over deteriorating climate for rights and democracy 

(nd) Over increasing censorship and loss of civil liberties, human rights groups warn Malaysia’s democracy to deteriorate under the current Perikatan Nasional coalition government. Concerns for the freedom of expression have particularly mounted in 2020 with many police actions targeting journalists, media outlets and individual’s behavior on social media which might be seen as a return to the time before the 2018 “beacon of hope” elections, while it, however, also seems to reflect the general trend in Southeast Asia.  [South China Morning Post]

8 December 2020

Malaysia: Anwar calling for a confidence vote

(nd) After the international credit rating agency Fitch has lowered Malaysia’s long-term foreign-currency issuer default rating, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim proposed a confidence vote against the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government. Fitch had commented that besides the negative impact of the Covid-19 on Malaysia’s fiscal position, the current razor-thin, two-seat parliamentary majority of the governing coalition implies persistent uncertainty about future policies. [Malaymail]


1 December 2020

Malaysia, China to standoff in South China Sea

(nd) Tensions arise from a newly standoff over oil and gas drilling in the South China Sea between the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and Royal Malaysian Navy. The Chinese vessel approached the jack-up rig working for  Thailand’s national upstream company PTTEP off Sarawak, East Malaysia, which impacted the rig and its support vessels. Malaysia deployed a naval vessel in response.

China could aim to further escalate the standoff with further deployments to drilling sites off Malaysia, since it claims some 80% of the Luconia Shoals. On the other hand, it entails serious provocation to Malaysia, this close to its shores. [Upstream]

1 December 2020

Malaysia: Youth-led party to emerge

(nd) Alike similar movements in Thailand and Indonesia, with the banned Future Forward Party and the Indonesian Solidarity Party, youth-led political party Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) was recently added to the political constellation in Malaysia. As often, its emerge highlights criticism of existing parties, mostly their clientelism and political elitism, specifically with regards to the political stalemate. Most Malay politicians are veterans of the profession, with 70% of lawmakers over the age of 50, despite a median age in the population of 30 and 60% of the population aged under 40.

As expected for a youth-led party, the virtual popularity is high, and a lowered minimum age from 21 to 18 for the electoral rolls in 2021 combined with an automatic voter registration will add 7.8 million young voters. Still, MUDA is lacking financial sources and did not build a grassroots presence on site to fight established politicians. Also, with its understanding of a multi-racial party, it might have a hard stand in majority-Muslim Malaysia. The party has yet to clarify its vision to clear the political deadlock and its policies in more detail, beyond the primary target group of urban, progressive youths. MUDA seems more fit to partner with the opposition, however, if they chose to side with the government or other parties, it might cannibalize the opposition’s voter base. Irrespective of their individual success, the emerge of a youth-led party will force other parties to think about their representation and addressing issues like unemployment, low wages, education and the rising cost of living. [East Asia Forum]

1 December 2020

Malaysia: General elections after Covid-19, PM says

(nd) After the passing of the largest-ever budget, prime minister Yassin Muhyiddin said the country will hold general elections once Covid-19 is over, in order to “return the mandate to the people and leave it to them to choose which government they want.” His administration is only eight months old, has a razor-thin majority of two seats, and recently fought off a leadership challenge from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Currently, Malaysia faces a second wave of corona virus infections. [Aljazeera]

1 December 2020

Malaysia: Budget 2021 passed

(nd) After weeks of limbo, the 2021 budget was passed on Thursday, letting weakened prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin pass a crucial hurdle to stay in power, for the vote was seen as a confidence vote in him. The Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition holds a razor-thin majority over the opposition, which is why the opposition bloc was consulted. With a value of RM322.5 billion (US$79 billion), it is the largest budget ever passed in Malaysia. The Malaysian king beforehand urged all politician to put aside struggles in order to enable an economic recovery. Opposition politicians thereby managed to push through parts of their agenda, inter alia the extension of the loan moratorium until the end of March 2021. [Channel News Asia] After being criticized for not blocking the budget, the opposition engaged in two bloc votes, one against the budget for the Prime Minister’s Department, one for the Ministry of Finance, which were both passed with a slight majority. [Malaymail]

Malaysia will hold a general election when the novel coronavirus pandemic is over, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said on Saturday, shortly after he averted a showdown by winning parliamentary support for his administration’s budget.

24 November 2020

Malaysia: Malacca to stop Chinese backed harbor project

(nd) Malaysian state of Malacca canceled a China backed $10.5 billion harbor development project, the Melaka Gateway project, because the developer had failed to complete its tasks in due time.

Initiated under the government of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, the Malaysian developer KAJ backed by state-owned PowerChina and two other Chinese companies, the ensuing Mahathir government revoked the project’s license in October 2018 over conflicting reports on whether the developer’s duties were fulfilled. After the developer successfully appealed the decision in 2019, the company failed to complete other parts of the project to be completed in October this year leading to the project’s final termination. [Radio Free Asia] [The Diplomat]

17 November 2020

South-East Asian leaders to discuss travel corridor

(nd) During the ASEAN summit, Southeast Asian leaders discussed a regional “travel corridor” in order to boost the region’s Covid-sticken economies, with the first quarter of 2021 as possible start date. The Corridor would include generalized regional health protocols to facilitate the exchange of people between the countries.

This move follows several bilateral steps taken earlier to enable traveling, with Singapore establishing “green lane” arrangements, setting up a reciprocal green lane with Indonesia for essential business and official travel [see also AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], also with Hong Kong, Brunei, Malaysia, China, and Japan. A corridor would help enhance the economic outlook for the Southeast Asian nations, which were hit heavily by the pandemic, with regional integration and mobility having been key to Southeast Asia’s rapid growth over the past three decades, although analysts warned the timeline might be too optimistic. [The Diplomat

17 November 2020

Malaysia not to extradite Uyghurs to China

(nd) In a parliamentary reply that was not publicly announced, Malaysia stated it would not extradite Uyghurs, even if there was a request directly from China, in contrast to neighboring Thailand and Indonesia, which deported three Uyghurs recently.

Despite a growing persecution of the Muslim minority group, even Muslim leaders in the region turned their heads, as China for most of them is the largest trading partner, and now a key partner in developing a Covid-19 vaccination. With Indonesia also struggling with separatist groups, it is reluctant to set a precedent of foreign interference in internal affairs, according to a source at the Australian Lowry institute. Given the necessary ties to China for Malaysia, this step, which possibly angers China, was labeled bold and a possible signal of Muslim-majority countries stepping up to protect Uyghurs.

Uyghurs fled China via Southeast Asia from 2010 to 2016. In Mahathir Mohamad’s time as prime minister, 11 jailed Uyghurs were released, despite a request to deliver them by China. Before that, with Najib Razak as prime minister, at least 29 Uyghurs were deported to China, with six of them pending asylum status, which HRW referred to as a violation of international law. [South China Morning Post]

17 November 2020

ASEAN signs RCEP, biggest trade agreement globally

(nd) The 37th ASEAN Summit concluded past Sunday with some 30 declarations, statements, plan-of-actions and summaries, covering a wide range of issues including stalled connectivity initiatives, environmental concerns, regional trade and integration, multilateral security frameworks, among others.

A dominant issue at the Summit was a joint response to the COVID-19 pandemic where cooperation initiatives were announced and put into operation, including the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund, the Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies, the ASEAN Standard Operating Procedures in response to Public Health Emergencies and the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases. [Vietnam Investment Review] [Malay Mail]

Opening the Summit, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc addressed the South China Sea issue, commenting ASEAN member states were not “drawn into the maelstroms” of the US-Chinese rivalry yet, but challenges to multilateral systems remain urgent.

At the sidelines of the Summit, the ASEAN member states along with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), resulting in the world’s biggest trade agreement [See also AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4], covering around 30% of the global GDP. India pulled out last year. The agreement will rather focus on trade and the practicalities of commerce, foreseeably to the detriment of labor and environmental issues.

Following a retreat from the region and uncertainties caused by an erratic foreign policy, the US engagement was put into question for a long time, enabling China to enhance its position. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to continue Barack Obama’s stance on Asia and make it a pivotal region of the US foreign policy. [South China Morning Post 1] [Radio Free Asia]

The trade deal puts China in a comfortable position in the region, with the possibility to shape it according to its rules, solidifying China’s geopolitical agenda together with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).The Trump administration was represented by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien who stressed the importance ASEAN-US ties in times of the global pandemic. [South China Morning Post 2] [9News]

Malaysia’s prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said he respects India’s decision but noted India was a strategic partner for ASEAN, and their trade volume increased, with India being the sixth largest trading partner. In order to facilitate trade, the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) was proposed, which is being reviewed currently. [Bernama]

17 November 2020

East Asia Summit: Deepening cooperation in pandemic response

(dql) Leaders of participating countries at the East Asia Summit on past Saturday stressed the need for countries across the Asia-Pacific to cooperate in tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the current economic crisis.

The Summit brought together Asean’s 10 members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States. [Straits Times]

10 November 2020

ASEAN and China discuss humane mutual treatment of fishermen

(jn) ASEAN members and China discussed ways to promote cooperation in humane treatment of fishermen as part of the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC of 2002 obligates the parties intensify efforts to build trust and confidence and ensure just and humane treatment of all persons who are either in danger or distress at sea. [Hanoi Times]

10 November 2020

Malaysia: Budget for 2021 revealed

(nd) Amid ongoing political uncertainty over the power struggle in parliament, the government revealed an expansionary budget to boost the local economy and curb repercussions of Covid-19. The passage of the budget is important for incumbent Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, as a rejection of the budget would amount to a no confidence vote for his government, causing more instability. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim called the calculation unrealistic with regards to the prospected growth of the gross domestic product (GDP) and announced to deny support if his concerns weren’t addressed.

Malaysia’s trade-reliant economy was hit hard by the pandemic, caused its gross domestic product (GDP) to drop 17.1 per cent. Spending was increased by 2.5 per cent to RM322.5 billion, with a fiscal deficit expected 6 per cent this year, the highest number since 2009. In a governmental comment, the pandemic, geopolitical tensions and weak commodity prices were named as downside risks. [Malaymail] [Daily Express]

3 November 2020

Former senior Singaporean diplomat triggers controversy over ASEAN membership

(jn) Former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, Bilahari Kausikan, triggered an international controversy on Octoer 23, suggesting ASEAN might have to terminate the membership of Cambodia and Laos given the enormous political and economic influence of an outside power, arguably alluding to China. He uttered the idea at a webinar of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, after referencing a proposed communiqué between ASEAN and China from 2012, which failed due to Cambodia’s resistance. Mr. Kausikan also said that both countries “must care” about who controls the Mekong River which he called an existential issue for people’s livelihoods.

The comments were rebuked by current and former Cambodian diplomats who attacked Mr. Kausikan as “arrogant and condescending”, said he destroyed ASEAN unity and questioned whether he was an “agent”. [South China Morning Post]

3 November 2020

Malaysia: Covid-19 infections in parliament

(nd) The parliamentary budget session, which begun on Monday, will be cut short due to positive Covid-19 tests of several officers. From the opposition, speculations rose the actual reason for the shortened time was due to 25 of the 64 motions submitted for the 27-day meeting were with respect to votes of no confidence in prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s leadership. With a razor-thin majority in parliament, government ministers have met with opposition parties to advocate bipartisan support to pass the fiscal budget in time. [South China Morning Post]

3 November 2020

Malaysia, Indonesia: Criticism over Macron’s comment of caricatures

(nd) Following French president Emmanuel Macron’s comments defending the display of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a school classroom, Malaysia’s foreign ministry summoned France’s charges d’affaires over alleged hate speech and defamation of Islam. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Islamist party PAS submitted memorandums of protest to the French Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. In a statement, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein emphasized Malaysia’s commitment to uphold freedom of speech and expression “as long as these rights are exercised with respect and responsibility in order to not infringe on or violate the rights of others”.

Following the beheading of a French teacher by a Chechen origin teenager after he showed the controversial caricatures in class, Macron defended the magazine Charlie Hebdo and referred to Islam as “a religion in crisis all over the world,” which caused a global outrage among Muslims. It also followed boycotts of French products in Muslim countries, among them the Malaysian Consultative Council for Islamic Organization. Several Muslim-majority countries have condemned Macron’s remarks, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying the French leader needs “mental treatment”.

French officials argued the killing was an attack on core French values of freedom of expression. The caricatures were also projected onto the facade of a building and displayed by protesters around the country. [Channel News Asia] [Anadolu Agency 1]

The world’s largest Muslim organization, Indonesian group Nahdlatul Ulama, with an estimated 90 million members, called for calm, despite criticizing the French president. [South China Morning Post 1]

Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad commented on Twitter, which was deleted following strong reactions by the French government after initially declining to remove it due to public interest. In a reference to the history of French colonialism, Mahatir posted: “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” It was criticized by diplomats and a Malaysian cleric soon after. [South China Morning Post 2]

Mahathir commented the deletion as follows: “If they had read the posting in its entirety, especially the subsequent sentence which read: ‘But by and large the Muslims have not applied the eye for an eye law. Muslims don’t. The French shouldn’t. Instead, the French should teach their people to respect other people’s feelings.” [New Straits Times]

While also condemning the attacks, Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo also criticized Macron’s words as insulting to Muslims. [South China Morning Post 3

27 October 2020

Malaysia: Chinese fishermen released

(nd) After the arrest of six Chinese fisher boats at the beginning of the month, all crew members were released. The fishermen were arrested for allegedly trespassing Malaysian territory in waters off southern Johor state. [See also No. 41, October/2020, 2] It remained unclear whether the boats were released as well. According to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), the fishermen will be investigated following Malaysia’s Fisheries Act 1985 and the Merchant Shipping Ordinance (OPS) 1952, governing entering foreign waters without notice respectively anchoring without approval, possibly facing two years of jail time. Officials at the MMEA, the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur and the Malaysian foreign ministry declined to comment.

Malaysia earlier rejected the Chinese “nine-dash-linie”, practically claiming the entirety of the South Chinese Sea. Despite Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping territorial claims in the disputed waters, with Indonesia claiming parts of it its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Between 2016 and 2019, Chinese coastguard and navy ships intruded 89 times into Malaysian waters in the disputed waterway, according to a government source. [Radie Free Asia]

27 October 2020

Malaysia: Fair platform to avoid import bans

(nd) Following the recent import ban of palm oil from FGV Holdings by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) due to alleged human rights violations [See also AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1], the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities (KPPK) stated a fair platform is needed for the US and Malaysia to address the allegations, which adversely affect their trade activities. He informed, FGV Holdings Bhd has taken appropriate steps to improve the right situation of workers, but also urged the sector to continue looking for new export markets, such as Africa.

The KPPK together with the cooperation of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2018 conducted a study on the labor situation in the plantation sector in Malaysia, which will be presented to the US’ Department of Labor. This presentation is part of initiatives to remove Malaysia’s oil palm plantation sector from the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorisation Act (TVPRA), which the CBP’s refers to for making decisions. [Malay Mail]

27 October 2020

Malaysia: Muhyiddin’s request for state of emergency denied

(nd) Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s request to call a state of emergency due to a surge in Covid-19 cases was rejected by King Al-Sultan Abdullah, further eroding the PM’s power after PKR president Anwar Ibrahim announced last month he disposes of a majority in parliament [See also Air No. 39, September/2020, 5]. The king further called on politicians to end the destabilizing political turmoil and emphasized the necessity to pass the 2021 budget on November 6 to curb the spread of the virus.

Muhyiddin’s move was criticized as a try to suspend parliament and avoid a test of his thin majority . The approval of the budget in parliament will be a test for his majority. If he fails to pass it, possible calls to resign or call new elections might surface. [Reuters] [The Diplomat]

PAS and UMNO announced they would continue to back Muhyiddin’s government, the PN coalition, after a supreme council meeting on Monday. [Channel News Asia 1] [Channel News Asia 2]

Following the resignation of previous Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, his former ally Muhyiddin formed an alliance with UMNO. Ibrahim claimed in September he disposes of a majority in parliament, and claimed he handed a letter from more than 120 MPs claiming their support for him to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. The Palace said such statement was not provided. Earlier last week, Umno and PAS released a joint statement, declaring they will register as a political coalition under the name Muafakat Nasional (MN). [Malay Mail]

27 October 2020

Japan’s Suga pledges security assistance for ASEAN’s coasts

(jn) Japan’s Prime Minister Suga announced in Jakarta on Wednesday that his country will provide patrol boats to Southeast Asian governments, like Indonesia and Vietnam, presenting an effort to help these countries secure their waters around the disputed South China Sea. Mr. Suga stressed the importance of adhering to the rule of law and peaceful conflict settlement in international waterways and lamented recent breaches of maritime law in the region. He explicitly pointed out combating illegal fishing as a reason to supply ASEAN countries with patrol boats. [Radio Free Asia]

The rhetoric and the agreement’s content match the overall strategic play of Mr. Suga during his South East Asian round trip, namely boosting Japan’s economic and security ties to ASEAN members that themselves are facing Chinese encroachment in what they see either as territorial or international waters. [Asia Times]

20 October 2020

Malaysia, Poland to sign MoU on education

(nd) Malaysia and Poland will be signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on higher education next year, which marks the 50th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations. The MoU shall further cooperation in education, such as exchanges and scholarships and cultural programs.

Currently, about 180 Malaysian students study in Poland, half of them medicine, with growing interest in polytechnics, and 1,000 Malaysian graduates, according to Polish Ambassador Krzysztof Dębnicki. [Daily Express]

13 October 2020

Malaysia: China demanding fair investigation of arrested fishermen

(nd) Following the arrest of 60 Chinese fishermen from six boats for allegedly operating illegally in Malaysian waters facing fines and potential jail time, China urged Malaysia to investigate their cases fairly. Malaysia and China have conflicting claims to territory and resources in the South China Sea, which China claims almost entirely. [Channel News Asia]

13 October 2020

Pakistan, Malaysia committed to enhancing strategic partnership

(lm) Speaking via telephone to his Malaysian counterpart Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Friday reiterated Islamabad’s continued interest in further enhancing existing strategic-level partnership with Malaysia in the fields of economy, trade, defense, education and science and technology. Qureshi also appreciated efforts by the Malaysian government to ensure the well-being of the Pakistani community residing in Malaysia and that Malaysian nationals in Pakistan would be extended all possible assistance by the Pakistani authorities. [The Nation] [Associated Press of Pakistan]

6 October 2020

Southeast Asian nation’s critical potential

(nd) With the economic and political repercussions of Covid-19, Southeast Asia has entered a period of potential crisis that mirrors developments around the “Arab Spring” and the economic situation that lead to the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, mobilizing both public and political opposition to demand fundamental political reform to change institutions of governance.

In the World Bank’s latest economic outlook, ASEAN nations’ economy could contract by as much as 4.7 percent. According to an estimate of the International Labor Organization, nearly 85 percent of youth employment within the Asia-Pacific is within the informal economy, which is not reached by governmental support and not included in official numbers. The many regional protest movements illuminate the frustration of younger populations with ineffective governance and high levels of unemployment.

Already, a political legitimacy deficit can be seen, which turns into trying to mute or quash dissidents and critics through authoritarian leadership, as seen prominently in Myanmar, the Philippines and Cambodia, facing criticism by UN representatives and human rights advocates. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo finds himself increasingly pleasing powerful Islamic constituencies that threatened to galvanize public discontent. Ever since February, Malaysia has been struggling with political stability, yet again following an unresolved claim of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to form a new government. In Thailand, the unprecedented student-led protests and their criticism of the monarchy institution is gaining ever more momentum. Additionally, Thai protesters expressed solidarity for Taiwan and Hong Kong, fueling a vision of “pan-Asian alliance for democracy”, named “Milk Tea Alliance,” continues to trend on social media.

A recent study by British-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft – the Right to Privacy Index (RPI), rated 198 countries for privacy violations, including mass surveillance operations, retention of personal data, home searches and other breaches. According to this, Asia was the world’s highest-risk region for violations with a deterioration in recent years. Among the worst-scoring Asian nations were Pakistan, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, India and the Philippines. The study advocated data privacy legislation and a transparent surveillance system.

The backdrop for these developments is a raging pandemic with sometimes haphazard public health responses additionally undermining credibility and trust. [The Diplomat] [Jakarta Post]


6 October 2020

Malaysia: US bans FGV palm oil products

(nd) US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will ban imports of palm oil from FGV Holdings, one of Malaysia’s top producers of the commodity. The department was investigating for over a year and allegedly found human rights violations within the work force, such as forced labor, child labor, physical and sexual violence, intimidation, and wages withheld.

Palm oil is used in many every-day products, ranging from foods to cosmetics. Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia are the biggest producer of the commodity and together produce 85 % of the world’s supply. Its use has been controversial for years, mostly for driving rainforest destruction and destroying soil with monocultural agriculture. [Jakarta Post] [Rappler]

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) has urged government agencies to pay more attention to the rights of migrant workers, saying the biggest issue to be minimum wages. FGV denied the allegations, including withholding passport, and emphasized recent efforts to comply with human rights and labor standards. FGV had 11,286 Indonesian and 4,683 Indian workers who form the majority of its plantation workforce this August. [The Sun Daily]

6 October 2020

Malaysia: Possible economic repercussions of political turmoil

(nd) After last week’s announcement by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to form a new government, the decision is on hold with the king currently hospitalized. [See also Air No. 39, September/2020, 5] In the meantime, the king was discharged. The king, despite his mainly ceremonial role, can dissolve parliament and trigger elections upon appointing a new prime minister in charge of parliamentary majority. While the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) said “many” in the party supported Anwar, no other party voices its support.

Given this constant political uncertainty, Malaysia is in risk of delaying and even loosing new investments, analysts and business groups said. The ongoing policy disruption stalls reforms and Malaysia’s log-term growth, especially with more attractive neighbors to compete with in the wake of investors trying to diversify manufacturing away from China. With Vietnam and Indonesia offering lower costs and Singapore more stability, Malaysia’s constant power struggles lower investor trust. [Jakarta Post 1] [Jakarta Post 2]

29 September 2020

ASEAN states commit to more military cooperation 

(jn) The 17th ASEAN Chiefs of Defense Forces Meeting (ACDFM-17) was held virtually on September 24th with participants pledging to boost military cooperation, to build trust and enhance solidarity among the member states’ armed forces.

At the meeting themed “Military Cooperation for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN,” the participants agreed that the joint efforts will help the organization to keep peace and stability in the region, and that the region is facing traditional and non-traditional challenges namely cyber security, terrorism, transnational crime, climate change, and diseases. [Hanoi Times]

29 September 2020

Malaysia: Ambassador refuses to follow US-imposed sanctions

(nd) In the ongoing conflict between China and the US, Malaysian Ambassador to China Raja Datuk Nushirwan Zainal Abidin said Malaysia will not pick sides and follow unilateral US sanctions, but will only recognize sanctions endorsed by the UN Security Council.

In August this year, the US imposed sanctions on 24 Chinese companies including subsidies of the China Communications Construction Company for allegedly participating in the South China Sea militarization. After a standoff between a Malaysian oil exploration vessel and a Chinese survey ship in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that lasted almost a month, there was no comment on the issue from Putrajaya. [Malay Mail]

29 September 2020

Malaysia: Anwar about to take over government? 

(nd) New political turmoil unfolds after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim announced to dispose of a majority in parliament, including defectors from the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition: “With a solid and convincing majority, it means that as of this moment, the government of [Prime Minister] Muhyiddin Yassin has fallen,” he said. Anwar announced to form an inclusive, yet predominantly Bumiputera [original inhabitants of Malaysia before the arrival of Chines and Indians] and Malay-Muslim dominated government.

If Anwar actually disposes of the necessary majority as announced remains unclear however. Muhyiddin’s government currently holds 113 seats of the 222-seat lower house of parliament. PKR and its PH partners currently hold 91 seats, adding 10 seats of two other allied parties, 11 seats short of the required majority of 112.

The parties under the PN coalition expressed their support for Prime Minister and Bersatu president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in a joint-statement. Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who can decide whether Anwar can form a new government or elections need to take place, reportedly is too ill to welcome visitors, causing more speculation and tension.

In last weekend’s snap election in the Eastern state of Sabah, Muhyiddin’s ruling coalition has prevailed by winning a simple majority of 38 of 73 contested seats against PH-partnering Warisan. This result, according to observers, was driven by a need for federal support and the desire for economic development in the midst of Covid-19 crisis, trumping the state nationalist approach “Sabah for Sabahans” platform Warisan was running on.

This result is a victory for Muhyiddin, who was prominently features within the electoral compaign, and likely to help him challenge Anwar’s announcement, despite not having a direct affect on the national level. Still, the result is likely to stabilize Muhyiddin’s PN coalition and head to a snap general election.

Only this year February, elected Pakatan Harapan (PH) government was overthrown to form the current loose Perikatan Nasional administration due to a number of PH MPs joined forces with Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pas. In 2008, Anwar staged a similar take-over attempt, failing by loosing the claimed majority when UMNO lawmakers did not defect into his camp. [Jakarta Post][Malay Mail 1] [Malay Mail 2] [Malay Mail 3] [The Diplomat 1] [Malay Mail 4] [The Diplomat 2] [The Diplomat 3]

22 September 2020

Malaysia: Youth demanding better political representation

(nd) In the midst of a political crisis and a pandemic-stricken economy, Malaysia’s increasingly frustrated youth starts to voice their concerns over the political leadership. In July, the virtual mock parliament Parliament Digital hosted by a group of Malaysian youth associations successfully advocated youth involvement in politics. After that, young Malaysians voiced their frustration about a lack in political representation virally, and introduced the hashtag #MasaKita (#OurTurn) to utter their wish for a new generation of politics to take over. When 27-year-old Member of Parliament Syed Saddiq in July was interrupted while speaking to senior politicians, it was deemed typical of the disdain the youth’s needs and interests are treated with. Citing Future Forward in Thailand, and En Marche under Emmanuel Macron in France, Saddiq announced a plan to establish a youth-based political party.

In July 2019, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, which will come into force in July 2021, possibly adding 3,8 billion voters to the electoral list by 2023. Possibly being proactive in that respect, Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Abdul Aziz announced the 2021 budget will allocate funds to support the youth, especially in terms of education. [The Diplomat 1] [Astro Awani][AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3] [New York Times] [Malay Mail] [The Diplomat 2]

22 September 2020

Asian financial leaders agree to make ‘all policy efforts’ to fight pandemic

(jn) Financial leaders from China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia vowed on Friday to redouble their efforts to help the region recover economically from the coronavirus and to defend a multilateral system of trade and investment. In a joint statement they vowed to “remain vigilant to the continued downside risks [and to take] steps to reduce vulnerabilities to these risks and […] to continue to use all available policy tools to support the sustained recovery.” They also said they remain committed “to uphold an open and rule-based multilateral trade and investment system, and strengthen regional integration and cooperation.”

The statement followed the annual meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors from China, Japan, South Korea and the 10-member ASEAN. The meetings were held via teleconference on the sidelines of the annual gathering of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). [Reuters]

22 September 2020

Asia: Rise in discrimination due to Covid-19 

(nd) A recent survey conducted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) highlights that the spread of Covid-19 gave rise to discrimination towards vulnerable communities in Asia. The survey asked 5,000 people in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Pakistan, with half of the asked people blaming Chinese people, immigrants and foreigners for the spread of the virus. Also, “illegal foreigners” were blamed, linking it to the arrests of undocumented migrants and refugees made by Malaysian authorities. United Nations warned this policy might deter vulnerable groups from seeking treatment.

Higher education obtained by the interviewees made it only slightly less likely for them to hold the above-mentioned groups responsible in all of the surveyed countries. [Reuters]

15 September 2020

ASEAN foreign minister meeting held virtually with focus on South China Sea Dispute, pandemic and Rohingya crisis

(jn/nd) ASEAN’s foreign ministers conducted their annual summit by video on Wednesday to discuss how to overcome the immense challenges presented by the pandemic, rising tensions by the US-China rivalry in the South China Sea dispute while also touching on the continuing plight of the Rohingya refugees. The ministers were also scheduled to meet Asian and Western counterparts, like China and the US. The talks kicked off a four-day string of ASEAN meetings that were delayed by a month and were now held online to avoid COVID-19 exposure. Vietnam hosted the talks as this year’s chairman of the group. 

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc opened the conference with a speech pointing out the repercussions of the pandemic on people and businesses while also acknowledging the “growing volatilities that endanger peace and stability” in the South China Sea, all of which required regional solidarity. Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi addressed US and China representatives to not trap Indonesia in a regional struggle between the two. [Jakarta Post] Tensions between the two powers rose recently, not only with respect to trade and sanctions but because of the status of the South China Sea. Having become not only one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways, these waters are also subject to various territorial claims with Chinese military maneuvers establishing facts on the ground. [See also AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1]

China accused the US of becoming “the biggest driver of militarization” in the resource-rich waters. [Manila Times] This year, the US intensified “freedom of navigation” operations in South China Sea, including bringing two aircraft carriers into the region for the first time since 2014 and lifting submarine deployments and surveillance flights.

In fact, Marsudi referenced a joint statement given last month by all 10 ASEAN foreign ministers, showing they are united in their focus on peace and not taking sides as China-US relations are deteriorating. The latter fact was earlier emphasized by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He was promoting an inclusive regional structure, with important regional powers such as Japan and India on the rise, and emphasized the importance of strong ASEAN cooperation, despite inward looking tendencies of the member countries. Because of its own claims and ethnic involvement, China was not able to fulfill the security role of the US. Still, the Belt and Road Initiative, he stressed, if carried out with financial prudence, is a step towards needed multilateral cooperation and to develop connectivity and infrastructure, which was neglected before. [Foreign Affairs]

In another virtual meeting on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged ASEAN leaders to reconsider deals with Chinese companies that have been blacklisted by the US for building island outposts which he said Beijing was using to “bully” rival claimants in the disputed South China Sea. [South China Morning Post] The Philippines referred to their need of Chinese investments, despite the two nation’s dispute over one of the region’s richest fishing grounds, Scarborough Shoal. [Manila Standard]

In their communiqué, the ministers reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security and freedom of navigation in, and overflight above, the South China Sea and underscored the need for giving effect to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). They also commended the progress in negotiations with China on an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) consistent with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. First COC talks occurred in 2002 but have so long been without a result. [Hanoi Times] The text also mentions the concerns by some ministers on land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the South China Sea which, it states, have eroded trust, increased tensions, and may undermine peace and security in the region. [AP] [Al Jazeera] [ASEAN FM Communiqué] [Bangkok Post] [Nikkei Asian Review] [The Diplomat]

Another key project was establishing a COVID-19 response fund to help ASEAN member states buy medical supplies and protective suits. A regional stockpile of medical supplies has also been approved, and a study to be financed by Japan will research the possibility of establishing an ASEAN center on public health emergencies. The communiqué also calls for “enhanced collaboration and sharing of experience with ASEAN’s partners in research, development, production, and distribution of vaccines, providing access to medicines for COVID-19 and other diseases in future public health emergencies, and making them available and affordable to all as global public goods.”

Referring to diminished regional movement and trade due to the pandemic, the statement also noted that members encouraged “the maintenance of necessary interconnectedness in the region” by facilitating a resumption in the cross-border movement of people.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. During the last meeting, ASEAN reached a consensus agreement with four more states, France, Italy, Cuba and Colombia. [VN Express]

8 September 2020

Malaysia not to extradite Uighurs to China

(nd) Malaysia will not follow requests by China to extradite ethnic Uighur refugees but allow them to passage to a third country. [Malay Mail]

For the Chinese Uighurs, a Turkic group adhering to Islam, South East Asia has become a major transit point to Turkey. Human Rights Watch accused China of a “systematic campaign of human rights violations” against Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region by incarcerating them in “political re-education” camps. China denies the charges and asserts the Uighurs are educated in “vocational training centers”. The entire region seems inclined to kep a strategic silence on the issue in light of China’s rising strength and military showcasing. [Zee News] There have been requests to extradite Uighurs earlier and the Prime Minister has been criticized for remaining silent on the subject. [Republic World]

Meanwhile, Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong called to boycott the Disney movie “Mulan”. Parts of the movie were shot in Xinjiang region and the credits included “special thanks” to government entities and the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department in Xinjiang. [Free Malaysia Today]

8 September 2020

Malaysia, Saudi Arabia close bilateral ties

(nd) Malaysia’s Deputy Foreign Minister states bilateral ties between Saudi Arabi and Malaysia have become more productive and dynamic under Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s leadership. Saudi Arabia, besides being the largest donator of medical equipment to Malaysia to aid its fight against Covid- 19, was also one of Malaysia’s largest trading partners with a trade value of RM 22.3 billion last year. The statements were ignited by a Senator questioning the status of the country’s diplomatic ties, claiming they were declining under the Pakatan Harapan government. [Malay Mail] Diplomatic relations between the countries were established in the early 1960s.

8 September 2020

Malaysia: Entry ban on citizens of India, Indonesia and the Philippines imposed

(nd) Malaysia imposed an entry ban on citizens of India, Indonesia and the Philippines from September 7 to fight the spread of Covid-19. Philippine presidential spokesperson Harry Roque called it a sovereign decision they regret. The Philippines currently has a number of over 226,000 infections, Indonesia more than 180,000. India to date has recorded 3.7 million cases, the third highest in the world after the United States and Brazil. [Global Nation]

1 September 2020

Malaysia: Anti-graft agency to look into 101 projects under previous administration

(lm) The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) will look into the allegations that 101 projects worth RM6.61 billion ($1.59 billion) were allegedly awarded through direct negotiations during Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) administration. Barisan Nasional (BN) component parties United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) had filed reports against former Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng and asked the anti-graft agency to investigate whether the projects were awarded according to the law. [The Straits Times]

Responding to the allegations, Mr. Lim who is Democratic Action Party secretary-general, issued a challenge on Tuesday to current Finance Minister Seri Zafrul to reveal all projects given done via direct tender during the Barisan, Pakatan and Perikatan Nasional administrations. [Free Malaysia Today]

1 September 2020

Malaysia: Perikatan Nasional calls off launch in Sabah state

(lm) Less than a month before state-wide elections in the federal state of Sabah, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin called off on Saturday the highly anticipated launch of his Perikatan Nasional (PN) in Malaysia’s easternmost state after the failure to sign-up several Sabah-based parties. [The Straits Times] [Malaysia Chronicle]

Parties that had hitherto officially signed up to PN include Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku (STAR) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). The Malaysian Indian Congress’ (MIC) – a Barisan Nasional (BN) component – backtracked on Friday citing the United Malays National Organization’s (UMNO) decision to not join PN. [Free Malaysia Today 1] [Free Malaysia Today 2] [AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4]

The coalition aims to kick-start a new political era by fielding candidates under its multi-ethnic and relatively less Bumiputera (indigenous peoples of Malaysia)-centric banner. Despite this seemingly progressive move, Prime Minister Yassin has hitherto struggled to translate inter-party bonds into a viable electoral arrangement. Unable to assimilate into a genuine cooperative arrangement, many parties find themselves residing within the coalition but asserting independent agendas [see AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4]. [Free Malaysia Today]

This has led to the political scene in Malaysia comprising multiple overlapping coalitions and alliances—PN and UMNO have overlapping parties but still jockeying for primacy, with experts saying that UMNO and PAS are happy to prop up Mr. Muhyiddin for now, while watching for an opportunity to govern on their own. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, in its first test on Saturday, a candidate backed by Perjuang Tanah Air, the new party of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohanmad, suffered a heavy defeat against an UMNO candidate in a by-election for the state assembly seat of Slim in Perak. [BenarNews]

1 September 2020

Malaysia rejects Philippines` Sabah claim in new diplomatic note

(lm) Malaysia submitted a note verbale to the United Nations on August 27 refuting the Philippines’ territorial claims over Sabah and the Kalayaan Island Group, which covers most of the disputed Spratly Islands. Lodging the diplomatic note, Kuala Lumpur responded to a note verbal filed by Manila in March, where it protested Kuala Lumpur’s bid to extend the limits of its continental shelf, covering portions of the Kalayaan Island Group, which the Philippines considers part of its Palawan province. [Malay Mail 1] [Malay Mail 2]

This is the second diplomatic note Malaysia submitted to the United Nations this year, following a note verbale issued on 29 July that rejected China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea “encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘nine-dash- line’”. [AiR No. 32, August/2020, 2]

Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr who via Twitter had revived earlier this month the decades-old territorial dispute between the two countries [see AiR No. 31, August/2020, 1] on Sunday rejected calls for the Philippines to abandon its claim over Sabah. The following day, Mr. Locsin followed-up on his tweet saying that he would revive the Department of Foreign Affairs’ North Borneo Affairs which is dedicated to efforts to reclaim Sabah. [The Inquirer] [Malay Mail 3]

Earlier last week, the Philippines` House Committee on Foreign Affairs had approved a substitute bill seeking to amend the Passport Act by printing a revised version of the country`s map, including its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and Sabah, on Philippine passports. [Phil Star]

25 August 2020

Malaysia: Politically motivated misuse of sodomy accusations confirmed

(dql) A man who made a sworn declaration that he allowed a politician for a sum of money to sodomise on four occasions in 2013 has now filed a police report accusing the head of an NGO of deceiving him into doing so by saying he would be rewarded by a senior member of the current Cabinet if he made the declaration about the minister’s rival.

He also accused the NGO leader of pressuring him to obtaining a backdated medical report on the sodomy claim. Anal sex is criminalised under Section 377A of the Penal Code as carnal intercourse against the order of nature, punishable by up to 20 years’ imprisonment, whipping, or both upon conviction. Such a conviction once eliminated Malaysia’s then rising political star Anwar Ibrahim who served almost four years in jail on charges of sodomy. [Malay Mail]

25 August 2020

Malaysia: High profile corruption case 

(dql) Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim, a lawmaker from Kedah and a member of the powerful Umno supreme council, is standing trial over charges of taking bribes totalling RM5.2 million ($1.3 million) involving road projects spanning Perak and Kedah states, and of money laundering, involving nearly RM140 million. In a related second case, his brother is accused of abetting him to receive a bribe from a director of a construction company in return for support in securing road projects.

The case adds to a number of cor ruption cases in the recent past involving members of UMNO including most prominently former Prime Minister Najib Razak. [Straits Times

25 August 2020

Malaysia: Formation of party coalitions may see UMNO regaining ground after PAS joins PN

(ls/dql) Malaysia’s ruling coalition Perikatan Nasional (PN), led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, has been joined by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). PN came to power in late February when several blocs of lawmakers joined to oust the then governing Pakatan Harapan administration.

UMNO, which is the biggest party supporting PN with 38 federal lawmakers, still refrains to become an official coalition member, though. Rather, the party created its own Muafakat Nasional coalition, which PAS and PM Yassin’s Bersatu joined as well. Observers consider that Muafakat Nasional may become UMNO’s vehicle to swallow Bersatu entirely. Bersatu, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, was initially part of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. [Straits Times 1] [Channel News Asia]

Less positive news for BN come from Sabah where a split of the state’s UMNO seems possible with state elections ahead. If BN would lose in Sabah, UMNO supporters could question the party’s leadership on the federal level in times of a highly volatile party chemistry in the country. [Free Malaysia Today]

Mahathir, for his part, has submitted an application to register his newly founded Malay-based Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang) as a political party. If Pejuang can win enough votes in the next general election and if votes are split evenly among the Malay electorate as they were in 2018, Pejuang and Mahatir may become an important power broker. [Straits Times 2]

25 August 2020

Malaysia finalizes deal with Goldman Sachs over 1MDB claims

(ls) The U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs has finalized a $3.9 billion agreement with Malaysia to resolve all charges linked to the 1MDB state fund scandal. According to the settlement, Malaysia will drop all criminal proceedings against Goldman Sachs and some of the bank’s executives. A few of the bank’s former employees will continue to face criminal charges. Earlier this month, former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment and a RM210 million ($69.5 million) fine in one of several cases against him related to the 1MDB scandal. [Verdict] [AiR No. 31, August/2020, 1]

18 August 2020

Malaysia: PM Yassin`s party to join UMNO/PAS platform (Muafakat Nasional Alliance)

(lm) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Saturday announced that his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) will formally join the Muafakat Nasional (MN) alliance that was formed by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) last year to coalesce the Malay-Muslim vote. The decision comes after PPBM earlier this month has been roiled by senior figures quitting the party to join Mahathir’s newly formed Parti Pejuang Tanah Air. In its attempt to remove those who are aligned with Mr. Mahathir, PPBM on Saturday also purged 282 party members. [Free Malaysia Today] [AiR No. 31, August/2020, 1] [AiR No. 32, August/2020, 2] [The Straits Times]

While PPBM leads the country`s currently ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, UMNO will remain the biggest party – by membership and by the number of its federal lawmakers – in the MN. PPBM`s move to also join the alliance, thereby turning it into a three-party faction, thus, will likely give UMNO an upper hand in seat negotiations for the impending general election. While a memorandum of understanding binds UMNO and PAS together, still, MN remains a party alliance without a formal registration. 

Earlier last week, most of Malaysia’s ruling parties – except for UMNO – registered as formal members of the ruling PN coalition. The coalition has since been accepted by the Registrar of Societies and includes PAS, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS) despite these parties being allied to UMNO via other memoranda of understanding. [The Straits Times]

Meanwhile, PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang said that more than half of state and parliamentary seats for the impending general election have been distributed among Perikatan Nasional components. [Free Malaysia Today]

18 August 2020

Malaysia: Court rejects ex-PM Najib ‘s bid to quash charges

(lm) A Malaysian court on Friday rejected former premier Najib Razak’s bid to quash charges related to an audit report of troubled state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), calling the bid “premature”. [The Straits Times]

Prosecutors had changed the wording in Mr. Najib`s charge sheet to say that he, in 2016, used his position as Prime Minister to order amendments to the 1MDB final audit report that had already been “finalized” by the Auditor-General before it was “finalized again” and presented to the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee. The defendant responded by applying to strike out the allegations, with his lawyer arguing that a finalized report by definition cannot be revised. [The Star]

The court case is one of many that Mr. Najib faces for his alleged role in 1MDB, the Malaysian state fund that is at the center of global investigations into corruption and money laundering. Earlier this month, the former Prime Minister was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment and a RM210 million ($69.5 million) fine in an earlier case involving a former unit of 1MDB. [AiR No. 31, August/2020, 1]

18 August 2020

Malaysia-Singapore relations: Joint border opened

(dql) For the first time in five months, Malaysia and Singapore on Monday opened their border, allowing now limited crossings for workers with permits to enter their country of employment for at least 90 days, and short trips for essential business.  via the two land gateways connecting the neighbors as well as by air. The border opening is vital move to bring both pandemic-hit economies back to health. [Nikkei Asian Review]

18 August 2020

Malaysia/Vietnam South China Sea clash: Malaysia coast guard kills Vietnamese fisherman 

(lm) A Vietnamese fisherman died from gunshot wounds he obtained in a confrontation in waters off the northeastern state of Kelantan a day earlier. According to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, the incident took place after coast guards sought to inspect two boats they believed were illegally fishing.

Ignoring warning shots, the Vietnamese fishermen started to pelt the patrol vessel with flammable items, before eventually ramming it, causing the coast guard officers to respond by firing in claimed self-defense, causing the fatal wound of the fisherman who later died. The two Vietnamese boats with the remaining 20 crew members were towed to the enforcement ship. [Bangkok Post] [Reuters] [South China Morning Post]

In February, Malaysia had announced plans to secure a deal with Vietnam to combat intrusions of Vietnamese deep-sea fishermen into Malaysian waters. In 2019, 141 Vietnamese fishermen had been detained for encroaching into the Malaysian Exclusive Economic Zone. [AiR No. 7, February/2020, 3]

11 August 2020

Malaysia: Mahathir to form a new party

(cm/ls) Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced on Friday to form a new political party that is neither aligned with Perikatan Nasional, which is the coalition that supports current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, nor with Pakatan Harapan (PH), the former government coalition that was formed after the 2018 general election and that he headed. Mahathir said he would be the chairman of the new party, which does not yet have a name, while his son would be the president. [Channel News Asia]

Though Mahatir already mulled this move a few weeks back, it still caused some upheaval as he had recently voiced his support for Warisan leader – and former PH coalition partner in Sabah – Shafie Apdal as prime ministerial candidate. Now, it appears likely that Mahatir himself might be a candidate as well.

In late February, Mahathir resigned from his post as Prime Minister after political horse-trading resulted in the collapse of the PH coalition. Mahatir was later excluded from the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), along with four other MPs who are now likely to join the new party as well. Bersatu’s decision to eject them was confirmed by the Kuala Lumpur High Court on Friday, as well. [Nikkei Asian Review]

Three of Bersatu’s supreme council members and a Selangor assemblyman already announced to join Mahatir’s new party, which could eventually also pose a threat to Prime Minster Muhyiddin’s majority in parliament. Several Bersatu divisions in Selangor have been dissolved already, and more lawmakers might leave Bersatu in Muhyiddin’s own state of Johor. Thus, Malaysian politics remains highly volatile both on the federal and the state level with no concrete plans for elections in sight. [Straits Times]

11 August 2020

Malaysia: Uncertainty surrounding Sabah’s snap election

(cm) Following last week’s collapse of Sabah’s state government and the announcement of snap elections [AiR No. 31, August/2020, 1], uncertainty about the impact of Covid-19 on the election and the integrity of postal votes from outside of Sabah and overseas have surfaced. There are approximately 250,000 Sabah voters residing in peninsular Malaysia. Human rights activists made an online petition to allow Sabahans to vote via post. In the past two general elections, there has been evidence of postal ballots arriving after the polling day.

The Election Commission plans to decide on the election date on 17 August. The state of Sabah is currently led by the Sabah Heritage Party (Warisan) backed by Pakatan Harapan. After several members of the state parliament had switched parties in recent weeks, Chief Minister Shafie Apdal, who is also the founder and leader Warisan, said that any further party switches during the state election would result in voters losing their trust. [South China Morning Post] [Malay Mail 1]

Meanwhile, Pakatan Harapan (PH) asked those state governments that are still in PH hands – the state governments of Negeri Sembilan, Penang and Selangor – to not follow suit if Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin were to dissolve the Federal Parliament. The state government of Penang concurred in a statement that said it would be too soon to conduct snap elections. [Malay Mail 2]

11 August 2020

Asian countries protesting, cooperating over Chinese posture in South China Sea

(ls) Vietnam is going to purchase six patrol boats from Japan to boost its Coast Guard’s maritime law enforcement capabilities. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) signed a $345 million loan agreement with the Vietnamese government at the end of July. It is the first deal of this kind between the two countries as Japan had previously only sold fishing vessels to Vietnam.

The deal comes at a time when Vietnam has been at odds with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea. In a corresponding statement, JICA said the project would contribute to “the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific”, a term that has initially been coined by the United States. The development demonstrates Vietnam’s increasing alignment with the United States and its ally Japan in defense of its interests against China. [Japan Times]

JICA has already signed similar agreements for the construction of patrol ships and boats with the Philippine Coast Guard under the joint Japanese-Philippine Maritime Safety Capability Improvement Project (MSCIP) program. [Naval News]

Meanwhile, the Philippine navy chief has called for a diplomatic protest against the presence of two Chinese research ships in a disputed area surrounding the Reed Bank. The Reed Bank is an energy-rich area of the South China Sea that the Philippines claims within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This claim was essentially confirmed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016. China, however, does not recognize the ruling. [South China Morning Post]

In a related development, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said after a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that matters relating to the South China Sea must be resolved peacefully based on universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on The Law of The Sea (UNCLOS). However, he also emphasized that Malaysia should not be caught up in the geopolitics of superpowers, emphasizing the need to maintain good relations with all sides. [Malay Mail] [Benar News]

Malaysia submitted a note verbale to the United Nations on 29 July, rejecting China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea “encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘ninedash line’”. [United Nations]

11 August 2020

Malaysia: TV stations searched by the police

(ls) In another incident illustrating the decreasing media freedom in Malaysia [AiR, No. 28, July/2020, 2], police raided the office of Al Jazeera and two local TV stations last week. Computers were seized as part of an investigation into a documentary on undocumented migrants. Officials had complained that the documentary was inaccurate and biased. The charges include sedition, defamation and violating the Communications and Multimedia Act. The Malaysian Police said the investigations were conducted in accordance with the law. [Time] [Al Jazeera]

4 August 2020

Malaysia: Confrontational stance against China’s South China Sea claims

(dql) Signaling a hardening stance towards China, Malaysia in a letter to the United Nations last week, has stated that China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea are lacking a legal basis, adding that it “rejects China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘nine-dash line.'” 

The wording of the letter is much stronger than the wording Kuala Lumpur had used in previous communications with the U.N., suggesting that Malaysia may be emboldened by the tougher U.S. stance. [Nikkei Asian Review]

4 August 2020

Malaysia: Federal and Sabah state government stumble

(cm/lm) On Thursday, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) announced their withdrawal from the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition under current PM Muhyiddin Yassin – just two days after its former leader and Premier Minister Najib Razak had been found guilty [see above]. UMNO is the biggest party in Malaysia’s ruling coalition, which only holds a two-seat parliamentary majority. Although UMNO lawmakers said they would continue to support the government in parliament, the party reportedly plans to partner with Malaysian’s Islamic Party (PAS). This political move thus not only undermines Mr. Muhyiddin’s administration, but his general support. [Malay Mail] [Reuters] [News Straits Times]

Separately, Mr. Muhyiddin faces another test to his premiership, as the State Assembly in Malaysia’s Sabah state on Thursday dissolved with the aim to form a new government within the next 60 days. Earlier last week, the former Chief Minister of Sabah had claimed that the ruling state government had lost its majority in the state assembly, as 33 of the 65 state lawmakers had taken his side to support the Perikatan Nasional federal government. Prior to the announcement, the Parti Warisan Sabah coalition, backed by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition bloc, controlled 45 of the 65 seats. The hitherto-Chief Minister Shafie Apdal is a staunch ally of former Premier Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

4 August 2020

Malaysia: The aftermath of former Prime Minister Najib’s verdict

(cm) After being found guilty of all seven charges from the 1MDB scandal, Najib Razak, the former Prime Minister (PM) of Malaysia, is facing a fine of 210 million ringgit and a 12-year jail term. Mr. Najib was found guilty last week for “the misappropriation of RM42 millions of SRC International Sdn Bhd’s funds, a former subsidiary of 1MDB.” This brings much significance as this is the first time a PM of Malaysia is given a criminal sentence. Still, Mr. Najib is hopeful that an appeal to bail will leverage his current sentences. However, he will soon be undergoing two out of four trials which have 35 charges in total. [AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4] [South China Morning Post 1]

Additionally. Low Taek Jho, the financial business man that Mr. Najib claimed had orchestrated the money transfer, is said to be hiding in Macau. The Malaysian authorities have not managed to take the fugitive as China denies any form of sheltering. [South China Morning Post 2]

4 August 2020

Philippines, Malaysia in diplomatic row over Sabah state

(mp/lm) Responding to an announcement by U.S. Embassy concerning Filipino residents in Malaysia`s Sabah state, the Philippine´s Foreign Secretary posted a tweet claiming that Sabah “is not in Malaysia”. A second statement soon followed it: “You better edit that announcement if you know what´s good for you.” As the tweets revived a longstanding territorial dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur condemned the tweets as irresponsible and summoned the Philippine ambassador.

In the lead-up to the formation of the Malaysian federation, Sabah joined the neighboring state of Sarawak, and the states of the Malay peninsula to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. But the territory was once part of the centuries-old sultanate of Sulu, for which the Philippines claims to be the successor state. [Nikkei Asian Review] [Straits Times]

28 July 2020

Malaysia: Missing Rohingya boat people have survived

(cm) Malaysian authorities have safely spotted 26 Rohingya refugees on Rebak Besar island on the country’s Andaman coast. Coastguards were concerned the refugees had drowned from attempting to enter Langkawi island before. The initial fear of migrants drowning was due to Malaysian authorities prohibiting Rohingya refugees from disembarking their boats onto their shores. [Reuters] [Amnesty International]

Malaysia does not recognize Rohingya people’s refugee status under international law. Furthermore, the government recently considered sending migrants back to sea. Last month, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin voiced concerns with regard to the influx of migrants fleeing the conflict in Myanmar and demanded shared assistance from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). [AiR No. 26, June/2020, 5] [AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2

28 July 2020

Malaysia: Former PM Najib found guilty

(ls/cm) Former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, was found guilty of seven charges of money laundering, abuse of power and criminal breach of trust connected to the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad fund (1MDB) scandal this Tuesday. Each charge carries a prison sentence of up to 15 to 20 years. The judge considered it proven beyond reasonable doubt that Najib had received illegal transfers of 9.8 million dollars to his personal account from an investment fund established under 1MDB. It is just the first of five trials against Najib relating to the 1MDB scandal. Najib announced that he will appeal the judgment. [Straits Times] [The Star]

The verdict was awaited since 2018, when Najib’s governing Barisan Nasional coalition lost the elections for the first time in Malaysian history and investigations were started. Also involved in the 1MDB scandal is the U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs. The bank had claimed to raise money for a sovereign wealth fund, but the money was later found in personal bank accounts. Goldman Sachs denied any wrongdoings, while the respective criminal charges were dismissed according to a settlement of 3.9 billion dollars. [BBC]

Last week, a Malaysian High Court also ordered Najib to settle about $397 million in unpaid taxes over seven years while he was in office. Tax authorities filed the suit in June to recover unpaid taxes accumulated by Najib between 2011 and 2017, plus penalties and interest. [Reuters]

21 July 2020

Malaysia: Minister of Religious Affairs gives Islamic authorities “full licence” to carry out enforcement actions against transgender people  

(cm) Malaysia`s Minister of Religious Affairs, Zulkifli Mohamad, has reportedly given Islamic authorities “full licence to carry out its enforcement actions” against transgenders living in Malaysia, citing his plan to provide religious education or conversion therapy for transgenders to “return to the right path”. [South China Morning Post]

The International Commission of Jurist (ICJ) called for an immediate rescinding of the order, and demanded measures of protection and non-discrimination for LGBTQ persons in Malaysia. The concerns of impunity for violence, mistreatment and discrimination by enforcement officers spark outrage for activists and the LGBTQ community in Malaysia. [International Commission of Jurists]

21 July 2020

Malaysian court’s hand down sentences on Rohingya refugees

(cm) After many Rohingyas have disembarked on Malaysian shores, 31 men were sentenced to prison for seven months, and approximately 20 of them additionally received three strokes of the cane for having committed offences under the Immigration Act 1959/63 in June. Others, children and women, were given similar jail sentences for entering the nation without a valid work permit.

The Immigration Act in Malaysia imposes up to five years of imprisonment, fines and six strokes of the cane for individuals who are seen as ‘irregular’, thus persons who enter the country without the government’s permission. Amnesty International questions that Malaysia’s treatment of refugees and undocumented migrants complies with international standards while PM Muhyiddin Yassin sought assistance from other neighbouring countries during the ASEAN meeting this month. [AiR No. 26, June/2020, 5] [Amnesty International] [Refworld]

21 July 2020

Malaysia: Ongoing political tensions 

(cm) Former Prime Minister and incumbent lawmaker for Basian Nasional (BN), Najib Razak, claimed that the new reasoning offered by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for his resignation as Prime Minister was untruthful. Earlier last week, on his blog, Dr. Mahathir had stated that stepping down was “only a formality as the Pakatan Harapan coalition had ceased to be the government the moment Bersatu abandoned them”. Mr. Najib commented that Dr. Mahathir’s resignation was the result of fear from losing the 15th general election, transferring power to Anwar, and being controlled by People’s Justice Party (PKR) and Democratic Action Party (DAP). [Malay Mail 1] [Malay Mail 2]

In February, the hitherto-ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition had collapsed, after lawmakers from then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pri-bumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) had left the PH coalition. The exit of these lawmakers and 11 more from the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) left PH short of a simple majority in Parliament. Mahathir then resigned as Prime minister, which was accepted by the Malaysian King, who, however, immediately re-appointed him interim Prime Minister. However, Najib’s Basian Nasional Coalition leadership ended due to his defeat in the general election against Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) in 2018. His response for Mahathir to ‘come clean’ is no surprise, as he may want to deter further blame on top of his three major criminal trials, such as the ongoing 1MDB trail. [AiR No. 8, February/2020, 4]

In Mr. Najib’s 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, Goldman Sachs Executives plans to resume discussion and negotiation on the recovery of lost assets with the Malaysian Government. Goldman Sachs’s three units have specifically pleaded not guilty in February to the Malaysian courts for misleading investors in “$6.5 billion in bond sales the U.S. investment bank helped raise for 1MDB”. Meanwhile, Malaysian prosecutors believe the expenses of PetroSaudi International (PSI), Saudi Arabia’s energy firm, was siphoned from the 1MDB state fund. As a result, the Malaysian Court has placed an interim order to halt PSI from using more than $349 million funds in Britain. Najib’s trial itself, however, is only gradually progressing due to ongoing delays. For example, trials were postponed due to Covid-19, Najib’s participation as a ‘statutory function as MP’ in the Chini by-election for Barisan Nasional Campaign, and scheduling dilemmas. However, the High Court mentioned that non-advanced notices will no longer be allowed. [Malay Mail 3] [Reuters 1] [Reuters 2]

Meanwhile, the center-left Democratic Action Party (DAP) of the Malaysian state of Sarawak has recently decided to back Shafie Apdal for PM candidate, with the Sarawak chairman of DAP stating the number of MPs supporting Anwar was only 109. Customarily, 112 MPs are required to form a government, thus Anwar’s support is considered short. Justifying the decision, the chairman further said Shafie Apdal’s leadership could possibly shape harmony between the racial and religious division currently in place. Earlier last month, Dr. Mahathir, who had announced that he would no longer want to be the opposition`s candidate for Prime Minister, alongside five other MPs had backed Shafie as well. In mid-June then, the Presidential Council of Pakatan Harapan (PH) decided to have Anwar Ibrahim as the PM candidate. [The Star] [AiR No. 26, June/2020, 5]

14 July 2020

Malaysia: New threats to free speech under the new administration

(ls/cm) Since the end of the Pakatan Harapan coalition government under Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir in March, Malaysia’s level of free speech protection under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration appears to be backsliding to what has been the state of affairs under previous Barisan Nasional governments.

On Monday, the Federal Court heard a contempt case brought by the government against the independent news portal Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, over readers’ comments posted on its website. The government argues that the portal’s filtering systems had been insufficient to prevent undue comments from being posted. [Reuters]

Another case in point has been the questioning by Malaysian authorities of five Australian journalists who recorded the treatment of undocumented workers in Malaysia. The journalists are facing possible charges of defamation and sedition which may carry jail terms. The authorities denied allegations of mistreatment and labeled the documentary as unfair, misleading and potentially tarnishing Malaysia’s image. [ABC] [Straits Times 1] [Al Jazeera]

Previously, the police had initiated, and ultimately dropped, a criminal probe on a South China Morning Post journalist over a series of social media posts about migrant raids. Two weeks ago, the Home Ministry banned a book on the 2018 elections, saying its cover illustration had insulted the Malaysian coat-of-arms. [Straits Times 2]

14 July 2020

Malaysia: Continuing political uncertainties over PM Muhyiddin’s majority and a frailing opposition 

(cm/ls) Malaysia’s first proper parliament sitting since the Covid-19 outbreak brought uproar on Monday as the Lower House Parliament’s speaker and deputy speaker were replaced in what appeared to be a move by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin side-stepping ordinary procedures. After lawmakers were not given advanced notification to nominate candidates and after much debate, the motion to replace the speaker passed by the slightest possible margin of 111 to 109. However, the new speaker was then directly appointed by Muhyiddin without a further vote. 

The parliament sitting was Muhyiddin’s first political test since becoming PM in March after the end of the Pakatan Harapan coalition government. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed questioned the validity of the new speaker as he was not appointed by the House. [Reuters] [The Star 1] [AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3]

Under the Westminster system of parliament, a speaker determines for instance if a no-confidence vote is to be held. Prime Minister Muhyiddin has been trying to avoid the initiation of a no-confidence vote since becoming PM over fears that he might not command a majority in parliament. Monday’s sitting has shown that these concerns are fully justified.

Meanwhile, the presidential council of opposition Pakatan Harapan decided to have Anwar Ibrahim as the PM candidate. Anwar has long awaited to become Prime Minister since Mahathir had pledged in the past to hand over this post to him. Mahathir and five former Bersatu MPs, however, now support Shafie Apdal, the president of Parti Warisan Sabah, as PM candidate. [The Star 2] [AiR No. 48, November/2019, 4] [Free Malaysia Today]

The political instability in Malaysia creates greater uncertainty for economic growth and recovery. The governmental debt is currently at 52 percent of the GDP. Due to the lack of political consensus or urgency in Muhyiddin’s policy team, parliamentary discussions are being delayed. [Nikkei Asian Review] [Straits Times]

14 July 2020

Malaysia: Allegations of abuse on palm oil plantation 

(cm) One of Malaysia’s palm oil plantations, Sime Darby, is the subject of allegations of forced and child labor abuse. The Hong Kong-based activist group Liberty Shared said that it has collected numerous interviews with workers who stated threats of sexual harassment, varying conditions of undue accommodation, deductions of pay, physical threats and abuse. The issue may not only have negatively impacted Malaysia’s ongoing palm oil exports, in particular to the US, but also its recent legal action against the EU for restricting palm oil imports. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters] [AiR No. 27, July/2020, 1]

7 July 2020

Malaysia files WTO legal action against EU’s restrictions on palm biofuels 

(cm) Malaysia filed legal action against the EU’s allegedly discriminatory “anti-palm oil campaign” to the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s dispute settlement mechanism. Justifying the step, the Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister said the directive constitutes discriminatory action, and restricts any form of free trade practices. [The Straits Times] [New Straits Times]

The EU’s Delegation Regulation, under the 2018 Renewable Energy Directive II, places restrictions on palm oil-based biofuels. Due to the excessive deforestation from palm oils, the EU plans to slowly eliminate palm-based transport fuels from renewables and propose legislative frameworks for sustainable food in 2030. This brings fear to the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, as the EU is the third largest buyer of palm oil, and the extent of these measures are uncertain, such as additional sustainability requirements for the climate target plan in 2030. Thus, Malaysia will act as a third party to the WTO’s Indonesia’s case against the EU’s anti-palm oil campaign. [Reuters 1] [Reuters 2] [Bangkok Post]


7 July 2020

Malaysia: BN victory in by-election, possible snap-elections, ongoing PH tensions

(cm/lm) On Sunday, Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate Mohd Sharim Bin Mohd Zain won the Chini constituency state by-election in Malaysia’s Pahang federal state, which was held following the May 6 death of the incumbent UMNO assemblyman. This first poll held under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government was considered a litmus test for the tacit cooperation among the different factions of the PN coalition led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. With his 1MDB trial put on hold until July 17, Malaysia’s former leader Najib Razak was also allowed to join the political campaign leading up to the by-election, and is said to conduct a speech in parliament whilst holding off his trial. [New Straits Times 1] [The Straits Times 1] [Malay Mail] [SCMP]

Meanwhile, a meeting of the 12 political parties constituting the governing PN coalition brought support for Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s leadership who is looking to shore up his shaky position in parliament. Reportedly, the Prime Minister may aim for snap polls, potentially in March 2021 to ask for a fresh five-year mandate from the people. [Nikkei Asian Review] [New Straits Times 2] [The Straits Times 2]

Amidst the infightings within the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition over the preferred candidate for the office of the Prime Minister, Malaysia’s former leader Mahathir Mohamad reiterated that Anwar Ibrahim was not suitable to serve as the coalition’s candidate, given his ostensible lack of popularity with the Malays. [SCMP]


30 June 2020

At summit, ASEAN leaders stress importance of international law for South China Sea dispute 

(jn) Leaders of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Friday emphasized the importance of maintaining and promoting “freedom of navigation and overflight” above the South China Sea. The passage in their vision statement is seen as a response to reports of China planning to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), something the country has also not ruled out publicly. The prospect of an ADIZ was not only decried by ASEAN members, but also the US military in the region.

ASEAN members explicitly stressed “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.” They also agreed to work on “an effective and substantive Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea, a framework that would go further than the 2002 Declaration of Conduct that the ASEAN once agreed on with China.

On Saturday, another ASEAN statement authored by chairing member Vietnam pointed out that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones” in the South China Sea. Such remarks can be seen as a strong repudiation to China’s controversial historical claim to most of the disputed waters, and it is no coincidence that Vietnam as one of the most vocal critics of China’s encroachment was the drafter. As a sign of increasing geopolitical tensions, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese fishing boats this month and in April, and in the earlier case sunk one of them [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].

The UNCLOS defines certain water areas as exclusive economic zones (EEZ) where coastal states are given the exclusive right to explore and use marine resources. The leaders said in the statement that the “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”. 

There was no immediate response from China, but according to AP, Southeast Asian diplomats said that the statement marked a significant strengthening of ASEAN’s assertion of the rule of law in the region. In 2016, the Permanent Court or Arbitration in The Hague had ruled that China’s vast claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis. However, Beijing did not recognize the ruling. 

For a number of different interpretations and evaluation of the ruling see [ISEAS]. Among them is a piece of Clive Schofield who refers to China’s refection of the ruling to point to the fact of “fundamentally opposed, overlapping and contested spatial visions of maritime rights in the SCS” which “sets the scene for ongoing maritime incidents and disputes” with China not giving up its claims of historic rights.  

The ASEAN leaders also dedicated themselves to tackling the economic collateral damage wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic by establishing a regional pandemic fund, building medical supply stockpiles and reasserting the need for open trade links.  

The vision statement reaffirmed the importance of implementing free trade agreements and comprehensive economic partnerships between ASEAN and key economies. It mentioned India as a major trading partner (alongside China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong), although PM Narendra Modi had said last year that India would withdraw from the negotiations to sign up for the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact [see also AiR No.45, November/2019, 1]

The 36th ASEAN Summit themed “Cohesive And Responsive ASEAN: Rising Above Challenges And Sustaining Growth” was convened as a video conference on June 26 under the chair of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. [The Guardian] [South China Morning Post] [South China Morning Post 2] [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Nikkei Review]


30 June 2020

Philippine President Duterte calls ASEAN not to escalate South China Sea dispute

(mp) Echoing ASEAN’s general stance on the South China Sea (see above), also Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called the parties involved in the conflict to exercise self-restraint and respect the rule of law to avoid “escalating tension.” He stressed that the conflict needed to be solved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Duterte, the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogues, demanded to work with China closely and to achieve an early conclusion with the other member states to reduce the tensions in the region that have continuously risen. [Inquirer]


30 June 2020

Malaysia: Mahathir abandons PM candidacy and backs Sabah chief minister

(cm/ls) After weeks of uncertainty between Anwar Ibrahim and Mohamad Mahathir over each’s possible candidacy against Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, Mahathir has apparently abandoned his plans to become prime minister for a third time. Not without surprise to observers, he stated on the weekend that he will back Shafie Apdal as PM candidate. Shafie is the Chief of Minister of the state of Sabah and the leader of the Parti Warisan. The decision was a collective agreement between three opposition parties. PKR, however, was not in agreement as they proposed Anwar as prime ministerial candidate and refused Mahathir’s initial proposal to elect him for six months as prime minister. [South China Morning Post] [Straits Times 1] [AiR No. 25, June/2020, 4]

Meanwhile, opposition parties are calling on Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin for snap polls. Malaysia’s upcoming elections are due before or in September 2023. However, the opposition questions whether Muhyiddin is holding an effective majority in parliament. [Straits Times 2] [Channel News Asia


30 June 2020

Malaysia wants no more Rohingya refugees – APHR calls ASEAN’s limited help shameful

(cm/ls) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that Malaysia did not have the resources and capacity to allow further Rohingya refugees be admitted to the country. Malaysia implemented strict border control since April when an influx of Rohingya refugees attempted to enter. Many of the refugees have been detained. Muhyiddin urged “the UN Refugee Agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries” as there are more than 100,000 refugees currently in Malaysia. [Bangkok Post] [South China Morning Post] [Air No. 23, June/2020, 2]

Meanwhile, Indonesian fishermen have rescued nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including 79 women and children, in Aceh province. Officials said they planned to push them back out to sea with a new boat, gas and food, but these plans have not been realized following protests from the local fishermen. [Reuters]

The chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Charles Santiago, called the ASEAN response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said the crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region. [Jakarta Post]


23 June 2020

Malaysia: Mahathir-Anwar divide sees Pakatan Harapan counter-coup falter

(cm/lm) In a statement issued on Friday, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leadership and lawmakers said they would only back president Anwar Ibrahim in his bid to be the prime ministerial candidate for Malaysia’s multiracial Pakatan Harapan alliance (PH). The decision is considered a key turning point for the counter-coup plan, because PKR´s 38 parliamentary seats are required to test Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s majority at a scheduled Parliament sitting in July.

For weeks, the co-called “Pakatan Plus” alliance of 107 or 108 MPs has been unable to come to a consensus in selecting their prime ministerial candidate as a self-imposed deadline for an agreement passed on last Tuesday, after a meeting between the opposition’s key leaders had not taken place.

The Chinese-centric Democratic Action Party (DAP)– which has 42 MPs – and Amanah, a progressive-leaning Islamic group with 11 lawmakers, had indicated earlier that they are willing to back Dr Mahathir in his bid to return as prime minister for the third time. At the moment, the People’s Justice Party holds 38 of the 222 seats. Anwar stated he is willing to discuss further on ways to ‘save Malaysia’ with Mahathir. [NY Times] [The Straits Times] [SCMP] [The Straits Times 2]


23 June 2020

Malaysia: Sabah Foundation sues its former chairman

(cm/lm) Last Tuesday, the Sabah Foundation (Yayasan Sabah), an organisation dedicated to the promotion of educational and economic opportunities for the people of the Sabah state, filed a RM872 million claim at the Kota Kinabalu High Court against its former chairman and former Chief Minister Tan Sri Musa Aman for alleged breach of fiduciary duty. Musa later last week denied all allegations and issued a Letter of Demand, asking for an unconditional apology, and demanding RM1 billion from Yayasan Sabah trustees, including Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal. [The Star] [New Straites Times]

The claim comes on the heels of the High Court earlier this month acquitting and discharging Musa Aman of 46 criminal charges of corruption and money-laundering linked to timber concessions contracts in the state. The prosecution had withdrawn the charges. [The Edge Markets] [AiR, No. 24, June/2020, 3]


23 June 2020

Malaysia: Bersatu’s Deputy Division Chief sacked for contesting Chini by-election

(cm) The deputy Pekan division chief of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), Tengku Datuk Zainul Hisham Tengku Hussin has been sacked by his party last week after going rogue and announcing to contest the Chini-by-election as an independent candidate. The Election Commission set 30 June for early voting, and 4 July for polling. During this period, the Election Commission placed security measures on three Election Campaign Enforcement Teams until the 3 July. [New Straits Times] [The Star]

In a video message Dr Mahathir on Tuesday endorsed Tengku Zainul, saying that he was the best candidate in the three-way contest between Tengku Zainul, Mohd Syukri Mohd Ramli, and Mohd Sharim Md Zain from Barisan Nasional. [Malay Mail]

23 June 2020

Malaysia: Plans for Rohingya detainees to be sent back to Sea

(cm) Last Friday, security sources divulged that Malaysian authorities plan to send 269 Rohingya Muslims back out to sea. Their hopes of sending the refugees to Bangladesh fell short as Bangladeshi officials rejected their request. Thus, authorities are now aiming to repair the boat, regardless of the report of one death and poor health conditions upon arrival. [Reuters]

In response, Amnesty International in a statement said that “not only would such a move breach the most basic principles of international law, if the boat subsequently managed to land in another country irregularly, it could potentially contravene Malaysia’s own law banning the smuggling of migrants.” [Amnesty International]

In early June, Malaysian authorities were unable to cease entry or return the Rohingya refugees due to their damaged boat. [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]

23 June 2020

Malaysia-Singapore relations: Ongoing discussions on cross-border travel

(cm) The foreign ministries in Singapore and Malaysia are closely discussing safety measures and precautions for official travellers, short term businesses, and citizens who regularly commute between these countries. Ismail Sabri, Malaysia’s Senior Minister, stated on Friday that Singapore and Brunei are seen as green zones by the Malaysian Health Ministry. Therefore provisionally, Malaysia may no longer require 14-day quarantine or mandatory Covid-19 screening for Singapore and also Brunei citizens who enter Malaysia. Additionally, this would be reciprocated to Malaysians who enter Singapore and/or Brunei. However, public health protocols and safety of citizens are still ongoing negotiations between the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. [Today Online]

16 June 2020

Malaysia: Ex-Attorney General’s accusations cause uproar in Najib Razak corruption trial

(cm/ls) Ex-Attorney General of Malaysia, Mohamed Apandi Ali, has caused an uproar by claiming that prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram, who led three cases in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad corruption trial, was “sent” by Mahathir Mohamed. He further claimed that Gopal Sri Ram attempted to influence Apandi to arrest then Prime Minister Najib Razak four months before the May 2018 elections. [South China Morning Post

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Muhyddin Yassin is eager to have snap polls. He stated that, “I support the idea of having a general election as soon as possible, once we are safe from the coronavirus situation, as it will end the propaganda over legitimacy and help create a more stable PN government”. [Straits Times]

At the same time, former Sabah chief minister and UMNO politician Musa Aman has been acquitted and discharged of 46 criminal charges of corruption and money-laundering linked to timber concessions contracts in the state. The prosecution had withdrawn the charges. Musa Aman is a rival of the current Sabah chief minister Mohd Shafie Apdal. [New Straits Times] Moreover, the state’s infrastructure development minister, Peter Anthony, a confidante of Shafie, was charged with money-laundering last week. [Straits Times]

9 June 2020

Malaysia: Reviewing a change in policy for foreign workers post Covid-19

(cm) The Senior Minister (Defense) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob states there will be significant changes by relying on local workers, instead of foreign workers, to combat the entry of illegal immigrants. Malaysia has an inflow of foreign workers in the tourism, construction, manufacturing and agricultural sectors. Though with Covid-19, the unemployment rate increased, limited sanitation systems and healthcare spread the virus to the Malaysian population. [The Diplomat] [New Straits Times]

9 June 2020

Malaysia: First 1MDB-linked corruption trial closes

(lm) On Friday, the first of Najib Razak’s five corruption trials wrapped up, with lawyers of Malaysia’s former prime minister in their final rebuttal painting the defendant as the victim of a scam and misrepresentation by the fugitive financier Low Taek Jho, and other “rogue bankers”. The trial judge, Justice Mohd Nazlan Ghazali, is now expected to analyse some 2,000 pages of submissions before coming to a verdict on July 28. The trial commenced in April last year. [SCMP] [The Straits Times]

Malaysian ex-leader Najib Razak faces a total of 42 counts of corruption, money-laundering and abuse of power spanning five different cases tied to 1MBD. His most significant trial begins on August 28, centring on allegations that hundreds of millions of dollars linked to the state fund had been funnelled into his personal bank accounts during his tenure as prime minister from 2009 to 2018. [The Straits Times 2]

In an interview on Saturday, Malaysia’s Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz said that the government would not be willing to accept even compensation of US$3 billion from Goldman Sachs in an out-of-court settlement over its role in the scandal. [SCMP]

9 June 2020

Malaysian politics in turmoil

(lm) Observers of Malaysian politics last week witnessed a see-saw battle for parliamentary majority between Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his predecessor and ex-mentor Dr Mahathir Mohamad. On Friday, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) vice-president Jugah Muyang left the opposition to back up Prime Minister Muhyiddin, only one day after Malaysian Deputy Works Minister Shahruddin Salleh had issued his resignation and signalled his support for Mahathir on Thursday. [The Straits Times 1] [The Strait Times 2]

The unrelenting twist between the two politicians has left the country with a dysfunctional government, as both try to woo lawmakers from the opposing camp in a bid to garner a comfortable majority in Parliament. While Dr Mahathir must try to deprive hitherto-PM Muhyiddin of the bare minimum needed for a simple majority in Parliament (112 out of 222 MPs), the incumbent needs to increase the number of his lawmakers to stabilise his administration. However, it remains unclear how many seats Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration commands, after the Parliament had been limited to a one-day session in May, barring a confidence vote against Muhyiddin. [Asia in Review No. 20, May/2020,3]

Under the National Alliance (Perikatan Nasional, PN), parliamentary debates in March and May have so far been cancelled out of fears over COVID-19, leaving the Muhyiddin administration’s majority untested. Divisions had deepened when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad insisted, he and his key allies remained in control of the party despite their effective sacking a day earlier.] [Asia in Review, No. 22, June/2020, 1]

On his first day back in office after completing his 14-day quarantine period, Malaysia PM Muhyiddin Yassin sacked two allies of predecessor Mahathir Mohamad. The expulsion is the latest in a series of power moves by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to consolidate power and to clean up PPBM of those who support former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, commentators say. In a statement issued on Monday, PAS secretary-general Takiyuddin Hassan confirmed that the political coalition within Malaysia’s ruling alliance Perikatan Nasional (PN) is prepared to face the 15th general election. [Channel News Asia] [The Strait Times 3] [The Strait Times 4]

Political observers say that the Barisan Nasional alliance and its linchpin, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – defeated in the 2018 polls – are likely to benefit. UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in a Facebook post on Wednesday dismissed any allegations of a plot to overthrow Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The announcement followed on a visit by former Prime Minister Najib Razak to Ahmad Zahid’s home on Tuesday night. UMNO in February had backed Tan Sri Muhyiddin (PPBM) in order to oust the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad [The Strait Times 5]

Currently a lawmaker and a member of UMNO, Malaysia’s former leader Najib Razak in a Facebook post on Wednesday warned of a “high chance” of snap elections if the country’s politics continue to be in turmoil, further suggesting that health ministry and Election Commission should start drafting SOPs for such an eventuality. That scenario, however, is only possible if Muhyiddin, following defeat in a no-confidence vote, advises the king to dissolve parliament. [Bloomberg]



9 June 2020

Malaysia: Rohingya migrants on Malaysian territorial waters

(cm) Off the northwest island of Langkawi, 269 Rohingya Migrants attempted to enter Malaysia on Monday morning. The border control authorities managed to detain the migrants, as the boat was too damaged to be sent back. Many migrants illegally travel to Malaysia to flee the conflicts of Myanmar, or poor refugee camp conditions in the Bangladesh, and head towards a nation that is predominantly Muslim. [The Jakarta Post] [Channel NewsAsia]

However, the COVID-19 virus highly impacted the overcrowded detention centres and unhygienic conditions. This posed a risk to the national security to Malaysian citizens, and vulnerability to detainees without international protection from the UNHCR. [Al Jazeera] [Amnesty International]

The government aimed at strengthening their security by coordinating with the Armed Forces, National Task Force and Malaysian border of Security Agency, to battle the influx of illegal migrants and undocumented workers. [New Straits Times]



2 June 2020

Malaysia: Face-off between Mahatir and Muhyiddin over Bersatu membership

(ls) Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has suffered another political defeat. Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, the party he co-founded in 2016, ejected him and four other lawmakers from the party. They had refused to support the government led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The official reason stated by the party was that Mahatir and the four others sat in the opposition bloc in the parliamentary session on 18 May. Bersatu’s party statute states that members who join other parties would be automatically ejected. [Straits Times]

Mahathir, however, insisted that he remained in control of the party, dismissing the legitimacy of the termination letters. Rather, he said, Muhyiddin should be ejected from the party for staging the coup against him back in March. The two factions also dispute who holds the position of secretary general. Observers say that the intraparty battle is likely to weaken both factions within Bersatu, with the Barisan Nasional alliance, which was defeated in the 2018 general election, likely to benefit. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Muhyiddin had to go into a two-week quarantine after an officer who attended a post-Cabinet meeting tested positive for Covid-19. [Voice of America]



2 June 2020

Singapore and Malaysia aim to improve living standards of migrant workers

(ls) Singapore is cautiously reopening its economy as Covid-19 is still spreading. Pupils have been allowed back to school, though not all every day, and about three quarters of the economy has resumed activities. Daily new cases are still in the hundreds. The overall number of infections stands at 35,000, with about 93 per cent of these among the country’s low-wage migrant worker population. [South China Morning Post]

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong announced on Monday that the government will build new foreign worker dormitories with “better standards” for up to 100,000 workers. Some of these will be temporary structures or former schools and vacant factories to provide quick relief from current overcrowded conditions. Wong said that some of the new dormitory sites would be quite near residential areas, “so all of us have to do our part to reject the ‘not in my backyard’ mindset.” [Today Online]

However, conditions under the new arrangements will remain tight. The living space per resident at new quick-build dormitories will be lifted to at least 6 square meters (not including shared facilities) from currently at least 4.5 square meters per resident (including shared facilities). The maximum number of beds per room would be ten. Currently, there are no limits on the maximum number of beds allowed per room. In practice, dormitories typically have about 12 to 16 beds in each room. [Channel News Asia]

Meanwhile, in Malaysia, the Human Resources Ministry has told employers to make arrangements and provide proper accommodation for foreign workers in all sectors within three months according to the Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities (Amendment) Act. Prior to the amendment, the Act only covered accommodation and housing for workers in plantations that were more than 8 hectares and in the mining sector. [Straits Times]



2 June 2020

Malaysia: Islamic law banning gay sex challenged in the Federal Court

(ls) The Federal Court of Malaysia has allowed a motion for the review of an Islamic law in the state of Selangor that bans sex “against the order of nature”. The man bringing the claim argues that Selangor does not have the power to enforce its law as gay sex is already a crime under general laws. Malaysia retains a British colonial-era ban on sodomy, which is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in jail, although it is rarely enforced. [Reuters]



19 May 2020

Malaysia: 1MDB charges dropped against Najib Razak’s stepson

(ls) Riza Shahriz Abdul Aziz, a film producer and the stepson of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, was released from five counts of money-laundering over almost 250 million USD allegedly misappropriated from the state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). The charges were dropped after he agreed to return about 107 million USD in assets. Criminal prosecution is now excluded as long as he performs his obligations under the agreement. Former Attorney-General Tommy Thomas, who had taken the decision to prosecute Riza, said the agreement was a “sweetheart deal for Riza but terrible for Malaysia.” The trial against Najib has resumed this week. [New Straits Times] [Malay Mail]



19 May 2020

Malaysia: One-day parliament session sees only King’s speech

(ls) The controversial one-day session of the Malaysian parliament went forward on Monday, 18 May, as planned with the King delivering a speech in which he called for unity and political stability. The speech was the only item on the agenda. Thus, a vote of no-confidence, planned by the opposition to be launched against the government under new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, or a debate about the country’s response to Covid-19 did not take place. [South China Morning Post 1]

As reported earlier, the opposition had criticized the government’s decision to disallow debates during the one-day sitting, alleging Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) alliance was not confident that it would be able to secure a majority parliament. Of the 222 seats, PN currently has 113 seats while the opposition has 108. There is one independent MP. [Straits Times 1]

Perikatan Nasional (PN), which has not yet announced to establish a formal coalition, consists of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), Barisan Nasional, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), United Sabah Party (PBS) and the Homeland Solidarity Party (STAR). Over the weekend, however, the parties concluded a Memorandum of Understanding, which is seen as a step toward the formation of a coalition. [Straits Times 2]

Meanwhile, Mukhriz Mahathir, the now former Chief Minister of the state of Kedah and son of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, has stepped down from his position as Chief Minister on Sunday after he had lost his tight majority in the State Assembly. [Asia in Review, No. 19, May/2020, 2] Though initially resisting, he eventually saw no opportunity to regain the assembly’s support. He has now been replaced by Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor from PAS. [South China Morning Post 2]



19 May 2020

South China Sea: Chinese-Malaysian stand-off ends as ships leave

(ls) Tensions have been easing in the South China Sea, as the Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 has left Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) after an oil exploration vessel of the Malaysian state oil firm Petronas had left the area before. The ships were involved in a month-long standoff in waters claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam as well as China. Chinese statements have maintained that the Haiyang Dizhi 8 was conducting normal activities. [Reuters]



12 May 2020

Malaysia: Rights groups urge government to act on hate speech against Rohingya  

(jk) Several human rights groups have urged the government under new PM Muhyiddin Yassin to address hate speech and threats against Rohingya refugees in the country after numerous posts spread on the internet calling for violence and even murder against the refugees. A letter addressed to the government stated that the surge in hate speech was “driven by claims the Rohingya were demanding citizenship or other legal rights in Malaysia”. [Al Jazeera]



12 May 2020

Malaysia: No confidence vote to go ahead – but when?

(jk) The speaker of Malaysia’s parliament announced to allow a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, tabled by former PM Mahathir Mohamad. The question now is, however, when the motion will be discussed. As reported previously, the upcoming parliamentary session will be a single one-day sitting on May 18 before the parliament is scheduled to reconvene properly in July. Observers believe the no confidence motion may be put behind other government business however and will therefore not be dealt with during the one-day sitting. Even if it were to go ahead, the result is very difficult to foresee as the current PM’s coalition has – if at all- a very narrow majority. [Straits Times 1]

In the meantime, Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim issued a joint statement this past weekend, saying that they have “set aside their differences for a renewed push to regain power for the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.” [Straits Times 2

On state level, there was less encouraging news for PH as its administration has lost control of Kedah state, where Mahathir’s son, Mukhriz, was leading the government. His administration has lost control after two lawmakers defected from the coalition, putting their faith in the current prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and the leadership of Perikatan Nasional (PN) which looks like now having a majority to form a new government in Kedah. [Channel News Asia]


5 May 2020

Analyses of recent South China Sea standoffs 

(ls) Several standoffs between Chinese, Malaysian, Vietnamese and American ships in the South China Sea over the last weeks [Asia in Review, No. 16, April/2020, 3] [No. 14, April/2020, 1] have shifted back the focus on this volatile region. Recent analyses evaluate the incidents and point to Southeast Asian countries’ situation of being caught up between major global powers with opposing interests while at the same time defending their own claims to territory and resources. [Foreign Policy] [The Diplomat]


5 May 2020

Malaysia: Federal government eases restrictions, not all states follow

(ls) The Malaysian federal government has allowed almost all economic sectors and businesses to reopen since 4 May 2020, subject to strict conditions. This came about a week earlier than previously announced. However, also under the new “conditional movement control order”, schools and daycare centers will remain closed, and mass social, cultural and religious gatherings are still prohibited. However, several state governments departed from the federal government’s exit strategy and kept stricter measures in place. About 500,000 Malaysians had signed an online petition demanding not to lift the prior “movement control order” yet. [Malay Mail] [Straits Times 1]

Despite the lifting of coronavirus-related measures, police and immigration officials arrested hundreds of migrant workers and refugees in so-called Covid-19 “red zones” in Kuala Lumpur. These are places or areas subject to “enhanced movement control orders”. The move has been criticized as it may further discourage these particular groups of the population to get tested. There are about 5.5 million migrant workers in Malaysia. [South China Morning Post 1]

Furthering current corona-related restrictions of free speech across Southeast Asia, the South China Morning Post journalist who reported on the arrests was told to report to the Malaysian police headquarters for violations of the Penal Code and the Communications Act. Communications and multimedia minister Saifuddin Abdullah, however, said that he would defend the journalist’s rights even though he disagreed with the article. [South China Morning Post 2]

Meanwhile, the government confirmed that the parliament’s initial sitting on 18 May will be a one-day session in order to help contain Covid-19. [Straits Times 2] The announcement of the one-day sitting had sparked serious criticism and raised concerns about its constitutionality. [Asia in Review, No. 16, April/2020, 3]

5 May 2020

Finalization of Malaysia-Singapore rapid train deal postponed 

(ls) The rail-link project that would link Malaysia’s Johor with Singapore has been delayed due to limited negotiations in recent weeks because of corona-related movement restrictions. The deal shall now be signed until the end of July. The project was suspended last year after Malaysia’s then-government under prime minister Mahatir said it wanted to review major deals. Since then, the project costs have been cut. [Reuters]

28 April 2020

INTERPOL crackdown on terrorist routes in Southeast Asia

(jk) An INTERPOL-led operation from mid-February to mid-March involving law enforcement from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysiaand the Philippines led to the arrest of over 180 individuals, allegedly involved in human trafficking and terrorism. The operation took place along known common routes used by terrorist and organized crime groups in the border area of the involved countries, for example the Sulu and Celebes Seas, which have repeatedly been the focus of terrorist for kidnappings and human trafficking. Law enforcement was able to rescue a number of human trafficking victims and seized illegal firearms and explosives. [INTERPOL]

28 April 2020

Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia extend lockdown measures 

(jk) Due to ongoing concern about the spread of the Covid 19, the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) in Thailand decided in a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister to extend the Emergency Decree for another month after it expires at the end of this week. [Bangkok Post]

Malaysia and Singapore have also extended their lockdowns, until May 12 and June 1 respectively, while Vietnam eased restrictions slightly (see below). 


21 April 2020

Malaysia: Announcement of one-day parliamentary session on 18 May provokes criticism

(ls) Following the postponement of the Malaysian parliament’s initial sitting after new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had been sworn in on 9 March [Asia in Review, No. 10, March/2020, 2], the Dewan Rakyat’s secretary issued a circular on Friday to all MPs informing them that there will be a one-day sitting on 18 May. In that sitting, the King will deliver his customary opening address. Apart from that, only government bills and matters would be discussed, with no oral and written questions or motions allowed. The justification for this unprecedented move appears to be the movement restrictions that have been issued due to the Covid-19 crisis. Actual debates will not take place before July. [Free Malaysia Today]

Most observers interpret this as a move of the government to buy time in order to gather more support from MPs to be able to resist a vote of no confidence to be tabled by the opposition. Indeed, other legislatures across the world, including the state legislature of the Malaysian state of Penang, have been able to introduce social distancing in seating arrangements, wearing of masks, and convening by tele-conferencing.

Thus, former PM Mahatir Mohammad criticized the one-day session, saying that the government is not yet “certified”.  At the same, the opposition, including the remains of Pakatan Harapan and a faction of Bersatu – would still have to decide on the opposition leader. [The Star]

Former PM-hopeful Anwar Ibrahim warned that the decision to limit the parliamentary sitting to just one day might set a dangerous precedent for the future, pointing also to the multitude of pressing topics that ought to be debated, with the measures to handle the Covid-19 crisis in particular. [Malay Mail]

The case is remindful of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move last year to advise the Queen to prorogue a parliament session and to reconvene a bit more than two weeks before the UK’s scheduled departure from the European Union. The UK Supreme Court ruled this unconstitutional. Based on a comparative view, some commentators consider the Malaysian postponement to be in violation of Malaysia’s Federal Constitution, as well. [Malaysian Public Law]


7 April 2020

Malaysia: New government entrenches its power. Repercussions on 1MDB investigations?

(ls) Malaysia’s new Perikatan Nasional (PN) government has begun to implement several changes at various state agencies in recent weeks. According to observers, the changes were meant to appease supporters whose factions were not rewarded with ministerial posts. Many who served in state agencies and government-linked companies during the Najib Razak administration from 2009 to 2018 are now expected to make a comeback. Prime Minister Muhyiddin, who is the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president, is still competing with former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who has remained the chairman of the party. [Straits Times]

These changes may also have repercussions on efforts to investigate the 1MDB corruption scandal. One of the key whistle-blowers who had uncovered several illegal practices in the scandal has left the country to Switzerland as he and his family apparently now feared for their security. [South China Morning Post]


7 April 2020

Malaysia intercepts boat carrying Rohingya refugees

(ls) Malaysian authorities have intercepted a boat carrying more than 200 Rohingya people off the holiday island of Langkawi. In February, at least 15 Rohingya refugees died when a vessel carrying about 130 people capsized in the Bay of Bengal while trying to reach Malaysia, which is a favored destination of Rohingya refugees. [Reuters]


31 March 2020

Malaysia’s new cabinet

(jk) After Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announce his new cabinet earlier this month, political observers looked closely at what had come of the “horse-trading” that led to this the new administration.

According to an ISEAS analysis, the cabinet reflects a number of considerations: “blocking potential challengers for the top job; satisfying the various coalition members; avoiding controversial party leaders; and maintaining a semblance of racial and regional diversity”.

The piece also argues that against some expectations, while cabinet is clearly Malay-dominated and UMNO in particular is crucial to its stability, UMNO and PAS did not “secure control over the largest or most influential portfolios”.

As a result of the many uncertainties and interests that reside within the new Perikatan Nasional coalition, it won’t be easy for Yassin to keep his cabinet in place, create parliamentary support and avoid a vote of no-confidence when parliament next meets. [ISEAS]


24 March 2020

Malaysia: Army enforces country-wide corona travel ban

(ls) The Malaysian government has deployed the army to enforce two-week travel restrictions in the country. Troops joined police guarding roadblocks and carrying out patrols. The number of Covid-19 cases has risen sharply across Southeast Asia this month. [Reuters]

17 March 2020

Malaysia: Former PM Mahathir vows comeback if government goes wrong 

(jk/ew) Former PM Mahathir Mohamad has said he would not retire and continue his political work with the new Prime Minister in power. He has also said however that currently, the opposition coalition does not “have the majority in parliament,” and that “I don’t think a vote of no confidence will resolve the problem.” [South China Morning Post]

Mahathir expressed in an interview with Nikkei Asian Review the desire to “fulfill his duty” and to serve the Malaysian people in the best way he can. Mahathir stated he would be willing to run for office again in 2023 – when the next general election is due under normal circumstances – if the people of Malaysia support him doing so, although he cautioned that he would be 98 by then. 

Mahathir also mentions that he was extremely disappointed with the development of events in the previous weeks and that Anwar Ibriham shares the blame for the developments by being too impatient. Mahathir further made clear that no cooperation with the newly appointed PM would take place if it is not guaranteed that all charges against former prime minister Najib Razak were carried out without obstruction. He fears Najib may use his “influence” in UMNO – again part of the ruling coalition – to minimize charges against him.  [Nikkei Asian Review

In a related development, Mahathir remained uncontested as Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia chairman. His son Mukhriz Mahathir is at the same time challenging new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin for the presidency of the party. [The Straits Times]

For an account on the power struggle among the political parties leading the government change and the prospects for reforms under  the new “more overtly Malay Muslim government” of Muhyiddin Yassin see [East Asia Forum].

10 March 2020

South China Sea: Continued tensions between Southeast Asian countries

(ls/ps) Indonesia has detained dozens of crew members from Vietnamese boats it claims have been fishing illegally near the Natuna Islands. The Indonesian government claims the area in the southernmost reaches of the South China Sea as its exclusive economic zone. In January, Indonesia deployed fighter jets and warships in a conflict with Beijing over Chinese vessels entering the area. [Channel News Asia]

In addition, Malaysia, Vietnam and China have for weeks been entangled in a quiet naval standoff. As reported earlier [Asia in Review No. 8, February/2020], Malaysia triggered the showdown by exploring for energy resources beyond its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Vietnam then deployed militia vessels to the area, and China responded by launching the China Coast Guard’s (CCG). The developments, which pitted fellow ASEAN countries against each other, leave question marks over ASEAN’s joint approach toward China’s vast territorial claims. [Asia Times]

Meanwhile, Vietnam and the US are looking to further strengthen relations as the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill arrive in Da Nang, Vietnam. It is the second visit of a US warship to Vietnam since American troops left almost 50 years ago. China has repeatedly trespassed the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Vietnam with oil survey ships and fishing boats escorted by its coast guard. Analysts say Vietnam is unable to protect its resources and is therefore seeking international support. [South China Morning Post][US Navy]

10 March 2020

Malaysia: New PM forms Cabinet

(ls/ew) Newly appointed Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has unveiled his Cabinet, which contains several politicians from his former party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno). His foreign minister will be Hishammuddin Hussein, the cousin of former prime minister Najib Razak and former defence and transport minister. Muhyiddin did not appoint any Deputy Prime Minister, but rather chose four senior ministers to support the PM in coordinating the affairs of the Cabinet related to economy, security, infrastructure development, education and social issues. For instance, Azmin Ali, one of the key players in the political turmoil that saw Muhyiddin come to power, was made senior minister of international trade and industry. According to observers, the appointments signal a return to more Malay-centric policymaking. [Malaysiakini] [South China Morning Post]

Muhyiddin postponed the next parliamentary sitting from early March to May 18, delaying a plan of the former governing coalition, Pakatan Harapan, to table a motion of no confidence from the lower house’s floor.

Jonathan Head has summed up Pakatan Harapan’s collapse over the last two years. For instance, he argues that, although Umno’s reputation was damaged by the revelations about huge sums of money that went missing in the 1MDB financial scandal, the party has been quick to exploit public disappointment over the state of the economy. One consequence was that Pakatan Harapan has lost five out of the last six by-elections. [BBC]

10 March 2020

Malaysia: New Attorney-General and MACC chief – 1MDB lead prosecutor stays on

(ls) After the resignation of Attorney-General Tommy Thomas last week, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has appointed Federal Court judge Idrus Harun as his successor. He is the elder brother of Election Commission chief Azhar Harun. [Straits Times 1]

Idrus Harun announced that he will not replace Gopal Sri Ram, the lead prosecutor for the government in cases linked to former premier Najib Razak and state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). In another appointment, Azam Baki, deputy chief commissioner at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), was made chief commissioner of the agency after the resignation of Latheefa Koya, who had investigated the 1MDB fraud and led efforts to recover assets linked to the scandal. [Straits Times 2]

Prime Minister Muhyiddin was once sacked as deputy prime minister and also from Umno for questioning then Prime Minister Najib over 1MDB. However, Najib stated last week that the fall of the government and the ascent of Muhyiddin meant he now expected an atmosphere “more conducive towards a fair trial”. He said he had not spoken to Muhyiddin since he took office, but he hoped to rebuild their relationship: “I hope it’s water under the bridge.” [Reuters]

3 March 2020

Malaysia: Attorney General Tommy Thomas resigns

(jk) In the midst of all the commotion last week, Malaysia’s Attorney General (AG) Tommy Thomas resigned from his position and new PM Muhyiddin has yet to appoint a predecessor. Thomas was under pressure as pointed out last week over dropping terrorism charges against several suspects, including two state lawmakers of former ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan [Air No.8 Feb,2020,4], but official reasons for his resignation have not yet been given. [The Star]

Thomas also oversaw, several high profile cases over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal including former PM Najib Razak and many other UMNO party members. The return of UMNO to power could knock confidence that a new AG – who can review or even drop current charges- would go after some high profile politicians with as much conviction.

3 March 2020

Malaysia swears in new PM amid ongoing political uproar

(jk) Following on from the political turmoil that has started to unfold last week in Malaysia  [Air No.8 Feb,2020,4], on Sunday afternoon, Muhyiddin Yassin of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party BERSATU was sworn in by Malaysia’s King as the country’s eights Prime Minister. The ceremony took place despite claims by his predecessor Mahathir – of the same party – that he in fact still has the confidence of a majority in parliament and should therefore be re-appointed.  [Nikkei Asian Review]

Muhyiddin’s premiership comes as a surprise not only to Mahathir. Muhyiddin, a conservative Malay nationalist, was at no point considered a potential successor of the prime minister after Mahathir’s resignation last Monday amidst an ongoing political feud over the designation of his successor and old time rival Anwar Ibrahim. However, MPs from BERSATU – a party Mahathir allegedly no longer chairs [The Star], nominated Muhyiddin Yassin to become PM and the King acted swiftly by appointing him without giving Mahathir the opportunity to prove his own majority support.

Crucially, the decision returns the reigns of government to the tarnished UMNO (United Malays National Organization) and the Malaysian Islamic Party PAS, who had already agreed to cooperate back in September last year, ending over 40 years of enmity. [Asia in Review No. 38, September/2019, 3] The parties have now said they back the new PM’s coalition, less than two years after Barisan Nasional’s historic defeat by Pakatan Harapan.

Their return to power of course comes without any participation by the Malaysian voter, an issue many perceive as a clear break of the democratic processes in Malaysia. The return by UMNO together with PAS and with a figure such as Muhyiddin at the helm, causes worry in particular for many who belong to ethnic and religious minority groups and fear an increasingly strong Malay hold on the government and a return of over-boarding ethno-nationalist policies.

Former PM Mahathir is now gearing up for a way to prove Muhyiddin does not command the majority of parliament, for example by tabling a no-confidence vote which could lead to a different PM or snap elections after which he could return to power. The earliest opportunity for such a vote would be March 9 at the next scheduled sitting of parliament. There are rumors already that this session might be postponed. More details on all the twists and turns of the past week can be found in an excellent two-part write up at [New Naratif]. 

In a related incident, reminding observers of strict sedition and communication laws in Malaysia, two men are being investigated and one man has been arrested over allegations of insulting the king on social media after he had sworn in the new PM.  [The Straits Times]

25 February 2020

Malaysia: Pakatan Harapan collapses – Mahatir resigns and becomes interim PM – Government formation ongoing

(ls) In Malaysia, the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition has collapsed with the departure of dozens of lawmakers. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pri-bumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), which has 26 MPs, left the PH coalition. The exit of these lawmakers and 11 more from the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) left PH short of a simple majority in Parliament. Mahatir then resigned as prime minister, which was accepted by the Malaysian King, who, however, immediately re-appointed him interim prime minister.

The developments display, in particular, the disagreement of a faction within the PKR with the prospect of its own party leader, Anwar Ibrahim, becoming Mahatir’s successor. This faction is led by deputy party head Azmin Ali. The PPBM seemed to share these concerns. It first appeared as if the defectors could form a majority together with UMNO and other opposition parties. However, the developments are still ongoing. At the time of writing, the King was speaking to lawmakers in order to ascertain who could command a majority in the House. [Straits Times]

Pakatan Harapan’s popularity has been shrinking for several months as large parts of the public considered that multiple election promises have not been realized.

25 February 2020

South China Sea: New standoff between Malaysia and Vietnam questions solidarity versus China

(ls) The U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has published evidence of vessel movements in the South China Sea that indicate an ongoing standoff between Malaysian, Vietnamese and Chinese ships. In its report that outlines confrontations between Malaysian and Vietnamese ships, the center’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) questions why the Malaysian government chose to ignore a 2009 joint submission with Vietnam about continental shelf claims and, in so doing, “undermined whatever solidarity Southeast Asian parties might hope to build in their oil and gas disputes with Beijing.” [AMTI] [South China Morning Post]

25 February 2020

Malaysia: Attorney-General drops terrorism charges against state lawmakers

(ls) Malaysia’s Attorney-General Tommy Thomas on Friday dropped terrorism charges against 12 men, including two state lawmakers from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a component party of ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), for alleged links to the defunct Sri Lankan terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The 12 ethnic-Indian individuals had been arraigned last year under the controversial Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012. The opposition criticized the decision and demanded Thomas’ removal from office. [Straits Times]

18 February 2020

Malaysia seeks agreement with Vietnam to stop illegal fishing 

(fs) Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah announced that the country plans to fight encroachment of deep-sea fishermen from Vietnam in Malaysian waters by working out an agreement between the countries. A similar agreement does already exist between Malaysia and Indonesia and Vietnam positioned itself open to this idea last year. 141 Vietnamese fishermen were detained for encroachment into the Malaysian Exclusive Economic Zone in 2019.  [The Malaysian Reserve]

18 February 2020

Malaysia appoints first female counterterrorism chief

(jk) Malaysia has appointed its first female counterterrorism chief with Normah Ishak taking over last week as the principal assistant director of the Special Branch’s Counter Terrorism Division. [South China Morning Post]

18 February 2020

Malaysia: Campaign for moratorium on attempted suicide charge

(fs) Malaysian Human rights groups and the Malaysian Bar demand the repeal of a law that criminalizes attempted suicide and the pardoning of those who have been prosecuted and convicted under this provision. Malaysia is one of 25 countries worldwide where attempted suicide is considered a crime, leading sentences up to a year in prison or fine.

The issue arose in the public discourse after a 38-year-old with a physical disability tried to take his live and was sentenced to six months in prison. “The charging and sentencing (…) sends out a completely inappropriate message to the world at large, that Malaysian society is uncaring and lacks empathy towards its troubled citizens,” said the Malaysian Bar’s president. Opposing views suggest the government should rather consider rehabilitative solutions and strengthen support mechanisms to help the affected. [The Guardian] [Malay Mail]

11 February 2020

Malaysia: Trial against former MP’s wife begins 

(fs) On Wednesday, the corruption trial against Rosmah Mansor, the wife of former prime minister Najib Razak, started in Kuala Lumpur. The court charges Rosmah on the account of soliciting and receiving bribes involving a sum of US$45.93 million to support a company in a solar power project. She faces up to 20 years in jail if found guilty. At the same time, Rosmah is separately charged on the account of money laundering and failure to declare income to the country’s tax authorities. 

“Although she did occupy no official position, she placed herself in a where she was able to influence decisions in the public sector by reason of her overbearing nature”, the prosecutor stressed. During her husband’s tenure in power, a special division was created to handle programs involving Rosmah, called First Lady of Malaysia, constituting a controversial novelty in Malaysian history. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post]

4 February 2020

Fake News: A different Corona Virus Battle 

(jk/fs) With the news heavily dominated by the Corona Virus outbreak this past week, a number of Southeast Asian governments have tried to reign in on rumours and fake news related to the virus by using their respective “fake news legislations”.

In Malaysia, the health minister went as far as saying that the spread of fake news had become more critical than the issue of the virus within the country. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) on Wednesday conducted four separate raids that resulted the arrest of four suspected for posting and distributing false reports about the outbreak. They and two more suspects arrested earlier in the week, were subsequently detained under Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Act for sharing offensive and menacing content. If found guilty, they could face imprisonment of up to one year. [Channel News Asia] [South China Morning Post]

Singapore has issued several correction directions in the past week over false claims concerning the situation in Singapore, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) Office said. One addressee was AB-TC City News, wrongly claiming the infection of five Singaporeans who had not been to China. Another one was the Facebook page of The States Times newspaper, objected to for reporting that the city-state had run out of masks. Another correction notice was issued over personal Facebook posts of citizens claiming the virus had been discovered at an MRT station and that it was closed for disinfection.  

The authorities also announced a lifting of POFMA temporary exemptions of general correction directions for major search engines and social media platforms due to the evolving situation of the Wuhan virus. These “can be issued to prescribed Internet intermediaries, telecoms and broadcast licensees, or newspapers, to get them to communicate a correction notice to all users in Singapore – not just the ones who access the falsehood – when a false statement has been conveyed and it is in the public interest to correct it.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong supported the extensive use of the law and told reporters “Some of it, we know, is malicious and deliberate – people who are making up stories, people who are deliberately fomenting fear, uncertainty and doubt”. [The Straits Times]

In Thailand, the digital economy minister said that two were charged with violating the computer crimes act – which carries up to five years in prison – for false separate social media posts about the virus thus far. He said the ministry’s Anti-Fake News Center collaborated with the police in the arrest. [Khaosod English]

28 January 2020

Malaysia sends back trash, refusing to be “garbage dump of the world”

(fs) Once again, Malaysia sends containers of illegally exported plastic waste back to the countries of origin. The environment minister Yeo Bee Yin said that nothing would be paid for the returns.

According to Yin, 150 containers with a total of 3,737 tons of waste are on the way to France, Great Britain, the USA and Canada, among others. 110 more would follow soon, 60 of them to the USA. Malaysia had already returned containers with plastic waste several times last year.

China, which had imported a large part of the plastic waste for recycling for a long time, decided in 2018 to stop processing used plastic from other countries in order to improve its own environmental balance. Since then, large quantities of plastic have been illegally brought to Southeast Asia. Many Chinese recycling companies moved to Malaysia, and plastic waste imports into the country tripled from 2016 to 2019. [CNN] [Business Insider]

28 January 2020

Singapore: Latest POFMA enforcement sparks resistance from Malaysian NGO

(ls/fs) Singapore’s enforcement of its new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) continues to meet resistance. Last week, the government ordered local access to a website to be blocked for failing to comply with a correction directive issued under the online falsehoods law. The operator of the site is the Malaysia-based human rights organization Lawyers for Liberty. The article that triggered the Singaporean government to issue a correction directive under POFMA dealt with judicial executions in Singapore and claimed that officers used unlawful and brutal methods. As Lawyers for Liberty did not comply with the correction directive, Singapore’s Minister of Communications and Information on Thursday ordered industry regulator Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to issue the access blocking orders. [ZDNet]

In response, Lawyers for Liberty has filed a lawsuit against Singaporean Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Malaysia’s High Court. The group argues that the law is a violation of fundamental human rights and cannot be enforced in Malaysia as it goes against domestic public policy. Moreover, the organization has maintained that its allegations stem from credible sources, including prison guards that have worked for or are currently working for the prison system in Singapore. [South China Morning Post]

Lawyers for Liberty announced on their website that, since the Singaporean government’s intervention, the organization’s website has experienced a “great increase” in traffic coming mainly from Singapore: “This shows that banning websites or information is always counter-productive. The Singapore government should instead have responded with facts and rational arguments.” [Lawyers for Liberty]

In a post on its government website “Factually”, Singapore’s government presents its side of the story. [Singapore Government]

14 January 2020

India urges boycott of Malaysian palm oil after diplomatic tensions

(ls/tk) The Indian government as informally pressured Indian palm oil importers to effectively stop all purchases from top supplier Malaysia, following Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir’s criticism of India’s actions in Kashmir and its new citizenship law. India is the world’s largest importer of palm oil, buying more than 9 million tons annually, mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia. The block of imports could push up the country’s palm oil inventories and put pressure on its prices, which set the global benchmark for the oil. [Reuters]

Mahathir said at the 74th session of the UN General Assembly in October that India “invaded and occupied” Kashmir. And regarding the new Citizenship Amendment Act, which critics say undermines the country’s secular foundations, he said India was stoking unrest. [Economic Times]

Under Prime Minister Mahatir, Malaysia has been increasingly engaged with Pakistan, while criticizing India’s treatment of Muslims. According to observers, the case is a vivid demonstration that Mahathir’s moralistic rhetoric can have actual costs for Malaysia’s economy. India, however, is reminded that its approach to Kashmir poses complications not only for its domestic politics or alignments with Western countries, but also for select Muslim-majority countries in Asia. [The Diplomat]

7 January 2020

Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal: fugitive financier Jho Low accuses government

(fs) Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho, who is currently facing charges because of his alleged central role in the US $ 4.5 billion 1MDB scandal, conceals his current location and does not plan to return to Malaysia, for fear of not getting a fair trial. In his first interview in four years, Low blamed the Malaysian government for victimising him and his family during the process and ignoring basic human rights by branding him as the “mastermind” and orchestrator of the scandal, whereas he just represents an “easy target”. [South China Morning Post 1]

At the same time, former prime minister Najib Razak faces three different trials for his involvement in the 1MDB case. According to his lawyer, bringing Najib’s alleged accomplice Jho Low to court could turn the process to a more positive outcome for the him, since among others, Low could be used as an important witness and his examination could exonerate the defendant. In response to Low’s interview, the lawyer stated that Low is indeed the scandal’s central figure and his depiction of himself as the scapegoat is not true. [Malay Mail]

7 January 2020

Malaysia Receives First of Four Large Patrol Ships Built in China

(jk) Malaysia’s Navy has received one of four large patrol ships it had ordered from China. The deal, first approved by former Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2017 and then slightly renegotiated under current PM Mahathir, is the first of its kind between the two nations. Malaysia has ordered the ships amidst a naval modernization effort reflecting new realities in its neighbourhood. [Radio Free Asia]

31 December 2019

Malaysia/Indonesia: Muslim protests against China’s treatment against Uighurs

(jk/fs) Hundreds of Muslims gathered in Kuala Lumpur to demonstrate against China’s mistreatment of its Muslim Uighur minority. Protesters mainly consisted of members of two Muslim groups, the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (ABIM) and the hardline pro-caliphate group Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia (HTM). Two representatives, one of each group, went to the People’s Republic of China’s embassy, but were declined entry.

HTM spokesman Abdul Hakim Othman demanded from the Malaysian government “to provide help to the Muslims of China as much as possible, including providing them space here if they should wish to seek protection”. Furthermore, he urged the government to suspend all political and economic ties with China and, in case of increasing hardships for fellow Muslim, even to issue a military warning of “jihad”. [MalayMail]

In Indonesia, in similar protests, over a thousand Muslims marched towards the Chinese embassy as well

While the Indonesian Security Minister told the government had summoned the Chinese Ambassador to explain the situation Xinjiang. [The Straits Times]

In mid-November this year, New York Times reported that more than 400 internal documents of the People’s Republic of China were leaked, revealing details of the brutal and organized crackdown of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, including the detention of more than one million people in internment camps. [Asia in Review No. 47, November/2019, 3]

24 December 2019

Malaysia hosts summit of Muslim nations despite Saudi Arabia’s criticism

(ls) Malaysia hosted a summit of Muslim nations in Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia, Iran, Qatar and Turkey as the main participants. The summit was a forum for discussions on closer cooperation in economy, science and technology as well as the defence industry. Cooperation agreements were concluded regarding advanced hi-technology, media collaboration, centers of excellence, food security and youth leadership and exchange programmes.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad said, “the most important aspect of all the focus is the need to be able to produce and create new indigenous technologies.” He also emphasized that the conference was not aimed at replacing other Muslim platforms such the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). However, prior to the summit, Mahathir had expressed frustration with the OIC’s inability to forge a united front and act decisively. [New Straits Times]

Saudi Arabia said the summit was the wrong forum for matters of importance to the world’s 1.75 billion Muslims, favoring the OIC, as the appropriate platform. The OIC’s main executive organ, the Permanent Secretariat, is located in Saudi Arabia. It was previously reported that said Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was slated to participate as well, pulled out under pressure from Saudi Arabia, which is having tense relations with Iran and Qatar. [Reuters]

At the end of the summit, Mahathir praised Iran and Qatar for withstanding economic embargoes (i.e. from Saudi Arabia and the United States) and said it was important for the Muslim world to be self-reliant to face future threats. He also suggested that Iran, Malaysia, Turkey and Qatar should consider the idea of using the gold dinar and barter, the Islamic medieval gold coin, for trade among them. [Straits Times]

24 December 2019

Malaysia challenges Chinese claims in South China Sea

(fs/ls) Malaysia consolidates its position in terms of the disputed South China Sea’s geographical marking. The country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Saifuddin Abdullah, said “Kuala Lumpur has the sovereign right to claim whatever there is within our waters” and “for China to claim that the whole South China Sea belongs to China” is “ridiculous”. [AlJazeera]

Earlier this month, Malaysia filed a formal submission seeking clarification on the 322 kilometers economic zone to the UN’s Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. To this China responded that the submission had “seriously infringed on China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea” and requested the responsible body not to consider the request. [UN] [South China Morning Post]

In the South China Sea region, Indonesia was the first country to submit information on the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nm in the northwest area of Sumatra Island in 2008. In 2009, Vietnam and Malaysia jointly submitted claims relating to an area in the south of the SCS. At the same time, Vietnam also lodged a partial submission on the northeast area of the South China Sea to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). Both submissions dismissed the possibility of continental shelves generated by the insular features in the Spratly and Paracels. [The Diplomat]

17 December 2019

Malaysia: 1MDB scandal case moved to High Court

(fs) The charges against two of the three units of the U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc. for their alleged role in raising $ 6.5 billion for the scandal-plagued state investment fund 1MDB [Asia in Review No. 12, March/2019, 3] have been transferred from the Magistrate’s Court to the High Court. The review of the still pending petition for the third unit will take place on Dec 26. Specific reasons for the transfer were not stated by the Attorney-General’s Chambers, but generally this indicates the gravity of the case. The commanding prosecutor refused the dropping of charges. [South China Morning Post]

Prior negotiations between the investment bank and Malaysia about an out-of-court settlement are still ongoing with both sides intending to avoid a decision by court after an offered compensation in the range of one billion dollars was considered too low by Prime Minister Mahathir. [The Straits Times]

10 December 2019

Malaysia: Infighting in PKR as Umno and PAS announce alliance

(ls/fs) As reported in previous weeks, the growing uncertainty over who succeeds Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad once he steps down has sparked rampant infighting in the People’s Justice Party (PKR), the largest party in the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition. There are two rival factions: supporters of Anwar Ibrahim, who has been announced by Mahatir as his successor, and those backing Azmin Ali, the PKR’s deputy president and current Economic Affairs Minister. At the PKR’s annual meeting on the weekend Anwar alluded to “traitors” within the party, which sparked Azmin to leave the meeting under protest. [South China Morning Post]

Anwar apparently referred to a recent event where Azmin invited dozens of opposition members to his home for a clandestine discussion. At the same time, both Anwar and Azmin have been the target of sexual harassment claims. As for Anwar, this marks the third time the 72-year-old politician has been accused of indecent exposure by a former male employee. He has been imprisoned twice over the past two decades for sodomy, charges which he had denied and denounced as politically motivated. [Business Insider] [Straits Times 1]

Meanwhile on the opposition side, a new Malaysian alliance called Muafakat Nasional (national consensus), combining the two largest Malay-Muslim-based opposition parties, Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), will be concluded in about six months, according to Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) will also be part of the alliance. Thus, Barisan Nasional will soon be replaced by Muafakat Nasional, which is expected to become a strong competitor of the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition. [Straits Times 2]

As AiR reported before [No. 43, October/2019, 4, No. 38, September/2019, 3], the former arch-rivals have agreed on the alliance, following informal cooperation earlier this year, which lead to Umno winning four by-elections. The alliance arose fear of increased racial polarization against non-Malays and non-Muslims. Zahid, however, claimed Muafakat Nasional will be a ‘non-extremist movement beyond Malay and Islam’. [The Star Online]

3 December 2019

Malaysia’s first Defence White Paper tabled in Parliament

(jk) Malaysia’s Defence Minister stated that the country’s defence policy was reviewed so that its defence capacity and capabilities were appropriate regarding new and changing global security issues. The paper outlines the strategic directions for the national defence in the coming decade.  The 90 page document which will be made available to the public highlights several threats in its eight chapters, including ripple effects of great power rivalry, returning jihadist fighters, the South China Sea dispute, and cyberterrorism. [South China Morning Post]

3 December 2019

South Korea, Malaysia set to become strategic partners

(dql) At a summit last week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad reached an agreement to elevate their countries relations to become strategic partners in 2020.

Further, a number of MoUs were signed pertaining to cooperation in various fields, including information and communications technology, public health services, water management and in establishing e-government systems. [Yonhap]

3 December 2019

Malaysia: Two communications service provider announce cooperation to roll out 5G – with Huawei

(jk) Celcom and Maxis, two Malaysian telecommunication service providers have announced that they will explore a possible cooperation on the roll-out of 5G in Malaysia next year. The two providers already share some communication infrastructure and stated that joined resources will allow for a faster and smoother roll-out. [The Edge Markets]

While the announcements make no mention of other companies, it is crucial to remember that back in October, both companies have agreed to cooperate with Chinese telecommunications provider Huawei who will undoubtedly be involved in Malaysia’s 5G infrastructure. Malaysia has repeatedly said it is not concerned about the spying allegations against Huawei brought forward by the US government and is making its decision based on affordability of Huawei products. [Reuters]

26 November 2019

Malaysia: Mahatir-Anwar transfer of power remains uncertain

(ls) After suffering a by-election defeat in Johor ten days ago, Malaysia’ ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition is under increasing pressure to deliver on its campaign promises. But maybe the bigger question is when exactly Prime Minister Mahatir will hand over power to his named successor and one-time sworn enemy, Anwar Ibrahim. Both met to discuss several issues, including the leadership transition last week, and insisted it needs to be done “peacefully and orderly in a reasonable period and with mutual agreement.” [The Star]

The South China Morning Post as gathered the twists and turns surrounding these questions since the government took office 18 months ago. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, Anwar appears to be face considerable opposition within his own party, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). Last week, 22 Umno MPs met PKR deputy president Azmin Ali in what observers considered discussions related to the transfer of power. Though the four-party PH coalition and its allies in Sabah have a total of 139 seats in Parliament, while the combined opposition has only 83, this configuration could change in a no-confidence vote against Anwar due to a number of PH MPs not supporting him. [Straits Times]

19 November 2019

Malaysia: Defeat for Pakatan Harapan in by-elections

(jk) Following the death of a Member of Parliament, Malaysia recently held its ninth by-election since the general elections in 2018. As opposed to the general election in which the now governing coalition – Pakatan Harapan (PH) – won a major surprise victory against the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that has ruled the country for six decades, the by-election was a defeat for PH with the BN’s candidate re-claiming the seat.

PM Mahathir admitted that the defeat is a serious sign of his coalition’s drifting popularity and the it will have to serve as a wake-up call to regain the support of the population. The UMNO BN chairman went a step further and called the result a manifestation of their “rejection” towards the current government. [Malay Mail]

12 November 2019

Malaysia: Five men sentenced to caning for attempted gay sex

(ls) Five Malaysian men have been sentenced to jail and canings by an Islamic court for attempting to have gay sex. The men were caught in a private apartment. Sodomy is a crime under Malaysia’s regular criminal code as well as under Islamic law, but it is rare for people to be found guilty of the crime. The country operates a dual-track legal system, with Islamic courts handling some matters for Muslim citizens. Critics say there is growing pressure on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Malaysia. [Malay Mail]

12 November 2019

Cambodia: Opposition politicians stuck in Malaysia

(ls) The Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy landed in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, where he continues to reside for the time being. He had vowed to return to Cambodia on 9 November to rally opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Previously, the Thai government, citing the ASEAN principle of non-interference, refused him to return to Cambodia via Bangkok. Meanwhile, police lined up at Cambodia’s Poipet border crossing with Thailand, where Rainsy had said he planned to cross into the country. [Channel News Asia] [Bangkok Post 1]

The co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) faces imprisonment in Cambodia for convictions on charges that he maintains are politically motivated, with charges on other offences pending. Hun Sen, whose government has arrested about 50 opposition activists in recent weeks, earlier characterized the plan by Rainsy and several colleagues to return and hold rallies as an attempted coup. [Bangkok Post 2]

Previously, also Mu Sochua, who was CNRP vice-president, arrived in Malaysia along with two other Cambodian activists. Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah said his government had received a request from Cambodia to deport them but had yet to make a decision on this. [The Star]

At the same time, the Cambodian government lifted house arrest restrictions on opposition leader Kem Sokha, more than two years after he was charged with treason. He was arrested in 2017. In 2013, Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy had brought together rival opposition factions and posed an electoral threat to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). [Reuters]

Pressure has been growing on the Hun Sen government to ease a crackdown on his opponents as the European Union considers whether to cut preferential trade terms under the Everything But Arms scheme.

5 November 2019

Human rights groups criticise East Asia Summit for not including human rights issues

(jk) Rights groups criticised the state of human rights protection in Southeast Asia in particular over the weekend as they pointed out that the big summits, such as the East Asia Summit, do not include official discussions or statements on the deteriorating human rights situation in the region.

Human rights watch and other organisation expressed grave concern over the fact the Rohingya crisis, the war on drugs in the Philippines, the punishment of the LGBT community or enforced disappearances of activists were largely ignored throughout the summit. [Bangkok Post]

The Rohingya refugee crisis, although not in these terms, was mentioned at length in the final statement of the 35th ASEAN Summit however. ASEAN leaders noted their desire to facilitate the safe, secure and dignified return displaced persons currently in Bangladesh to

Rakhine State from which they fled. [Chairman’s Statement Of The 35th ASEAN Summit] At the same time, they commended the work of AICHR, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights [for background on AICHR, see this article in CPG’s COM Online Magazine 4/2019]

5 November 2019

RCEP: 15 countries (RCEP minus India) declare they have agreed and will sign in 2020

(jk) During the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) summit in Bangkok on Monday, 15 countries (The ASEAN-ten, Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) agreed to all 20 chapters of the RCEP and stated that they were “willing to sign” the deal in 2020.

All participating countries agreed to make efforts to resolve the remaining issues surrounding India’s concerns, so it too, can participate. [The Korea Herald]

Despite the positive spin on this development, it will remain a disappointment that RCEP could not be completed and signed by the end of this year as it was initially (if very optimistically) stated.

This disappointing if not entirely unexpected outcome was underscored by the US decision to downgrade US representation at the East Asia Summit, also held in Bangkok this past weekend. It was the first time since the EAS was established in 2005, that a country at the summit was represented by an official below the rank of foreign minister. Instead the US sent the new National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, as the Special Envoy to the upcoming EAS and the US-ASEAN Summit. [ISEAS Commentary]

22 October 2019

Maritime terrorism in Asia: An assessment 

(ls) A paper published by the Observer Research Foundation evaluates the possibility of an increase in maritime terrorist violence in Asia. Based on an analysis of recent incidents, it argues that the vulnerability of high seas shipping to criminal acts of violence and the weak and inconsistent nature of maritime governance raises the possibility of a terrorist strike in the Asian littorals. [ORF]

22 October 2019

Malaysia: Anwar and the Prime Minister: continued rumours of transition difficulties

(jk) Amidst regular meetings between Anwar Ibrahim and the PM in Malaysia, rumours are not going away that the planned leadership transition from current PM Mahathir to Anwar Ibrahim is far from certain. Anwar is supposed to take over before the next general election, to be held by 2023, but rumours that this agreement will not be abided by have been strong since the deal was made.

The latest suspicions arose after it was claimed that recent calls to unite Malay parties from government and opposition are part of a greater plan to keep Anwar out of office. While a lot of the rumours are just that and many “moves” are possibly overstated in the heat of Malay politics, the recent agreement to cooperate between two former arch-rivals UMNO and PAS has certainly sparked fear of increased racial polarisation. [No. 38, September/2019, 3] [The Straits Times] [Malaysia Chronicle] The agreement builds on the allegation that the Pakatan Harapan government is allegedly dominated by the Chinese, secular DAP (Democratic Action Party).

15 October 2019

Lord Reid and the framing of the Malayan federal constitution

(ls) The Journal of Southeast Asian Studies has published a piece by Joseph Fernando on the Scottish Lord Reid’s influence on the framing of the Malayan (later: Malaysian) federal constitution. The article argues that Reid was the main playmaker and moderator during the constitution-framing process and played a critical role in ensuring a balance was achieved between the competing demands of the federal government and the states, safeguarding the fundamental rights of the citizens against the state, and in moderating the various communal demands. [Journal of Southeast Asian Studies]

15 October 2019

Malaysia: Parliamentarians arrested for support of Tamil Tigers

(ls) Two Melakan state parliamentarians from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which is one of four parties in Malaysia’s governing coalition, were arrested on police claims that they support the banned Sri Lankan of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militant group. The arrest raised tensions within the Malaysian government. Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad, however, said the move was not meant to weaken any coalition party. [Straits Times]

15 October 2019

Malaysia: Bill on controlling police misconduct not passed

(ls) Malaysia’s parliament has not passed the long-awaited Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) bill. Rather, it was decided that the proposed legislation be referred to Parliament’s Special Select Committee for Consideration of Bills. The bill aims to make the police more accountable for its actions, including for the deaths of criminal suspects while in police custody. The call for the law gained support this year following a public inquiry into the disappearances of Malaysian activists in 2016 and 2017. Overall, more than 1,650 custodial deaths were reported in Malaysia between 2010 and 2017. [Straits Times]

The bill’s latest edition has been subject to severe criticism from civil rights groups. It accords the prime minister broad discretionary powers to appoint or dismiss IPCMC commissioners. It also diminishes investigatory powers, does not allow for public hearings and does not clarify procedural ambiguity. Modelled on the Independent Police Complaints Council of Hong Kong and Independent Police Complaints Commission in Britain, Malaysia’s IPCMC was to be established by 2006, but the idea was met with political resistance as well as pushback from the police. [South China Morning Post]

15 October 2019

Malaysia revokes “Anti-Fake News Act” but government remains committed to fight “wrong views”

(ls) As anticipated in last week’s AiR edition, Malaysia’s parliament on Wednesday revoked the “Anti Fake News Act” of 2018, which made the malicious communication of “fake news” a crime. The lower house of parliament had already voted to abolish the law in August 2018, but the repeal was rejected by the Senate. [Reuters]

Nonetheless, the government expressed the view that fake news needed to be tackled with other laws, such as the Penal Code, Printing Presses and Publications Act, as well as Communications and Multimedia Act. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad said, “the anti-fake news law is good because on social media you find a lot of wrong views coming out and they affect the thinking of the people.” He affirmed that the government needed to “curb somewhat the use of fake news, but we have to do that without also curbing the real news.” [CNA] [MSN]

8 October 2019

Fake news in SEA: Singapore’s fake news law comes into effect, Malaysia’s does not

(jk) Last week, Singapore’s fake news law – the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), took effect. The new law provides for criminal sanctions for individuals, including jail time of up to 10 years, and fines of up to S$1 million for technology companies.

Under the new law, any government minister can decide whether to act against a piece of falsehood on the internet, and can order it to be taken down or ask for corrections to be put up alongside it. Ministers can also order technology companies to block accounts that are spreading alleged untruths.

Critics such as The Asia Internet Coalition described the law as the “most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date”. It gives the “Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false.” [Asia Times]

To critics that have pointed to a potentially long and most importantly costly procedure of appeal, the government has said that it will cost “as little as S$200” and take “as fast as nine days” for anyone to challenge a minister’s decision. Under the subsidiary laws to the act, court fees for the first three days of the appeal hearing will be waived. However, according to the Straits Times, the minister also decides whether an appeal against his or her decision will be accepted.

Companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter may be required to ascertain the identity of those who want to put up any paid political content in Singapore, like advertisements seeking to influence the outcome of elections. These companies may also be required to disclose to the public the paid political content. They have been given a temporary exception from the law in order to give them time to implement the technical measures required to comply with the law. [The Straits Times]

As reported last week, Thailand will open its first anti-fake news centre next month, tasked to  combat unverified news on social media platforms. [Asia in Review, No. 40, October/2019, 1] Thailand and Singapore are far from the only Southeast Asian countries that have prioritised a government approach to dealing with real or alleged fake news – Southeast Asia has in fact become somewhat of a “world’s laboratory” on this particular issue, argues CPG’s Lasse Schuldt. [Voice of Asia]

Lastly, Malaysia’s ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) government continues its attempts to prevent the former government’s fake news law to be enacted. PH wants to repeal the act after it was rushed through parliament by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government just before they lost the national elections last year. This is PH’s second attempt to repeal the law after its repeal was blocked the first time around by the upper house. [The Straits Times]

8 October 2019

Malaysia: 18-year-old allowed to contest in by-elections

(td/jk) For the first time, an 18 year old candidate will be allowed to contest in by-elections, starting with a parliamentary by-election in Johor in November. This is seen as bringing a breath of fresh air in youth representation and will be the first such instance since the federal constitution has been changed to lower the age of eligible candidates earlier this year.  [New Straits Times] [The Star]

1 October 2019

Mahatir calls for global support in Rohingya refugee crisis

(ls) At the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized the U.N. for its “deafening silence” on the Rohingya crisis. He pointed to Myanmar’s failure to punish the perpetrators of the genocidal acts and said that it was unrealistic to expect Rohingya people to return to Myanmar without the guarantee of a safe environment for repatriation and without offering them full citizenship. “It is clear that the Myanmar government is unwilling to take any action to resolve the crisis”, Mahatir said.

He called on the United Nations member states to support Bangladesh which is hosting more than one million Rohingya refugees. Though ASEAN countries pursue a policy of non-interference with internal affairs, Mahatir has repeatedly referred to Myanmar’s military campaign against the Rohingya as a genocide and called for criminal prosecution. [MalayMail]

Myanmar, for its part, insisted that it wants Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled to neighboring Bangladesh repatriated to their former homes so they can live in a “more conducive environment” than the one they left, according to Myanmar’s minister for the office of the state counsellor in his nation’s address at the United Nations General Assembly. [Straits Times]

17 September 2019

Malaysia and Turkey aim to boost bilateral trade to US$5b over next five years

(td) Malaysia and Turkey are working on widening the trade relationship in areas such as defense, technology, food and services, as well as electronics, with the aim of boosting bilateral trade to US$5 billion in the next five years from the current US$2.38 billion. Turkey also plans to look into barter trade with Malaysia to help reduce its palm oil inventory and also through the purchase of other commodities. [Malay Mail]

17 September 2019

South China Sea: New arrangements between Philippines/Malaysia and China

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said his that Xi Jinping has offered Manila a controlling stake in a joint energy venture in the South China Sea if it sets aside the 2016 international arbitral award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration which did not recognize the Chinese claims. Under this condition, China would agree to be the junior partner in a joint venture to develop gas deposits at the Reed Bank, located within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said that a preliminary agreement between China and the Philippines would avoid stating which country was entitled to the gas. [Reuters 1]

If the arrangement is realized, the decision will also be of relevance for Malaysia and Vietnam, who are in similar disputes with China over the extension of their EEZs. Malaysia, for its part, has agreed to set up a joint dialogue mechanism with China for the disputed parts of the South China Sea. In July, China and Malaysia already resumed construction on a train project in northern Malaysia, which is part of China’s Belt and Road plan. [Reuters 2]

17 September 2019

Malaysia: Sabah and Sarawak demand better status

(ls) On the occasion of Malaysia’s National Holiday (16 September), the states of Sabah and Sarawak have renewed their demands for an elevation of their economic development and legal status. When the Pakatan Harapan government lead by Mahathir Mohamad swept to power in May 2018, it promised to restore autonomy to these territories. However, there has been little movement in this regard. An attempt earlier this year to amend the constitution and restore its original wording specifying Sabah and Sarawak as equal partners failed, with East Malaysian lawmakers criticizing the amendment as being an empty gesture. The discrepancies in terms of economic development between East and West Malaysia are substantial. East Malaysians often accuse West Malaysians of privilege and ignorance when it comes to Sabah and Sarawak. [South China Morning Post]

17 September 2019

Malaysia: UMNO and PAS join forces to challenge Pakatan Harapan

(ls/td) Malaysia’s two biggest Malay Muslim parties agreed on a political cooperation pact that they hope will unite the majority community against the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. The chiefs of former rivals UMNO and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) signed a “National Cooperation” charter outlining the formal terms of their pact, which has won them three by-elections as an informal arrangement over the past year. It stresses the primacy of Islam and the Malays. The alliance ends more than 40 years of enmity between UMNO and opposition stalwart PAS. But it has also sparked fears of racial polarization. [Straits Times]

While non-Malays accuse the government of favoring Malay voters, Malays question whether it can continue to safeguard their privileges, which are enshrined in the constitution. Malays receive affirmative-action privileges – such as housing discounts and preferential access to education and business – that are meant to correct income inequalities. However, observers also say the policies have bred resentment and stifled competitiveness. [South China Morning Post]

3 September 2019

Malaysia: Corruption trial against former prime minister Najib has started

(ls/td) Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak’s corruption trial involving illegal transfers from the state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) into his personal bank accounts started on Wednesday with the prosecution saying that he had abused his powers to enrich himself. The former prime minister is facing 21 counts of money laundering and four counts of abuse of power for receiving illegal transfers. The United States Department of Justice has alleged that more than US$4.5 billion was misappropriated from 1MDB and about US$700 million of that ended up in Najib’s personal bank accounts. [Straits Times]

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16 July 2019 

Malaysia ceases sand exports to Singapore 

(kj) Malaysia has ceased its export of sand to Singapore, effectively disrupting Singapore’s land expansion goals. The disruption is relatively significant, given that Malaysia has been one of Singapore’s main sources of sand. To date, Malaysia has sold approximately £277m in sand to Singapore, which makes up for close to 97 per cent of Singapore’s supply of sand. Due to the ban, Singapore will have to rely on other countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh. However, supplies in these countries are potentially limited. [The Telegraph]

The sand export ban, officials claimed, is a result of Mr Mahathir’s environmental concerns as well as his dissatisfaction over Singapore growing at the expense of Malaysia’s resources. This ban is yet another example of tensions over territory and resources ever since Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965. [Reuters]

This row is also part of a larger trend of sand export bans to Singapore by Cambodia and Indonesia in past years. These countries similarly cite environmental considerations. [Quartz] Despite the ban, sand remains extracted at a high rate in Indonesia, placing low-lying islands at risk of disappearing.

16 July 2019 

Malaysia: Sedition Act in use again

(ls) Despite repeated promises by the Mahathir administration to repeal the controversial Sedition Act, a Muslim preacher has become the first to be jailed under the law since the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition came to power last year. The public prosecutor even appealed for a stiffer sentence. The convict is a member of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the largest party in PH. A moratorium on further investigations under the Sedition Act was put in place by the Cabinet in October last year, but it lasted only two months. According to observers, the Sedition Act is being used by PH to calm growing anxiety among the majority Malay community. [Straits Times]

2 July 2019 

Malaysia to probe “sensitive” disappearances of pastor, Muslim activist

(cl) Malaysia’s Home Minister has announced that a former High Court judge will lead a task force to probe the findings by Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), which concluded that the police’s intelligence department was directly involved in the alleged enforced disappearances of a Christian pastor and a Muslim man suspected of spreading Shi’ite beliefs in the country. [The Star]

However, the appointment of certain members in the task force has been controversial given the inclusion of an official from the police’s integrity department, which had failed to act on Suhakam’s findings or the families’ complaints over police conduct. [Malay Mail]

The issue involving their disappearances is sensitive in Malaysia amid claims that they were abducted by the authorities. The incident also raised concerns about rising religious intolerance in Malaysia as Islamic authorities in the country ban the conversion of Malaysian Muslims to Christians or Shi’ism. [Aljazeera]

The previous Barisan Nasional government had stonewalled queries by family members on their whereabouts, or whether the government had a hand in their disappearances. The Pakatan Harapan government’s special task force was formed by the Cabinet last month following a verdict by Suhakam that the Special Branch police was likely behind the two men’s disappearances, though the police had previously denied involvement in their abductions. [Straits Times]

2 July 2019 

Malaysia pledges to decriminalise drug addiction in landmark move

(cl) Malaysia’s health minister has pledged to decriminalise drug addiction and drug possession for personal use, in a move it calls “a game-changer policy”. According to the ministry, this move would be a critical next step towards “achieving a rational drug policy that puts science and public health before punishment and incarceration”. [Aljazeera] The minister also cited evidence that showed decriminalisation of drug addiction had not led to an increase in drug use and drug-related offences, and had instead led to reduced costs in the criminal justice system. Currently, most of the 70,000 inmates held in Malaysian prisons are drug addicts. [The Star]

The measure is considered to be unprecedented, as punishment for non-drug trafficking offences in Malaysia can range from imprisonment, whipping and fines, depending on the type and amount of drugs possessed and degree of offence. [Washington Post]


2 July 2019 

Malaysia: MACC clears Economic Affairs Minister as Umno’s ex-deputy PM faces new graft charges

(cl/ls) The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has cleared the Economic Affairs Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali of any wrongdoing following allegations that he was behind questionable money transfers. Investigations found that the alleged transfer from an engineering giant into a bank account bearing the same name as the minister did not exist, and this was just one among the three cases of non-existent accounts and transactions implicating the minister. [Malay Mail]

The investigations also found that there was no so-called Deutsche Bank account in the minister’s name that was allegedly opened in 2012. [Today] The allegations were part of the sex video implicating the minister earlier this month, with the former deputy minister’s aide, who confessed to being in the video, accusing him of corruption. [The Star]

Meanwhile, Malaysia’ former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi faces seven additional corruption charges involving USD3.12 million that he allegedly received in kickbacks from the operator of the foreign visa system while he was the home minister. [South China Morning Post] On Friday, he appeared in court in connection with another 33 charges related to the same case. [Channel News Asia]

In an apparently related development, Umno has been planning to amend its party rules in a bid to oust leaders who are facing court charges. The move to make the changes raised speculation that the party wanted to oust the president, Zahid, who was on leave from his position, and block tainted former president Najib from again taking up a top post. However, plans to change the rules have now been stopped in fear of a major split in the party. [Today] Only a few days later, Zahid announced his return from garden leave to resume the office of Umno president. [Malaysiakini]

11 June 2019 

Mahathir floats idea of a new currency based on gold, rather than on current “manipulative” currency system

(jk) Malaysian PM Mahathir has floated the idea of parts of Asia beginning to trade on the basis of a new currency based on a classical gold standard at an international conference on the future of Asia in Tokyo. He stated that the current tie to the US dollar is too open to manipulation and while the proposed currency would not be used domestically, it would reduce overall dependence on the US Dollar due to its use in regional trade. [Malay Mail] Whether or not such a proposal will gain any traction however, is primarily a political, rather than an economic question.

11 June 2019 

Singapore, Australia to explore new areas of collaboration

(cl/jk) Singapore and Australia are deepening bilateral ties and exploring new areas of collaboration, such as in the digital economy, Prime Minister Lee and his Australian counterpart said on Friday. Mr Lee said they exchanged views on regional and global issues, adding that Australian and Singapore see “eye-to-eye” on many issues. [Channel News Asia] Both leaders also shared their hopes for negotiations on potentially the world’s largest trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, to be completed by the end of the year. Negotiations for the RCEP, which involves 16 Asia-Pacific countries, have been ongoing since 2012 and Mr Lee said in November last year that there have been “significant breakthroughs”. The RCEP aims to lower trade barriers and secure improved market access for businesses in the region. [Straits Times]

PM Lee further stated that Singapore, which is currently evaluating its laws to strengthen responses against foreign interference in domestic politics, could learn from Australia. The latter had, in 2018, passed laws including a ban on foreigners making political donations after a New South Wales senator accepted money from foreign donors that had links with the Chinese government, and contradicted his party’s position by defending China’s position on the South China Sea. [Today] Previously, during maritime and airspace disputes between Singapore and Malaysia, the government noticed a spike in online comments, which it noted sought to create “an artificial impression to netizens of the opposition to Singapore’s position at a time of heightened bilateral difficulties”. In response, Senior Minister of State for Law stated, in a parliamentary debate, that Singapore would look at laws to tackle hostile information campaigns by countering the spread of false information by foreign actors and expose clandestine foreign-interference campaigns before they happen. [Today 2]

Singapore and Australia have elevated their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2016 and work closely on defence and security. They are expected to sign a defence treaty this year to finalise an arrangement to jointly develop more military training.

11 June 2019 

Singapore, Australia to explore new areas of collaboration

(cl/jk) Singapore and Australia are deepening bilateral ties and exploring new areas of collaboration, such as in the digital economy, Prime Minister Lee and his Australian counterpart said on Friday. Mr Lee said they exchanged views on regional and global issues, adding that Australian and Singapore see “eye-to-eye” on many issues. [Channel News Asia] Both leaders also shared their hopes for negotiations on potentially the world’s largest trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, to be completed by the end of the year. Negotiations for the RCEP, which involves 16 Asia-Pacific countries, have been ongoing since 2012 and Mr Lee said in November last year that there have been “significant breakthroughs”. The RCEP aims to lower trade barriers and secure improved market access for businesses in the region. [Straits Times]

PM Lee further stated that Singapore, which is currently evaluating its laws to strengthen responses against foreign interference in domestic politics, could learn from Australia. The latter had, in 2018, passed laws including a ban on foreigners making political donations after a New South Wales senator accepted money from foreign donors that had links with the Chinese government, and contradicted his party’s position by defending China’s position on the South China Sea. [Today] Previously, during maritime and airspace disputes between Singapore and Malaysia, the government noticed a spike in online comments, which it noted sought to create “an artificial impression to netizens of the opposition to Singapore’s position at a time of heightened bilateral difficulties”. In response, Senior Minister of State for Law stated, in a parliamentary debate, that Singapore would look at laws to tackle hostile information campaigns by countering the spread of false information by foreign actors and expose clandestine foreign-interference campaigns before they happen. [Today 2]

Singapore and Australia have elevated their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2016 and work closely on defence and security. They are expected to sign a defence treaty this year to finalise an arrangement to jointly develop more military training.

11 June 2019 

 Malaysia: Speculations surrounding political interference in appointments of key posts

(cl/jk) According to critical observers, recent instances of political interference in key appointments of a state-led enterprise and an anti-corruption commission in Malaysia have raised suspicions that the Pakatan Harapan government is not standing by its election manifesto to do away with putting political appointees in key posts.

While the board of directors of one of Malaysia’s biggest companies, Telekom Malaysia, said that its nominee for the permanent chief executive position, which has been vacant since last year’s general election, was accepted by the Ministry of Finance, PM Mahathir revealed on Wednesday that the nominee would not be elevated. [Free Malaysia Today] This is despite the Finance Minister, who supposedly has the final say in such key decisions, revealing that he had not been informed of the rejection of said nominee. Stakeholders lament Malaysia’s lack of policy clarity amid frequent interventions in government-linked companies (GLC) by the Pakatan Harapan administration since Mahathir returned to power last year. [The Malay Mail]

On another note, PM Mahathir’s move to bypass the Cabinet and appoint an ex-member of a political party as the new Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) chief that we mentioned last week, has been questioned by said party’s leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who is slated to succeed PM Mahathir as prime minister. Besides raising questions on whether the appointment contravenes the MACC Act, an MP from the Democratic Action Party stated that PM Mahathir’s unilateral decision went against his election pledge to ensure a check-and-balance of such appointments by the setting up of a Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Appointments. [New Straits Times] Civil society group Bersih 2.0 added that her appointment made power of abuse inevitable, noting that former prime minister Najib Razak had used the same power to appoint his allies into key positions to escape the scrutiny of 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. [Free Malaysia Today] In response, Mahathir said that he did not want to be bound by the Cabinet in making this decision, adding that he consulted “others”, whom he did not identify, about her character before making the appointment. [South China Morning Post]

4 June 2019 

hangri-La Dialogue from the host’s view: discussions on the Sino-United States relationship and the importance of investing in defence capabilities for smaller countries

(cl/jk) During the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore on Saturday, Defence Ministers from China, Malaysia, Britain and the US discussed three main security challenges for the region: the US-China relationship; instability on the Korean peninsula and the threat of nuclear weapons; and the “clear and present” danger of terrorism and returning foreign fighters. [South China Morning Post]

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee pointed to the worrying trend in the Sino-United States relationship, with attitudes on both sides hardening towards the other party, identifying the mutual lack of strategic trust as the fundamental problem between the US and China. He added that while it would be up to the countries’ political leaders to avoid a conflict which would inflict serious damage across the globe, it is hard as leaders on both sides are facing powerful domestic pressures. [Straits Times]

On another note, Singapore’s Defence Minister emphasised that smaller countries in the region like Singapore have to invest in their own defence capabilities even as they try to resolve disputes through peaceful means because the cost of any potential conflict is prohibitively high. [Channel News Asia] On Friday, Singapore’s Defence Minister and US Acting Defence Secretary had welcomed the renewal of the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding for the US Use of Facilities in Singapore, as they reaffirmed the excellent and longstanding bilateral defence relations. [ASEAN Breaking News]

Singapore and China have in the meantime agreed to a “substantial programme” to deepen military ties after a meeting between the two countries’ defence chiefs. Among the proposed enhancements to existing defence cooperation agreement is a second bilateral naval drill to be held next year, after the countries held a similar drill in 2015. [The Diplomat]

These exercises are significant given few other Southeast Asian countries, especially those maintaining strong security ties with the US, such as Singapore, engage with the People’s Liberation Army Navy on a bilateral basis. [Asia One] According to one point of view, “such military-to-military outreach is part of China’s diplomatic efforts as it seeks to counter suspicion about its intentions and the pressure it is facing from a strain in ties with the US.” [South China Morning Post]

4 June 2019 

Singapore, Malaysia added to US watchlist on currency practices

(cl) Singapore was added to a watch list for currency manipulation by the United States, which said the city-state made estimated net foreign exchange purchases of at least US$17 billion in 2018, equivalent to 4.6% of gross domestic product. The US report says Singapore should undertake reforms that will lower its high saving rate and boost low domestic consumption, while striving to ensure that its real exchange rate is in line with economic fundamentals, in order to help narrow its large and persistent external surpluses. [Straits Times]

In response, Singapore’s central bank has said on Wednesday that it does not engage in currency manipulation. It said Singapore’s monetary policy framework “has always been aimed at ensuring medium-term price stability”. Singapore Deputy Prime Minister has also remarked that it will be unsustainable for Singapore to manipulate its exchange rate as holding it deliberately low will cause hyperinflation, while keeping it artificially high will result in severe deflation [Channel News Asia]

4 June 2019 

Malaysia’s anti-corruption chief quits

(cl) Malaysia’s Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief commissioner has resigned, just over a year into his two-year tenure, and his request to have his contract shortened has been consented to by the Malaysian King. [Straits Times] He has been replaced by a prominent female lawyer who is a member of one of the parties under the country’s governing alliance Pakatan Harapan, and is the executive director for Lawyers for Liberty. According to the Prime Minister’s Office, this appointment was among the new and important measures taken in line with the process to reform government institutions. [The Star] When asked why he decided to resign, the former chief commissioner said he believes he has completed the task given by the government when he took on the position in 2018. [Malay Mail]

4 June 2019 

Malaysia welcomes Huawei and rebukes US strategy to avoid it

(jk) Malaysia has become the first country in Southeast Asia to rebuke the United States’ position on Huawei and while other countries were avoiding the use of Huawei PM Mahathir said Malaysia had no intention of shunning the Chinese company and would use it “as much as possible”. [The Star]

4 June 2019 

Malaysia gets tough on illegal plastic waste imports

(cl) According to Malaysia’s Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change, containers full of contaminated, non-homogenous, low quality, non-recyclable plastic waste are entering the country, contravening local and international laws. [Aljazeera]

Since July last year, the government has cracked down on illegal imports of plastic waste, and shut down unlicensed plastic recycling factories operated by Chinese nationals, which began mushrooming in Malaysia after Beijing banned plastic waste imports. [CNBC] Only last week, the police charged a small firm’s directors for 15 offences regarding the illegal dumping of waste, in a chemical dumping case that hospitalised over 1,000 people earlier this year. 

To further reduce harm to the environment and public health caused by improper disposal of waste, the Department of Environment announced last week that it has drafted a specific legislation mandating consumers to send certain unwanted electronic items to places licensed to handle e-waste. [The Star] The Minister further announced that higher penalties will be imposed on importers who illegally import polluting garbage. [CNN]

28 May 2019 

Malaysia and China committed to strengthening ties, says Mahathir, fuelling discontent amongst opposition parties in Malaysia

(cl) Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has stressed that his Pakatan Harapan government is committed to strengthening ties with China, following the “meteoric” growth in trade and investment between the two countries in recent years. He paid tribute to the efforts of the Malaysia-China Friendship Association in elevating the friendship between both countries, recalling that the partnership between both countries had remained constant through the years despite leadership changes as both nations strived to be good neighbours and had adhered to the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. [The Star]

Mahathir also said that Malaysia had given its support to China’s Belt and Road Initiative as it saw the benefits as being mutually shared and distributed, adding that Malaysia saw the project as a continuation of the ancient trade between both countries. [ASEAN Breaking News] He expects that there will be more opportunities for cooperation between the two countries in the areas of tourism, science and technology as well as cultural exchanges. [Xinhua Net]

However, this has fuelled discontent amongst opposition parties, who allege that the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party is in control of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, causing the PH government to “go against Malay interests”. [Straits Times]

28 May 2019 

Malaysian officials go undercover to spy on non-fasting Muslims

(cl) Malaysian officials are disguising themselves as cooks and waiters in food outlets as part of a scheme to catch Muslims who do not fast during Ramadan. While Muslims in multi-ethnic Malaysia have traditionally followed a tolerant form of Islam, critics say conservative attitudes have been gaining ground in recent years. [New Straits Times] If Muslims are seen ordering food during the daytime, the officers will secretly take pictures of them and contact the local religious affairs department for further action. [Fox News]

In Johor, Muslims who skip fasting can be punished with up to 6 months in jail or a fine of up to approximately USD$240, or both. Sisters in Islam, a group promoting the rights of Muslim women in Malaysia, said the scheme was “shameful, and gives a wrong impression of Islam in the eyes of fellow Muslims and people from other faiths”. [Kuwait Times]

19 March 2019 

Malaysia: Umno MPs switch sides, bringing Pakatan Harapan closer to two-thirds majority

(ls) Eight former Sabah Umno leaders have been officially accepted into Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), one of the four member parties of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance. The group comprises four federal MPs, two senators and two Sabah assemblymen. Together with 10 more seats from its two Sabah allied parties, PH now has 139 federal MPs, which is just nine short of the 148 MPs needed to form a two-thirds supermajority which would enable the government to amend the federal Constitution. Prime Minister Mahatir has said that he wants to limit the tenure of the Prime Minister and chief ministers to two terms. [Straits Times]


19 March 2019 

Malaysia to limit the use of the death penalty

(ls) The Malaysian government announced that it will seek to scrap the mandatory death penalty for 11 offences, including for committing acts of terrorism. The other offences cover murder, hostage-taking, organized crime, offences against the constitutional monarch and the use of firearms. The plan is to replace the mandatory death penalty with the death penalty on the court’s discretion. As of October last year, there were 1,279 people on death row in Malaysia, the majority of them for drug trafficking offences, which are not covered by the current plans. [Straits Times]

At the same time, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) criticized the government’s delay to abolishing the death penalty, the repeal of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 and the Sedition Act 1948. Suhakam said it was also disappointed by the government’s failure to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. [Free Malaysia Today]


19 March 2019 

Malaysian court releases Indonesian woman charged with killing Kim Jong-nam – Vietnamese suspect stays in custody

(ls) In an unexpected decision, a Malaysian court has dropped the case against one of two women charged with the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017. The Indonesian national Siti Aisyah was released from custody and flew home to Indonesia after the decision. Prosecutors, who had withdrawn the charges, did not give any reason for the retreat in their case against Siti. However, the court rejected her lawyer’s request for a full acquittal, as it said that the trial had already established a prima facie case and she could be recalled if fresh evidence emerged. [The Guardian]

Malaysia’s attorney-general on Thursday rejected Vietnam’s request to free the second suspect, the Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, and a court set April 1 for her trial to resume. Vietnam’s foreign ministry said it regretted the Malaysian court’s decision not to immediately free Huong. Indonesia’s government said Siti’s release was the result of its continual high-level lobbying. [Reuters]

The women were accused of smearing the toxic nerve agent VX on his face as he waited to board a flight to Macau. He died within 20 minutes. Defense lawyers have maintained the women were pawns in an assassination orchestrated by North Korean agents. Kim Jong Nam was living in exile in Macau before the killing, having fled his homeland after his half-brother Kim Jong Un became North Korea’s leader in 2011 following their father’s death.


19 March 2019 

Singapore and Malaysia set to resolve maritime boundary dispute

(ls) Singapore and Malaysia on Thursday said they had resolved to begin negotiations over a disputed maritime boundary, an issue that put the neighbors’ relations under pressure in recent months. Singapore’s Vivian Balakrishnan and his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah said both nations had agreed to suspend the implementation of their overlapping port limits for now. Moreover, no government vessels will anchor in the area, commercial activities will be suspended and no new ones authorized. The two countries are also at odds over two other issues, which are the price Singapore pays Malaysia for fresh water, and the city state’s management of a small section of Malaysian airspace. [South China Morning Post]


19 March 2019 

U.S. bank Goldman Sachs facing criminal charges related to 1MDB scandal in Malaysia

(ls) A Malaysian court set a new pretrial hearing date for the criminal case against Goldman Sachs Group Inc. relating to the state investment fund 1MDB. The June 24 hearing will give prosecutors more time to serve summons against two of three Goldman Sachs units at the center of the allegations. At a hearing in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, only the U.S. firm’s Singapore unit was a respondent. [Bloomberg]

Three units of the U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs and two former employees face criminal charges in Malaysia relating to their role in raising $6.5 billion for the scandal-plagued state investment fund 1MDB. Malaysia alleges that Goldman misled investors in three bond sales it arranged for 1MDB while knowing the money raised would be misappropriated. The charges under the Capital Markets and Services Act 2007 carry fines for businesses and jail terms of up to 10 years and fines for individuals. [Washington Post]

19 March 2019 

EU phases out palm oil, sparking criticism from Malaysia

(ls) The European Commission on Wednesday concluded that palm oil should be phased out from transport fuel due to environmental concerns, sparking a backlash from Malaysia, a top producer of the vegetable oil. The Commission said that 45 percent of the expansion of palm oil production since 2008 led to destruction of forests, wetlands or peatlands, resulting in more greenhouse gases. That compared to 8 percent for soybeans and 1 percent for sunflowers and rapeseed. Malaysia’s primary industries minister Teresa Kok criticized the decision, saying it’s based “on the politics of protectionism” and warning of retaliatory actions against European exports should the law be adopted. [CNBC]

11 March 2019 

Malaysia: Malaysia joins International Criminal Court (ICC)

(jk) On Monday last week, Malaysia ratified the Rome Statute and with that, joined the International Criminal Court (ICC), becoming its 124th state party. The ICC is a permanent international court focusing on serious human rights crimes such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, or genocide. The court has jurisdiction in cases in which states that have ratified the Rome Statue – or voluntarily accept the court’s jurisdiction – are unable or unwilling to pursue a case. [ICC]

Among the ASEAN member states, Cambodia was the first to ratify the Rome Statute in 2002, before the Philippines ratified the Statute in 2011. With Malaysia joining, three Southeast Asian nations will be party to the statue, however, the Philippines have declared their intention to withdraw over the court’s reactions to President Duterte’s war on drugs. The Philippines are due to withdraw next week, most likely taking the number of Southeast Asian member states back to two. [Verfassungsblog]

ASEAN member states have long quibbled over sovereignty issues with regards to the court, which is supposed to work under the principle of complementarity to domestic justice, but does have the power to investigate without an explicit referral by a state party and is difficult to reconcile with ASEAN’s strict policy preference of non-interference.

Malaysia has a number of reasons for joining the ICC, including concerns over the yet to be resolved Rohingya refugee crisis or Malaysia’s position as a force in the international system. PM Mahathir’s ambitions for Malaysia to make a mark and play a more active role in ASEAN, as well as his image as a reformer of traditional Malay politics play a role domestically. [The Interpreter, ABS-CBN] The accession marks the ICC’s first new member state since 2016 and provides a welcomed counter-narrative to the trend of ICC withdrawals. Especially in Asia, where the court has very little clout, this is significant.

In related news, the [SCMP] has published an interview with the Malaysian PM on a wide range of issues, including great power politics as well as domestic issues with regards to his predecessor in particular.

4 March 2019 

Malaysia: Pakatan Harapan loses seat in by-election as ethnic politics take center stage again

(ls) Malaysia’s ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) lost a state constituency in Selangor in a by-election on Saturday. It had won the parliamentary seat in last year’s landslide election victory, but a by-election had to be called following the death of the lawmaker in January. The constituency was taken back by Barisan Nasional, the party of former prime minister Najib Razak. The loss is seen as a sign of waning popularity of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s alliance. One reason may be fear among ethnic Malays that affirmative-action policies favoring them in business, education and housing could be taken away. [Reuters]

Mahathir leads a coalition government with a broad range of ethnic representation. It is far less Malay-dominant than was its predecessor. People of Chinese and Indian descent hold key Cabinet portfolios. Former PM Najib Razak seeks to recast himself as a guardian of Malay rights. More than 60 per cent of the population of 32 million belongs to the Bumiputera, the “sons of the soil”, who are ethnic Malays and natives of Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo. [The Nation]

PH’s loss was also credited to Barisan Nasional’s cooperation strategy between the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). Commenting on the result, Mahatir said that such cooperation would most likely not work in a general election: “They can work together for by-elections, because a win or a loss is not important,” he said. “But for the general election, they cannot work together. If they do, PAS will be left with nothing.” [Straits Times]

The evidence of ethnic politics is also illustrated by the fate of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a political party that shared governmental power with Barisan Nasional for 62 years. Umno’s turn toward PAS has left them with a problem: looming irrelevance. With Umno concentrating on its Malay vote bank, the MCA’s shrinking share of the Chinese vote has rendered it of little value to the coalition. Umno leaders have even suggested that the MCA “just leave” the coalition. [South China Morning Post]

4 March 2019 

Rohingya people found on Malaysian beach

(ls) 34 Rohingya people were found on a beach in Malaysia on Friday. It was the first of the Muslim minority group to have arrived in the country by sea for almost a year. It was suspected that they had been ferried into Malaysian waters from neighbouring Thailand by people smugglers. Muslim-majority Malaysia has long been a favourite destination for Rohingya, where they are a source of labour in low-paying industries such as agriculture and construction. [Straits Times]