Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

31 August 2021

Malaysia: New cabinet comprised of old ministers

(nd) Newly appointed Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob unveiled his cabinet last week, re-appointing several ministers from the previous administration. Tengku Zafrul Aziz was finance minister already in Muhyiddin’s administration, besides four other ministers to head the international trade, defense, works and education portfolios, who have all served before. Four ministers from Muhyiddin’s cabinet were not reappointed, while only five new ministers were announced, who have, however, served as ministers in previous cabinets.

Both Umno and its splinter Bersatu were accorded 10 posts each, while leaving out key figures from Umno, who have been accused or found guilty of corruption, such as former Prime Minister Najib Razak, currently appealing his conviction connected to the 1MDB finance scandal, and party President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, facing separate allegations. In his speech, Ismail Sabri argued this way stability could be maintained in an effort to prioritize the interests and safety of the Malaysian people. The unchanged personnel, however, have caused concern whether the new cabinet will be able to charge the instable politics Malaysia has experienced for months.

Amid increasing criticism of the government’s handling of the health crisis, Ismail Sabri succeeded Muhyiddin Yassin who resigned after losing his razor-thin majority in parliament. Malaysia has the highest per capita Covid-19 infection rate in the region, while half of its population is fully vaccinated. [Malay Mail 1] [Malay Mail 2] [South China Morning Post] [Reuters] [Nikkei Asia]

24 August 2021

ASEAN not as effective and quick on Myanmar as hoped, Singapore’s foreign minister says

(mt/lm) The 10-member Southeast Asian regional bloc (ASEAN) has not been as effective on the crisis in Myanmar as hoped, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in an interview last week, as protests and a violent crackdown continue in the country.

Calling the situation in Myanmar “dire”, the Singaporean top diplomat said ASEAN was trying to be constructive, facilitate dialogue and deliver humanitarian assistance. He also said that his country and the regional bloc had “maintained lines of communication” with Myanmar’s shadow government formed by civilian lawmakers deposed by the military junta, the National Unity Government. [South China Morning Post]

Singapore is small but wields strong economic and political influence in Southeast Asia: The city-state is Myanmar’s biggest foreign investor, overtaking China in 2019 to bring in more than $24 billion of investments through lucrative real estate projects, banking, shipping, sand exports and construction, as well as arms sales. [The Irrawaddy]

In June, Singapore supported a resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly in June, which called on member states “to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar” and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other imprisoned leaders. Besides Singapore, ASEAN member states Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam voted in favor of resolution. [AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]

Earlier this month then, alongside with Indonesia and Malaysia, it “pushed for tougher language” in a communique published following the appointment of Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar. [AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]

Balakrishnan said he hoped there would be progress to report on Yusof’s visit to Myanmar before the 39th semi-annual ASEAN summit in November. But he also cautioned that the military had to grant the envoy access to all stakeholders for the visit to be meaningful.

24 August 2021

Malaysia: Navy to present its capabilities in exercise

(nd) Malaysia’s Navy successfully tested three live anti-ship missiles last week, demonstrating preparedness amid Chinese intrusions into its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. The exercise was conducted after the intrusion of 16 Chinese military planes into Malaysia’s maritime airspace in May, making it a sign to show China Malaysia’s operational capabilities and will to defend. In May, a Chinese military aircraft flew 60 nautical miles from Kuala Lumpur-administered Beting Patinggi Ali –known as Luconia Shoals – which China claims as part of its territories in the maritime region. Additionally, Chinese coast guard ships have been pressuring Malaysian oil and gas projects in the South China Sea off Sarawak state on Borneo Island since early June, according to Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a US-based think-tank researching ship-tracking data.

The six-day exercise involved 1,000 soldiers, nine ships, five Fast Combat Boats, a submarine, two Super Lynx helicopters, four Royal Malaysian Air Force F/A-18D Hornet fighter jets, and was the first one conducted since the start of the pandemic. The anti-ship missiles are made by French defense manufacturer MBDA Systems, with a target reach of 35 and 22 miles, respectively. 

Other claimant states to the South China Sea, which China claims almost entirely, are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan; Indonesia does not consider itself as party to the dispute but China claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping with Indonesia’s EEZ.

Earlier this month, Malaysia also participated in the annual multilateral exercise Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) with the US and 20 other countries earlier this month, as an effort to deter Chinese assertiveness and strengthen regional security. [Radio Free Asia]


24 August 2021

Malaysia: UMNO back in power 

(nd) Last Friday, Malaysia´s King has appointed UMNO’s Ismail Sabri Yaakob as the nation’s ninth prime minister, after earlier this week, Muhyiddin Yassin resigned, following his loss of majority support. Besides UMNO, Muhyiddin’s Bersatu, the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), as well as some smaller outfits and independents, are backing Ismail, constituting of 116 seats.

Earlier, the King interviewed members of parliament to reassure Ismail would be able to receive support from a majority in parliament, which equates 114 out of 220 seats. In an effort to ensure a more stable government, the King announced earlier, the candidate elected will have to face a vote of no confidence in parliament as soon as possible. Such restriction was not put on Muhyiddin last year.

Usually rather performing more ceremonial function, the monarch stepped into the political arena uncommonly active after the collapse of the government in February 2020, which was followed by Muhyiddin’s ever-shaky alliance, who never succeeded in consolidating his power.

Ismail has the support of the Barisan Nasional alliance and the former ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition, while lawmakers from the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition backed Anwar Ibrahim as prime minister, as well as the Sabah-based Warisan party. This constellation already hints to that fact that the future prime minister will in any case inherit a deeply divided political spectrum in parliament. Being faced with increasing Covid-19 case numbers and a weakening economy, it will be challenging to organize majorities.

Given the broad political spectrum backing him, it could prove difficult for Ismail to appease who helped him into office. Additionally, it is the first time that the sitting prime minister from UMNO is not also the party president, which could upset the two factions within UMNO. But news that Zahid agreed to back Ismail Sabri suggested that concessions have been made, likely that Ismail will only temporarily hold the position, and him not disposing full autonomy with regards to UMNO. Otherwise, as analysts suggest Ismail is likely to challenge the corruption-battled Zahid, resulting in politicking within UMNO.

Another challenge will be the picking of a cabinet lineup, considering the immense loss of confidence with regards to the pandemic management that the PN government was heavily criticized for. Such speculation emerged when it was rumored that former home minister Hamzah Zainuddin might be nominated as deputy.

Ismail has practiced as a lawyer and held several ministerial posts in UMNO governments. In Muhyiddin’s cabinet, he was defense minister; due to his entanglement with the former, analysts called him a poor choice and it likely for his government to be shaky as well.

With Ismail’s appointment, Malaysia’s biggest party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), will be back in power. UMNO has ruled Malaysia since its independence in 1957 until it was ousted in 2018 over the 1IMBD multibillion-dollar financial scandal. The next national election will take place in 2022. [Bloomberg] [Malay Mail] [Benar News] [The Diplomat

24 August 2021

Vietnam to attend ASEAN’s AIPA-42 

(ct) A Vietnamese National Assembly (NA) delegation led by NA Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue attended the 42nd General Assembly of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA-42) in Brunei on August 23. According to the agenda, the first plenary session focused on several issues including women’s empowerment, climate change, cyber security, and international economic integration. In his welcoming remarks, the AIPA-42 President and Speaker of the Legislative Council of Brunei noted that the theme of this year’s General Assembly highlights parliamentarians’ important role in supporting the ASEAN vision of a politically cohesive, economically integrated, and socially responsible community towards the ASEAN Community in 2025. Also, NA Chairman Hue presented a key-note speech on the situation in the region and throughout the wider, highlighting the role of multilateral cooperation of ASEAN. [Việt Nam News]

17 August 2021

Indo-Pacific forces from 21 partner nations kick off SEACAT

(lm) Maritime forces from Indo-Pacific partner nations on August 10 began the 20th iteration of the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) naval exercise in Singapore and virtually. [Al Jazeera] [NavyTimes]

Signifying the largest iteration to date, this year’s exercise involves ten ships and more than 400 personnel. 21 nations participate, including Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Canada, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Maldives, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor-Leste, United Kingdom, United States, and Vietnam.

This year’s also presents a new element by incorporating international organizations and nongovernmental organizations, whose objective is to create an even more realistic scenario to “enhance understanding and adherence to accepted rules, laws, and norms,” the US Navy said in a statement. Participants include United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), EU Critical Maritime Route Wider Indian Ocean (CRIMARIO), and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). [Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet]

The SEACAT exercises commenced just a day after more than 10,000 troops from China and Russia began a major exercise, West-Interaction 2021, in China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. [AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]

Last year, the event was conducted as part of a virtual symposium amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

17 August 2021

Malaysia: Muda registration denied again

(nd) In their second try, the Malaysia United Democratic Alliance’s (Muda) application to be registered as a political party has been rejected. According to its vice-president (VP), no reasons were given in the email by the Registrar of Societies (RoS). The registration was filed last year September, the appeal was handed in six months ago, urging the VP to criticize the delay in the decision. Muda is a multi-racial and youth-centered political party, formed by Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman in September 2020. [New Straits Times]

17 August 2021

Malaysia: PM to resign, remains caretaker until new appointment

(nd) Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his cabinet resigned as of Monday, agreeing with the country’s King that he shall fill the position as caretaker until a new prime minister is appointed. For the first time, Muhyiddin admitted he had lost majority support.

Over the weekend, rumours about his resignation grew louder when he met with the King, and his plea for support among the opposition and key allies was denied. [Channel News Asia] [Reuters 1]

After ignoring calls for his resignation and to hold an immediate confidence vote, reportedly even urged to do so by the King, the vote was initially scheduled for September 7. By that time, almost all opposition parties had called on him to resign or call an emergency parliamentary session to hold a confidence vote immediately. 

His 17-month administration, the shortest in independent Malaysia’s history, has been shaky ever since. Last week, at least 8 MPs withdrew their support for the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, which numerically could not have disposed of a majority anymore. [See also AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2] According to a parliamentary source, the palace had sent a letter to the lower house speaker last week to ask how many MPs still supported Muhyiddin.

While Muhyiddin and the Kind agreed that a general election during a raging pandemic was not ideal, it remains questionable who could be his successor. Since the opposition against Muhyiddin is not unified, however, there is yet no alternative candidate with a majority support. The Pakatan Harapan alliance earlier urged lawmakers opposed to Muhiyddin to back Anwar Ibrahim as the next prime minister. Also, a petition was handed in with the king in an effort to pardon the corruption-convicted ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak. Other possible successors were Umno members Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and deputy prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. [Reuters 2] [Reuters 3]

While the country’s biggest party United Malays National Organisation (Umno) is likely to play a crucial part in determining a successor, recent weeks showed that the party is not unified in that matter either. One camp supported Muhyiddin, while another faction, allied with Najib, was calling for his resignation. Earlier and in his final parliamentary address, Muhyiddin reiterated that the tension arose due to his refusal to meet demands including the dropping of corruption charges against Umno members. [South China Morning Post 1]

As of Tuesday, politicians from different parties had audiences with the King in an effort to find a successor. [Malay Mail] [Channel News Asia]

Amid the political crisis, more Malaysians are angered by the government’s mismanagement of the current health crisis, resulting both in protests and subtler engagement by younger, grassroots political groups, to be watched for an upcoming election. [Benar News] [Channel News Asia] [South China Morning Post 2]

With the political turmoil in the midst of a pandemic-related economic dip, investors will once again be reluctant to invest in Malaysia. [Jakarta Post]

10 August 2021

ASEAN to grant “dialogue partner” status to Britain

(nd) In an important step in Britain’s post-Brexit mission to build strong bilateral diplomatic ties with the region, it was granted “dialogue partner” status by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Upon its exit of the European Union in 2020, Britain aimed to shift its market from Europe to Asia and the Indo-Pacific. This grants Britain high-level access to ASEAN summits, furthering hopes to build cooperation with respect to climate change and security. For a deeper economic cooperation, Britain has also applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. The decision marks the end of a 25-year moratorium to award third parties the bloc’s highest institutional partnership. [Reuters] [The Diplomat] [Jakarta Post]

10 August 2021

Chinese Foreign Minister Wan Yi urges Southeast Asian counterparts to safeguard peace in South China Sea

(lm) China’s desire to expand its influence in Southeast Asia was on display last week at the region’s latest ministerial talks, where State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned against “external interference” in the South China Sea. [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times]

Addressing virtually the ASEAN Regional Forum – which gathers foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its partners, including the United States, China and Japan – Wang said interference by countries outside the region constituted the biggest threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asia]

While Wang did not name the United States outright, his warning came as Washington tries to rally European allies into a coalition to isolate China. Ahead of the meeting, the British Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth arrived in the disputed waterway, while Germany deployed one of its frigates to the Indo-Pacific region. [AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]

Wang also played up his country’s readiness to conclude a “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, announcing that both sides had completed the preamble for the nonaggression pact the two sides have been negotiating since 2017. He also said China would never make further claims in the disputed waterway and promised that his country would not take any unilateral moves to intensify disputes in the region.

After wrapping up his virtual encounter with his ASEAN counterparts, Wang held talks with foreign ministers from four Southeast Asian countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines – over three days in the southern city of Nanping. [Associated Press]

10 August 2021

Brunei diplomat appointed ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar

(mt/lm) Foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on August 4 appointed Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as their special envoy to Myanmar, after a months-long delay in diplomatic efforts to resolve the coup crisis.

The 10-nation bloc has been under increasing international pressure to act on violence and instability in Myanmar, an ASEAN member. The regional group is hamstrung by its bedrock policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member nations and by its consensus decision making, meaning just one member state can shoot down any proposal.

In a joint statement published two days after a fraught five-hour online meeting, the ministers also reiterated their concerns about the situation in Myanmar, including reports of fatalities and violence. But they stopped short of calling for the release of political detainees, saying only they “heard calls” for their freedom, in a reflection of the sensitivity of the issue. According to reporting in the South China Morning Post, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore had “pushed for tougher language” in the communique, but some of it was vetoed by the junta representative Wunna Maung Lwin. [South China Morning Post]

Erywan was among at least four candidates proposed by ASEAN, and Myanmar was believed to have preferred Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Yangon [see AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]. But Indonesia, which traditionally holds significant sway on regional matters, wanted its former Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda to be appointed.    Thus, the appointment of Erywan is seen as a compromise by Brunei, which currently holds ASEAN’s Rotating Chair. [The Irrawaddy]

Further, the junta’s decision to yield to the bloc’s pressure may be seen as an indication that its military rulers are still hoping to rely on ASEAN support as they face international condemnation. For last week’s discussions were held just a day after Myanmar’s ruling State Administrative Council announced it had become a “caretaker” government, with its current chairman Senior General Min Aung Hlang taking the title of Prime Minister [see AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]

Some ASEAN lawmakers responded warily to Erywan’s appointment, noting that he led a delegation to Myanmar in June and met only with the junta [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]. The special envoy must ensure “he does not become a pawn in the junta’s game” of using ASEAN to gain international legitimacy while it continues its oppressive rule, said Kasit Piromya, a former Thai foreign minister and board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. [Nikkei Asia] [The Washington Post]

According to one report, the special envoy will fly to Myanmar this week to begin talks with the various contending parties, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. He will also oversee the delivery of a humanitarian aid package, with the communique calling for the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance to begin work on “policy guidance.” [The Diplomat]

10 August 2021

Malaysia: PM Muhyiddin denies immediate special parliamentary sitting amid opposition claims he lost majority support

(nd) Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s position remains shaky amid the most current challenge of his asserted majority support. The main bloc and a key ally of the unstable alliance, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), withdrew support of further 8 members. It is the latest challenge in a series of conflicts with the premier, prompting Muhyiddin to assert his majority, which in turn was contested by the opposition, Pakatan Harapan, who called for an immediate vote of no confidence.

Muhyiddin said he would prove his majority support during September’s parliament session, a process which he claimed was agreed to by King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah. Muhyiddin repeatedly claimed the conflict was triggered by “certain parties” whose demands he had refused to meet, referring to several UMNO lawmaker facing corruption charges, former premier Najib Razak and party president Hamidi. 

Malaysia’s largest party UMNO is internally split over whether to support Muhyiddin or not, which so far still serves to Muhyiddin’s benefit. This is reflected by 31 members of the alliance, led by UMNO, reassuring their support for Muhyiddin and saying it was irresponsible to cause the government to collapse but rather wait until the sitting in September.            

Opposition leaders, analysts and an election watchdog said it was better to call a special sitting than to keep the majority question in limbo. According to his critics, it is impossible he still has a majority: Out of 222 seats in parliament, he needs 112 to stay in power. Before the most recent support withdrawal, Muhyiddin said to have the support of 114 lawmakers. At least 8 withdrew their support after that, forcing Muhyiddin to have lost majority.

Muhyiddin led an unstable alliance since he took power in March 2020. He was heavily criticized for his handling of the pandemic as well as the declaration of state of emergency, which critics said was a move to cling to power and avoid a vote of no confidence. Last week, after the King asserted Muhyiddin misleading lawmakers by revoking the emergency degree unilaterally, some 100 lawmakers were demanding his immediate resignation, claiming he disrespected the monarchy and acted unconstitutional. [See also AiR No. 30, July/2021, 4] [The Sun Daily] [Reuters] [Channel News Asia] [Benar News 1] [Benar News 2] [Asia Times]

Still, according to analysts, there is room maneuver for the embattled Prime Minister, as state vote in Sarawak has to be held within 60 days as of August 1, Sarawak MPs hold 18 seats in the national parliament, and the ruling Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) coalition in Sarawak has indicated support for Muhyiddin’s Perikatan alliance. [Channel News Asia]

10 August 2021

Cambodia: Hun Sen to lay out Cambodia’s ASEAN chair plan

(nd) With respect to Cambodia taking over the ASEAN chair from Brunei in less than five months, Prime Minister Hun Sen laid out the challenges for ASEAN on the day that marks its 54th anniversary after its foundation on August 8, 1967, pointing to the global pandemic, as well as the rivalry between China and the US. 

Additional issues according to Hun Sen were the pace of societal transformation due to technology, climate change and degradation of the environment.

To achieve its goals, ASEAN, according the Cambodian leader, shall, after overcoming repercussion of the global pandemic, implement its five comprehensive recovery framework goals, including enhancement of health systems, strengthening of human security, maximizing the potential of the intra-ASEAN market, by broadening economic integration and improve digitalization. 

According to observers, key challenges are maintaining peace and stability amid geopolitical rivalry, as well as Mekong water issues, transnational crime and poverty. It will be the third chairmanship of Cambodia which became an ASEAN member state in 1999. [Phnompenh Post]

3 August 2021

US Secretary of State Blinken participates in five ASEAN-related virtual ministerial meetings this week

(mt/lm) US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is meeting virtually with his counterparts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this week, as the Biden administration seeks to show the region is a priority while also addressing the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. These will be the U.S.-ASEAN, East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, Mekong-U.S. Partnership, and Friends of the Mekong ministerial meetings. [U.S. Department of State] [Reuters]

Both sides held their first encounter via videoconference on July 14, after Blinken had to cancel the initial meeting over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting. During the virtual meeting last month, Blinken urged his counterparts to take “immediate action” on the so-called “Five-Point Consensus” reached by the bloc’s leaders in earlier in April and appoint a special envoy to Myanmar. [AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3]

The virtual encounters come after the Biden administration in its early days was seen as paying little attention to the region of more than 600 million people, focusing instead on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a loose strategic coalition comprising of France, the United States, India and Australia. Still, analysts say a vital US engagement cannot only rely on military considerations but will also have to provide an economic perspective

But Washington has failed to introduce any large economic projects in the region after the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement was nixed by the previous US administration in 2017. It has also excluded itself from one of the world’s biggest trade pacts – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which comprises of fifteen Asia-Pacific economies and has been enthusiastically embraced by China [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]. [The New York Times]

Against this backdrop, US top US officials have made a string of visits to the region in recent months: Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand in May and June [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]; Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines this week; and Vice President Kamala Harris is set to visit Singapore and Vietnam next month. [see articles in this edition]

3 August 2021

ASEAN foreign ministers discuss special envoy, aid to Myanmar

Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met virtually on August 2 for their annual gathering with the selection of a special envoy for Myanmar and finalizing an emergency plan to help control a coronavirus outbreak that many fear is spiraling out of control high on the agenda. [Associated Press] [Kyodo News]

The meeting was held a day after Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing said that his government would accept the dispatch of the special envoy agreed in April by ASEAN to mediate among the parties and find a peaceful resolution to the crisis in the country. [see article in this edition]

The dispatch of the special envoy was one of five items agreed upon at an extraordinary ASEAN summit held in Indonesia in late April to discuss the troubles unfolding in Myanmar. The so-called Five-Point Consensus also included the need for the cessation of violence; the delivery of humanitarian aid through the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance; and the beginning of political dialogue to end the crisis. [AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4]

Of the three original nominees for the ASEAN special envoy, Min Aung Hlaing said, his government had agreed to select Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Yangon, adding that “for various reasons, the new proposals were released and we could not keep moving onwards.”

Other nominees include Hassan Wirajuda, a former Indonesian Foreign Minister, and Razali Ismail, a Malaysian who in the 2000s served as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar and played a pivotal role in releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in May 2002 [see AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2].

People familiar with the discussions said the 10-member bloc wants to designate Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as special envoy to Myanmar, but are waiting on approval from Myanmar’s military regime. Yusof, who is currently serving as ASEAN’s Rotating Chair, had previously visited the country on June 3 for talks with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]. [Al Jazeera]

In their virtual meeting, foreign ministers of the 10-nation bloc were also looking to finalize a plan to bring in medicine and medical equipment to Myanmar through the regional bloc’s disaster-response center with the military leaders’ approval. They were also expected to announce some progress in four years of painstakingly slow negotiations with China to craft a “code of conduct” aimed at preventing conflict in the disputed South China Sea.

3 August 2021

Malaysia: Activist charged over Facebook post

(nd) An activist was charged for claiming in a Facebook post that refugees in Malaysia were mistreated and lived in poor conditions. Amnesty International, some 80 NGOs and other rights groups condemned the action and urged the government to “stop all forms of intimidation and threats against human rights defenders” and drop charges “for exercising her constitutional right to freedom of expression.” The activist was charged under the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 for “knowingly making and initiating the transmission of offensive communication with intent to hurt other people’s feelings via her Facebook account,” carrying a possible sentence of one year in prison or a fine of up to 50,000 ringgit (U.S. $11,814) or both. Earlier, Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) had voiced the same issues the activist raised in her post. [Benar News]

3 August 2021

Malaysia: Muhyiddin accused of treason, opposition demand resignation

(nd) Following Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s announcement to revoke the declared state of emergency, he faces calls to resign from both the opposition and UMNO, the biggest party in the ruling coalition.

His critics assert that Muhyiddin committed treason against the king, who said the revocation of the ordinances was done without his consent and therefore ran counter to the federal constitution and the principles of law. The king said he was “very disappointed” with the confusion created. In his response, Muhyiddin asserted the king was informed of his move beforehand and his assent sought. 

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim announced he had filed a motion of no confidence against Muhyiddin, claiming he no longer disposed of a majority. In fact, Muhyiddin’s government is built on a razor-thin majority backed by several parties since March 2020. [Jakarta Post] [Reuters] [South China Morning Post 1] [South China Morning Post 2]                  

Upon the detection of cases of COVID-19 among parliamentarians, Muhyiddin announced to postpone the House’s sitting, which was responded by lawmakers who tried to march into the parliament building on Monday, demanding his resignation. The opposition called the postponement a political move amid ceasing support for his government and challenges to his position. The lawmakers were stopped by the police. [Reuters] [Channel News Asia] [South China Morning Post 3] Most notably in the crowd of protesters over the weekend saw increasing numbers of younger people, signaling a growing level of organization among the youth. [The Diplomat] On Tuesday, Muhyiddin announced the revocation of the state of emergency was not completed and will be debated in parliament. [Malay Mail] According to analysts, the broader growing opposition Muhyiddin faces is likely to end his leadership. [South China Morning Post 4]

27 July 2021

Australia to negotiate agriculture work visa for ASEAN nations

(nd) After years of resistance, pressure from the Australian National Party and the farm lobby succeeded to create a new agriculture visa for workers from ASEAN nations. Depending on the vaccination progress, applications might start from November 2021 respectively early 2022. The opposition against it was based on negative experiences in the US, Europe and Gulf states. While Australia wanted to avoid to become a low-skill worker society, a seasonal worker visa was already introduced in 2010, and as of 2021, overseas students were allowed to work full time in the tourism and hospitality industry. Main problems of low-skill guest worker visas are high risks of exploitation and abuse, high occupational health and safety risks as well as racism. Additionally, foreign workers can present competition to unemployed local in the same sector. Disadvantages for the workers will likely exist with the new visa given the power of the Australian farm lobby. While employers might pay for English testing and the visa itself, travel costs will remain with the workers, and there are frequent reports of workers being forced to pay inflated accommodation rates. These issues are accelerated by the very common creation of labor-hire companies, which calls for effective regulation. Employers with a record for exploiting workers or hiring undocumented workers should be excluded. Additionally, it is argued, minimum wages should apply as well as all relevant information provided to the workers upon arrival. Especially, a complaint mechanism shall be put in place, consisting of industry, union and government body representatives. Union membership of the worker is desirable, also an independent review of the new visa a year after its imposition. [East Asia Forum]

27 July 2021

US boosting efforts to repair its ties with ASEAN

(nd) The upcoming visit of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to ASEAN this month is in line with efforts of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Biden administration to enhance estranged relations with ASEAN nations. While Blinken emphasized cooperation with respect to security in the Indo-Pacific, rejecting once again “unlawful” Chinese claims in the South China Sea, he urged the bloc for a coordinated response to the coup in Myanmar. The mission of Austin highlights the US’s commitment to counter Chinese activity in the disputed waters, visiting frontline states Vietnam and the Philippines, and the regional hub of Singapore, where he is expected to elaborate on US military strategy in the South China Sea. Contrary to Trump, who participated in 2017 but sent lower-level representatives for the following years, Biden will participate in the ASEAN summit later this year. As a mixture of Trump’s neglect of the region and the necessity for aid amid the global pandemic, regional states became more dependent on China. [Channel News Asia]

Yet, an annual survey by the ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute found that 61.5% of respondents preferred closer ties to the US than to China. Therefore, the US has been vocal on resolving the situation in Myanmar, has stepped up efforts for its own version of vaccine diplomacy by donating vaccinations, and reassured its commitment to a “free and open Mekong region”, accusing China of destabilizing downstream countries and harming the environment. Reactions by regional leaders after the US-ASEAN summit earlier this month were very positive, calling it a sign of “refreshed commitment” to the region. President of long-time ally Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has long been criticized for his China-friendly stance, which he has modified subsequently with respect to upcoming elections, most notably with reference to the 2016 Arbitration Tribunal award rejecting Chinese maritime claims as well as with frequent actions by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) chasing away Chinese ships operating within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. This raises the hope of the full restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a large-scale, rotational American military presence in the Philippines, before he leaves office. [Asia Times]

27 July 2021

Malaysia: Five-day special parliamentary session opened

(nd) Following the first parliamentary sitting after eight months, the government announced not to renew the emergency state, which will expire August 1. The parliament has been suspended since January, arguing it was needed to curb the spread of Covid-19, which critics said was move of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to cling to power. Opposition lawmakers accused Muhyiddin of royal insult for blocking a debate during the special session, after the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, urged his government to debate Covid-19 policies. Also, they insisted the emergency ordinances can only be annulled through a vote in parliament. Muhyiddin did not address the criticism but focused on upcoming policies to battle the ongoing health and economic crisis. Following the withdrawal of support by the United Malays National Organization, it remains open if he disposes of the majority necessary. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]

20 July 2021

United States urge ASEAN members to act on Myanmar, rejects China maritime claims

(mt) Addressing a video conference with foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 14 urged the group to take joint action to help end violence, restore a democratic transition and release those “unjustly detained” in Myanmar. [The Irrawaddy] [The Straits Times]

The virtual session marked the first such high-level meeting between the two sides under the administration of US President Joe Biden. Both sides were scheduled to hold their first foreign ministers’ encounter via videoconference on May 25, but Blinken, who was touring the Middle East at the time, cancelled over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting.

Laos, which coordinates the bloc’s “dialogue relations” with Washington, had wanted the session to be held back-to-back with the ASEAN Regional Forum on security next month, but Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia were persuasive in preponing it.

The meeting comes amid rising concerns that the Biden administration has done little to engage ASEAN since taking office in January, focusing instead on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a loose strategic coalition comprising of France, the United States, India and Australia, which is increasingly seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

During the virtual meeting, Blinken urged his counterparts to take “immediate action” on the so-called “Five-Point Consensus” reached by the bloc’s leaders in earlier in April and appoint a special envoy to Myanmar. The ASEAN has been showing limits in firmly doing so both due to internal disagreements among group members, but also key foundational principles of the group of non-interference and consensus [see AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2]. The US official also asked for the release of all those “unjustly detained” in the country, and the restoration of Myanmar’s democratic transition. [Voice of America]

Blinken also emphasized his country’s rejection of China’s “unlawful maritime claims” in the South China Sea at the meeting and said Washington “stands with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of (Chinese) coercion”. [The Diplomat]

The remarks assume added significance, coming as they did hot on the heels of the fifth anniversary of the international tribunal ruling on the South China Sea [see also AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2].   On July 12, 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal established in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) found that Beijing’s claim to “historic rights” or “maritime rights and interests” established in the “long course of historical practice” in the disputed waterway were inconsistent with UNCLOS and, to the extent of that inconsistency, invalid.

20 July 2021

Malaysia: Conviction of MP for corruption overturned

(nd) The corruption conviction of former Umno secretary general Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor was overturned by the court of appeal. He was tried alongside other top leaders, including Najib Razak, after Umno’s surprising defeat in 2018, who overthrew the Pakatan Harapan government in 2020 in a coalition with other parties. Another former Najib loyalist, Musa Aman, was acquitted from charges of corruption and money laundering in June.

Umno is the country’s biggest party and currently faces internal struggles due to dividing camps, one of them being Najib loyalists facing criminal charges and the other being those trying to distance themselves from them. The current parti president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, also currently on trial for corruption-related charges, announced Umno to pull out of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government, what commentators suggested as a try to pressure the government to drop charges. The weight of the maneuver was lightened by other Umno politicians currently serving as ministers announcing to fully back the administration. [South China Morning Post]

20 July 2021

Malaysia: Cabinet to unanimously support Muhyiddin

(nd) Following the announcement of Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Umno would withdraw their support for Prime Minister Yassin Muhyiddin, the cabinet including Umno members announced to fully back Muhyiddin as Prime Minister and in his efforts to fight the global pandemic. The loss of the backing of the biggest party backing Muhyiddin’s government caused yet another round of political uncertainty in Malaysia. The government is highly pressured over alleged mismanagement of the pandemic. Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz announced to cooperate closely with the opposition for the implementation of a road map for a progressive reopening of the economy, the National Recovery Plan. [South China Morning Post

On July 26, a five-day special Parliament meeting will take place, the first one since the declaration of the state of emergency in January. [The Star] [Reuters] The emergency order will expire on August 1. A vote of no confidence during the special meeting is unlikely and will have to wait until the regular session in September, since the government announced not to allow a debate on this topic. Additionally, a successful vote of no confidence would require the dissolution of parliament and an election within 60 days, which possibly would worsen the pandemic situation. [East Asia Forum 1

In a recent analysis [East Asia Forum 2], Bridget Welsh presented some of the failures leading to the hashtag #Kerajaangagal (failed government) and connected it to the historical landmarks of the 1969 racial riots and the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, arguing the disappointment with the ethnonationalist government will leave its traces, especially with the rising number of young voters being likely to initiate this shift away from party hierarchy and towards are more experience- and result-oriented approach.

20 July 2021

ASEAN and the EU’s AI legislation

(nd) According to a recent analysis, the EU’s recent draft legislation to harmonize artificial intelligence (AI) rules is unlikely to have direct impact on similar legislation in Southeast Asia. Still, there might be some repercussive effects of it since the objectives of the legislation, risk mitigation for AI systems, is relevant for the region as well. As part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, competitively-priced technology has already been exported through Chinese companies, namely Huawei, Hikvision, Dahua and ZTE, notably in the area of face recognition, raising concerns about security risks and the danger of importing norms and values from the system providers.

Regionally, AI-based systems are not produced largely yet, with the exception of Singapore having launched a national AI strategy for AI-based solutions in the global market. One obstacle therefore for implementing EU rules directly is the lower degree of integration of markets and regulations in the regional bloc as opposed to the EU. Nevertheless, in its first Digital Ministers’ Meeting early this year, ASEAN adopted a Digital Masterplan 2025 with the aim of a regional policy for best practice guidance on AI governance and ethics. A key issue will be regulating cross-border data flows among member states which have localization requirements for personal data. 

The recently adopted Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership missed this chance and still enables parties to restrict cross-border data flows, with the sole requirement of non-discriminatory application. Of the signatories, only Singapore and Vietnam implemented the “gold standard” digital trade provisions supporting cross-border data flows. Since most ASEAN members have already formed a national AI strategy, it could be beneficial for the bloc to focus on a sector-based approach to subsequently build a common framework for AI policy consolidation. [East Asia Forum]

20 July 2021

Cambodia to chair ASEAN in 2022

(nd) For the upcoming Cambodian chairmanship of ASEAN, some core issues were identified in a recent analysis, which in part had been already identified for its last chairmanship in 2012. Back then, Cambodia was criticized for siding with China over conflicting territorial claims at the South China Sea. Cambodia is a non-claimant state to the disputed waters and repeatedly referred to its neutrality, yet ASEAN has to address the desperately needed Code of Conduct issue, which needs a central and united approach of the bloc. 

Similarly, the aftermath of the coup and the situation in Myanmar are yet to be solved, with the violence continuing amid a spike in Covid-19 and unlikeliness of a successful implementation of ASEAN’s five-point consensus reached during its special summit in April. Additionally, Cambodia itself is criticized for its poor human rights record and has a less strict attitude towards the coup than other bloc members. Another unsolved cross-border issue is the environmental situation in the Mekong Delta region caused by a multitude of big dam projects at the Upper Mekong River.

With all three issues, the growing US-China rivalry is putting even more pressure on the bloc’s members, driving division within and making a united stand harder to achieve. This applies especially given Cambodia’s high economic and military involvement with China. For months, tensions were simmering due to the alleged establishment of a Chinese military base in Cambodia opposed by the US. While Chinese vaccinations have come under criticism and some bloc members have stopped using Sinovac, Cambodia is exclusively using Chinese vaccinations, showing their high dependence on China. [East Asia Forum]

20 July 2021

Singapore, Malaysia on the reclamation of Pedra Branca island

(nd) Singapore announced to conduct land reclamation works within 0.5 nautical miles of the island of Pedra Branca. Sovereignty over the island has been in dispute between Singapore and Malaysia since 1979. Malaysia claimed it as its territory, which led to an International Court of Justice (ICJ) case in 2003, also about two other maritime features, namely Middle Rocks and South Ledge. The ICJ ruled in 2008 that Singapore had established sovereignty over Pedra Branca due to such moves uncontested by Malaysia, that Middle Rocks belonged to Malaysia and that the two countries shall negotiate on the status of South Ledge. A request for revision of the decision from 2017 was discontinued a year later.

Therefore, Singapore’s most recent move is in accordance with Article 60 of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to build and construct new artificial islands in their Exclusive Economic Zones, if such is desired with the works. Contrarily, Singapore cannot claim more territory by constructing artificial islands off the island’s coast, since Article 121(1) of UNCLOS only grants the claim of sovereignty 12 nautical miles off territorial sea to an “island” in the sense of a naturally formed, not man-made one – a principle derived from the famous decision in 2016 on the Spratly Islands, between the Philippines and China.  

The recent Malaysia-Singapore Joint Technical Committee (MSJTC) has not concluded yet the Maritime Boundary Delimitation of Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks, and South Ledge, which for the latter, according to the ICJ ruling, is dependent on negotiations between the two nations. In the case of South Ledge, which is only 2.2 nautical miles off Pedra Branca as opposed to Pedra Branca, which is 24 nautical miles off Singapore, it could prove easier for Singapore to claim South Ledge and thereby exclusive rights and sovereignty over the waters, including for underwater exploration and scientific research. [The Diplomat]

20 July 2021

Malaysia, Iran to import palm oil

(nd) In continuation of a boost in imports earlier this year, Iran is planning to import one million tons of palm oil from Malaysia in the near future. In the first half of 2021, the import of 309,704 tons of marked a five-fold increase over the same period last year, with additional 650,000 tons targeted this year. According to the Iranian embassy, Iran is currently the largest importer of palm oil among countries in the Middle East, saying it could become a distribution hub in the region, which would require more strategic bilateral trade ties between both nations.

Malaysia overtook Indonesia to become the biggest crude palm oil exporter to India, which is currently the world’s largest importer of vegetable oil, with exports totaling 2.42 million tons. In 2020, China imported 2.731 million tons of Malaysian palm oil, India 2.727 million tons, Netherlands 1.073 million tons, Pakistan 1.004 million tons. [Free Malaysia Today]

13 July 2021

Singapore says ASEAN to ‘expedite’ Myanmar plan, as grouping remains deadlocked in selection of envoy

(mt) The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is working to expedite the implementation of the so-called ‘five-point consensus’ plan reached by their leaders to deal with the crisis in Myanmar, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan reiterated on July 7. [The Diplomat]

Nearly three months after the military coup in Myanmar, the 10 ASEAN member states in April announced a Five-Point Consensus for resolving the country’s state of grinding emergency. Of the five points, three refer to outcomes desired by the grouping: the cessation of violence; the delivery of humanitarian aid through the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance; and the beginning of political dialogue to end the crisis. The other two are mechanisms to achieve these outcomes: the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy and the dispatch of a delegation to Myanmar to meet all relevant stakeholders. [AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4]

But ASEAN leaders failed to agree on a time frame for the implementation of the consensus, and progress has been slow, even on what would appear to be the most straightforward point of consensus: the appointment of a special envoy.

A recent report by Japan’s Kyodo News suggests that there are currently three nominees: Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and veteran diplomat; Hassan Wirajuda, a former Indonesian Foreign Minister, and Razali Ismail, a Malaysian who in the 2000s served as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar and played a pivotal role in releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in May 2002. [Kyodo News]

Citing ASEAN diplomatic sources, the news outlet claims that each of the three candidates is being pushed by their respective government, and that the choice “appears to have become intertwined with the domestic and strategic agendas of the nominating countries.”

A case in point, Indonesia believes that Hassan could establish momentum towards resolving the situation in Myanmar. But the country’s military seems to be leaning toward the Thai candidate, most notably because the military junta “is [said to be] no longer interested in the Indonesian model of democratic transition but prefers the Thai model where the military wields superior political leverage and policy influence.” 

Thailand, whose military is said to have close ties to neighboring Myanmar [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3], seems to be primarily concerned with ensuring its border security and commercial interests vis-a-vis Myanmar. Bangkok this week reiterated that it does not have the “luxury of distance”, and thus could not afford to be complacent about what is happening in neighboring Myanmar. [Bangkok Post]

13 July 2021

Malaysia: UMNO council withdraws support of PN government 

(dql) The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has withdrawn its support for the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government led by Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and called for his resignation, citing the government’s insufficient handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced the move after a UMNO’s supreme council meeting, 

Muhyiddin’s minority government commands 54 seats in the 222-member House of Representatives and relies on the support of former ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) of which UMNO is the largest member party and Zahid is its chairman. UMNO’s status as a partner within the ruling PN government, led by the Malaysian United Indigenous (Party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu)) under Muhyiddin, has been increasingly called into question. In March, the party had concluded it would halt support for the PN government if there were no indications of a general election within the near future. [Free Malaysia Today]

However, observers believe that Muhyiddin will be able to stay in power given an UMNO-internal split, with UMNO Ministers in Muhyiddin’s cabinet disagreeing with the council’s decision and other parties of both PN and BN expressing their willingness to continue to work with Muhyiddin. [Channel news Asia] [Straits Times] [Bernama] [Malaysia Now]

13 July 2021

Indonesia seeks greater role for Italy in ASEAN

(sa) On 7 July 2021, Indonesian Ambassador to Italy Esti Andayani pushed for greater ASEAN-Italy cooperation in sustainable development at the ‘Italy-ASEAN Partnership for Development: A Look at Sustainable Development’. The Ambassador, who is also chief of the ASEAN Committee in Rome (ACR) noted the benefits of post-pandemic cooperation and highlighted the economic impact of Covid-19. [Antara News]

13 July 2021

Malaysia-China relations: Chinese vessels contest Malaysian oil and gas development

(dql) According to findings of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), vessels of the China Coast Guard (CCG) have been contesting new Malaysian oil and gas development of the Kasawari gas field, located off the coast of Sarawak since early June. The activity, coinciding with a Chinese military planes’ patrol by near Malaysia, is at least the third time since last spring that the CCG has harassed Malaysian energy exploration, the report says. [AMTI]

Discovered in November 2011, the Kasawari field is believed to contain approximately three trillion cubic feet (tcf) of recoverable gas resources. [NS Energy]

13 July 2021

Russia backs ASEAN five-point consensus on tackling crisis in Myanmar

(lm) Speaking during a visit to Indonesia, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week expressed his country’s support for the Five Point Consensus agreed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to end the political crisis in Myanmar. [The Straits Times]

The diplomat’s comments assume added significance, coming as they did amid deepening engagement between Russia and Myanmar’s military, even as major global powers sanction its businesses and top leaders and call for a global ban on arms sales to the Southeast Asian country.

Independent news outlet Myanmar Now on July 6 reported that a 20-member Russian delegation led by two high-ranking Navy officers secretly visited Myanmar between June 13 and 19, ahead of its junta leader’s trip to Russia last month, citing a document it said it had obtained. [Myanmar Now, in Burmese]

Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing arrived in Moscow on June 20 to attend the Moscow Conference for International Security, marking only his second known trip abroad since the army overthrew the civilian government in February [see AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]. His visit followed on a trip to Moscow by a delegation led by the country’s Air Force Chief, General Maung Maung Kyaw [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4].

Both visits lend weight to arguments that claim Russia is seeking an avenue to advance its strategic interests in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Moscow – which has seen a steady decline of its weapons exports since 2010 – might consider Myanmar a “gateway” for this lucrative market. For the military junta, in turn, Moscow provides an opportunity to diversify supplies and to reduce its dependency on China, Myanmar’s main weapons supplier.

13 July 2021

United States, ASEAN to hold virtual meeting of foreign ministers on July 14

(lm) The United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will hold a foreign minister’s meeting virtually on July 14, marking the first such high-level meeting between the two sides under the administration of US President Joe Biden. [South China Morning Post]

Both sides were scheduled to hold their first foreign ministers’ encounter via videoconference on May 25. But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was touring the Middle East at the time, canceled over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting. Many ASEAN officials viewed the technical glitch as a political slight, a sign Washington had not invested sufficient effort in planning for the meeting and was once again putting off the pivot to Asia by prioritizing other regions in the world—in this case, the Middle East.

Against this backdrop, United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman last month embarked on an 11-day diplomatic tour that included stopovers in Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand, aimed at signaling that Washington was finally turning its diplomatic focus to Southeast Asia to counter a rising Chinese clout in the region. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

The rescheduled meeting will be attended by Blinken and all foreign ministers from the 10-member ASEAN, including Myanmar’s junta-appointed top diplomat. Laos, which coordinates the bloc’s “dialogue relations” with the US, had wanted the virtual session to be held back-to-back with the ASEAN Regional Forum on security next month, but Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia were persuasive in preponing it.

ASEAN previously held a foreign ministers’ meeting with China in Chongqing on June 7 [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2] and, more recently, with Russia in Jakarta on July 6.

6 July 2021

Malaysia: Parliament to reconvene in July

(dql) Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Office announced that Parliament will reconvene and sit for five days beginning on July 26, after it has been suspended in January when Malaysia was placed under emergency rules to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. The sessions will be held to present a national recovery plan and to amend necessary laws to hold hybrid Parliament meetings

The announcement comes as the Prime Minister for months has been pressured by the public, political parties and the Palace to reconvene parliament amid mounting criticism over his government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. [Malay Mail]

Last month, the issue of exactly when Parliament should meet for the first time since December has been the subject of heated debate since the King and eight other state rulers called for the legislature’s reopening as soon as possible. [Straits Times] [Channel News Asia]

6 July 2021

United States downgrades Thailand and Malaysia in human trafficking report

(pr/dql) Thailand has been downgraded by the United States in a global report on human trafficking, because the Southeast Asian nation’s government has decreased law enforcement and efforts to identify and protect victims, albeit maintaining trafficking prevention efforts. [2021 Trafficking in Persons Report]

In its 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) – which places Thailand on the watchlist for the first time in four years – Washington notes that despite having made some progress in eliminating human trafficking, Thai authorities last year “initiated significantly fewer trafficking investigations, prosecuted fewer suspects and convicted fewer traffickers than in 2019.” The report also highlights persistent allegations that migrant workers have been tricked or coerced into forced labor in many industries in Thailand, yet the government seemingly continues to downplay the extent of the problem. [US Department of State]

The downgrade came as a surprise to the Thai government, which had been lobbying to have its status upgraded from Tier 2 to Tier 1. Tier 1 ranking indicates that a government has made efforts to address human trafficking problems that meets the minimum standards under the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act. [Bangkok Post]

Bangkok therefore stated that it was disappointed, adding that the evaluation would not reflect the significant efforts and progress the country had made in combatting human trafficking. It also reaffirmed its resolve to prevent and suppress human trafficking, adding that Washington’s evaluation would not represent the international standard. [Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs]

Malaysia, meanwhile, dropped to the bottommost tier 3, with the report concluding that “the government continued to conflate human trafficking and migrant smuggling crimes and did not adequately address or criminally pursue credible allegations from multiple sources alleging labour trafficking, including in the rubber manufacturing industry and palm oil sector, with the government owning 33% of the third largest palm oil company in the world.” 

For the past three years Malaysia had been placed on the Tier 2 Watch List. [Free Malaysia Today]


6 July 2021

Malaysian-Australian joint anti-smuggling operation completed

(dql) Malaysia’s Coast Guard and the Australian Border Force last week completed the 15th iteration of Operation Redback. The operation, which began on June 22, aimed to counter people smuggling in in Malaysian territorial waters, involving strategic communication and a patrol in the northern waters of the Malacca Strait. The two agencies also exhanged information and operational skills, and built interoperability during the operation.  [The Mandarin]

6 July 2021

Malaysia: Cross-border crimes increased

(dql) Data release by the Royal Malaysia Police have revealed that cross-border crime activities in the states Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang from January to June have increased by more than 220% compared to the same period in 2020. 464 cases with 458 individuals detained and smuggled items worth over RM 33.2 million were recorded for this year, compared to 296 cases with 252 arrests and seizures worth over RM 10.2 million for last year. [Malay Mail]

29 June 2021

British foreign minister’s Asean trip highlights UK’s plan to shift trade and foreign policy focus

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last week concluded a three-leg tour of Southeast Asia, in what observers describe as an attempt of putting meat on the bones to the United Kingdom’s plan to reinvent itself in the region in the post-Brexit era. [South China Morning Post 1] [GOV.UK]

This was Raab’s fifth visit to Southeast Asia since becoming Foreign Secretary, demonstrating the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific, as set out in the UK’s “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” in response to China’s growing influence on the world stage [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].

Significantly, the trip coincided with Britain on June 22 formally launching negotiations to join the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade deal, a key part of London’s attempt to pivot trade away from Europe after Brexit. [South China Morning Post 2] [The Guardian]

The UK applied to join the free trade agreement in January, a month after Prime Minister Johnson had invited three Indo-Pacific countries – Australia, India and South Korea – to attend the recently G7 summit as guests [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. The existing members of the trade alliance are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

While in Vietnam, Raab delivered opening remarks at the 5th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) on London’s ambitions for its Indo-Pacific tilt to an audience of representatives from more than 50 countries. He also met with Vietnamese leaders, including President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh and Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son to discuss the implementation of the UK-Vietnam Strategic Partnership Agreement, in addition to subjects such as global health security, climate change and combatting serious organized crime.

The Foreign Secretary then travelled to Cambodia to meet Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, marking the first Foreign Secretary visit to Cambodia since the British Embassy was reopened 30 years ago. During the meeting, Raab set out his country’s ambition to formally ascent as a new “dialogue partner” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ahead of Phnom Penh taking up the ASEAN chair. The 10-nation bloc’s leaders in April said they backed the Foreign Secretary’s recommendation for such a move. This status would give London the closest form of relationship with ASEAN. [Associated Press]

Raab wrapped up his three-nation trip in Singapore, where he met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on June 24 to discuss geopolitical security and climate change, as well as the international response to COVID-19. The Singaporean Premier said after the meeting that the two countries had a “shared interest in upholding free trade, multilateralism and a rules-based international order”. [The Straits Times]

The visit also comes at a time of growing defense and security cooperation with the region, as the UK’s Carrier Strike Group 21 led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth, makes its maiden visit to the region. The 28-week deployment to Asia assumes added significance, considering that it marks the largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave Britain in a generation. Last week, stealth jets carried out operational sorties for the first time from HMS Queen Elizabeth in support of the ongoing British and US military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. [Naval News]

29 June 2021

China holds Belt and Road conference

(dql) China held on June 23 a virtual conference on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Attending countries include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Chile, China, Colombia, Fiji, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. Unlike the two previous conferences in 2017 and 2019 when heads of state and heads of government took part, this year’s forum was held at ministerial level.   

Equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and ensuring climate-friendly growth in the post-pandemic era topped the conferenced agenda. Among the major outcomes of the conference were two initiatives: first, the Belt and Road Partnership on COVID-19 Vaccines Cooperation” which addresses especially developing countries in boosting international cooperation in vaccine research and development, production and distribution, and improving accessibility and affordability of vaccines globally; and second, the Initiative for Belt and Road Partnership on Green Development, which seeks to strengthen cooperation among BRI countries in several areas including as green infrastructure, green energy and green finance, and promote green, low-carbon and sustainable development.” [The Diplomat]

29 June 2021

Malaysia palm oil giant under US probe over forced labour allegations

(tcy) The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has opened an investigation over forced labor allegations against Malaysian palm oil company IOI Corporation. The accusations pertain to the payment of deposits by workers, reimbursement of workers’ recruitment fees, and a need for an ethical, low-cost recruitment process for foreign workers. 

Malaysia is one of the world’s largest palm oil producers and exporters, and the industry relies heavily on migrants from Indonesia, India, and Bangladesh. Amidst mounting allegations on the industry of human rights abuses, IOI is the third palm oil giant in Malaysia to face scrutiny over its treatment of migrant workers after the CBP banned imports from FGV Holdings and Sime Darby Plantations over similar allegations last year. [Reuters]

29 June 2021

Malaysia proposes stricter sharia laws for insulting Islam and “promoting the LGBT lifestyle” on social media

(tcy) In response to social media posts celebrating the LGBT community as part of Pride Month in June, a Malaysian government taskforce with representatives from other government agencies  has proposed amendments to sharia law that would allow enforcement bodies to take action against those who insult Islam and “promote the LGBT lifestyle” on social media. 

As a Muslim majority country, Malaysia has a dual-track legal system, with Islamic criminal and family laws (sharia law), running alongside civil laws. The proposed amendment reflects growing intolerance towards the LGBT community in Malaysia in recent years. In 2019, five men were convicted under Islamic law for attempting gay sex, and a minister and Muslim groups protested after LGBT activists attended an International Women’s Day march. [Reuters]


29 June 2021

Malaysia: Hybrid Parliament sitting expected in late August or early September

(tcy) In a joint statement, the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) and Dewan Negara (Senate) have announced that the proposed hybrid Parliament session may take place in late August or early September. The announcement comes amidst growing calls and the King’s decree for Parliament to reconvene immediately after the emergency expires on August 1 to discuss the escalating COVID-19 situation and to avoid a constitutional crisis. [see AIR No. 25, June/2021, 4

Various politicians and lawmakers have also promised not to support any motion of no-confidence against Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in the next sitting of the Parliament in a bid to urge the government to reconvene Parliament as soon as possible. [Malay Mail 1] [Malay Mail 2

In response to the announcement, the King has summoned both Houses’ Speakers and their deputies to the palace on June 29 to discuss matters pertaining to the reopening of the Parliament. [Malay Mail 3]

In the statement, the two Houses said that a grace period was needed to sort out the required mechanism for the hybrid Parliament session to ensure that its execution would go smoothly, and expressed their commitment towards expediting the process. It was also mentioned that the matter had been conveyed to and well-received by the Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. [Malay Mail 4] [Bernama 1]  

In addition, despite the King’s decree, Attorney-General (AG) Tan Sri Idrus Harun spoke out to clarify that it is the Cabinet’s jurisdiction to determine when both houses of Parliament would meet, citing Article 40 of the Federal Constitution which states that the King is to act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet. [Bernama 2] However, the move by the AG received backlash and calls for his termination for a breach of confidentiality as he made public his advice to the King, which can potentially be construed as a form of transgression that belittles the views of the Malay Rulers in the present context. [Malay Mail 5]

Despite this uncertainty on when Parliament would reconvene, several states have already announced their plans to reconvene their state assemblies following the King’s decree. Johor, Negri Sembilan, and Selangor have confirmed that their state assemblies will reconvene in August. [Bernama 3] [Malay Mail 6] [Bernama 4]

29 June 2021

Malaysia: Fake letter vying for premiership sent to King in foreign minister’s name

(tcy) The communications team of Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has denied the legitimacy of a letter sent to the King in the minister’s name, decrying it as “fake” and “untrue”. The letter claimed that the minister had the Barisan Nasional’s (BN) unanimous support to become the next prime minister, and reportedly also contained his proposed Cabinet line-up. The minister lodged a police report on the fake letter, and condemned the act as a political provocation meant to confuse the public. [Malay Mail 1] [Bernama]

The incident comes after UMNO lawmaker and former cabinet minister MP Mohamed Nazri Aziz announced that 25 BN MPs had signed a statutory declaration stating that they had lost confidence in the transparency of UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and now supported Hishammuddin instead. However, Mohamed Nazri previously clarified that the move was not intended to trigger a change in prime minister, as some speculated, but only to give Hishammuddin the mandate to be the spokesman of the BN MPs before the King.  [Malay Mail 2

Though Zahid dismissed Mohamed Nazri’s assertions that he had lost the backing of UMNO’s lawmakers, the statutory declaration masterminded by one of the party’s most experienced members is significant in revealing a deep split within the biggest party in Malaysia’s ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition. [The Straits Times]

29 June 2021

Malaysia: Minister urges adoption of UN cyber norms to reduce risk on international peace and security

(tcy) In his address at the virtual ASEAN Cyber Security Forum at the Cyber Defence and Security Exhibition and Conference (CYDES) 2021, Senior Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob called for the adoption of voluntary, non-binding United Nations (UN) cyber norms to prevent conflict in the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) environment and increase the global social and economic development. He also suggested that ASEAN could become the champion in implementing these norms, sharing that ASEAN leaders are committed to strengthening confidence and building measures in safeguarding cyberspace by agreeing to recognize and operationalize the norms. 

The 11 voluntary, non-binding UN cyber norms of responsible state behavior in cyberspace are a set of recommended standards on the way states should conduct themselves in cyberspace that aims to prevent conflict between states in the ICT environment. [Bernama]


29 June 2021

Malaysia enhances international cooperation to fight the COVID-19 pandemic

(tcy) Malaysia last week used two international stages to express its willingness to engage in enhancing international cooperation in combating Covid-19. During the Asia and Pacific High-Level Video Conference on Belt and Road Cooperation, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein called for enhanced collaboration among partners of the Belt and Road Initiative to make sure that all countries have sufficient vaccines. Hishammuddin participated in the video conference at the invitation of his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. [The Star]

At the virtual launch of the EU-ASEAN Programme to Support COVID-19 Response in Malaysia, Health Minister Adham Baba announced that Malaysia will collaborate with the European Union (EU) in the field of research and development (R&D) to strengthen its overall emergency preparedness and healthcare system capacity. It was also mentioned that the EU had approved the export of about five million doses of vaccines to help Malaysia accelerate its COVID-19 National Immunisation Programme. [Bernama]


29 June 2021

Malaysia, Brunei to enhance collaboration in cultural tourism

(tcy) Malaysia’s Tourism, Arts, and Culture Ministry (MOTAC) announced that Malaysia and Brunei will enhance collaboration in exploring the growth potential of cultural tourism to support industry players in both countries. The statement compared the collaboration to the Asia Traditional Orchestra (ATO) 2020 performance held in conjunction with South Korea, and said details of the initiative with Brunei would be discussed in the near future. [Bernama]


29 June 2021

Malaysia: Members of FPDA to enhance cooperation in military training and exercises in conventional warfare

(tcy) At the virtually held 20th Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) Defence Chiefs’ Conference, chaired by Malaysia on June 23the defense chiefs of Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the UK stressed the importance of FPDA as a constructive and transparent defense arrangement that is also part of the regional defense structure, and agreed continue developing non-conventional warfare capability in line with current and future security challenges.

The FPDA were established by a series of multi-lateral agreements between the Commonwealth members Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom signed in 1971, ensuring consultation among each other in the event or threat of an armed attack on any of these five countries for the purpose of deciding on countermeasures to be taken jointly or separately. [Bernama]

22 June 2021

8th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus

(pr/lm) China’s Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe last week reiterated that his country will not bend when it comes to Taiwan, the South China Sea and other “core interests.” Commenting on the growth of China’s military power, Wei suggested it should be considered “part of the growth of the world’s peace forces”.

Speaking at the 8th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), held online and hosted by Brunei, Wei acknowledged other countries’ “legitimate concerns” on unspecified matters but said China’s national interests must be fully respected and safeguarded. He listed not only Taiwan and the South China Sea – where China has overlapping claims with several Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members – but also Xinjiang and Hong Kong. [Nikkei Asia 1]

The meeting brought together defense ministers from the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their counterparts from the six so-called “plus countries” outside the group: the United States, South Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. These gatherings have been held since 2010, but the latest session marked the first since US President Joe Biden took office.

The remarks assume added significance coming as they did a day after Taiwan reported the largest-ever air incursion by Chinese forces. The also came just a week after advanced economies, at the Group of Seven summit, had also urged Taiwan Strait stability and encouraged “the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues”.

Significantly, ADMM-Plus members also welcomed the expansion of the ASEAN Direct Communications Infrastructure (ADI) in the ADMM Process to the Plus Countries. The ADI aims to enable a dialogue to promote de-escalation of potential conflicts and to defuse misunderstandings and misinterpretations during crisis or emergency situations. In 2019, the ASEAN’s defense ministers adopted a concept paper to expand the ADI to the eight so-called “plus countries” outside the group. [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times 1]

The day before the ADMM-Plus meeting, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto told an ASEAN-only meeting that the bloc needs to solidify its own Indo-Pacific strategy to preserve its “unity and centrality.” During the virtual gathering, defense ministers from ASEAN also called for an early conclusion of a code of conduct for the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asia 2]

The ASEAN-only meeting also approved the establishment of a new Cybersecurity and Information Centre of Excellence in Singapore to better facilitate exchanges among ASEAN defense establishments and protect against the threats of cyber-attacks, disinformation, and misinformation. This center will complement the ASEAN Cyber Defence Network in promoting regional exchanges, interactions, and cooperation on cyber-security matters. [The Straits Times 2]

22 June 2021

Malaysia: Calls for more holistic refugee policies 

(tcy) As the government adopts an increasingly hardline stance towards refugees and migrants amidst the Covid-19 pandemic [see AIR No. 24, June/2021, 3], calls emerge from civil society groups urging for more humane treatment and holistic policies. 

In response to a comment made my Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin about the possibility of building refugee camps [Malay Mail 1], the Malaysian Advisory Group on Myanmar strongly expressed its opposition to such a policy, stating that these punitive measures would only undermine efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. The group also said that the vast majority of refugees in Malaysia are “urban refugees”, which enables them to assimilate and contribute to Malaysian society, whereas building camps would only perpetuate trauma and alienation while draining public resources. [Malay Mail 2]

The All-Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia (APPGM) also called for bipartisan cooperation to objectively assess the situation and help the country develop more comprehensive policies on refugee management, while engaging with diverse stakeholders including NGOs, the private sector, and local and refugee community leaders. Specifically, the group called for policies that allow for basic rights prior to their resettlement to a third country, a safe and dignified return to their countries once they become peaceful again, and an environment where refugees can come forward for COVID-19 testing and vaccination without the fear of arrest. [Malay Mail 3]

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 179,570 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. However, as Malaysia is currently not a signatory of the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, local laws offer refugees little protection or differentiation from illegal immigrants. [Malay Mail 2

22 June 2021

Malaysia: King orders to reconvene Parliament 

(tcy) Following a series of political meetings with various political party leaders, as well as a Special Meeting of Malay Rulers on June 16 to discuss the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and emergency situation [see AIR No. 24, June/2021, 3], Malaysia’s King has announced that the country’s state of emergency need not be extended beyond its August 1 expiry date, and that Parliament should reconvene as soon as possible to allow debate about the Emergency Ordinances and the National Recovery Plan, recently announced by Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.[Bernama 1] [Malay Mail]

The King and the Malay rulers were also of the view that the state legislative assemblies in their respective states should also be allowed to reconvene as soon as possible, prompting various states including Penang, Johor, Selangor, Sabah, Negri Sembilan, Perlis, Melaka, and Pahang to begin making preparations to do so. [Bernama 2] [Malay Mail 1]

The announcement comes a day after Muhyiddin unveiled the National Recovery Plan, which outlines four phases for Malaysia to transition out of the COVID-19 crisis and expressed commitment to reconvening Parliament in the third phase, estimated to be in September or October. [Bernama 3

Following the King’s announcement, the Prime Minister’s Office noted the views of the King and promised to take follow-up measures based on the Federal Constitution and national laws, although it did not specify these measures. [Bernama 4] Later on June 20, Muhyiddin announced the formation of a committee comprising government and opposition representatives to look into the reconvening of Parliament, and whether it should be a physical or hybrid parliamentary sitting. [The Straits Times]

The vagueness of this response, however, has led to calls from various parties including political leaders and civil society groups for the government to reconvene Parliament immediately. [Malay Mail 2] [Malay Mail 3] [Malay Mail 4] [Malay Mail 5] [Malay Mail 6] [Malay Mail 7] Many have argued that failure to reconvene Parliament on August 2 after the emergency ends would result in a constitutional crisis when the Federal Constitution is in force again, violating Article 55(1) which permits a maximum period of six months to elapse between two Parliamentary sessions. The last Parliament sitting was in December last year. [Malay Mail 8] [Malay Mail 9] [Malay Mail 10]  However, the government continues to appear reluctant to do so, with ministers stating that the King’s call is in line with the government’s plan to reconvene Parliament at a suitable time, and that because the King did not specify a particular date, it is within the Prime Minister’s jurisdiction to decide on when Parliament should be reconvened. [Malay Mail 11] [Malay Mail 12]

Amidst the growing political and health crisis, the intervention of the King and the rulers of the nine Malay states is significant, as they move beyond their largely ceremonial role to directly intervene in political affairs and begin to be seen as the only check on the government’s powers amid the suspension of Parliament. As Muhyiddin’s government faces increasing pressure to reopen Parliament or risk being seen as undemocratic and disrespectful to the King, it continues to remain unclear whether the government will heed the call. [The Diplomat]

22 June 2021

Malaysia: Controversial Penang South Island project’s to be withdrawn?

(tcy) The Agriculture and Food Industries Ministry announced that it may recommend withdrawing the approval of the Penang South Island project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which evaluates whether the expected impact of the project on the environment is acceptable. It was also announced that it might propose not to approve the project’s Environment Management Plan (EMP) as well, which details how negative environmental impacts will be mitigated and minimized effectively in the implementation of the project. In 2019, the project obtained approval for its EIA with 72 conditions, but it has not yet obtained approval for its EMP. Approval for both the EIA and EMP is necessary before the project can be implemented. [Malay Mail ]

The Penang South Islands project, also known as the three-island reclamation project, is a land reclamation project to the south of Penang Island, meant to host a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial buildings and activities. Last week, the Penang government announced that it would go ahead with the controversial project despite numerous objections from fishermen, civil society groups, think tanks and other ministers due to environmental and socio-economic concerns. [see AIR No. 24, June/2021, 3] [Bernama]

22 June 2021

Malaysia: Palestinian foreign minister expresses appreciation for Malaysia’s longstanding support

(tcy) During his working visit to Turkey, foreign minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein met with his Palestinian counterpart Dr. Riad Malki, who expressed his wholehearted appreciation towards Malaysia for its longstanding guidance and support. Dr Riad praised Malaysia’s undivided stand and also discussed current developments in Palestine, saying that his country was still being subjected to Israeli atrocities. [Bernama 1]

Meanwhile, Hishammuddin informed Dr. Riad of Malaysia’s intention to contribute more than USD 1 million to the Palestinian Government to rebuild the Covid-19 testing facility in Gaza that was destroyed by Israeli bombardment during the tensions last month. A two-week mission to Al-Quds and Gaza by the Humanitarian Mission 4 Palestine (HM4P) also departed from Malaysia this week, and would be providing humanitarian aid in the form of funds, food, and medical supplies for Palestinians in Gaza. [Bernama 2]

22 June 2021

Malaysia, Saudi Arabia work together to reinvigorate tourism industry

(tcy) Malaysia and Saudi Arabia are working together to revive their tourism and culture industry, through various initiatives like joint promotions of tourism programs through social media and digital platforms, and the sharing of information and best practices in the sustainable management of cultural heritage sites as tourist attractions. The Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture (MOTAC) also discussed other initiatives such as the close collaborative relationship between arts, heritage, and cultural institutions as well as promotions in Muslim Friendly Tourism (MFT). 

Tourist arrivals from Saudi Arabia numbered 121,444 people out of the overall total of 26.1 million tourist arrivals in Malaysia in 2019. The initiatives discussed are expected to open up greater tourism opportunities between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, as well as other countries in the Middle East. [Bernama

22 June 2021

Malaysia, Egypt discuss efforts to revive bilateral ties

(tcy) In a video conference on June 18, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi discussed efforts to revive bilateral relations and foster greater cooperation in economy, trade, education, tourism, and infrastructure development. Trade relations between the two countries had been dormant for some time until a trade delegation from Egypt visited Malaysia in 2019 for the first time in 15 years, as the two countries strive to revitalize bilateral relations. [Borneo Post

Amidst the EU ban on palm oil [see AIR No. 22, June/2021, 1] and given that Egypt is one of the largest importers of Malaysian palm oil in Africa, Muhyiddin encouraged Egypt to increase its imports of Malaysian palm oil in the future during their discussion. Muhyiddin praised the constructive role of Egypt in brokering the ceasefire agreement between Palestine and Israel, and raised the prospect of Malaysia-Egypt cooperation in distributing humanitarian aid to Palestine. [Bernama 1]

Meanwhile, from June 18-21, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein led a Malaysian delegation to the two-day inaugural Antalya Diplomacy Forum in Turkey, before subsequently proceeding with his first working visit to Egypt, Malaysia’s largest trading partner in North Africa, where Hishammuddin paid a courtesy call to the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and held a bilateral meeting with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Hassan Shoukry, to reinvigorate relations between Malaysia and Egypt. [Bernama 2] During the foreign ministers’ meeting, Hishammuddin requested Egypt to consider the possibility of vaccinating Malaysians in Egypt, noting that Malaysia would reciprocate this initiative by extending it to Egyptians in Malaysia. [Bernama 3]

At the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in Turkey, Hishammuddin highlighted and discussed four main issues strongly related to regional cooperation in Asia, namely the ongoing Myanmar crisis, the South China Sea issue, the Palestinian struggle and Regional Economic Integration. [Malay Mail] The Antalya Diplomacy Forum explored the horizons of diplomacy across a range of key regional and global issues, and was attended by leaders, policy-makers, diplomats, and academics from over 43 countries.[Bernama 1


15 June 2021

Malaysia: Maritime agency confirms Chinese vessel encroached on Malaysian waters 

(tcy) Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) confirmed that a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel had been detected encroaching Malaysian waters off the coast of Miri on June 4 at Beting Patinggi Ali, also known as Luconia Shoals, which is one of the largest and least-known reef complexes in the South China Sea. [Malay Mail

The incident comes shortly after an airspace incursion where 16 aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force (PLAAF) were detected flying into the Malaysian Maritime Zone (MMZ) airspace and close to Malaysia’s national airspace on May 31. [Bernama 1

Analysts have noted that Malaysia’s response to this incident and to the recent airspace incursion has been uncharacteristically outspoken, pointing to Malaysia’s growing dissatisfaction, given that Malaysia normally refrains from protesting in public view when Chinese ships pass into its waters due to the deep economic relationship it has with China, who is also much stronger militarily. Experts say that the increased frequency of such incursions is likely to be China’s signal of unhappiness towards Malaysia for joining the United States, China’s rival superpower, for military air exercises in the South China Sea in April. [Voice Of Asia]

15 June 2021

Indonesia receives deported citizens from Malaysia and Rohingya refugees 

(sa) Indonesia is preparing to receive around 7200 illegal migrants from Malaysia [Reuters 1]. The development comes as Malaysia grapples with a recent spike in Covid-19 cases that saw the country enter lockdown on June 1 [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]. 

The 7200 people are expected to be mostly of vulnerable status as Indonesia’s Coordinating Ministry for Human Development Femmy Eka Kartika Putri clarified that in their communications with Malaysia, that Indonesia desired groups such as women and children, who are usually held in detention centres, to be repatriated first. [Reuters 1]

Besides the repatriation of its own citizens, Indonesia also received 81 Rohingya refugees who set off from Bangladesh’s shores as the refugees landed on Idaman Island in Aceh. The refugees have been at sea for 110 days and initially started with 90 refugees on February 11 when it set sail. Indian Coast Guards had found 8 people dead when it tracked the vessel in February. [Reuters 2]

The fate of the refugees in Indonesia are unknown as Wahyu Sisilo, founder of the Migrant Care, an Indonesian non-governmental group, remarked that Indonesian authorities are ill-prepared to receive the planned influx of 7,200 to-be-repatriated Indonesian citizens. According to him, “there are no specific mitigation efforts post-deportation”.  [Reuters 1]

15 June 2021

Myanmar junta defends response to crisis amid ASEAN criticism

(lm) Myanmar’s foreign minister has defended the junta’s plan for restoring democracy, after a meeting at which his Southeast Asian counterparts pressed the military to implement a five-point “consensus” concluded at the ASEAN Summit held back in April. [The Straits Times]

At the China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting on June 6, the bloc’s top diplomats expressed disappointment at the “very slow” progress made by Myanmar on its five-point roadmap for ending the turmoil that has continued since the army staged a coup an ousted elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

But on June 8, in the only reference to the ASEAN proposal, state media in Myanmar cited Foreign Minister Maung Lwin as telling his ASEAN counterparts that the junta had made progress on its own five-step roadmap for the country, which was unveiled by the governing body of the regime, the State Administration Council, after the coup. [see The Global New Light of Myanmar]

What is more, in the only reference to the ASEAN proposal, Lwin was cited as saying “discussions were made cordially” on it during recent discussion between two high-ranking ASEAN officials and the Myanmar military leadership.

15 June 2021

Malaysia: No new amnesty program for undocumented migrants

(tcy) Defying criticism of the government’s recent harsh clampdown on migrants under the COVID-19 lockdown [see AIR No. 23, June/2021, 2], Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin signaled to continue a hardline policy clarifying that Malaysia will not have another amnesty program for undocumented migrants as the foreign worker recalibration from November 2020 was ongoing.  

In November 2020, the government launched the Illegal Immigration Recalibration Plan under which illegal immigrants were allowed to return to their country of origin voluntarily, and eligible employers could hire illegal immigrants as foreign workers. The scheme will terminate on June 30.

Hamzah added the government has introduced a repatriation program for those willing to return to their home countries voluntarily and that immigration enforcement to detect undocumented migrants would continue. [Malay Mail

Under this program, Malaysia has recently announced that it will be deporting 7200 undocumented workers to Indonesia. [Reuters 1

Besides criticism over cracking down on migrant workers, Malaysia has also received criticism for its treatment of Rohingya refugees. Amnesty International Malaysia blamed the Malaysian government after the Immigration Department shared a post on Facebook advocating anti-Rohingya sentiments and stating that Rohingya refugees are ‘unwelcomed’ in the country. [Malay Mail 1] Government officials recently mentioned that it was unable to deport the Rohingya refugees currently detained here as no other country including Myanmar was willing to accept them. [Malay Mail 2]

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Industrial Court also ruled in favor of migrant workers in a labor dispute against American tire manufacturer Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co (GT.O) following allegations of unpaid wages and employee mistreatment at the firm’s Malaysian factory. [Reuters 2]


15 June 2021

Malaysia: Country to focus on fighting COVID-19 before holding general elections

(tcy) UMNO elections director Datuk Seri Tajuddin Abdul Rahman has urged parties not to pressure the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government to hold the 15th general elections anytime soon as the country struggles to combat the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country. This comes after the Sarawak state election and three by-elections were postponed under provisions of the Emergency (Extended Powers) Ordinance 2021. [Bernama 1

Last November, the Sabah state elections held in September caused a spike in COVID-19 cases throughout Malaysia, after mass movements of thousands of political campaigners and free-mingling between politicians and voters throughout the two-week campaign. [The Straits Times

15 June 2021

Malaysia: King meets political leaders to discuss COVID-19 pandemic and Emergency

(tcy) Amid public discontent over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and calls for Parliament to reconvene [see AIR No. 23, June/2021, 2], Malaysia’s king has completed a series of meetings from June 9-11 with political party leaders across the political divide to discuss the COVID-19 and Emergency situation. These include opposition leader and president of the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, PKR) Anwar Ibrahim, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Democratic Action Party secretary general Lim Guan Eng, and UMNO chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, amongst others. 

The King met with Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin on June 9, which the palace later clarified had been for their regular pre-Cabinet briefing. [The Straits Times]

During their audiences with the King, both UMNO and PKR chiefs urged the King to end the ongoing state of emergency and for Parliament to reconvene, amid speculations that the Emergency, which is due to end on August 1, may be extended. [Malay Mail 1] [The Straits Times 2] Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad also suggested the formation of a National Operations Council (Mageran) to steer the country towards overcoming the health, economic, and social issues it currently faces. A National Operations Council is a special body of politicians and experts trained to handle crises, and such a body was last formed during the 1969 Emergency due to racial riots. [Malay Mail 2] However, the prime minister’s aide has spoken out against this suggestion, saying that the formation of a National Operations Council would impede the government’s plans and efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis. [Bernama 1

Some have commented that the King’s unilateral decision to summon the political leaders without seeking the advice of the prime minister or Cabinet is a signal that Muhyiddin’s term in power is coming to an end. [Malay Mail3]

In a latest development, the King received on Monday four top leaders from the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), ruling coalition in the Borneo and supporter of Perikatan Nasional, the state government coalition. A statement released after the audience reassured that the “presence of a strong and stable government to ensure COVID-19 programme and (economic) implementation are well-grounded.” [Channel News Asia]

A Special Meeting of Malay Rulers will be held this week to discuss efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. [Bernama 2


15 June 2021

Malaysia: Penang South Islands project to proceed despite objections

(tcy) The Penang state government announced that it will proceed with the Penang South Islands (PSI) project, citing its socio-economic benefits such as job creation and economic growth through domestic and international investments as well as promising to implement measures to mitigate the project’s on the affected people and the environment including a socioeconomic plan for fishermen and green initiatives for the PSI development. [Bernama]

The Penang South Islands project, also known as the three-island reclamation project, is a proposed land reclamation project to the south of Penang Island, and is meant to host a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial buildings and activities. The project has caused significant controversy, with doubts surrounding its environmental soundness and socio-economic impact. Aside from an appeal by the fishermen whose livelihoods will be disrupted, there have also been many other calls, including those by ministers, for the government to cancel the project. [see AIR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

15 June 2021

Malaysia: Goldman Sachs to return outstanding US$1.26 billion payment in 1MDB scandal

(tcy) As its subsidiary Goldman Sachs Malaysia (GS Malaysia) was due to be sentenced by a US District Court last week, Goldman Sachs Group Inc has been given 10 days to return the Malaysian government the remaining US$1.26 billion of a US$2.5 billion penalty. GS Malaysia had earlier pleaded guilty to violating anti-bribery provisions of the US the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. [Malay Mail 1]

Investigators in the US and Malaysia has estimated that at least US$4.5 billion was stolen from the 1MDB between 2009 and 2014, in a wide-ranging scandal that has implicated high-level officials, banks and financial institutions around the world. [see No. 19, May/2021, 2]

1MDB, a now-insolvent state-owned strategic development company founded in 2009 to promote the country’s economic development, and its three subsidiaries have also filed a suit against the stepson of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, Riza Shahriz Abdul Aziz, suspected of misappropriating US$250 million to finance movie productions and purchase real estate. [Malay Mail 2]

In July last year, Najib was found guilty of money laundering, abuse of power and criminal breach of trust connected to the 1MDB scandal. [see AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4]

8 June 2021

ASEAN envoys urge Myanmar junta to free prisoners, follow agreement

(pr/lm) Diplomatic efforts to engage with Myanmar’s junta intensified over the past week, as officials from the Association of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) completed a visit to Myanmar on June 5 after two days of discussions with military leaders about implementing a regional “consensus”.[South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times 1]

ASEAN’s Rotating Chair, Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs Erywan Pehin Yusof, and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi arrived in Myanmar on June 3 for talks with junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. 

Their visit was preceded by a visit to Myanmar by the head of the International Red Cross, who met with Aung Hlaing on June 3 to share concerns on “the use of force during security operations” and to make the case for better humanitarian access to conflict areas and for the resumption of Red Cross prison visits. [Reuters]

On June 5, then, China’s ambassador met with the Myanmar general in Naypyitaw, a day before the special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting to commemorate 30 years of relations between Beijing and the regional bloc. [The Irrawaddy] [see article in this edition]

The trip of the two ASEAN representatives came more than five weeks after the blocs’ leaders had concluded a “five-point consensus” in April to end violence; promote dialogue; deliver aid; appoint a special envoy; and send a delegation headed by the envoy to Myanmar to meet “with all parties concerned” [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4].

But the Min Aung Hlaing said later that Myanmar was not ready to adopt the plan. Further, the special envoy has yet to be appointed amid divisions within ASEAN over the best person or people for the job, the envoy’s mandate and the length of the envoy’s term.

Against this backdrop, one day before the officials embarked on their trip, Indonesia on June 2 called on the bloc to immediately name an envoy. But Jakarta, which initially favored a single envoy to lead a task force, is at loggerheads with Thailand, whose military is said to have close ties to neighboring Myanmar [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3] and has pushed for a “friends of the chair” body of multiple representatives. [The Straits Times 2]

In the latest indication of Bangkok’s approach towards Myanmar, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said that it believed “that quiet and discreet diplomacy between neighbors would be more effective and in line with traditional Thai diplomacy”. [The Straits Times 3]

The compromise supported by most ASEAN states is for three envoys, likely made up of representatives from Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei. A “concept paper” released by Brunei to the bloc’s members last month proposed the envoys only hold the position for the rest of the year, when it would be reviewed by the next chair of ASEAN, due to be Cambodia.

ASEAN’s divisions also underpinned its rejection of a draft UN resolution to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar last week. Several ASEAN nations were comfortable with a weapons freeze being included in the non-binding resolution, they said, but resistance led by Thailand and Singapore ensured ASEAN requested the clause be removed. [AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]

8 June 2021

China hosts ASEAN foreign ministers 

(dql) As part of the 30th anniversary of the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, China hosted this week a special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Chongqing.

High on the agenda was the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, with Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia expressing disappointment over Myanmar failure to keep the “five-point consensus” agreed by ASEAN leaders at a special summit in April with de-facto leader Min Aung Hlaing.

Other issues discussed during the meeting included the reopening of borders, even as several South-east Asian nations deal with a surge in Covid-19 infections, and the tensions in the South China Sea. [Straits Times]

With reference to the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged to “reach the COC at an early date,” and reassured that China stands ready “to work with directly concerned parties of the South China Sea to increase dialogue and consultation, properly manage differences, and continuously enhance mutual trust.” According to the readout of the meeting released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Foreign ministers of ASEAN countries attributed peace in the region to “important and fruitful relations,” between China and ASEAN, and suggested to “maintain the momentum of COC consultations, and jointly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.” [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China]


8 June 2021

Malaysia: Sarawak state election postponed

(tcy) The Election Commission (EC) has confirmed that the Sarawak State Election originally scheduled to be held this year has been postponed in view of the state of Emergency declared since January 11 and effective until August 1. [Bernama 1] [Malay Mail] However, the Sarawak State Legislative Assembly, whose term was scheduled to end on June 6, will continue to function until Aug 1 under the protection of the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 2021. [Bernama 2]


8 June 2021

Malaysia looking into hybrid session amidst growing calls for Parliament to reconvene

(tcy) A Special Committee has been appointed to research on how the government might implement hybrid parliament sittings by drawing upon the experiences of legislative bodies in other countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia. [Bernama] [Malay Mail] The announcement comes amidst growing dissatisfaction over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic [Malay Mail 1] [Malay Mail 2] and urgent calls for Parliament to reconvene to address COVID-19 related issues. [see AIR No. 22, June/2021, 1].

Parliament has not convened since December last year, after the King declared a nationwide state of Emergency on the advice of Muhyiddin, suspending Parliament at least until the Emergency ends on August 1. [see also AIR No. 21, May/2021, 4]

However, some politicians have spoken out against reconvening Parliament. Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin said that the reopening of Parliament physically would be a cluster risk, and the reconvening of Parliament through online sittings would also come with its own set of “problems”, although lawyers and MPs have argued that it is simply a matter of political will. [Malay Mail 3] Dewan Rakyat (People’s Assembly, the lower house of the Parliament) Speaker Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun has also justified the suspension of Parliament as constitutional and legitimate. [The Star] This has drawn criticism from opposition politician DAP Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng and UMNO president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi who denounced the Speaker for failing to uphold the institution of Parliament and the democratic process. [Malay Mail 4] [Malay Mail 5]

Amidst the escalating COVID-19 situation and growing calls for an end to the state of Emergency, senior political and royal household sources have also confirmed that the heads of Malaysia’s nine royal households are scheduled to hold an emergency meeting with political party leaders on June 16 to discuss the pandemic. [Malay Mail 6] [The Straits Times]


8 June 2021

Malaysia: Human rights groups confront government over police custodial deaths, clampdown on migrants

(tcy) After the recent death of two inmates while in police custody, human rights advocacy groups such have called for inquests by the Coroner’s Court to verify the cause of death. They also urged the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia to examine possible human rights infringements in such cases after investigations were complete, and to provide recommendations to improve the situation in detention centers. According to authorities, the inmates’ deaths were a result of health issues which have been confirmed by the hospital. [Malay Mail]

NGOs have also questioned the government’s crackdown on illegal immigrants during the latest movement control order (MCO), accusing the government of going against the principle of medical ethics to forcibly vaccinate people. Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin previously said that the government had rounded up migrants to vaccinate them against COVID-19 because they would otherwise refuse to do so. [Malay Mail 1] The NGOs argued that the problem of vaccine hesitancy must be combated by providing accurate and scientific information that can be easily understood and widely accessible. [Malay Mail 2]


8 June 2021

Malaysia: Teacher becomes first to be charged under Emergency Ordinance on fake news

(tcy) Since the anti-fake news Emergency Ordinance came into effect in March, a tuition teacher has become the first to be charged for posting fake news, which the Ordinance defines as news or information that “is wholly or partly false relating to COVID-19 or the proclamation of emergency.” The teacher is accused of claiming on Facebook that a traffic policeman died after receiving his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. If found guilty, he will face a jail term of up to three years and/or a fine of up to RM100,000. [Malay Mail]

This comes as the government adopts a harsher stance towards COVID-19 anti-vaxxers amidst widespread vaccine hesitancy. [Bernama 1]  In almost every state, the country faces the problem of thousands of individuals not showing up for their vaccination appointments. [Bernama 2] [Bernama 3]

8 June 2021

Malaysia: Penang groups oppose government’s reclamation project, says rule of law ignored

(tcy) Despite ongoing legal action by fishermen against a controversial three-island reclamation project, which is expected to cause adverse impacts to the supply of seafood and livelihoods of fishermen, the Penang state government has decided to proceed with the project without awaiting the outcome of the fishermen’s appeal, drawing criticism from two NGOs that accused the government of ignoring the rule of law. [Malay Mail] [Malay Mail 1]

The three-island reclamation project, also known as the Penang South Islands, is a proposed land reclamation project to the south of Penang Island, and is meant to host a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial buildings and activities. The project has caused significant controversy, with doubts surrounding its environmental soundness and socio-economic impact. Aside from the appeal by the fishermen, there have also been many other calls, including those by ministers, for the government to cancel the project. [Malay Mail 2] [Malay Mail 3]


8 June 2021

Malaysia: Mahathir questions government on Pejuang’s registration as political party

(tcy) In a virtual press conference, former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad urged the Registrar of Societies (RoS), the country’s agency concerned with the registration of non-governmental organizations and political parties, and the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government to explain why Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang) has yet to be officially registered as a political party. Pejuang was formed by Dr Mahathir last year following the fall of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government and his removal from Parti Bersatu Sabah (Bersatu), which is now led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. [Malay Mail 1]

Dr Mahathir reiterated that Pejuang is not aligned with either the ruling Perikatan Nasional government or the Opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, but instead hopes to remain a third force in Malaysia’s political arena. He also said that the party has expressed in a letter to the King its concerns over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the extended suspension of Parliament [see AIR No. 22, June/2021, 1] [Malay Mail 2]

In response, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the second largest party in the Pakatan Harapan coalition, and its youth wing Angkatan Muda Keadilan (AMK) have spoken out against collaborating with Dr Mahathir and Pejuang, as delegates claimed that he had caused the downfall of the Pakatan Harapan government last year and had betrayed the agreement of handing over power to the now PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. [Bernama 1] [Bernama 2

For an account of the current political landscape and power struggle ahead of the elections, see Chin Huat Wong in [East Asia Forum] as he outlines the various political parties and coalitions across Malaysia’s political spectrum and argues that the next government will require an alliance between rival party coalitions as well as support from East-Malaysian parties. 

8 June 2021

Singapore reaffirms cooperation with Indonesia and Malaysia

(tcy) In a phone call on June 3, defence ministers of Singapore and Indonesia reaffirmed the close and longstanding bilateral defence relationship between the two countries, exchanging views on regional security challenges and ways to strengthen cooperation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic on areas such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as maritime security. [The Straits Times]

Two days earlier, Singapore’s defence minister also touched bases with his Malaysian counterpart, and both leaders expressed their commitments for the Singapore and Malaysian Armed Forces to continue working closely in spite of the challenges brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic. [Bernama]

1 June 2021

ASEAN member states want to drop proposed UN call for Myanmar arms embargo

(lf) All ASEAN member states, excluding Myanmar, have proposed watering down a UN General Assembly draft resolution on Myanmar, including removing a call for an arms embargo on the country, in a bid to win the unanimous support, “especially from all countries directly affected in the region”. Observers believe that ASEAN member states are afraid sanctions would restrict the influence the bloc could have on Myanmar’s military leadership. [The Straits Times]

The resolution was drafted at the request of Liechtenstein, with the support of 48 countries, including the United Kingdom, European Union and United States. A previous vote on the non-binding resolution scheduled for May 18 was postponed indefinitely, because of a lack of support from Asian countries in the region [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3].

While many western nations have put targeted sanctions on junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and a combined 38 senior figures and also black-listed military conglomerates, ASEAN nations have so far largely avoided measures that would hit the junta’s finances. 

The Myanmar junta in late April rebuffed a plan by ASEAN leaders to help end violence in the country, saying any “suggestions” would need to fit with its stated road map and come after “stability” is restored. Leaders of the nine countries, together with coup chief Min Aung Hlaing, had earlier appeared to reach a five-point “consensus” during a special summit that included an immediate cessation of violence and the appointment of a special emissary to mediate talks between all parties in Myanmar [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4].

1 June 2021

Malaysia: Total lockdown to be imposed amidst simmering anger over government’s pandemic management

(tcy) Despite a state of emergency imposed in January, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s government has been struggling to rein in the wave of infections as daily infections and deaths hit a record high in the past week, straining the healthcare system and triggering public criticism. Authorities have been blamed for not imposing tougher curbs and taking stronger action against lockdown violations. The vaccination campaign that was launched in February has also sparked accusations that some recipients received lower doses than needed. Twitter users have taken to using the hashtags #KerajaanGagal (“Failed Government”) and #KerajaanBodoh (“Stupid Government”) to voice their anger. [Malay Mail 1]

To decisively combat the spread of COVID-19, the Prime Minister’s Office has announced that a total lockdown will be imposed on all sectors nationwide for 14 days beginning June 1, a step up from the current movement control order (MCO 3.0) that bars social activities while almost all economic sectors are allowed to operate. [Bernama 1]

Previously, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin defended the government’s decision of not implementing a full-scale lockdown as the first movement control order (MCO 1.0) implemented on March 18 last year almost led to a total economic collapse. [Malay Mail 1] However, the soaring case numbers have led to the Johor Sultan and industry leaders such as the Malaysian Inbound Tourism Association making repeated calls for a total lockdown to stem the surge. [Malay Mail 2] [TTG Asia]

Amidst the escalating situation, there have also been repeated calls for the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government to reconvene Parliament and address the COVID-19 situation. Dewan Rakyat (People’s Assembly, the lower house of the Parliament) Deputy Speaker Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said made calls for the government to reinstate democratic processes so as to re-establish public confidence, citing the vaccination hesitancy in many states as an indicator of public mistrust. [Malay Mail 2] The Johor Pakatan Harapan coalition similarly urged the government to end the Emergency and allow both Parliament and the state legislative assemblies to convene. [Malay Mail 3] UMNO has even offered to withdraw support for the PN government, which would cost the ruling coalition its majority in Parliament, so as to enable the King to take control and end the Emergency against Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s advice. [Malay Mail 4]

Parliament has not been convened since December last year, after the King declared a nationwide state of Emergency on the advice of Muhyiddin, suspending Parliament at least until the Emergency ends on August 1. [see also AIR No. 21, May/2021, 4]

1 June 2021

Malaysia: Head of public transport operator sacked after response to major train crash

(tcy) Prasarana Malaysia Berhad, Malaysia’s public transport operator, has fired its chairman Datuk Seri Tajuddin Abdul Raman amid outcry over his response to a train accident on 24 May that injured more than 200 people. [Bernama 1].

The public has slammed Tajuddin for his unprofessional conduct during the press conference, where he breached standard operating procedures by failing to wear a mask, appeared to joke about the collision, and also mocked and berated a foreign reporter. The Malaysian Public Transport Users Association (4PAM) also criticized Tajuddin for his apparent disregard towards the issue after he failed to promptly visit the accident site, and called his conduct at the press conference “nothing short of rude and disgusting”. [Malay Mail 2] Prior to official news of his termination, a petition calling for Tajuddin’s resignation garnered 100,000 signatures in less than 24 hours. [Malay Mail 3]

It was also announced that the former Prasarana chairman was detained by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) on two charges of abuse of power, though details of the charges are not immediately disclosed. [Malay Mail 4]


1 June 2021

Malaysia: Two Malaysian glove makers under US probe over forced labour allegations

(tcy) Following petitions by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to investigate the firms, the US is investigating Malaysian glove makers Hartalega Holdings and a unit of Supermax Corp over allegations of forced labour. Both Hartalega and Supermax have responded that they adhered to labour laws in their recruitment and treatment of migrant workers. [Reuters 1] [Reuters 2]

Recently, Malaysian firms have increasingly come under regulatory scrutiny over their treatment of foreign workers, who make up a sizable portion of the country’s manufacturing workforce. Previously this month, the CBP also seized glove shipments from Malaysian firm Top Glove over similar allegations. [see AIR No. 20, May/2021, 3

1 June 2021

Malaysia: Singapore refutes Malaysian news outlets’ claims of Israeli security threat, says Israeli plane was doing ‘commercial product demo’

(tcy) In response to online articles by Malaysian news outlet MalaysiaNow, Singapore’s defence technology firm ST Engineering has clarified that the Israeli aircraft that circled over Singapore’s airspace had been performing a “commercial product demonstration” and that the demonstration was done solely within Singapore’s airspace and territorial waters. [TODAY] Malaysia’s Ministry of Transport has since also confirmed that there were no abnormal flight patterns or loitering carried out within Malaysian airspace by the aircraft. [Bernama]

MalaysiaNow had previously alleged that the aircraft, which belongs to a subsidiary of the state-owned civil and military aviation manufacturer Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), was meant for intelligence purposes, describing the flight as a move that “could trigger tension between the city-state and neighbouring Muslim countries amid renewed anti-Israel sentiments worldwide”. [MalaysiaNow] The incident came amidst a period of heightened sensitivity in Malaysia, after a video clip that claimed Malaysia was among the nations that would receive security threats from Israel for being one of the leaders of the Palestinian struggle worldwide went viral on social media. [see AIR No. 20, May/2021, 3]

1 June 2021

Malaysia, UN Sec-Gen discuss situation in Myanmar and Palestine

(tcy) In a telephone call on May 27, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin discussed cooperation between UN and ASEAN in searching for a resolution to the political crisis in Myanmar, focusing in particular on the Five-Point Consensus reached during the ASEAN Leaders’ Conference. [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4] Muhyiddin also mentioned that the appointment of a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair is being finalised in the effort to seek a peaceful solution in the interest of the people of Myanmar.

Both leaders also discussed the issue of Palestine and regretted the violence inflicted by Israelite army on the Palestinians, hoping that a solution to ensure lasting peace for both sides would be found to end the conflict. Muhyiddin also stressed the consistent stand of Malaysia in the establishment of a free and independent Palestinian nation from the occupation of Israel through the two-state resolution based on the pre-1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. [Bernama]

Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry has also joined other members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in stating that they want the Human Rights Council (HRC) to establish a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to ensure accountability and humanitarian support for the Palestinians. [Malay Mail]


1 June 2021

Malaysia: Eight Abu Sayyaf group members handed over to the Philippine authorities

(tcy) On May 28, Malaysian security forces handed the eight members of the Abu Sayyaf group previously detained in Beaufort on May 8 over to the Philippine security forces. The detainees include a ‘sub-leader’ in the Abu Sayyaf group wanted by the Philippine security forces. The Sabah police commissioner said that security and intelligence control would be stepped up to track down the remaining members of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the state. [Bernama]

1 June 2021

Malaysia to escalate trade dispute with EU to WTO over ban on palm oil

(tcy) Malaysia has requested for the establishment of a World Trade Organisation (WTO) panel to adjudicate on a trade dispute with the European Union and two member states. As the world’s top two palm oil producers, both Malaysia and Indonesia are separately contesting the EU’s implementation of a renewable energy directive that restricts the use of palm-oil based biofuels. [Malay Mail 1]

The Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries’ (CPOPC), of which Malaysia is a founding member, has criticized EU measures for conferring “unfair benefits” on other producers of biofuels, such as rapeseed, canola, and sunflower oil, and for violating the free trade principles outlined by the WTO. [Malay Mail 2] [CPOPC]

1 June 2021

Malaysia, Russia discuss measures to strengthen relations in industry and trade

(tcy) In the inaugural meeting of the Working Group on Cooperation in Industry and Trade under the framework of the Joint Malaysia-Russia Commission for Economic, Scientific, Technical and Cultural Cooperation, the two countries discussed the way forward in strengthening bilateral economic relations. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (Miti) said that 8 areas of cooperation were identified, namely aerospace, pharmaceutical and medical equipment, shipbuilding, innovation and IT technologies, oil and gas, chemical and power engineering equipment, commodities, halal, and food safety. Russian companies were also urged to leverage on Malaysia’s strategic location in the heart of South-East Asia and the newly reformed investment agenda, the National Investment Aspirations for the promising ventures in Malaysia.

In addition to being amongst Malaysia’s top 30 trading partner globally, Russia is also Malaysia’s largest trading partner, exports destination and source of imports among the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a regional interngovernmental organization that was formed following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. [Malay Mail]

25 May 2021

Prime Ministers of Singapore and Malaysia call for international cooperation amidst COVID-19 pandemic

(tcy) Speaking at the US Chamber of Commerce’s inaugural Global Forum on Economic Recovery, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasized the importance of international cooperation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted that a small and open country such as Singapore cannot afford to turn towards autarky and seal its borders off, stressing the need for global cooperation to mitigate supply chain disruptions as it would be “very harmful” for every country to make everything onshore. PM Lee also expressed his happiness towards US’ re-engagement with the World Trade Organisation (WTO), urging the US to work multilaterally with more partners to establish trust and rules that apply to everyone. [The Straits Times]

Malaysian Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin echoed these sentiments during his speech at the Nikkei’s Future of Asia conference, urging Asia to shift away from a purely nationalistic approach to health services and move towards investing in health as a global public good. He attributed the failure of global leadership to address the COVID-19 pandemic to human biases such as tribalism, dysfunctional competition, and short-term thinking. Muhyiddin also mentioned that success was contingent on whether Asian regional institutions can strengthen themselves with more robust conflict management mechanisms and move towards a flexible view of state sovereignty. [Bernama]


25 May 2021

Malaysia: Two Vietnamese fishing boats seized for entering Malaysian waters

(tcy) The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) of Kelantan has seized two Vietnamese fishing boats for encroaching and fishing in the national territorial waters. Kelantan MMEA director, Maritime Captain Muhd Nur Syam Asmawie Yaacob said that the two boats did not have permits to catch fish under the Fisheries Act 1985, and that all the fishermen had also violated the Immigration Act 1959/63 as they did not possess valid identification documents. The offence is punishable by fine of up to RM6 million against the skipper and RM600,000 on every crew if found guilty [Malay Mail]

25 May 2021

Malaysia and China to strengthen cooperation in multiple areas

(tcy) After a video conference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin affirmed the close bilateral ties between Malaysia and China and announced that the two countries are exploring new areas of common interest to strengthen bilateral collaboration, after seeing the need for closer and more proactive cooperation to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and drive the recovery process. [Bernama 1]

Following this, the Malaysian government announced that it would be acquiring a total of 8.2 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine by the end of June. [Bernama 2] The Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce (MCCC) also recommended the setting up of a joint special committee with the People’s Republic of China to strengthen the interaction and exchanges between official agencies and pandemic experts in both countries. [Malay Mail] In addition, the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) also signed two memorandums of understanding with China’s International Medical Exchange and Cooperation Committee (IMECC) and Hangzhou Rende Maternity Hospital respectively with the aim of collaboratively improving patient experience for healthcare travelers from China. [Bernama 3]

Apart from healthcare, other areas of bilateral cooperation discussed include collaboration in the fields of electronic commerce, high technology and digital economy, agriculture and agrofood, as well as the development of food security and poverty eradication programs. The two leaders also touched on international issues involving the situation in Palestine and Myanmar, with both agreeing on the need for international pressure to settle the conflicts.


25 May 2021

Malaysia urges world to focus on aid and reconstruction for Palestine after ceasefire

(tcy) Responding to the Israel-Hamas ceasefire brokered by Egypt on May 21, Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein has urged the world to focus on humanitarian and reconstruction aid for the Palestinian people. [Bernama 1]

The Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement also responded to the ceasefire agreement, with President Muhammad Faisal Abdul Aziz pressing the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to set up a special peacekeeping mission in Palestine and come up with a comprehensive long-term plan in order to uphold the rights of the Palestinian people. [Bernama 2]

Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, meanwhile, said that Muslim nations should use their strengths and realise their weaknesses in formulating strategies against the Israeli occupation in Palestine, urging Muslim countries to utilise their control of raw materials such as oil to put pressure on Israel. [Bernama 3

25 May 2021

Malaysia: Opposition urges Parliament to reconvene as COVID-19 cases on the rise

(tcy) Democratic Action Party secretary-general Lim Guan Eng has called for the Perikatan Nasional government to reconvene Parliament to address the escalating COVID-19 situation, citing the record number of 6806 COVID-19 new cases and 59 deaths announced on May 20 as clear proof of the government’s failure to handle the pandemic. Lim has demanded for the PN government to explain why the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic fallout has taken a turn for the worse despite having had billions of ringgit in funds injected to help the situation.

Parliament has not been convened since December last year, after the King declared a nationwide state of Emergency which has suspended Parliament at least until the Emergency ends on August 1. However, Muhyiddin’s political opponents have accused the prime minister of using the Emergency to cling onto power as he fears not having the majority support among MPs required to maintain his position. Striving to “placate the chronic political insecurity of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin”, Lim also promised that DAP MPs would not support any no-confidence motion against Muhyiddin and would only discuss COVID-19 prevention measures. [Malay Mail]


25 May 2021

Malaysia: 29 out of 115 initiatives of National Anti-Corruption Plan completed

(tcy) The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) announced the completion of 29 of the 115 initiatives of the National Anti-Corruption Plan (NACP) 2019-2023 as of December 31 last year. The remaining 86 initiatives are still in progress. Among the completed NACP initiatives are the introduction of asset declarations for administrator members and improvements to the policy on gifts, allowances and payments to administrative members.

The wide-ranging NACP was launched in January 2019 by the Pakatan Harapan government that was then in power. The move came in response to the massive 1MDB graft scandal and other corruption cases. [Bernama] [The Straits Times]

25 May 2021

Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal: Government fails to forfeit RM 114 million

(tcy) The government failed in its application to forfeit RM 114 million, allegedly belonging to UMNO and former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, as it was not able to prove to the court that the money, seized by the authorities for allegedly being linked to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, was proceeds from money laundering. 

However, no order has yet been made for the money, which is currently with Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM), to be returned to UMNO and Najib, who are third party claimants. Najib’s lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah said that he will be sending a legal letter to deputy public prosecutor for the money to be returned to their rightful owners. [Bernama] [Malay Mail]

In Najib’s ongoing 1MDB trial, his lawyers have sought to put responsibility on the now fugitive Low Taek Jho, otherwise known as Jho Low, as part of Najib’s defence against the power abuse and money laundering charges. Describing Jho Low as an “octopus” with “tentacles” in many countries, Najib’s lawyers asserted that “the real thief” who siphoned off hundreds of millions of US dollars from 1MDB funds was Jho Low. [Malay Mail]

18 May 2021

Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei condemn Israeli Attacks on Palestine

(ra) Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Malaysian Prime Minister Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah issued a statement urging all parties in the current Israel and Palestine conflict to accept international presence in the region temporarily and called upon the United Nations to conduct and emergency session to protect Palestinians. [Australian Financial Review

In their statement, the leaders reaffirmed their support for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 border agreements between Palestine and Israel. They have also urged all parties in the current escalation of violence to exercise restraint and halt all attacks on civilians. [The Star]


18 May 2021

Malaysia strengthens security measures, nation bands together to stand with Palestine

(tcy) Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin said that all national security agencies have stepped up various aspects of security measures to maintain the public order of Malaysians, after a video clip claiming that Malaysia was among the nations that would receive security threats from Israel for being one of the leaders of the Palestinian struggle worldwide went viral on social media. [Bernama 1]

Local organizations have also banded together in support of the Palestinians during this period of intensified conflict, with the Melaka Islamic Religious Department (JAIM) instructing all mosques in the state to recite the ‘Qunut Nazilah’ to pray for the well-being and security of the Palestinian people, and the Perikatan Nasional (PN) Youth urging for Israel to be charged at the International Criminal Court for its violent attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Gaza Strip. Mercy Malaysia, a non-profit organization that has been providing medical and humanitarian assistance to Palestine since 2008, has also called on NGOs to integrate humanitarian aid for Palestinians and coordinate their assistance through funds set up by the government. [Bernama 2] [Bernama 3] [Bernama 4

18 May 2021

Malaysian officials and Muslim groups decry Israeli attacks on Palestinians

(tcy) As the Israel-Palestinian conflict continues to rage, Malaysian officials and Muslim groups condemn Isreal’s attacks.

Senior Defence Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaacob has called on the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Arab League, the United Nations (UN) and Muslims all over the world to take decisive action to stop the attacks committed by the Israeli regime in Palestine. [Voice of America]

He also confirmed that Malaysia is ready to send its troops for a peacekeeping mission in Palestine if there is a request from the United Nations, although he noted that the decision to dispatch army personnel to Palestine involves international laws and Malaysia cannot act before the matter is decided by the UN. [Bernama 1]

Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, meanwhile, expressed disappointment over the inability of the UN Security Council to immediately halt Israeli violence against the Palestinians. This was reiterated on May 17 by Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tan Hussein, as the UNSC failed to produce a statement on the current situation in Palestine after its third session this week, amidst a rising death toll and escalating tensions on Gaza Strip. [Bernama 2]

The Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) Malaysia, the Malaysian arm of a Palestinian-led movement that promotes boycotts against Israel, has also told Malaysian media to remain vigilant and avoid “falling prey to Zionist propaganda.” [Bernama 3]

Malaysia and Palestine enjoy strong bilateral relations, with Malaysia demonstrating strong support for the rights and freedoms of the Palestinians amidst the ongoing violent struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. Malaysia currently refuses to recognize the State of Israel until a peace agreement is reached.

18 May 2021

US-Malaysia relations: Top Glove shipment seized, $460 million 1MDB funds recovered 

(tcy) The U.S Customs and Border Protection said its officials seized 4.68 million latex gloves worth $690,000 produced by Malaysian rubber glove manufacturer Top Glove after a shipment was found in Kansas City despite an import ban on its products over forced-labor allegations. This comes after U.S. Customs seized a Top Glove shipment of 3.97 million gloves worth $518,000 last week. 

In response, the company said it has informed the U.S. agency that it has remediated all forced labor indicators found at the firm. [Reuters 1]

In regard to the 1MDB scandal, the U.S. Department of Justice has returned $460 million of funds recovered from assets related to sovereign fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), after at least $4.5 billion was stolen between 2009 and 2014, in a wide-ranging scandal that has implicated high-level officials, banks and financial institutions around the world.

Thus far, the finance ministry has stated that Malaysia has received $3.89 billion of seized and repatriated 1MDB funds. [Reuters 2]

18 May 2021

Malaysia: Sarawak Chief Minister to meet the King on dissolution of state assembly

(tcy) Sawarak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Openg will seek an audience with the King to determine a date for the dissolution of the Sarawak State Assembly, as the tenure of the current state assembly will end on June 6 this year under the terms of the constitution

However, this provision of the State Constitution has no effect due to the Emergency Ordinance 2021 issued by the government amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and the date for dissolution will be decided by the King in consultation with the Sarawak Governor Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud as deemed appropriate. [Malay Mail] 

18 May 2021

Malaysia: 20 arrested for rioting against government in Johor 

(tcy) In Parit Raja, Johor, the police arrested twenty individuals suspected to be involved in a riot at which flares and a banner with the phrase “Kerajaan Gagal” (Failed Government) were wielded.

The police confirmed that the arrested were local residents, aged between 16 and 28. All of them have no criminal record. [Malay Mail]

11 May 2021

EU and India to boost trade, Indo-Pacific partnership

(lm) The European Union and India have agreed to resume long-stalled talks on a free trade deal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on May 8. Brussel and New Delhi will also launch negotiations on reciprocal investments and on the protection of so-called geographical indications. [South China Morning Post]

Earlier on May 8, the first EU-Indian Leaders’ Meeting brought together all 27 heads of the EU member states and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Considering that previous EU-India summits have involved only the Indian prime minister and the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, the recent summit signals the bloc’s renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific region. [Reuters]

Last month, the EU Council asked the European Commission and high representatives to draw up the bloc’s Indo-Pacific strategy by September this year. In doing so, the Council unveiled the strategy’s main thrust, which included exploring closer economic ties with India and pledging to foster a rules-based order with “free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law”, without naming China.

Earlier last week, the EU also said that efforts to ratify the proposed EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China had been suspended after Beijing imposed sanctions on several high-profile members of the European Parliament, three members of national parliaments, two EU committees, and several China-focused European academics.

For a comprehensive examination of the decision, please consider Chris Devonshire-Ellis’ comment for [China Briefing].

11 May 2021

Malaysia: Civil suits filed to recover billions of dollars missing from 1MDB

(dql) In the ongoing 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, Malaysia’s Finance Ministry confirmed on Monday that 1MDB and its former unit, SRC International (SRC), have filed 22 civil suits, aimed at recovering over 23 billion USD in assets from entities and people allegedly involved in defrauding them.  

While 1MDB has filed six suits against 25 people and nine entities, SCR filed against 15 people and eight entities for offences including breach of contract, fraud, conspiracy, negligence, and other wrongdoing. Among the individuals sued is former Prime Minister Najib Razak who in 2009 co-founded 1MDB as a state fund aimed at promoting the country’s economic development, with billions of dollars in bonds raised between 2009 and 2013. Najib was found guilty last year of corruption and money laundering related to the transfer of millions of dollars linked to SRC into his personal bank account at AmBank between 2014 and 2015. [Channel News Asia]

11 May 2021

Malaysia: Military veterans to form new political party?

(dql) Veterans of the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) announced that they are establishing a new political party, named Parti Kemakmuran Negara (National Prosperity Party), to run in the country’s next general election, confirming that the application had been submitted to the Registrar of Societies (RoS) about two months ago. MAF Veterans Association president Datuk Sharuddin Omar cited the government’s failure to deal with veterans’ issues, such as salary and pensions. [Channel News Asia]

In a latest development, the Defence Ministry’s MAF Veterans Affairs Department (JHEV) cautioned that MAF’s planned forming of political party would violate the Veterans Act 2012 (Act 740) which obliges “any veterans association registered under the JHEV shall carry out its association activities without discrimination on gender, race, religion, origin, language, political affiliation or other differing views held by its members.” [Malay Mail]

11 May 2021

Malaysia: Abu Sayyaf members captured

(dql) Malaysia’s Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCom) has arrested eight Philippine members of the Jihadist militant Abu Sayyaf group in a special operation in Sabah state. The group fled to Malaysia following military assaults on their jungle bases in the province of Sulu in southern Philippine in March. Among the arrested are two commanders involved in past clashes with the Philippine military and believed to have played a key role in the kidnappings of European nationals in the Philippine province of Tawi Tawi in 2012.

Philippine authorities confirmed the identity of the captured, adding that it was like that the group was planning to make Sabah the staging point for kidnapping activities. [Arab News] [South China Morning Post]

11 May 2021

Malaysia: New lockdown declared

(dql) Citing a danger of national crisis in the wake of a third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Malaysian government on Monday declared a new nationwide lockdown, starting from Wednesday and lasting until June 7. 

Lockdown measures include – among others – a ban on all inter-state and inter-district travel, as well as social gatherings. Education-related institutions will be closed while economic sectors will be allowed to continue. 

Malaysia has seen a surge in Covid-19 infections in recent weeks, with 3,807 new cases reported on Monday. The country has now recorded a total of almost 445.000 cases and 1,700 deaths. [Reuters] [Malay Mail]

4 May 2021

Malaysia to detain Vietnamese fishing boats

(nd) Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) has chased away three Vietnamese vessels, which were trying to prevent MMEA from detaining Vietnamese fishing boats that have encroached into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, off Kuala Terengganu. Since last June, 87 foreign fishing boats and 960 crew members have been found encroaching Malaysian waters. [Bernama]

4 May 2021

Malaysia: Youth group to inquire in police custody death

(nd) Following another death in police custody, eighteen youth groups in Malaysia have called for a public inquiry, citing a pattern of institutional abuse. It was criticized that neither the government nor the police have addressed or investigated this issue themselves, leading to an erosion in public trust. The detainee, ethnic Indian, A. Ganapathy spent 12 days in police custody, before being admitted to a hospital, according to his family, with a bruised and swollen leg, suggesting a beating. [Malay Mail 1]

Amid the trending hashtag #JusticeForGanapathy, district police chief Arifai Tarawe warned the public against commenting, making videos and posting them on social media, threatening prosecution. [Malay Mail 2]

27 April 2021

Brunei’s ASEAN diplomacy faces challenges

(nd) Brunei had made the Covid-19 pandemic priority of its ASEAN chairmanship, following its domestic success against it, also because a code of conduct for the South China Sea was deemed unlikely to be concluded from the beginning.

Following the military coup in Myanmar on February 1, though, this prioritization was forced to change, and ASEAN proved divided over how to respond. Maritime states around Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, denounced the coup, while mainland neighbors Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were more hesitant and invoked the principle of non-interference, two positions to be united by Brunei.

The budget for its diplomatic corps was increased by 7 % for 2021. Since the coup, Brunei has been rather active, releasing a statement within 24 hours, emphasizing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the ‘will and interests’ of Myanmar’s people.

Brunei has met with the junta representatives, which received criticism and is further complicated by the emerge of the parallel government, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). A second statement by Brunei was watered down, showing the remaining divide, but also indicating that even the neutral chair denounces the violence on protesters and that ASEAN wants a solution for the sake of stability. Following the looming of a “federal army”, Indonesia called for a special ASEAN meeting, which will be in person. To invite and prioritize General Min Aung Hlaing over the newly formed National Unity Government (NUG) of the CRPH indicates that Brunei considers the General part of the solution.

At the upcoming meeting, the members have to release a joint statement, for which it will be difficult for Brunei to broker unity, with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte absent. [East Asia Forum 1]

Thailand has been rather silent, despite increasing airstrikes in neighboring Kayin state and 23,000 displaced people, at least 3,000 of which made it into Thailand. While the government did set up temporary shelter anticipating a surge in numbers, at the same time pushed away incoming refugees, excluding NGOs and UN representatives access to the people. This reaction is unsurprising, given the approach to Rohingya refugees, who were pushed back, and other refugee groups from the 1980s still considered to be “temporarily displaced”. 

The influx indicates the high implications growing violence in Myanmar will have on Thailand. Parallelly, Thailand is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, so there is no legal protection for refugees. A prime ministerial regulation from 2019 provided a distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers, but was criticized for deterring refugees and violating the principle of not sending back who might be subject to harm. Practice is based on “voluntary return” and “resettlement” to third countries. [East Asia Forum 2]

In any case, a special summit exclusively to deal with Myanmar is unusual and shows a departure from an indirect and informal diplomatic style, which was characteristic of ASEAN, and something that did not occur after the coup in Thailand in 2014. Analysts suggest, the successful role Indonesia assumed during the democratization in Myanmar in the 2010s under then-president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), and his Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, is a legacy that Indonesian President Joko Widodo does not want to see crumbling down during his term. [Channel News Asia]

27 April 2021

UK to deepen its position in Southeast Asia

(nd) UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab visited Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam to enhance trade and security ties with the two countries and discuss future cooperation. He also met with ASEAN Secretary General to discuss the UK’s commitment as a new dialogue partner to the ASEAN bloc. This visit is part of the UK’s “Global Britain” agenda, focusing on Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific after its exit from EU. As a former colonial power, particularly in Malaysia, Singapore, and Myanmar, and other places, the UK aims to reinvigorate its historic position of influence and leverage in the region.

Already, the UK is a core member of the Five Power Defense Agreement (FPDA), a security arrangement involving Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. As part of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) meant to deter Chinese activities, the UK has sent warships to the South China Sea since 2018. As part of a multinational naval force, the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier strike group will be dispatched next month. It also discusses with Japan over a UK military base. In Brunei, the UK has the only remaining permanent military presence with a contingent of 1,000 personnel, and has control over the British Indian Overseas Territory, including Diego Garcia, a joint U.S.-U.K. military facility located between Tanzania and Indonesia. 

Following its exit from the EU, the UK will have to maneuver its way into becoming an official dialogue partner to ASEAN now. In November 2019, the UK appointed an ambassador especially for the bloc, and concluded bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) with Singapore and Vietnam by the end of 2020. Its trade priority is the inclusion into the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a constellation of 11 Pacific rim countries. Given the tensions between US and China, the UK will have to carefully avoid to be pulled into the conflict, recently seen by the imposition of sanctions due to rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims, which was countered by retaliatory sanctions by China, as well as the UK’s support of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

Additionally, the UK has provided over $385 million in development aid annually to Southeast Asia in recent years, and revitalized its Newton Fund by investing up to $132.5 million to support science and innovations collaboration in the region, using more soft power instruments. [The Diplomat]

27 April 2021

Agreement during ASEAN summit to prompt anti-coup activist call for continuation of protests

(lf) The long-awaited summit between the ASEAN member states on the crisis in Myanmar has been concluded with an agreement on five points: to end the violence, hold a constructive dialogue between all parties, send an ASEAN envoy, accept aid of and enable entry for the ASEAN envoy. Furthermore, the states agreed on a constructive dialogue with all parties involved in the conflict, as well as a strong ASEAN role in the further development of the crisis. However, Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing, did neither set a timeline for the end of violence, nor did he specifically agree to end the killing of civilians immediately or to release political prisoners. The meeting was the first international cooperation on the crisis in Myanmar. The United Nations, the US and China view ASEAN as the adequate body to best deal with the situation. [Reuters 1]

Myanmar’s anti-coup protestors were disappointed by the outcome. Activist groups stated that the agreement did not reflect the realities of the ground in Myanmar, and did not make up for the around 750 people killed by the military since the coup began. While the state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar reported on Min Aung Hlaing’s visit, commenting he discussed the country’s “political changes”, they made no mention of the consensus on an end to violence. [Voice of America] Activists were in particular disappointed over the weakened stance on the release of political prisoners, as a draft paper prior to the summit featured the release of political prisoners as one of the consensus points. Since the coup over 3,000 people have been detained. Therefore, activist have called for a continuation and deepening of the Civil Disobedience Movement and protests. Activists urge civilians to boycott schools and to stop paying their electricity bills and agricultural loans.  [Reuters 2] [Reuters 3]

Already before the summit, the ASEAN bloc received widespread criticism for only inviting the military and in particular the military leader Min Aung Hlaing to the table for a discussion on the situation, and not a representative of the National Unity Government. State leaders of Thailand and the Philippines, Prayut Chan-o-Cha and Rodrigo Duterte did not attend the summit. [South China Moring Post]

Shortly after the meeting, the junta announced to “positively consider” the agreement. On Monday already, one man was shot dead in Mandalay. [Reuters 4]

27 April 2021

Malaysia: Government to use fund to buy vaccinations

(nd) Malaysia’s government announced to use a reserve trust fund backed by state energy company Petroliam Nasional (Petronas) to pay for Covid-19 vaccines. The fund was created in 1998 and supposed to be reserved for future development. Government said its “tight” finances require special measures, with a rough need of about 5 billion ringgit ($1.22 billion). The move was criticized, for it was pushed through with a suspended parliament due to the ongoing state of emergency imposed due to the pandemic, with the former Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng saying the decision was “irresponsible, incompetent, and a bid to escape parliament scrutiny”.

Malaysia recently cleared the AstraZeneca vaccine for individuals aged 60 and up, contrary to some countries’ decisions to halt it due to blood clotting. [Nikkei Asia]

27 April 2021

Malaysia: UMNO to cut ties with PN

(nd) UMNO election chief Datuk Seri Tajuddin Abdul Rahman confirmed to cut ties with the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition by August. This was determined during a party supreme council meeting. The meeting did not discuss the supposed leaked phone conversation between party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and PKR president Anwar Ibrahim. [Malaymail]

27 April 2021

Malaysia: Sovereign Sukuk

(nd) As the first nation worldwide, Malaysia started a sovereign, U.S. dollar-based sukuk to exclusively fund environmental projects. Sukuk refers to an Islamic financial certificate that complies with Sharia law.  In contrast to a bond, which is an indirect interest-bearing debt obligation, sukuk provides direct asset ownership interest. Malaysia issued $800 million of 10-year trust certificates and $500 million in 30-year trust certificates. The initial target size of $1 billion was oversubscribed by 6.4 times due to heavy demand. [Voice of America]


27 April 2021

Malaysia: Mahathir urged King revoke state of emergency, unusual royal criticism

(nd) Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called on the King, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, to revoke the state of emergency imposed in January to counter the Covid-19 pandemic by a royal order, arguing a wide range of emergency powers and the suspension of parliament had transformed the country into a “dictatorship”. It prompted criticism of the royal families by Malays, which is very unusual. Criticism of the country’s nine royal households have been met with sedition investigations by authorities.

The imposition of the state of emergence was advised by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, while the king as a constitutional monarch is obliged to act on for most matters. Critics claim it was a move by Muhyiddin to avoid a no-confidence vote and cling to power. Parallelly, the Committee for Ending the Emergency Declaration, a delegation of MPs from Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah), Parti Pejuang Tanah Air, DAP, and PKR, was granted an audience by the King, seeking an end of the state of emergency. [Malaymail

Further, both the King and Queen Tunku Azizah Aminah were subjects of unusual and rare criticism. The King had allegedly returned from a trip to the UAE in December, carrying 2,000 Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccines, a Chinese-made product which is not yet approved in Malaysia, and distributed it among his family, friends and business partners. The Queen posted about an afternoon spent with chefs in the palace kitchen who were preparing dishes. Responding to a comment, whether she was inoculated already, she wrote “Dengki ke? [‘Are you jealous?’], which turned into a hashtag. [South China Morning Post 1]

Over the weekend, Malaysian graphic artist and activist Fahmi Reza was arrested for allegedly insulting the queen, which prompted an outcry among free speech advocates. He was charged under the Sedition Act, carrying a maximum sentence of three years in prison, a fine of 5,000 ringgit (US$1,220) or both, and the Communications and Multimedia Act, carrying up to a one-year jail term, a 50,000 ringgit fine, or both, for creating a playlist titled “Dengki Ke”, the cover depicting an image of the queen. In 2018 Fahmi was jailed for a month and fined for publishing a caricature of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, as part of his criticism of Najib’s involvement in the 1MDB financial scandal.

The advocacy group Centre for Independent Journalism Malaysia, called Fahmi’s arrest “concerning”, Amnesty International Malaysia urged authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release Fahmi for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression”. [South China Morning Post 2]


27 April 2021

Press Freedom in Southeast Asia

(nd) Watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently released the World Press Freedom Index, revealing an increased repression and attacks on free press worldwide. The Covid-19 pandemic has globally been used as a pretext to impose repressive legislation and narrow the range of permitted speech for the sake of public health. According to the index, which evaluates 180 countries, journalism is seriously impeded in 73 nations and constrained in 59 other, making up 73 percent of the countries evaluated. 

Vietnam, 175th place, only above Djibouti, China, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea, has intensified its crackdown on dissent leading up to the five-yearly congress in January 2021, arresting and sentencing bloggers and journalists. Malaysia fell 18 places to the 119th, prompted by the passage of an “anti-fake-news” ordinance to contain criticism on the government’s reaction to the pandemic and the state of emergency, as well as an investigation against media outlet Al Jazeera for a documentary on the situation of migrant workers during the pandemic, and proceedings against online news portal Malaysiakini, which was found guilty of contempt of court. [See also AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]

A similar “anti-fake-news” decree designed for the pandemic was issued by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last March, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen continued his crackdown on civil society and the press with similar new powers to hinder reporting. The Philippines continued its “war on drugs”, which is also directed against media, suspending the license of the country’s largest TV broadcaster, ABS-CBN, for its critical reporting, and targeting its editor, Maria Ressa, with judicial campaigns. Myanmar, 140th place this year, but likely to drop to the bottom due to the February 1 coup and the deadly crackdown on civilians, was commented to be set back 10 years by these events. 

Contrarily, Timor-Leste made it to the 71st place, with RSF noting that “no journalist has ever been jailed in connection with their work in Timor-Leste since this country of just 1.2 million inhabitants won independence in 2002.” [RSF] [The Diplomat]

20 April 2021

Coordination in the South China Sea: Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia

(lp) Last week, the Philippines and Malaysia reaffirmed their commitment to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on defense cooperation signed in 1994. Similarly, Vietnam and Malaysia announced that they will sign a MOU this year to strengthen cooperation in maritime security. Moreover, Malaysia and Indonesia will pursue a joint development of oil and gas elds on their maritime boundaries. These latest cooperation form part of a broader effort to find unified ranks towards China, dating back some years. Analysts welcomed the move, which could solidify the bargaining position of Southeast Asian Nations towards China, which prefers unilateral agreements. The biggest obstacle to such joint action were called “intramural differences” by experts among themselves, such as conflicts over illegal fishing, which are concentrating resources and limiting bargaining power. [Manila Bulletin] [South China Morning Post]

20 April 2021

ASEAN leader to meet on April 24

(lf) The leaders of the members of ASEAN have finally agreed to meet in Jakarta on April 24 on the situation in Myanmar. The ongoing violent conflict between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed group causes the neighbor country to worry about a civil war. Coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is expected to attend. [Thai PBS world]

ASEAN has long struggled for a cohesive response to the situation. It is rooted in ASEAN’s core principle of non-interference, which was invoked frequently by members, and it therefore lacks a mechanism for regional action. While the international community has condemned the coup with some imposing sanctions, the responses have not been successful yet. [East Asia Forum]

Ahead of the meeting, Southeast Asian states were discussing the possibility of sending a humanitarian aid mission, in order to foster dialogue between the military and the protestors. [Reuters]

20 April 2021

Malaysia to criticize Bangladesh High Commission over job portal

(nd) Following the launch of a job portal by the Bangladesh High Commission last November, Malaysian Ministry of Human Resources said it was “shocked” about this move without prior consultation. Such a portal contravenes Malaysia’s own employment portal and licensed private recruiters, confusing employers, possibly causing an influx of illegal workers and jeopardizing Malaysians’ job prospects. The High Commission in Kuala Lumpur clarified its portal purely targeted undocumented Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia and therefore aims to assist the Malaysian government in legalizing such workers, who are mostly employed in palm oil plantations. Out of 1.7 million legal foreign workers, 268,000 are Bangladeshis. According to an estimate by the World Bank, between 1.23 million and 1.46 million undocumented migrants worked in Malaysia in 2017. [Benar News]


20 April 2021

Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East

(nd) A recent peer-reviewed academic article [access to the paper here] sheds light on the relation between Malaysia and Indonesia with the Middle East. While Malaysian Foreign Minister recently visited Turkey, Qatar, and Iran, the UAE announced to invest $10 billion in Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund.

While they face the usual options and constraints middle powers do, it is important how foreign policy and domestic issues are intertwined for the Southeast Asian nations. The conflicts in the Middle East have affected both countries, with particular influence of Saudi Arabia, which together with the UAE, is the largest regional trading partner and investor. Saudi Arabia has acted as a major supporter of religious activities and education. It was also involved in the Malaysian 1MDB state fund scandal, with former Prime Minister Najib Razak claiming a donation from the Saudi royal family. Due to these connections, both Malaysia and Indonesia have largely followed Saudi Arabi’s foreign policy line, with regard to Yemen, Qatar and Iran, with some exceptions. With respect to Iran, though, both countries followed then-President Donald Trump in withdrawing economically. The government led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recalled troops from Yemen in 2018. Mahathir also organized a summit of Muslim-majority countries, generating criticism from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to stay away.

The Syrian civil war highlighted a limited ability to influence the course of events, leading to a focus on humanitarian assistance, and to mitigate the domestic pushback by countering the rise of Islamic extremism by joiners to the Islamic State. While Malaysia adopted a top-down approach through the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 2015, Indonesia combined state action with activity by different agents, from security services to local authorities and the two largest Muslim social movements in the country, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. [The Diplomat

13 April 2021

Malaysia: Najib to face bankruptcy charges

(nd) Following his file for appeal, former Prime Minister Najib Razak faces bankruptcy for allegedly not paying U.S. $421 million in taxes and penalties. If declared bankrupt, he would lose his parliamentary seat and could not contest in elections again. Najib suggested the allegation are in connection with the United Malays National Organization’s (UMNO) decision to run on its own in the next elections. Najib is the former president of UMNO, which holds the majority of parliamentary seats. The case is scheduled to be heard May 5. [Benar News]

6 April 2021

US to ban Malaysian gloves

(nd) As reaction to reports of forced labor, the US decided to ban products by Malaysia’s Top Glove. The company was rocked by several scandals, including a coronavirus outbreak in dormitories that infected 5,000 migrant workers, living closely together and sleeping in bunkbeds. Last year, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had already banned gloves from two of Top Glove’s subsidiaries. The company’s shares went down by 5% following the news. The Malaysian authorities have already charged the company following the poor living conditions of its staff. [Asia Times]


6 April 2021

Malaysian Foreign Minister to clarify remark on China

(nd) Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, during a trip to China, said to his counterpart “You will always be my elder brother”, which prompted widespread criticism of the remark suggesting Malaysia was subordinate to China. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim criticized the minister and urged him to withdraw his remark. Hishammuddin clarified his remark was directed at his counterpart Wang Yi, who was older and more senior, and therefore his personal “elder brother”. He added: “Rest assured that Malaysia remains independent, principled and pragmatic in terms of our foreign policy – founded on the values of peace, humanity, justice and equality. We will continue to contribute meaningfully towards a just and equitable community of nations.”

Hishammuddin’s visit was part of visits paid by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, who were most vocal about the coup in Myanmar and were seeking for a solution together with China. China and Malaysia have ongoing disputes over conflicting claims in the resource-rich South China Sea. [South China Morning Post]

6 April 2021

Malaysia: Rail link construction to be rerouted to original plan

(nd) The government will reinstate the original, northern alignment for the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), which was first approved in 2017 by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government. The northern side will give the line a higher capacity and connectivity compared to the south line previously planned by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, while resulting in reduced costs for the overall railways. The ECRL is expected to be fully operational in 2027. 

The PH government decide in 2018 to suspend the project due to its costs. In 2019, they found an agreement with China to construct a shorter route at lower costs. [Channel News Asia]

6 April 2021

Malaysia: Najib to appeal sentence

(nd) Malaysia’s Court of Appeal opened the appeal brought by former prime minister Najib Razak against his conviction on corruption charges linked to the 1MDB state fund scandal. Najib had pleaded not guilty to all charges but was sentenced last year to 12 years in jail and a $50 million fine. His defense will argue the court erred in dismissing counterevidence. So far, at least six countries have opened investigations into 1MDB, involving high-level officials and major financial institutions. [Reuters]


6 April 2021

Malaysia: Youth to sue the government and election commission 

(nd) Following the decision to delay voting for 18-21-year-olds, eighteen teenagers sued Malaysia’s prime minister, the federal government and the Election Commission. The Commission announced last week that the pandemic delayed the automatic registration of voters, making it possible for 1.2 million young citizens to only cast their vote after September 2022. With their lawsuit, the teenagers aim at being able to vote by this year July, due to the delay being illegal. In July 2019, parliament under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad approved to lower the voting age and promised to implement it within two years, but his government collapsed in the following March. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin declared his administration played no role in the postponement. [Benar News]


6 April 2021

Malaysia: Prime Minister to mitigate exit of UMNO

(nd) According to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, an understanding was found with all ministers of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), in order to stay in his cabinet. On Sunday, UMNO president announced a withdrawal of support for Perikatan Nasional (PN) was possible anytime. Muhyiddin commented he convinced the ministers with reference to the fight against the pandemic and the people’s interest. Some ministers hold key positions, possibly affecting the government’s rehabilitation plan. UMNO is the biggest political party in Malaysia and supporter of Muhyiddin’s coalition after the collapse the Pakatan Harapan government. However, their relation worsened lately, after two UMNO MPs had publicly withdrawn their support, and the party announced it would run the next general election on its own. [Channel News Asia]


30 March 2021

Malaysia: Implemention of voting age reform delayed

(dql) The Malaysian Election Commission has decided to delay until September 2022 the implementation of ‘Undi 18’, which refers to the movement that led to the constitutional amendment to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, passed by the parliament in Summer 2019. The Commission cited the Movement Control Order (MCO) for its decision, adding the need to “re-evaluate various constraints and issues that affect the planning and initial preparations of the EC.” The MCO is widely referred to as ‘lockdown’ order, promulgated by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and providing restrictions on movements and gatherings. [The Malaysian Reserve]

In response, some 100 young protesters from various youth groups marched towards the Parliament to protest the Election Commission’s decision, arguing that it would bar them from a possible snap election in this year. An NGO, meanwhile, announced to sue the government over its “failure” to gazette the 2019 constitutional amendment and to bring Undi 18 into effect. [Malay Mail] [Free Malaysia Today]

30 March 2021

Malaysia: UMNO top recipient of 1MDB proceeds among 26 political parties

(dql) Malaysia’s prosecution has revealed that – among 26 political parties which received proceeds from the 700 million USD 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal – the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) received the highest amount of more than 120 million USD, with the total amount for all parties at over 131 million USD. [Malay Mail]

30 March 2021

Malaysia: UMNO quits support for National Alliance coalition, demands PAS to do the same

(dql) At its annual general meeting, held past weekend, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) adopted a resolution to cut ties with Perikatan Nasional (PN), the ruling National Alliance coalition led by the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) which UMNO has been nominally supporting. Referring to demands of factions within the UMNO for snap elections prior to the end of the Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s January Covid-19 Emergency Decree in August, the party’s president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi sent a warning towards PN calling the resolution a mandate bestowed on him “to withdraw at any time if they (PN) do not indicate willingness to call for elections soon.” [Malay Mail 1] [Malay Mail 2]

Zahid, furthermore, called on Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) – second largest party in the PN – to withdraw its support for the PN, accusing the Islamist party of violating the UMNO/PAS Muafakat Nasional (MN) agreement by joining the PN when it was formed in February 2020. Both parties concluded the MN in 2019 to build a coalition against the then ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition. [The Straits Time 1]

In response, PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang called for cooperation between all three parties anf offered to continue to be the peacemaker in the row between UMNO and Bersatu. [The Straits Times 2]


30 March 2021

Malaysia pays Singapore compensation for terminated rail network project

(dql) Malaysia has compensated Singapore nearly 103 million SGD for costs incurred by the termination of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) project.

In 2016, the two countries signed the HSR agreement. At Kuala Lumpur’s request, construction of the rail network was later suspended from September 2018 to 31 December last year. With both sides failing to agree on changes to the project, the agreement lapsed on 31 December, with Singapore’s Minister of Transport announcing the agreement’s termination the next day. [Yahoo News]

23 March 2021

North Korea severs diplomatic ties with Malaysia over extradition of national to US 

(nm) North Korea severed diplomatic ties with Malaysia last week after Malaysia’s highest court agreed to extradite a North Korean national to the United States, the first extradition of a North Korean to the US facing criminal trial. The extradition is seen as part of Washington’s bid to curb activities by North Korean businessmen and diplomats in conflict with UN sanctions that seek to restrain North Korea’s access to foreign currency which has been used to finance the country’s nuclear programme.   

Mun Chol-myong, who was arrested in Malaysia in 2019 after moving there in 2008, is accused of money laundering through front companies and violating international sanctions by helping ship prohibited luxury items from Singapore to Pyongyang, in violation of UN sanctions. Mun had rejected the accusations in his affidavit and claimed the extradition was “politically motivated” as his case got caught in diplomatic rivalry between Pyongyang and Washington. The court rejected his argumentation. 

Following the court’s decision, North Korea warned the US will “pay a due price” and denounced the country as the “backstage manipulator and main culprit of this incident.” Pyongyang further called its relations with Washington “the most hostile one on this planet,” adding the two countries have been practically at war for over 70 years. 

North Korea and Malaysia have since both expelled the respective ambassadors from their capitals. 

The fall out came just a day after North Korea had stated it would not respond to efforts by the new US administration to establish a channel of communication in order to negotiate the denuclearization of the North Korean peninsula. Washington and Pyongyang have been caught in deadlock ever since negotiations ended abruptly in 2019. 

Malaysian and North Korean relations have similarly suffered setbacks in recent years after Kim’s estranged half brother, Kim Jong-nam, was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017 using the internationally banned VX nerve agent. Although Malaysian officials have never officially accused Pyongyang of involvement, prosecutors made clear that they suspected a connection throughout the trial. North Korea has denied any involvement. [The Diplomat] [The New York Times, $] [Yonhap]

The New York Times also recently uncovered how one ship circumvents international sanctions and continues to illicitly import oil to North Korea. You can read the major takeaways of the investigation [here]. 

23 March 2021

Myanmar: Rising death toll and more international efforts to pressure the military

(nd) Lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) have urged the largest foreign-owned oil and gas companies to suspend business ties with the military regime, saying the money earned will be used to reinforce human rights violations. Per month, Myanmar receives earnings of about US$75 million to US$90 million from oil and gas sales, paid through state-owned company Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). In an effort to cut the junta off these supplies, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the Burmese government in exile representing the NLD, sent a notice to France’s Total SE, Malaysia’s Petronas, Thailand’s PTT and South Korea’s POSCO, criticizing them for their failure to condemn the coup, and urging them to suspend their tax payments. [Irrawaddy 1]

Also, CRPH is negotiating with Karen National Union (KNU), Restoration Council of Shan State and Kachin Independent Army (KIA) to form a federal army to protect the protesters. They have cleared all ethnic armed groups from the terror list. In light of the growing violence, so far peaceful protesters started to use self-constructed weapons, such as molotov cocktails, and built barricades from tires, bricks or bamboo. [FAZ in German]

Meanwhile, the efforts of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) spreads virally, with a “social punishment” campaign against the families of senior members of the regime. On social media, protesters identified names, addresses and other personal information on relatives of the military generals, and urged people to shun and shame the individuals, and to boycott their businesses. [Frontier Myanmar 1

Four employees of a private bank were detained for allegedly inciting people to join the civil disobedience movement (CDM). [Irrawaddy 2] Due to the ongoing strikes, companies struggle to pay salaries amid closed banks. [Nikkei Asia 1] With an ongoing strike, the military has fired officials from the Foreign Ministry and has pressured banks to reopen in an effort to avoid an economic collapse. [Frontier Myanmar 2]

With the junta using more excessive force, the death toll rose to over 250 and reports of at least 5 cases of torture in detention have surfaced. Internet shutdowns let information spread slowly. Protesters erected barricades in the streets, which were set on fire making Yangon look like a battle zone. [Asia Times 1] In an effort to intimidate citizens, security forces randomly opened fire in residential areas and at individual residences. Shortages of food and drinking water continued, hinting at a looming humanitarian crisis. Adding to internet blackouts, phone services were cut off in some areas. Protesters reported they refrain from forming groups, which are randomly attacked and shot at by the police.

The military continued to target journalists and closed down the last independent newspaper, The Standard Time Daily, following 7Day News, The Voice, Eleven Myanmar, and the Myanmar Times. Private media outlets have been operating in the country since 2013, after the lifting of the ban on independent media since 1962.  [Radio Free Asia 1] Police also continued to raid homes in search of protesters; over 2,000 people have been arrested. [Radio Free Asia 2] To mark the one-month anniversary of the protests, activists organized a car convoy, others lit candles, joined by Buddhist monks. Reportedly, members of the security forces were attacked and died, as well as two policemen during protests. After security forces have occupied more than 60 schools and university campuses in 13 states and regions, Unicef, Unesco, and private humanitarian group Save the Children, issued a statement condemning the occupation of education facilities as a serious violation of children’s rights. [South China Morning Post 1]

Following the attack on Chinese businesses on Sunday, an unsigned editorial, published on the website of state-run CGTN network, suggested that China might be “forced into taking more drastic action” in Myanmar if its interests are not more firmly safeguarded. The editorial added, “China won’t allow its interests to be exposed to further aggression. If the authorities cannot deliver and the chaos continues to spread, China might be forced into taking more drastic action to protect its interests.” China is deeply involved in Myanmar’s economy and shares a 2,200-kilometer border, which is of interest for Chinese infrastructure projects giving it a corridor to the Indian Ocean. [The Diplomat 1] Inter alia, China is extracting minerals in Myanmar, whose shipments have delayed significantly, making a global price rise likely. China controls 80% of the world’s rare earth mineral supplies. [Asia Times 2]

According to experts, the systematic crackdown on the Rohingyas executed by the military since 2017 is just postponed and likely to restart, possibly turning protests into a “prolonged crisis”. Recently hired Canadian-Israeli lobbyist for the junta, Ari Ben-Menashe, said the military want to repatriate Rohingyas. [Voice of America]

Sam Rainsy, exiled Cambodian opposition leader, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Indonesian lawmaker Fadli Zon, Philippine Senator Kiko Pangilinan, former Singapore Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, and former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya signed a statement urging all ASEAN nations to unite in sanctions against Myanmar and to end impunity. The politicians criticized the “impotence” of ASEAN amid the human rights abuses, and suggested to suspend Myanmar’s membership in the regional bloc. [Benar News]

In some of the strongest comments yet, Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged the violence to stop immediately and to press current chairman of ASEAN, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, to call an urgent meeting. [Reuters] Following Indonesia and Malaysia’s joint push for an urgent high-level meeting of ASEAN, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan will visit Brunei, before going to Malaysia and Indonesia. [Channel News Asia]

The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on 11 individuals linked to the coup in Myanmar. The EU already had an arms embargo on Myanmar, and has targeted some senior military officials since 2018. Stronger measures are expected in a move to target the businesses run by the military, mainly through two conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corp. [Nikkei Asia 2]

According to Thai media, the Royal Thai Army had supplied 700 sacks of rice to Myanmar army units on Myanmar’s eastern border allegedly on the orders of the Thai government. The commander of the task force denied it and said it was regular trade. Residents told a Reuters reporter the crossing was not a normal trade route. The allegedly supplied army units were cut off by forces of the Karen National Union (KNU), who have pledged allegiance to the protest movement. [Bangkok Post]

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with violating an anti-corruption law, with a possible prison sentence of 15 years, adding to four previous charges with other offences. [South China Morning Post 2]

The influential, Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana), a government-appointed body of Buddhist abbots, urged the military to end violence against protesters. It was submitted to the Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture. The statement mentioned the CDM, which would greatly benefit from support by Mahana. As a rather conservative organization, the clear cut with the military is significant, according to analysts. It might unleash monastic opposition, which has historic precedents. [The Diplomat 2]

Ousted lawmakers of NLD are exploring if the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate crimes against humanity committed by the military since the coup. Following the toughening crackdown, hundred have fled Myanmar to bordering Thailand, which has prepared for a big influx of refugees, as well as to India. [South China Morning Post 3]

23 March 2021

Malaysia: Prime Minister to announce new stimulus

(nd) Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced an economic stimulus package valued RM20 billion (US$4.8 billion) to mitigate Covid-19 repercussions. It is the sixth such package since the start of the pandemic. The 20 strategic initiatives aim to boost economic growth, support business and extend targeted assistance. As of Wednesday, Malaysia reported a total of 327,253 Covid-19 cases and 1,220 deaths. More than 300,000 Malaysians have been inoculated so far. [Channel News Asia]

23 March 2021

Malaysia: Palm oil plantation withdraws lawsuit

(nd) Sime Darby Plantation has announced it had withdrawn a lawsuit against the head of anti-trafficking NGO Liberty Shared, after Malaysia’s Securities Commission stopped investigations in the world’s largest sustainable palm oil producer. The lawsuit aimed to obtain information about a complaint to the Securities Commission by Liberty Shared into the company’s sustainability disclosures.

Palm oil is used in a large number of commodity products, but has faced global scrutiny for its environmental repercussions and labor rights abuses. December last year, the US banned palm oil imports from Sime Darby over allegations of forced labor. [Reuters]


23 March 2021

Malaysia: Muhyiddin to focus on providing stability

(nd) While expressing his understanding that people are fed up with constant politicking in the country, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin pledged to concentrate on providing political stability and ensure the smooth government operation amid the pandemic. He added, “when the time is right, we will return the mandate to the people”. He said Perikatan Nasional government was formed out of an unfortunate political crisis, therefore his role was to create a conducive environment to facilitate cooperation. Malaysia was facing three big challenges: The pandemic health crisis, economic fallout, and political instability. Stability, he pointed out, was crucial to obtain foreign investor support to revive the economy. [Malay Mail]

16 March 2021

SIPRI international arms transfers report 2020

(dql) According to the 2020 international arms transfers report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released last week, the US remains the world’s largest arms supplier in 2016-2020 accounting for 37% of the global arms exports, followed by Russia (20%), France (8.2), Germany (5.5%) and China (5.2%). Together, these five countries accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms. Besides China, Asian countries listed among the top 25 countries which accounted for 99% of global arms exports include South Korea (2.7%, ranking at 7), the United Arab Emirates (0.5%, 18), and India (0.2%, 24)

Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, the US allies Australia (accounting for 9.4% of US arms exports), South Korea (6.7%) and Japan (5.7%) were among the five largest importers of US arms.

23 Asian countries were among the 40 largest importers including Saudi-Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Oman, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia. [Reliefweb]

16 March 2021

Malaysia: Emergency ordinance against “fake news” on Covid-19 

(nd) An emergency ordinance was published Thursday, which criminalizes “fake news” about the country’s state of emergency and coronavirus pandemic. Critics called it a “shut-up order against all Malaysians” and that it is used to punish criticism of unelected Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government. Violators of the ordinance face three years in prison or a maximum penalty of 100,000 ringgit (U.S. $24,345), or both. Since it was an emergency ordinance, parliament was not involved in its creation. Prime Minister Najib Razak adopted a similar law against fake news, which was abolished a year later by the incoming government. 

The ordinance is one of many steps in limiting freedom of expression by the administration of Muhyiddin, who is highly criticized for suspending parliament after the king imposed a state of emergency on January 12 on Muhyiddin’s advice. [Benar News]

16 March 2021

Malaysia: Court to rule on use of religious words

(nd) Malaysia’s high court decided that Christians are allowed to use the word “Allah”, Baitullah (God’s house), Kaabah (the building at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which is the direction of prayer for Muslims around the world) and solat (pray) in religious publications for educational purposes. In this landmark ruling, the judges deemed a 1986 directive by the home ministry to ban the use of the four words by Christians was an “illegality” and “irrationality”. Additionally, Christian communities in Malaysia have been using especially “Allah” for generations in the practice of their faith. The case was brought by a Malaysian Christian from Sarawak, whose CDs were seized at Kuala Lumpur Airport, featuring the above-mentioned terms. [Channel News Asia]

According to analysts, the ruling is unlikely to settle the ongoing issue, which will rather be a subject of social and political tension, and potentially be challenging for the ruling coalition of Perikatan Nasional if its Muslim coalition parties Umno and PAS pull away their support. Among conservative Islamist groups, the key concern is that the use of Malay words by Christians would confuse Muslims and aid the conversions of rural Muslims. It is illegal to convert from Islam to another religion in Malaysia. The government has already appealed the decision. [South China Morning Post]

9 March 2021

Malaysia, Saudia Arabia sign MoU ambush

China is the biggest consumer of Taiwan’s pineapples with 91% of Taiwan’s total exports of fruit valuing at 1.5 billion NTD. Observers believe that Beijing’s suspension aims to hit the high public approval ratings Tsai currently enjoys due to her world-class effective pandemic response. [Focus Taiwan][Reuters][SupChina][Taiwan News]

Since Taiwan’s pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen has assumed office in 2016, Beijing has cut off diplomatic channels and has been ramping up its pressure on the island, including regularly sending fighter jets and bombers near Taiwan or into its air defense identification zone. In January, China staged military exercises near Taiwan on almost daily basis. [Daily Mail


9 March 2021

Malaysian court to allow judicial review by rights groups

(nd) Following last week’s deportation of Myanmar nationals in military ships [See also AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1], a Malaysian court granted international human rights groups the permission to challenge the move. The judgment is major, given the country’s law banning immigration decisions to be questioned in court. The legal bid was brought by rights groups Amnesty International and Asylum Access, who claimed that among the deported were asylum seekers and children. The latest court decision also puts on hold the deportation of another 114 Myanmar nationals until the end of the judicial review. The decision is unlikely to bring back the detained but enables rights groups to challenge similar cases in the future. The deportation was criticized internationally and potentially amounts to contempt of court. Malaysia hosts more than 154,000 asylum-seekers from Myanmar, which is in turmoil following a coupon February 1. [Reuters]

9 March 2021

Malaysia: UMNO to leave coalition for next election

(nd) The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) announced to leave the ruling coalition in the next election, forcing struggling Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to look for new partners and possibly delaying polls. UMNO is the biggest party in the ruling coalition and said to remain in the alliance until parliament is dissolved. The announcement did not come as a surprise, although not everyone at UMNO is in support of it, possibly following the two MPs defecting to Bersatu recently. A possible scenario according to analysts now is wooing MPs to switch sides, especially from the coalition’s third largest partner, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

Muhyiddin was criticized for his push to the King to declare a state of emergency and suspending parliament, seen as an effort to cling to power. [Benar News]

9 March 2021

Malaysia: Cabinet to postpone parliamentary sitting

(nd) The cabinet advised the King last Wednesday that parliament sittings would be postponed until August 1, citing the danger of infection for elderly lawmakers. Last week, the palace said the house could sit during the state emergency. On January 12, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin suspended parliament after the King declared the state of emergency, which was criticized by the opposition as a move to cling to power. Muhyiddin had lost the support of two lawmakers earlier, eradicating his razor-thin majority. Therefore, analysts said the reconvened parliament was likely to see a no-confidence vote against Muhyiddin, who was likely to prevent and postpone a reconvention. Last week, two lawmakers surprisingly announced their support for Muhyiddin. [Benar News]

2 March 2021

Malaysia: Local Islamic Law on gay sex deemed unconstitutional

(nd) A Muslim man won a lawsuit he filed after being arrested for attempting gay sex. Same-sex acts are illegal in Malaysia. The country has a dual-track legal system, with Islamic criminal and family laws applicable to Muslims running alongside civil laws.

The law in question was an Islamic ban on sex “against the order of nature”. The court unanimously ruled the Islamic provision used in state Selangor was unconstitutional and state authorities had no power to enact the law.

While the ruling leaves intact a federal statute criminalizing same-sex relations – Section 377, a British colonial-era law, – with punishments up to 20 years in jail, LGBT+ advocates, nevertheless, hope the landmark decision to be the start of greater acceptance of gay rights, while stating that Islamic laws have been increasingly used to target the country’s gay community. [CNN]

2 March 2021

Malaysia: King to decide parliament can sit during emergency

(nd) According to a decision by the King interpreting the emergency ordinance, the Malaysian parliament can sit during the ongoing emergency rule. The latest decision is a setback for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who was criticized for using the emergency rule to avoid a vote of no confidence on his administration. According to many lawmakers, Muhyiddin lost his razor-thin majority in December last year, when he lost the support of two lawmakers. Once parliament is resumed, a no-confidence vote against Muhyiddin is highly likely.

Recent analyses suggest, however, that they will not be successfully tabled. Over the weekend, two lawmakers expressed their support for Muhyiddin. 

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, in which the King is head but largely assumes ceremonial functions.  [Benar News 1] [Benar News 2]

2 March 2021

Malaysia: Burmese detainees deported despite court ban

Despite a last-minute court order to postpone to ship’s departure, Malaysia still deported more than 1,000 Myanmar detainees. The US and UN had criticized the plan, and rights groups said there were asylum seekers among the detainees. The temporary motion brought by activists was affirmed hours before the scheduled deportation. There was no comment given, also not why the number of 1,086 deported was lower than the 1,200 detainees earlier. Rights groups argued that minor groups facing prosecution in Myanmar were among the detainees. The UN refugee agency was not granted access to the migrants and could not determine their status. Malaysia had expressed “serious concern” over the coup, but was later criticized for accepting the offer from the Myanmar junta to send warships to repatriate the detainees, which would present the military favorably. [Asia Times]

A group of international rights stated on Friday that at least two of the deported children had been separated from their asylum-seeking families in Malaysia, along with 17 other unaccompanied children. [Malay Mail]

Human Rights Watch urged the government to immediately investigate in the deportation and order the Immigration Department to grant the UNHCR access to people in detention. [Human Rights Watch]

23 February 2021

Malaysia: Burmese ships to deport Burmese migrants

(nd) Despite UN-voiced and international concerns, three Burmese military ships over the weekend arrived in Malaysia to pick up 1,200 asylum seekers and others from Myanmar.  Nearly 100 of them are from the Myanmar Muslim, Kachin and Chin communities, traditionally coming to Malaysia fleeing from persecution. Rights groups therefore urged not to deport the asylum seekers. Malaysia does not formally recognize refugees. With regards to the Rohingyas, Malaysia vowed not to deport those registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). So far, UNHCR has not been allowed to interview the detainees for their status. Malaysia was also criticized to be cooperating with the junta leaders and thereby legitimizing them. The ships were scheduled to leave for Myanmar on Tuesday. [Nikkei Asia] Before their departure, a Malaysian court has ordered their temporary stay until Wednesday 10 am to hear Amnesty International and Asylum Access’s application for judicial review of the deportation. [Rappler]


23 February 2021

ASEAN member states tighten grip on cyberspace

(nd) The Thai government issued a warning not to break the law using the audio social media app Clubhouse. The Digital Minister said authorities were watching Clubhouse users and political groups if information was distorted and laws potentially violated. The app quickly developed into a discussion platform about the monarchy, despite the topic raised by student protesters still a fierce taboo, and whose criticism is punished harshly. Many Thai users registered following Japan-based critic of the Thai palace, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and joined the app. He gained more than 70,000 followers in his first five days on the app. His Facebook group, Royalist Marketplace, was shutdown in August 2020, only to reopen and attract 300,000 followers the next day. The government’s crackdown on protesters has regularly included charges under cybercrime laws, mostly on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

The app gathered popularity quickly and was blocked earlier this month in China after thousands of mainland users joined discussions often censored in China, including about Xinjiang detention camps and Hong Kong’s national security law.

Last Wednesday, Indonesian authorities announced the app had to register as an Electronic System Operator (PSE) to seek permission to operate, and could be banned if it fails to comply with local laws. Indonesia has previously banned Reddit, Vimeo, and many pornography sites. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last week signed a sub-decree to enable the creation of the country’s long-planned National Internet Gateway (NIG), a Chinese-style firewall, which possibly gives authorities even more powers to crackdown on online free-speech. All internet traffic will be routed through a single portal managed by a government-appointed regulator. All internet traffic metadata shall be stored for 12 months and can be assessed by the authorities.

A telecommunications law from 2015 already gave significant powers to request user traffic data from internet service providers to the authorities, and the criminal code and the “fake news” legislation were used to crack down on government critics. All these efforts, however were reactive and put in after a post, despite blockages of websites, that could be circumvented via VPNs. The NIG enables a preventive action, mounting up to censorship.

Since Cambodia is unlikely to provide a national alternative to the popular social media platform Facebook, the authorities will have to force the platforms to abide by its rules. By having a single gateway for all traffic, Cambodia might have significant leverage over the social media website, being able to threat to shut them off. Such a tactic worked well for Vietnam.

Indeed, the timing is suspect. The NIG is expected to be launched next year, which in mid-2022 will see local elections, and general elections in 2023. The ruling party dissolved its only opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in 2017. Leaders are in exile and mostly hindered from returning to the country, not even to face charges in ongoing court proceedings. [Asia Times]

In Thailand, analysts commented that the Thai cyberspace has become highly politicized after the coup, with the addition of legal tools to enable a broad and deep surveillance.

The Computer Crimes Act was enacted in 2007. Already in 2015, a “cyber warfare” unit was founded with the military, and the Technology Crime Suppression Division with the Royal Thai Police. The Ministry of the Digital Economy and Society was established in 2016. According a WikiLeaks documents, the military unit was setup with the help of an online surveillance firm and installed broad tools to collect data. The military was accused in 2016 of buying decryption technology to monitor private communication on social media. A 2017 report claimed hackers worked for the government between 2016 and 2017 to block media sites, WikiLeaks and websites that provide tools for censorship circumvention. A new cybersecurity agency and hacker training center were setup in 2018, further enabling control of online content. In 2019, a “anti-fake news center” was opened in Bangkok, employing 40 full-time staff to monitor and forward discussion in possible violation of the Computer Crimes Act to the Technology Crime Suppression Division. Officers working for the Digital Economy and Society Ministry can request computer data from service providers without a warrant. According to a Comparitech survey on privacy protection published by the end of 2019, Thailand was ranked among the lowest in the world.

In the Malay-Muslim-majority southern provinces the state’s system of surveillance is even more sophisticated, collecting DNA-samples for a DNA databank to fight insurgencies. In 2020, phone numbers were registered using a facial recognition system, and failure to register cut the individual off service. Phones have been used to set off bombs. Later, it was announced that the 8,200 security cameras in the southern provinces could be fitted with a facial recognition system and be run with artificial intelligence (AI) in the future, similar to the system in China. The UN criticized this development in 2020. [The Diplomat]


23 February 2021

Malaysia: News portal fined over user comment

(nd) The news portal Malaysiakini, one of the few independent news outlets in Malaysia providing a platform for the opposition, was found guilty of contempt of court due to comments posted by readers, deemed offensive to the judiciary. The Court panel found Malaysiakini was fully responsible for publishing the readers’ comments that “undermined the system of justice in the country” and fined the portal 500,000 ringgit ($123,762). Malaysiakini argued they cannot be held responsible for user comments, and they removed the post immediately. The case was heard by the highest court, making an appeal unlikely.

The US and other missions in a joint statement raised concerns over the decision, stating that media freedom is a “fundamental importance to the security, prosperity and wellbeing of all societies”. Rights groups joined the criticism. According to them, freedom of speech and freedom of the press meet further pressure after Prime Minister Yassin Muhyiddin took power last march.

The case was viewed as a test of state of media freedom in Malaysia. Media in Malaysia is highly regulated and dominated by state-controlled groups, rendering Malaysiakini a platform for opposition and government criticism. The decision might have broader consequences for social media platforms Facebook and Twitter. [Reuters]

23 February 2021

Malaysia: Wife of Najib faces corruption charges

(nd) The wife of ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak, Rosmah Mansor, is charged with corruption linked to a 1.25 billion ringgit ($310 million) solar energy project. She will have to defend against three charges of soliciting bribes and receiving $6.5 million ($1.6 million) between 2016 and 2017 in a project to provide solar energy panels to schools on Borneo island. In the first of several corruption trials, Najib was found guilty in July 2019 for his involvement in the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund scandal and sentenced to 12 years in prison, with the appeal currently pending. Rosmah will also be charged with respect to 1MDB in a future trial. [The Diplomat]

16 February 2021

ASEAN-EU strategic partnership

(nd) The new ASEAN–EU Strategic Partnership, announced in December 2020, not only eradicated the donor–recipient dynamic, but the EU might need ASEAN more than ASEAN needs the EU. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has declared it “no longer a luxury but a necessity”.

Issues of cooperation include the economy, ASEAN integration, COVID-19 responses, sustainable development, maritime cooperation and cybersecurity. But on terms of strategy, they still differ. While both agree on principles like a rule-based international order, multilateralism and free trade, a commitment to human rights and democracy is not a prerequisite for ASEAN.

The EU arguably has pushed more for a strategic partnership than ASEAN did. Still, the EU is a major development partner and ASEAN’s largest donor. For that, the EU might have to focus more on influencing ASEAN norms and values, to shape the partnership according to EU’s terms. It remains unclear whether the EU can reach its goal, to enhance EU security and its defense profile in the Asia Pacific, be granted membership in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.

The EU has to first ensure coherence in the bloc’s responses towards ASEAN, and avoid the implication of some members’ unilateral Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific strategies. Also, coherence is needed in relations to the member states of ASEAN. In specific issues, the EU has adopted different stances on member states, such as Cambodia on trade privileges, to Indonesia and Malaysia over palm oil, and stalled FTA talks with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The situation in Myanmar, which both have so far only commented on, can have implications on the future of the strategic partnership. In 2009, FTA negotiations with ASEAN were stalled due to insecurity of how to deal with Myanmar’s human rights record.

Going forward, ASEAN and the European Union will need to find coherence between their values, interregional and regional positions, and divergent interests among their member states. They will have to agree on how to deal with bilateral and regional issues, and how to carve out a space for the new strategic partnership in regional, multilateral and plurilateral arenas. [East Asia Forum]


16 February 2021

ASEAN to have less trust in China

(nd) China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy appears to be unsuccessful, according to a survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. In a poll conducted from mid-November to January with 1,032 people across ASEAN, 44.2% said China provided the majority of help to the region during the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, and despite proactive efforts to secure vaccine deals in the region, 61.5% of respondents said they would choose the US over China in the ongoing US-China rivalry, a rise of 7.9% in support for the US compared to last year. While new possibilities were associated with the incoming Biden administration, many grow increasingly wary of Chinese influence in the region. China was named as most influential economic power in the region by 76.3% of respondents, 72.3% of which voiced concerns thereof. Of 49.1% who named China as the most influential political and strategic power in the region, 88.6% indicated being worried about this influence.

China was also low in terms of trust among global powers: Additionally, some 63% responded to have “little confidence” or “no confidence” that China will “do the right thing” for the global community, rising more than 10% in comparison to last year. Analysts commented, this trust deficit is upward trending. Its economic and military power combined is viewed as a possible threat to sovereign interests. [Nikkei Asia]

16 February 2021

Malaysia: Detention of Myanmar national announced

(nd) After the military regime in Myanmar offered to take back citizens detained, Malaysia announced to deport 1,200 Myanmar nationals. Malaysia regards them as illegal migrants since it does not formally recognize refugees. There was no comment made whether refugees are among the detainees, but past groups have included members of the Chin, Kachin and the Muslim Rohingya communities. More than 154,000 asylum-seekers from Myanmar are in Malaysia, according to UN refugee agency UNHCR. Myanmar views Rohingyas as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Myanmar will send navy ships on February 21. This is the first time Myanmar’s navy had offered to help repatriate its citizens, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based Alliance of Chin Refugees, who also said refugees are in danger of persecution if sent back.

The Myanmar army in 2007 launched operation against Rohingya Muslims, forcing around 730,000 to neighboring Bangladesh, which was referring to by the UN as “genocidal intent”. [Malaymail]


16 February 2021

Malaysia: Muhyiddin to launch National Unity Policy

(nd) Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin launched the National Unity Policy, a 10-year blueprint to unite the multiethnic and -religious nation. He states his goal for the country to become more inclusive, tolerant and also “patriotic”, and therefore shaped out three key objectives and urged all members of society to support the plan. The first is national integration based on constitutional values, the second is forming a “national identity” shaped by “patriotism, compassion, tolerance, respect and collective responsibility”, and the third is valuing and practicing unity.

National integration has been a key objective for various administrations, since the May 13 riots in 1969, an incident of Sino-Malay lethal violence in the aftermath of the general election, that lead to a two-year state of emergency and the implementation of New Economic Policy, favoring ethnic Malay over other races.

Muhyiddin himself is a controversial figure, facing challenges from all political sides since taking office March last year. His latest move to convince the Agong to declare the Emergency rule has been labeled by critics as an intention to avoid a parliamentary vote to possibly oust him. [Malaymail]


16 February 2021

Malaysian deported from Singapore over terrorist charges

(py) A Malaysian man was arrested in Singapore under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in July 2020 after investigations revealed that he was a supporter of the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Though he was repatriated to Malaysia in August 2020, it remains unclear why the Singaporean authority has just announced his expulsion this week. As of now, he is accused of possessing items related to terrorist acts, and the intention to travel to Syria to fight for ISIS. His Singaporean wife was also radicalized after her marriage and is currently receiving religious counseling. [Benar News]

Late last year, Singapore announced the deportation of another Malaysian national following his radicalization, who was cleared by Malay police upon return. The threat posed by terrorism is decreasing in Malaysia. While last year, Malaysia had arrested seven individuals and successfully charged four, in 2019 72 IS-linked suspects were arrested, and 119 in 2018. Still, security analysts highlighted that amid the pandemic, ISIS was stepping up recruitment in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.


9 February 2021

Japan-ADB cooperation agreement on ASEAN energy projects 

(dql) In a move to strengthen its footprint in Southeast Asia against China, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has reached an agreement with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under which both sides will cooperate on clean energy projects in the frame of the Cleaner Energy Future Initiative for ASEAN (CEFIA), covering areas of renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency, and other technologies for low carbon energy transition.

Established in 2019, the CEFIA seeks to accelerate the deployment of sustainable energy and low carbon technologies in Southeast Asia. [Modern Diplomacy]

9 February 2021

Malaysia: Former Head of Felda sentenced for bribery

(nd) Former politician and chairman of the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda), Mohd Isa Abdul Samad, was sentenced to six years in prison on bribery charges. As head of Felda, he approved a hotel purchase in Sarawak in 2004 without board directory approval and accepted nine bribes amounting to more than 3 million ringgit. Due to the public nature of the offense and his betrayal of public trust, he was fined five times the amount he accepted in bribes. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak made Isa chairman of Felda in 2010. The judge of his case was the one who last year convicted Najib in connection with the 1MDB state fund to a 12-year prison sentence and a fine.

Felda is a state agency set up in 1956 tasked to eliminate poverty among rural ethnic Malay farmers by distributing farmland. Between 1957 and 1990, Felda resettled 112,635 families. [Benarnews]

9 February 2021

ASEAN, Indonesia to intervene in Myanmar

(nd) Following a bilateral meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced to talk to current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Brunei, to convene a special meeting on the coup in Myanmar.

 While ASEAN disposes of a Human Rights Declaration and the Charter calls for the strengthening of democracy, good governance and rule of law, at its core understanding lie the overarching principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Since democracy as such is no prerequisite for the membership in the bloc, its backsliding does not warrant for a response. Such is mimicked in the statement by ASEAN chair Brunei, “noting” the commitment to democracy and the rule of law but calling for a dialogue and the return to normalcy. The Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia referred to the principle of non-intervention and labelled the coup an internal matter. Vietnam called for a stabilization and Malaysia for a discussion to ‘avoid adverse consequences’ of the coup. Indonesia voiced the strongest opposition, referring to uphold the ASEAN charter and use legal mechanisms to resolve the issue. Given the intentionally non-enforceable commitments to democracy in the charter, forging a common stance seems difficult.

Historically though, Indonesia assumed the position of a role model for Myanmar, which according to analysts warrants for a heightened responsibility now. Indonesia itself successfully transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. A significant role within Myanmar’s transition to democracy was assumed by former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia’s first directly elected president. Besides assisting Myanmar with minority conflicts, drafting of laws and education on democratic institution, the presence of himself and former military allies who turned into democratic reformers were the most obvious message sent. In contrast to current president Widodo, whose agenda is focused on domestic issues, SBY was looking for an international statesman position with a democracy-infused diplomatic agenda. Therefore, some suggested SBY to function as Indonesia’s envoy to Myanmar to advocate credibly for military reforms. 

Any intervention in Myanmar is shadowed by a fear of Myanmar gravitating further to China if pressured too much. As well as the muted bloc’s response carries the fear of further coups and authoritarian takeovers in the region. [Reuters] [Benarnews] [East Asia Forum]

2 February 2021

Malaysia, China to tighten relations 

(nd) While the economic cooperation between China and Malaysia is largely seen as successful, Malaysia is likely to be pulled under tougher Chinese influence. China remains a mayor infrastructure investor and presents a possibility to help the heavily contracted economy amid the ongoing pandemic. With regards to Covid-19, China offered to place Malaysia on its vaccine priority list.

In light of this support, a declaration following Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit stated both countries’ opposition to hegemony and maritime big power presence, but supporting multilateralism, which was a clear allusion to US security policy in the South China Sea. This Chinese pull came amid an unreliable US during the presidency of former president Donald Trump. While Malaysia, as other ASEAN members, is reluctant to being positioned between the US and China, the support China can give amongst instable politics is more than the US is offering currently. [Nikkei Asia]

26 January 2021

Malaysia: Vietnamese fishermen arrested

(nd) Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) has arrested 16 Vietnamese fishermen off Terengganu state. The fishermen were using fake registration numbers. Among other states, Malaysia and Vietnam have claims to the South China Sea that overlap. Recently, tension rose in the disputed waters due to Chinese military action. [Reuters]

26 January 2021

Malaysia: Increasing repression of LGBT

(dql) Human Rights Watch, in a thorough paper on LGBT rights in Malaysia denounced attempt to strengthen criminal penalties against LGBT in Malaysia as a latest action against LGBT in a series of moves under Prime Minister Muhyididin Yassin’s Perikitan Nasional government. Prior, the deputy minister for religious affairs in the Prime Minister’s Department proposed to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act (Act 355) to establish harsher sentences for same-sex conduct than the current maximum Sharia sentence permitted under federal law. Moreover, the deputy minister also proposed asa new Sharia offense to change one’s gender and to produce or share social media content deemed obscene and indecent, including images of non-normative gender expression.

Besides, the federal penal code state Sharia laws, which are enforced by state Islamic Religious Departments and tried in Sharia courts, are applicable to Muslims in Malaysia. At current, all 13 states and the federal territory criminalize same-sex relations and gender nonconformity already. Moreover, section 377 of the federal penal code punishes any form of anal or oral sex with up to 20 years in prison and mandatory caning.

Concerning Sharia courts, Act 355, adopted in 1965 to safeguard Malaysia’s – then – secular character, limited the sentences that can be imposed by Sharia courts to the imposition of maximum sentences of one year in prison and a fine of up to RM 1,000 (US$250). The act was amended in 1984, however, increasing the maximum sentence to three years in prison, fines of up to RM 5,000 (US$1,240), and caning of up to six strokes.

Before 2018, Malaysian courts rarely imposed caning sentences, which are a form of torture under international law, for same-sex conduct which slowly changed since then with a 2018 case against two women accused of attempted same-sex relations and a 2019 case where, the Selangor Sharia court sentenced five men to fines, imprisonment, and caning.

The latest Selangor case, however, led to a constitutional challenge which is pending before the Federal Court. [Human Rights Watch]

26 January 2021

Malaysia: Opposition leader files lawsuit against suspension of parliament

(nd) Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim filed a lawsuit against Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and the federal government at the High Court, Malaysia’s apex court. The motion is contesting Muhyiddin’s advice to King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah to approve Rule 14 of the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 2021, which suspends parliament during the emergency period.

The King declared a state of emergency early January, which lasts until August 1, in order to contain the spread of Covid-19. Critics said the emergency was not necessary to fight the pandemic but a move by Muhyiddin to cover up his crumbling parliamentary majority and cling to power. A previous request by Muhyiddin to the King to declare a state of emergency was dismissed late last year. Following the King’s declaration, Muhyiddin stated that parliamentary sittings and elections are suspended during the emergency.

Malaysia has reported a total of 186,849 Covid-19 cases so far, 41,076 of those considered active, and 689 fatalities. [Channel News Asia]

26 January 2021

ASEAN human rights hit by pandemic

(nd) According to deputy Asia director at the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, human rights took a hit amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which highlighted inequalities and vulnerability. Malaysia for instance excluded their 3,5 million migrants and refugees from government aid programs. For a lack of governmental support in Myanmar, some of the overlooked people relied on armed rebel groups for aid instead. In Singapore and partly in Thailand, the virus transmission was blamed on migrants, creating an anti-immigrant sentiment.

Apart from economic differences and hardships, the pandemic allowed to “reinforce” existing policies to target dissidents under the umbrella of health protection, as seen with protesters in Thailand. According to US-based rights advocacy group Amnesty International, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte told soldiers and neighborhood leaders to shoot “troublemakers” protesting during community quarantine, furthering the “climate of impunity”, which was set off by his infamous drug on war, resulting in increased killings of activists. In this militaristic atmosphere, police officers were found to have committed abused enforcing stay-at-home orders. [Voice of America]

19 January 2021

Indonesia, Malaysia to cooperate on palm oil promotion

(nd) In light of international criticism against palm oil and the circumstances of its production, the world’s largest producers, Indonesia and Malaysia, are planning to join forces to run an advocacy campaign in Europe. Therefore, they have engaged through the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC), in a request to hire an advocacy firm to change the negative perception of the product.

Producers are accused of destroying biodiversity rich rainforest and mistreatment of migrant workers. In the EU, the discussions around the European Green Deal could result in restrictions for the use of palm oil, a commodity used in various products ranging from lipstick and pizza to biodiesel. In 2019 the EU decided to phase out palm oil by 2030 due to deforestation concerns, with companies having launched “palm oil-free” products. While the exports to India and China are much higher, the sentiment in Europe is important for the global reputation of the commodity.

This is the first time the two countries are working together against the threats to their good. [Reuters]

19 January 2021

China’s vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia 

(nd) After Chinese company Sinovac announced a 78% efficacy rate during its trials of CoronaVac, Brazilian scientists reported a significantly lower rate of 50,4 %, casting doubt on China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy” in Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) threshold for advised use is 50%. Indonesia’s own trials found an efficacy of 63,3%, with Indonesia’s food and drug agency to be the first in the world to approve use of the Sinovac vaccinations. Despite the high numbers and the prominent vaccination of President Joko Widodo, the Indonesian population is rather reluctant to receive a shot due to concerns over safety and efficacy. [Asia Times]

Thailand and the Philippines have also already purchased doses of CoronaVac, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte criticizing Western vaccination makers for their unscrupulous prices. Vaccinations produced by Moderna and Pfizer-Biontech have shown efficacy rates of about 95%, but are more expensive and have to be transported and stored in costly freezers. Besides the price and its availability, buying Chinese vaccinations will potentially bring more general benefits, with China having already announced it will look kindly on purchasers of its products. [Asia Times]

Despite China being the country’s closest ally and economic patron, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last year to only purchase WHO-approved vaccines, which to date doesn’t include any of the at least four vaccinations produced by China, which prompted observers to state that it will take the country until at least mid-2022 to be able to vaccinate more than 60% of its population. The Chinese government and state media downplayed the efficacy results, but they still raised already existing public doubt over the reliability of Chinese vaccinations, and the more general notion of unsafe and hasty production of vaccinations against Covid-19 generally. Yet, early this week Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accepted a donation of one million Sinopharm vaccine doses from China, contradicting previous pledges. Hun Sen argued amid a Thai Covid-19 case surge, he cannot afford to wait, and referred to the rollout of the vaccine in China, Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil. [Nikkei Asia]

During his visit to the Philippines, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised half a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, US$1.34 billion in loan pledges for infrastructure projects and US$77 million (500 million yuan) in grants. Philippine Foreign Minister Locsin, however, also made reference to the South China Sea dispute. According to observers, in light of the incoming Biden administration, the donation and investment in infrastructure was an effort to present itself as a partner to revive heavy-hit economies in the regions. [South China Morning Post]

19 January 2021

China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” 

(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043. 

The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership. 

Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”

As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]

For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017. 


19 January 2021

Malaysia: Opposition decisively challenging the state of emergency

(nd) Following the declaration state of emergency last week, Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim announced to submit an appeal to King Al-Sultan Abdullah to end its imposition. The emergency will suspend parliament until August, giving time and broad executive power to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s who hold a razor-thin majority in parliament, which was shaken several times in the last quarter of 2020 until the recent withdrawal of support by lawmakers eliminated his slight majority. In a letter to federal lawmakers, Anwar voiced an accusation that PM Muhyiddin misled the King and emphasized, the provisions under existing laws were sufficient to contain the spread of the pandemic. While the Prime Minister claims that the latest Covid-19 figures were pushing Malaysia’s health care system to the breaking point, opposition parties and non-government groups raised alarms for abuse of powers, foreshadowing a crackdown on government critics. Referencing investigations last year against opposing journalists, rights workers and lawmakers, they stated that freedom of speech shrank constantly since Muhyiddin has taken office.

For Malaysia, it was the first imposition of an emergency in over 50 years, and the second time parliament has been suspended since independence from Britain in 1957. [Voice of America] [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, former member of Pakatan Harapan, Datuk Seri Khairuddin Abu Hassan, initiated a lawsuit against PM Muhyiddin Yassin and his government questioning whether a prime minister who no longer has the majority in the House can still advise the King to proclaim an Emergency State and still can suspend the Parliament’s sittings. Khairuddin is known to have been politically affiliated with former Prime Minsiter and opposition heavy weight Mahathir Mohamad. [Malay Mail]

12 January 2021

Malaysia, US to put Mahatir on extremist list

(nd) Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was named one of the “Top 20 Most Dangerous Extremists Around the World” and “considered a huge threat to international security” by the US-based Counter Extremism Project (CEP). Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah was named as the most dangerous extremist on the list, ahead of Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, self-proclaimed “caliph” of terrorist group Islamic State. 

Mahatir entered the list due to his remarks in October 2020 on the terrorist attack on a French teacher for showing the caricatures of the Prophet, and labelled anti-Semitic and a critic of the West. Former US government officials founded CEP in 2014 with their mission lying in “fighting global extremism”, and a particular focus on disrupting ISIS. [South China Morning Post]


12 January 2021

Malaysia: Looming split of Umno and Bersatu

(nd) The United Malays National Organisation (Umno), central ally of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and the country’s largest political party, will be discussing cutting ties with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) by the end of January, which could force snap elections. Since Umno provides the largest number of MPs to Muhyiddin’s razor-thin majority, it has a strong bargaining position towards the Prime Minister. The plan to ultimately leave Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition, however, is not fully supported by the Supreme Council members. Analysts see the announcement of this as a way to push Muhyiddin to provide more government position to Umno members, as well as potentially dropping ongoing charges against several Umno leaders, since they are backing his new government, while Pakatan Harapan leaders are plotting to oust Muhyiddin. [South China Morning Post]


12 January 2021

Malaysia: Party applications rejected

(nd) An application to register a new political party, the Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang) led by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has been rejected by the Registrar of Society (ROS) due to formal reasons. Likewise, the application by the Malaysia United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) led by former Minister of Youth and Sports Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman was rejected. [Channel Asia News]

12 January 2021

Malaysia: Declaration of emergency state  

(nd) Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah consented to the government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s declaration of a nationwide state of emergency to fight a recent spike in COvid-19 cases overwhelming hospitals. It will last until August or as long as it takes to regain control. Malaysia’s daily cases per million are now among the highest in the region, with a seven-day average of 74.66 per million as of Sunday.

Critics labelled it as a move by an unstable government to cling to power, since the emergency avoids the looming snap elections amid tries to challenge the government by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Muhyiddin tried and failed to convince the king for a similar declaration of emergency in October during the most recent challenge by Anwar. Also, United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which disposes of the largest seat number in Muhyiddin’s coalition, urged him to call a general election by the end of March, threatening to withdraw their support. Since the emergency move will grant the authorities significantly more powers, its declaration prompted concerns over civil liberties.

Ever since March 2020, Malaysia has seen political turmoil after the collapse of Mahathir Mohammed’s administration, which brought Muhyiddin to power without an election. [Asia Times] [Nikkei Asia]

5 January 2021

ASEAN countries, US to seek last minute deals

(nd) Only weeks before the official end of the Trump administration, countries across Southeast Asia seem to pursue last minute security and economic agreements with the US in light of president Donald Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy. During the Trump presidency, trade with the US increased despite of his relative lack of interest in the region, while the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is widely associated with a stricter emphasis on human rights and democratic values. In early December, the Philippines received $29 million in military equipment during a visit, with an announcement of additional $18 million worth of military equipment and training.

For Indonesia’s planned sovereign wealth fund, the US International Development Finance Corp. signed a letter of interest for a $2 billion as one of the first countries to sign up, with an aimed estimated total of about $15 billion from around the world. The US also extend tariff exemptions for Indonesia, possibly with an eye on cooperation against Chinese maritime actions in the South China Sea. Due to its geographic position, the region will play a pivotal role in geopolitics in the coming years, to stand strong against Chinese aggression and growing influence, but still, in the region, democratic governance is deteriorating, and left unaddressed.

Economically, the region has benefitted from the Trump administration, with ASEAN having received about $24.5 billion in direct investment from the US in 2019, with exports from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia on the rise since 2017. Additionally, US-based power company AES announced to join a development project for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Vietnam, which also agreed to import up to $500 million in American pork over the next three years. This was seen as a reaction to mitigate the trade imbalance, still US accused Vietnam of currency manipulation after. [Nikkei Asia]

5 January 2021

Malaysia, Singapore to terminate multibillion-dollar high-speed rail project

(nd) Malaysia and Singapore announced they would terminate a 2016 plan to build a US$25 billion high-speed rail project. Demanded changes by the Malay side were not agreed upon. The Malaysian government will have to pay a fee for the cancellation of the contract, reportedly more than S$100 million (US$75 million).

The Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance, who unexpectedly won the general election in 2018, asked for a commencement extension to re-evaluate costs and the project’s merits, referring to the huge national debt. Following the PH’s oust by a political coup in March, Prime Minister Yassin Muhyiddin’s administration tried to renegotiate, including a realignment of the rail link to connect it to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), to avoid the feared divert in traffic to Singapore’s more established Changi Airport.

The original plan was to reduce travel time from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore to 90 minutes for the 350km distance. The pandemic and expected decrease in travel also for business purposes might have made the project less economically interesting. [South China Morning Post]


5 January 2021

Malaysia, US to ban import of Malaysian palm oil

(nd) For the second time, the US moved to ban the import of Malaysian palm oil, this time against Sime Darby Plantation, one of the world’s biggest producers.

Activists long claimed bad working conditions on the plantations and the destruction of rainforests to make way for plantations. In the current case, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said there was evidence that workers face abuses including sexual and physical violence, withholding of wages and restrictions on movement. In October, the US banned imports from Malaysian palm oil producer FGV Holdings, also on accounts of alleged labor law violations. [Asia Times]