Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

31 August 2021

Singapore: Lee to balance protection of local workforce against racial harmony

(nd) In a key policy speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated to tighten restrictions on foreign workers, which have created tension in the usually open city state.

Visa criteria for expats shall be raised, salaries of low-income workers increased and companies held accountable for hiring practices, mostly in the tech and financial sector, with an unfair advantage to the local workforce. With respect to the latter, Lee admitted that such workers were on short supply and sometimes qualification would not be met locally. Still, Lee announced to introduce anti-discrimination laws for the workplace and to set up a tribunal for workers to call on.

Other measures to achieve higher salaries for Singaporeans include making companies who hire foreigners pay all their local staff a qualifying salary of at least S$1,400 ($1,040) a month, irrespective of how many foreigners are employed. Lee also promised more protection for low-wage workers who have been on the frontline during the pandemic, specifically pointing to the food delivery apps, such as Delivery Hero SE’s Foodpanda, Grab Holdings Inc. and Deliveroo Plc, whose delivery workers have no employment contracts, lack basic job protections and earn an income to hardly be able to afford housing, healthcare and retirement, and whose salary top-ups and pension contributions from the government have cost about S$850 million yearly, and rising.

Amid pandemic-induced shutdowns and economic downturn, foreign labor created tension and fueled resentments over foreigners. Therefore, a large part of the speech was dedicated to the topic of racial harmony, announcing new legislation to deal with such issues. Until now, Singapore has relied on the colonial-era sedition act to deal with serious offenses involving hate crimes or racial enmity, which critics said were used to suppress criticism. [Bloomberg] [South China Morning Post]

24 August 2021

US Vice President to visit Singapore, Vietnam

(nd) As part of her visit to Southeast Asia in an effort to rebuild regional ties, US Vice President Kamala Harris met Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to enter a series of agreements, including cybersecurity, climate and public health and economic cooperation, including a dialogue to boost cooperation on supply-chain resilience. They also discussed the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as China and Myanmar. Amid the current crisis in Afghanistan, Harris emphasized US commitment to the region and reiterated strategic and economic interests. [Bloomberg]

Following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the chaotic troop withdrawal, the US has faced global criticism, urging Chinese state media to draw a line to Taiwan not being able to depend on the US and being a “weak and unreliable power” [CNBC]. Similar fears rose with respect to South Korea and Japan. While such comparisons are too simplistic, it is still likely to leave a mark on regional ties with Southeast Asia. Even before the withdrawal, many regional governments questioned US commitment to the region. The recent events highlight all the more that the US will prioritize its own interests over those of its allies and partners. With respect to security, for example, the withdrawal has an effect on Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, fighting against a growing presence of the Islamic State, with Afghanistan possibly once again becoming a safe haven for extremist groups. [See article below] Even if the US refers to strategic interests in the region, such are primarily perceived as referring to containing China, prioritizing security and defense relations.

Other experts argue the withdrawal is likely to free up much needed resources to counter China in the region, not only with respect to the South China Sea. Also, with respect to economic regional economic dependency, China looms over the visit, which is why it was considered central to establish trust in the region. To highlight that, a US official was quoted saying Harris’s trip is to show that the US was in Southeast Asia “to stay”, another official commenting she “will make clear throughout the trip that we do have an enduring commitment to the region”.

After three days in Singapore, Harris will visit Vietnam on Tuesday for two days. Her visit is part of a recent diplomatic charm offensive by the Biden administration in Southeast Asia, following Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit in May and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to Singapore in July. [See also AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2] The Biden administration is the third to promise a renewed focus on this region. Barack Obama’s “pivot” was supposed to redirect US diplomacy away from the Middle East towards the Asia-Pacific, while Donald Trump’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, was directed against Chinese influence. Analysts argue the current US strategy should include economic aspects, given the recent passage if the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and be framed positively, to not be perceived as purely confronting China. [Channel News Asia] [South China Morning Post] [Al Jazeera] [BBC] [Bloomberg] [The Diplomat]


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

Singapore: Report on restraints in university freedom

(nd) According to a recent survey, Singapore-based academics studying “politically sensitive” topics say they feel constrained from exploring certain topics in their work. The survey was conducted with 198 scholars, out of a third stated to know of academics who were told to withdraw or modify research findings for non-academic reasons. Sixteen per cent of survey respondents said they were not free to choose their preferred research area and broader agenda, while a third reported knowing of academics 

Almost 40% felt that they were “not free” to invite guest speakers as they wished, often reporting the university requires them to obtain permission. Respondents also said pressure was indirect and invisible, due to the fact that “political regulation is mostly decentralized and institutionalized within universities, and enveloped within a culture of self-censorship”.

The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), has been criticized for limiting civil rights and cracking down on critics. They claimed such restrictions were necessary to maintain social peace and has faced accusations that it takes a tough approach against critical scholarship of its 62-year rule of the island nation. [South China Morning Post]

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.

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

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

Chinese embassy blasts US Defence Secretary Austin for ‘attack and smear’ in Singapore lecture

(lm) The Chinese Embassy in Singapore on July 29 cut up US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin for his comments during a lecture in the city state last week on Taiwan, the South China Sea and Uygur Muslims that it deemed an “attack and smear” on Beijing. [South China Morning Post]

Austin, who had arrived in Singapore earlier last week for his first visit since taking up his post, was speaking on July 27 at an event organized by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, when he outlined his vision of “integrated deterrence.”

In his lecture, the US official devoted a substantial amount of time to addressing Washington’s relations with Beijing, saying that while his country sought “constructive, stable” ties with China, it “will not flinch” if its interests are threatened. The Pentagon chief, however, couched the somewhat conciliatory comments by listing various concerns including Beijing’s hardened Taiwan policy; its claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea; and the treatment of Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang. [Defense News]

Two days thereafter, the Chinese Embassy in Singapore responded to Austin’s speech with a statement, in which it claimed the US official had “distorted facts and created falsehoods” to serve US geopolitical goals. The Embassy also claimed Austin had played up the “so-called China threat” in an attempt to drive a wedge between China and its neighbors. [The Straits Times]

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

US Justice Department Seizes Singaporean Oil Tanker for Violating North Korea Sanctions

(nds) On July 30, the US Department of Justice announced the seizure of a 2,734-ton oil tanker allegedly owned by a Singaporean national who was using it to make shipments of petroleum products to North Korea. In March 2020, the Cambodian authorities had seized the tanker under the US mandate and had held it since then. However, a New York court ruled that the US could control the seized property. The Singaporean owner has not yet been arrested. North Korea is subject to UN and other international sanctions over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. For this reason, Pyongyang has resorted to illegal means to circumvent the consequences of international sanctions. North Korea has rebuffed US calls for a return to negotiations on its weapons programs and has long called for lifting sanctions that hamper its economy. Relations between the two countries have become more tense since US President Joe Biden took office. [South China Morning Post]

On Tuesday, South Korea lawmakers said North Korea demands international sanctions banning most importantly its metal exports and imports of refined fuel and other necessities to be lifted as a requirement to restart denuclearization talks with the US. The North Korean economy is left battered amid the pandemic, experiencing its biggest contraction in 23 years. Despite recent diplomatic inter-Korean improvements, the US insists on North Korea to give up its missile program to establish relations. The UN, US, Japan and South Korea have issued sanctions on North Korea, which are not binding for other countries. North Korea has continued its nuclear and ballistic program despite sanctions, has conducted six nuclear tests since 2006 and test-fired missiles capable of hitting the US. [Voice of America]

3 August 2021

Vice President Harris to visit Vietnam, Singapore, as United States court Southeast Asia

(ct/lm/nd) US Vice President will travel to Singapore and Vietnam next month to fortify regional ties with Southeast Asian nations, as the Biden administration looks to counter Chinese influence in the region and globally. [The Hill]

Harris will be the first US Vice President to visit Vietnam, and the highest-ranking official from the Biden administration to visit the Indo-Pacific, and Asia overall. Importantly, the announcement of her trip comes just days after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s own trip to Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam, which focused on offering support to Southeast Asia nations as territorial rifts with China unfold. [see article in this edition]

The White House did not provide details on the dates of the trip. But analysts consider Harris’ trip the latest in a series of diplomatic efforts aimed at emphasizing Washington’s renewed commitment to Southeast Asia, given US President Biden’s focus on Asia as a linchpin of his foreign policy agenda.

Despite China and Vietnam’s communist ties, Hanoi has emerged as a key American partner and a vocal opponent of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. However, members of the Biden administration have said the US’ relationship with Vietnam will remain limited until the country makes progress on human rights issues. [Reuters]

The vice president’s visit affirms the strength of the relationship between the US and Singapore, according to reporting in the Business Times. Harris will meet with Singapore leaders to discuss ways to cooperate in areas such as defense, digital trade and cyber security. [CNBC]

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

US Secretary of Defense Austin visits Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines to fortify regional ties

(ct/nd/lm) US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was on a Southeast Asia swing last week, meeting with leaders in Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines, in an effort to rebuild ties after monthslong absence by US top officials in a region that has been aggressively courted by China. [U.S. Department of Defense]

Austin’s visit was the first by a US Cabinet member to Southeast Asia since President Biden took office in January. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand in late May and early June and Japan, South Korea and Mongolia last month before heading to China for talks that appeared to do little to ease deeply strained ties.

The choices assume added significance, because among the 10 countries of Southeast Asia, those are the three that are most strategically aligned with the United States and most supportive of a robust American presence in the region. They are also the three in which some attention from Washington is likely to deliver concrete progress in the short to medium term, according to analysts. [The New York Times] [Center For Strategic & International Studies]

The centerpiece of the secretary’s time in Singapore was his speech at a lecture organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank. It was intended to reassure allies and partners that Washington was still invested in the region after not having showed high-level diplomatic attention for half a year. [see also article in this edition].

Austin’s visit to Singapore was also aimed at making progress on some crucial bilateral partnerships. While meeting with his counterpart Ng Eng Hen, the two reaffirmed the importance of the US-Singapore defense relationship, which is critical to Washington’s naval presence, in particular.

Both sides also reaffirmed previous agreements, including the 2019 renewal of the pact that allows American access to Singaporean facilities, and plans for Singapore Air Force F-16s and F-35s to train in Guam. Significantly, the two top officials said they would continue “discussions on U.S. force posture initiatives,” a sign that the city-state is open to additional US access in the future. [The Straits Times]

In Vietnam on July 29, Austin sought to nudge forward security ties that have been steadily deepening amid shared concern about China’s activities in the South China Sea.

He arrived in the midst of the crippling COVID-19 pandemic and just days after Washington shipped 3 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Vietnam. The trip also came just days after the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative formally closed a Section 301 investigation into alleged currency manipulation by Vietnam [see AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3]. This followed a deal between the US Treasury Department and State Bank of Vietnam, putting to rest a years-long sticking point in the relationship and removing the risk of sanctions. [Office of the United States Trade Representative] [Voice of America]

Austin met with Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and President Nguyen Xuan Phuc to discuss cooperation on COVID-19. Together with is Vietnamese counterpart, he also signed a memorandum of understanding that expands support to Vietnam’s efforts to locate and identify Vietnamese killed or missing during the Vietnam War.

After leaving Vietnam, Austin headed to the Philippines and scored a significant success when its President Rodrigo Duterte restored a pact governing the movement of US troops in and out of the country, something strategically vital for Washington’s efforts to counter China. [The Hill] [see article below]

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

Singapore, China to compete with respect to bunker fuels 

(nd) With China boosting its capacities, dominant marine fuel supplier Singapore will face significant competition. Ports and refining facilities were rapidly expanded, attracting more ships, which resulted in a five-fold increase in sales over the last five years. The main area for Chinese bunker fuels is Zhoushan, an archipelago south of Shanghai, feature the country’s biggest facilities, made more competitive by governmental tax incentives. Singapore supplies about a fifth of the global total in bunker fuel, totaling to 50 million tons in 2020. According to an estimate, Chinese sales rose to 16.0 million tons. Bunking facilities in China are quickly expanded and pumping volumes increased, for which global rules demand the use of cleaner fuels. The government has issued more than 10 bunkering licenses in Zhoushan. While China’s pricing is very competitive, Singapore has a geographical advantage and is more reliable with its efficient and timely delivery of fuel, according to experts. [South China Morning Post]

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]

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

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

Singapore: Launch of investment to boost the digital economy

(nd) Singapore announced to invest $50 million in a program to advance research on AI and cybersecurity, to support advanced communications and connectivity research. It forms part of the Future Communications Research & Development Program, and aims at advancing in digital economy, such as the setup of the Singapore Trade Data Exchange, or SGTraDex, to enable multiple stakeholders along the supply chain to share information, like real-time cargo locations, in order to digitalize it. Digital economy in Southeast Asia is growing fast and its internet sectors are estimated to pass $300 billion by 2025, accelerated by the global pandemic forcing many businesses to switch to online models. [CNBC]


20 July 2021

Singapore: World’s biggest floating solar power farm

(nd) Covering the size of 45 football pitches, Singapore uncovered the world’s biggest floating solar power farms, in an effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The 122,000 panels on Tengeh Reservoir will produce electricity to run its five water treatment plants. Within Asia, Singapore is the biggest per capita carbon dioxide emitters. In the Johor Strait separating it from Malaysia, Singapore built another solar farm, forming part of the government’s “green plan” unveiled in February to achieve net-zero emissions “as soon as viable” in the second half of the century. [Asia Times]

20 July 2021

US to visit Southeast Asian countries

(nd) The Pentagon announced that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam later this month. The trip is to demonstrate the importance the Biden-Harris Administration gives to the region and the coordination with the regional bloc ASEAN as part of the US’s Indo-Pacific’s architecture. These efforts shall mitigate the economic influence gained by China in the last years. Also, the end of tenure of largely pro-China President Rodrigo Duterte next year is seen as a chance to renew decades-old military ties in the Philippines. [Reuters]


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]

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.

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

Singapore: Officials defend CECA trade pact with India amid immigration concerns

(lm) During a nearly four-hour parliamentary debate, Singapore officials last week mounted a fierce defense of a trade pact with India, saying false claims that the agreement allowed unfettered immigration from the South Asian nation were “seductively simplistic” and aimed at discrediting the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times]

The agreement is question is the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), a free trade agreement signed between Singapore in India in 2005 to strengthen and enhance the economic, trade and investment cooperation between the two countries. The CECA has become a point of grievance for Singaporeans who believe that a high influx of Indian professionals in fields like finance and information technology has stolen their jobs and is crowding out the local society. [The Week]

These worries have become more pronounced as Singapore battles its worst recession and countries around the world continue struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to various websites and social media channels being filled with disturbingly xenophobic posts on Indian immigrants. This later turned into verbal and physical assaults, against the larger backdrop of an escalating coronavirus situation in India and fears of a new Indian variant [see e.g. AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]. [Mothership]

Critics include the opposition Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and the Peoples Voice party, which both highlighted the matter in last year’s general election. During last week’s parliamentary debate, they countered by saying the government was being too quick to label them as racists while not publicizing data to back up the official position that the trade deal creates jobs for citizens.

The PSP has said it will table a motion for a full debate on CECA.

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]

6 July 2021

Beijing responsible for current tensions in China-EU relations, European diplomats say

(dql) European diplomats have expressed a hardened stance towards China at the World Peace Forum (see above), holding Beijing responsible for the current tensions in relations between China and the European Union (EU). Nicolas Chapuis, the EU’s top envoy to Beijing, criticized Beijing for an increasingly aggressive attitude – including claims of a superiority of the Chinese political system over Western liberal democracies – that has harmed mutual understanding and mutual trust. Caroline Wilson, the UK’s ambassador to China, insisted that human rights were not a
“geopolitical game,” but “foundational matters”, while Italian ambassador to China Luca Ferrari warned that “[t]he risk, if China does not open, is that Europe starts closing up, ” [South China Morning Post]

The remarks come after in May EU lawmakers suspended debate on the ratification of a landmark investment deal with China – the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. The suspension came in response to Beijing’s sanctions against members of the bloc with which Beijing retaliated sanctions imposed by the EU on China over alleged human rights abuses on Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4]

They also come amid findings of the latest Pew Research poll which show that large majorities in the world’s 17 most advanced economies hold unfavorable views of China, with the median standing at 69%, compared to 25% with favorable views. Japan tops the list with 88%, followed by Sweden (80%), Australia (78%), South Korea (77%) and the US (76%). Greece and Singapore are the two countries in which the majority holds favorable views of China, with 52% and 64%, respectively. [Pew Research]

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday held a video call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss a range of issues, including Eu-China relations, international trade, climate protection and biodiversity, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, global vaccine supply, and international and regional issues.

During the conversation Xi expressed hope that China and Europe would expand cooperation to better respond to global challenges, with Europe playing a more active role in international affairs, achieving strategic independence and offering a fair, transparent and unbiased environment for Chinese firms and enterprises. [Reuters]

29 June 2021

Singapore’s foreign minister to embark on working visit to Italy

(tcy) Singapore’s foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan is scheduled to visit Italy from June 27 to July 1. During the trip, she will attend the Ministerial Meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Rome, which will be co-chaired by Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Luigi Di Maio and United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In addition, Balakrishnan will also attend the Group of 20 (G-20) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and the Foreign and Development Joint Ministerial Session, and the Development Ministerial Session at the invitation of her Italian counterpart Di Maio. [The Straits Times]

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

Singapore, UK in negotiations for digital economy agreement

(tcy) On June 28, Singapore’s Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations S. Iswaran and British Secretary of State for International Trade Elizabeth Truss held a videoconference to discuss the UK-Singapore Digital Economy Agreement, marking the launch of negotiations for an agreement that will establish rules to enable trusted cross-border data flows and ensure high standards in data protection was announced. [The Straits Times]

Iswaran shared that this will be the first digital economy agreement between an Asian and a European country and will build on the momentum of the UK-Singapore Free Trade Agreement signed last December. So far, Singapore has finalized two digital economy agreements with Chile and New Zealand, as well as Australia. Negotiations on another agreement with South Korea have also been in the works since last June. 

22 June 2021

US, Singapore celebrate 55th anniversary of diplomatic relations, look toward new areas of cooperation

(tcy) At a panel discussion marking the 55th anniversary of Singapore-United States diplomatic relations, US Embassy charge d’affaires Rafik Mansour and Singapore Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee reaffirmed the good bilateral relations between the two countries. [The Straits Times]

Ambassador Chan discussed the need for the two countries to move beyond traditional areas of cooperation like defense and trade, and begin exploring newer areas of cooperation such as climate change, the digital economy, and global healthcare needs.

She also expressed hopes of working with the US to deepen its engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and reaffirmed Singapore’s principle of conducting relations on the basis of non-interference in domestic matters in this era of American foreign policy.

The remarks clearly echo the position of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who routinely argues that Southeast Asia must not be forced into choosing on whether to side with the US or China. While meeting with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison earlier this month, Lee also advised Canberra to try and engage with a rising and assertive China [see AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3].


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

Singapore: Finance minister seeks global consensus on tax reforms

(tcy) Speaking at the CNBC Evolve Global Summit, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong discussed Singapore’s position on adjusting its tax system, in response to the historic tax agreement signed by the G7 group of wealthy nations earlier this month. [The Straits Times]

To tackle abuses by multinationals and online technology companies, G7 member states on June 5 signed a tax agreement, agreeing to a minimum global corporation tax rate of at least 15 percent. Although, months and possibly years of talks still need to take place before the rules come into force, the commitment is considered as a turning point, and the inclusion of “at least” in the G7 deal means it could be negotiated higher.

Against this backdrop, Wong acknowledged the need for greater international cooperation to reform and synchronize global tax systems. At the same time, he expressed that a global consensus involving all countries, not just the wealthy G-7 nations, was key when establishing its terms to ensure a level playing field. Wong made assurances that should new rules be established globally, Singapore would consult its businesses and adjust its tax systems to be aligned with the global consensus.

15 June 2021

Singapore’s prime minister advises Australia to engage with China

(tcy/lm) During a meeting on June 10, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong advised his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison to try and engage with a rising and assertive China. The Australian prime minister arrived in Singapore late on June 9 in a brief stopover on the island nation en route to the G7 Plus summit in the United Kingdom, where he met US President Biden. [see article in this edition] [The Sydney Morning Herald]

The two leaders signed a Memorandum of Understanding on health care and health technology and agreed to start talks on a “fintech bridge” which would make it easier to cooperate on financial technology. They also agreed to begin developing the infrastructure for a travel bubble between the countries, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison declaring he wants the South-East Asian nation to be the next cab off the rank for quarantine-free travel after New Zealand. [abc News]

When exchanging views on how best to handle the increasing strategic competition between the US and China, said Beijing’s substantial presence means countries like Australia will have to work with it on areas of mutual interest rather than ideological differences. The remarks clearly echoed Lee’s previous statements, in which he had argued that Southeast Asia must not be forced into choosing on whether to side with the US or China. [The Diplomat]

Implicit in Lee’s comments to the Australian prime minister was a criticism of an increasing combative rhetoric under Morrison’s coalition government, some of whose officials have in recent months begun speaking openly of war with China.

Importantly, a joint published after the meeting included a passage about the importance of upholding freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. Yet, it did not go as far as the joint statement issued the previous day by the Australian and Japanese foreign affairs and defense ministers, who voiced “serious” or “grave” concerns about a range of issues involving China, including the situation in the East and South China seas, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. [Prime Minister of Australia]


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

Singapore: Individual planning to join ISIS detained

(tcy) A Singaporean housewife and former religious teacher was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for planning to travel to Syria to take up armed violence with the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). She had been radicalized by her husband, who was arrested for similar offences earlier this year, and had been in communication with overseas ISIS supporters online. [The Straits Times]

15 June 2021

Singapore: President passes major infrastructure law allowing government borrowing

(tcy) President Halimah Yacob has approved the Bill for the Significant Infrastructure Government Loan Act (Singa), which will enable the Government to borrow up to $90 billion for major long-term infrastructure that lasts for at least 50 years. The President also said that the law would allow the government to distribute fiscal responsibility more equitably across the generations who will benefit from the projects. [The Straits Times]

15 June 2021

Singapore: Individual detained under Internal Security Act for spying for China

(tcy) A Singaporean academic who had previously been jailed in the United States on charges of spying for China has been detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) since January, according to the island nation’s intelligence agency, the Internal Security Department (ISD). [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times]

The ISD stated that the man was recruited by Chinese agents during a trip to Beijing in 2015 and was tasked to source information and provide political reports on issues of interest to his foreign handlers, including information relating to the US and Singapore, in exchange for monetary gains.

He was arrested in Singapore in December of last year, following his deportation from the US, where he had served a 14-month prison term.

The ISA authorizes the home affairs minister to detain individuals without trial for two-year terms that can be renewed at the minister’s discretion. In recent years, the colonial-era law has been used against suspected militants.

15 June 2021

Singapore: President, ministers condemn recent slew of racist incidents

(tcy) Present Halimah Yacob, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugan have condemned the recent spate of racist incidents in Singapore, which go against the values of racial tolerance and harmony in Singapore. [The Straits Times]

In the past week, a video capturing a polytechnic lecturer confronting a mixed-race couple and making racist remarks has gone viral on social media, and subsequently a former student also spoke out about past experiences with the lecturer who allegedly made denigrating remarks about Islam in class. [ 1] [ 2]

Police are also investigating a woman for disrupting her neighbors’ Hindu prayers by clanging a gong repeatedly, after a video clip of the incident was posted on Facebook. [ 3]

Singapore has been seeing an uptick in incidents reflecting racial intolerance and open displays of racist behaviour [see AIR No. 20, May/2021, 3]. The rise in racist and xenophobic sentiments have sparked criticism and debate among Singaporeans about whether racial harmony in Singapore’s multiracial society is under threat.

8 June 2021

Two US airbases shortlisted to host Singapore military aircrafts

(tcy) The United States and Singapore have selected Ebbing Air National Guard Base as the preferred location to host the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) F-35B fighter training detachment. The decision is set to be finalised in 2023, and also includes the RSAF to relocate its F-16 fighter training detachment at Luke Air Force Base to Fort Smith. [The Straits Times]

Currently, the RSAF has two other training detachments in the US and both countries also regularly conduct military-to-military exchanges, training, and cooperation on defence technology.

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]

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]

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

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

Singapore: MAS appoints finance minister as deputy chair of its board, fuels speculations on next PM

(tcy) Finance Minister Lawrence Wong has been appointed Deputy Chairman of the Board of Directors of Singapore’s central bank and financial regulatory authority, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). He will serve as a member of the board for a term of three years starting on June 1, replacing incumbent Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, who has been a board member since August 2016. [Monetary Authority of Singapore] [The Straits Times]

Wong, who was given the finance portfolio in a recent Cabinet reshuffle [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4], also serves as the co-chairman of the multi-ministry task force in charge of the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore. This is the second time he has been appointed to the MAS’s Board, after he first served from June 2011 to August 2016. 

Both Wong and Ong are seen as possible future prime ministers, after incumbent Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s recent announcement to step aside as leader of the fourth generation of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) [see AiR No. 15, April/2021, 2]. [The Business Times] []


1 June 2021

Singapore, Cambodia deepen cooperation on environmental issues

(ad) Singapore is interested in cooperating with Cambodia on waste management and clean water production, and will assist Cambodia through improving and providing training and capacity building.

Singapore has previously supported educational development in Cambodia through scholarships and exchange programmes and look to support the Kingdom even more. Through bringing in expertise from Singaporean companies in wastewater management, Singapore hopes to train Cambodian government officials. [Phnom Penh Post]


1 June 2021

Singapore, Japan discuss areas of cooperation for post-COVID-19 recovery

(tcy) During a call on May 25, the Prime Ministers of Singapore and Japan, Lee Hsien Loong and Yoshihide Suga, exchanged views on regional and international developments. Prime Minister Lee expressed interest in deepening economic and public health cooperation with Japan in order to support the post-COVID-19 recoveries of both countries, including cooperation in areas such as the mutual recognition of health certificates. [The Straits Times 1]

It was also announced that Singapore is satisfied with the results of its food safety surveillance tests of imports from Fukushima and will be lifting these requirements. Previously, imports from Fukushima were subjected to pre-export tests and had to come with certificates of origin after an earthquake caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. [The Straits Times 2]

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

North Korea-US relations: Biden administration to build on Singapore Agreement 

(nm) The US Biden administration announced it would build on the 2018 Panjunmon Declaration and the Singapore Joint Statement when engaging with North Korea, highlighting its commitment to achieving denuclearization through diplomacy. In a joint statement released after a bilateral meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden on Friday, Seoul and Washington emphasized their “shared commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and their intent to address […] [the North’s] nuclear and ballistic missile programs.” Moon welcomed the “calibrated and practical approach” laid out in the US’ North Korea policy review, reiterating the wording chosen when it was first introduced. 

The Panjunmon Declaration had been adopted during the historic 2018 meeting between Moon and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in which both sides agreed to work towards officially ending the Korean War, the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, as well as to improve inter-Korean ties. Similarly, the Singapore Joint Statement focussed on peace building and diplomatic means to achieve denuclearization and on establishing new ties between the US and the North. Moon is said to have wanted the accords included. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2]

Signaling further readiness to resume talks, Biden also appointed a Special Envoy for the DPRK. Veteran Korean American diplomat Sung Kim will be tasked with coordinating the US’s diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang. On Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also explicitly stated that Washington was prepared to talk but expressed doubt whether North Korea would be willing to engage, adding that “[t]he ball is in their court.”  [Korea Herald]

However, Biden also expressed deep concern over the North’s nuclear program and laid out pre-conditions for a possible meeting with Kim Jong-un. According to Biden, he only engages in dialogue if Kim seriously commits to discussing Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal and de-escalation. He also acknowledged the many challenges standing in the way of achieving concrete measures. [The New York Times 1] [Nikkei Asia

Washington had reached out to Pyongyang in March, but the North has since remained unresponsive, saying it will continue ignoring any approaches until Washington gives up its hostility. The Biden administration recently finished its months-long North Korea policy review but had until now refrained from disclosing any details other than pointing at a practical and calibrated approach. 

For a piece arguing that Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear arsenal, please see [The New York Times 2].

25 May 2021

Singapore: Authorities order Facebook, Twitter to carry correction notice on virus strain

(tcy) Singapore on May 20 issued correction orders to Facebook and Twitter to carry a correction notice to users of the social media platforms in the country over what it says is a false statement about a new virus variant originating in Singapore. [Reuters]

The move came after an Indian chief minister in a Twitter post on May 18 claimed a “new strain” of COVID-19 found in Singapore could result in a third wave of infections in India and urged for a ban on flights. Both the Singapore and Indian governments have criticized the opposition politician, with India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar saying the comments were “irresponsible.” Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, in turn, reiterated that the two countries should focus on resolving the pandemic situation in their respective countries and helping one another. [] [The Straits Times]

The correction orders were issued under Singapore’s fake news law, or the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which gives the government significant leverage over social media platforms and users to issue corrections or remove posts it finds to contain falsehoods. Facebook and Twitter confirmed receipt of the order and said they complied as per the local law.

25 May 2021

Singapore to continue to support sustainable development and conservation efforts in the Arctic

(tcy) During the 12th Arctic Council (AC) Ministerial Meeting, Singapore has affirmed its commitment in contributing to the sustainable development of the Arctic, including green shipping and tackling marine litter, as well as the conservation of flora and fauna in the region. The Singaporean officials also emphasised the need for stakeholders to collaborate and highlighted that her country would look into strengthening youth engagement with the AC. []

Singapore’s interests and active participation in the Arctic region stem from two main insecurities. As a low-lying island-state, Singapore is particularly vulnerable to the physical changes of the glaciers and rising sea levels. Furthermore, the melting of Arctic ice could open up a shorter alternative Northern Sea Route connecting East Asia and Europe, causing ships to bypass the port in Singapore and affecting the maritime industry.


25 May 2021

Shangri-La Dialogue on June 4-5 in Singapore cancelled due to COVID-19 situation

(tcy) Organizers have announced that the Shangri-La Dialogue scheduled to be held in Singapore on June 4 to 5 has been cancelled, citing the rise of infectious new COVID-19 variants and local cases, as well as the recently introduced tightened restrictions on social gatherings.

It was previously announced last week that the security summit for high-level defense policymakers from more than 40 countries around the world would still continue to be held as planned despite the World Economic Forum cancelling its special annual meeting scheduled to be held in Singapore in August [see AIR No. 20, May/2021, 3].

The cancellation of the Shangri-La Dialogue and World Economic Forum leaves the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, scheduled for November 16 to 19, as the only signature event on Singapore’s calendar. If it proceeds, the conference will gather government leaders and top businessmen around the world to discuss the global challenges of the day. [The Straits Times]

25 May 2021

Singapore reminds US embassy ‘not to interfere’ with domestic matters over LGBT issue

(tcy) The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has reminded the United States embassy in Singapore that foreign missions here “are not to interfere in our domestic social and political matters”, including “how sexual orientation should be dealt with in public policy”. The statement was issued in response to a webinar the US embassy had co-hosted with a local LGBT non-profit organisation on May 17.

In response to media queries, the US embassy responded that “the United States promotes the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons worldwide” and regularly works with civil society partners to do so. Oogachaga’s executive director Leow Yangfa also said that they noted MFA’s statement “with surprise”, noting that no financial remuneration was received from the US government for the conduct of the event and that the webinar involved an academic discussion of Professor Lee Badgett’s book, with none of the speakers discussing how sexual orientation should be dealt with in public policy. [Channel News Asia]

Singapore’s penal code currently criminalises sex between consenting male adults, and recent court challenges to repeal the law have been dismissed by the High Court. [The Straits Times]


18 May 2021

Singapore: Prime Minister Lee, ministers condemn racist attacks

(tcy) Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on May 10 expressed that he was “disappointed and seriously concerned” by an alleged racist attack on an Indian woman, who was kicked in the chest by a man shouting racial slurs at her for not wearing a mask. Several other ministers have also commented on the incident, calling it “disturbing” and “unacceptable”, while urging the public to band together and foster stronger cohesion amidst the unprecedented pandemic. [The Straits Times 1] [The Straits Times 2]

The incident occurred a day after a similar altercation with racial overtones took place, with a man being caught on camera while verbally abusing and accusing an expatriate Indian family of spreading COVID-19 to Singapore. Against the backdrop of an escalating coronavirus situation in India and fears of a new Indian variant, the two incidents reflect growing intolerance and xenophobic sentiments among the public. []


18 May 2021

Singapore: Former minister slated to head SPH’s media business, sparking questions of editorial integrity

(tcy) Communications and Information Minister Iswaran has announced that former minister Khaw Boon Wan will become the chairman of the not-for-profit entity that will oversee the to-be-formed media business of one of Asia’s biggest media groups, Singapore Press Holdings’ (SPH). The announcement comes after SPH earlier this month announced it would transfer all media-related assets to a company limited by guarantee (CLG) as the unit struggles with falling advertising revenue and losses [see AiR No. 19, May/2021, 2]. [Channel NewsAsia]

The decision to nominate Khaw was discussed with SPH’s existing management shareholders, who will be the entity’s founding members. They agreed that Khaw, who most recently had served as Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure as well as Transport Minister before he retired in 2020, would be able to provide strong strategic leadership due to his high standing and extensive public service experience.

However, Khaw’s appointment has raised questions of editorial integrity, now that SPH not only stands to receive direct government funding but is also chaired by a former ruling party minister. In Parliament, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh sought clarifications as to what the Government would do to ensure the independence of the CLG from possible government interference, and to foster a culture of editorial independence across SPH’s titles. In response, Minister Iswaran said he would venture that a culture of editorial independence already exists in Singapore’s news media and citizens trust the news media, citing a 2020 YouGov survey and the 2021 Edelman trust barometer to prove this. [Singapore News Network] [The Straits Times]

18 May 2021

Singapore and Canada reaffirm bilateral ties

(tcy) In a telephone call, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau have reaffirmed “excellent” bilateral ties and welcomed the expansion of bilateral cooperation to new areas including climate change, infrastructure and smart cities, and cybersecurity. Noting the growing economic ties between Singapore and Canada, both leaders also discussed new areas of cooperation, with PM Lee welcoming Canada’s efforts in deepening its economic engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the region. []


18 May 2021

World Economic Forum cancels meeting scheduled to be held in Singapore in August

(tcy) The World Economic Forum (WEF) has cancelled its Special Annual Meeting that was scheduled to be held in Singapore in August, with organizers citing the uncertain travel outlook and new COVID-19 variants as reasons for their decision. Instead, the WEF has said that its next annual meeting will take place in the first half of next year, with the final location and date to be determined based on an assessment of the situation later this summer. [The Straits Times]

The WEF’s annual meeting, which is traditionally held in Davos, Switzerland, in January, gathers top public and private sector leaders to address pressing global issues. The announcement of the cancellation is the latest development since the WEF first announced last December that Singapore would host this year’s annual meeting due to the perceived risk of holding it in Europe which was facing a COVID-19 outbreak, and after multiple postponements of the forum.

The Shangri-La Dialogue, meanwhile, remains on track to convene in person in Singapore in early June, with the event’s organizers stating that the WEF’s decision would not affect their plans. This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue is slated to take place from June 4 to 5, with high-level defense policymakers from more than 40 countries around the world attending, including US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin. [South China Morning Post]

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

Singapore: Media spin-off into non-profit entity sparks questions over future of journalism

(lm) Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), one of Asia’s biggest media groups, will transfer its media business into a not-for-profit entity as the unit struggles with falling advertising revenue and losses, the company announced on May 6. [The Straits Times]

SPH said its new ownership structure would allow the eventual not-for-profit media arm, which would include publications such as The Straits Times and Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, to secure funding from a range of public and private sources. Such funding could include additional financial support from the government, which already has indicated its support for the restructure. [Bloomberg] [Thomson Reuters Foundation News]

SPH also said that while such a model may be unfamiliar in the country, many news organizations overseas are operating under these funding structures, such as The Guardian in the United Kingdom, which is owned by Scott Trust Limited. The company is responsible for appointing the editor of The Guardian (and those of the group’s other main newspapers) but, apart from enjoining them to continue the paper’s editorial policy, it has a policy of not interfering in their decisions.

In Singapore, however, mainstream local media, including SPH publications, has long been seen by critics as pro-government. Thus, after the announcement, observers raised concerns that the move – the biggest restructuring of the industry in decades – will alter the country’s anemic state of press freedom. [Nikkei Asia] [South China Morning Post]


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]

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

Singapore: Cabinet reshuffle

(nd) In a major cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced to have seven ministers switch portfolios, out of 15. Affected Ministries are the Finance Ministry, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Ministry of Health, Transport Ministry, Ministry of Manpower, Ministry of Communications and Information, Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and additionally, there is a newly created Covid-19 multi-ministry task force. Some ministers were removed less than a year after their appointment. It was prompted by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s announcement to step aside as the leader of the fourth-generation People’s Action Party (PAP) team two weeks ago. [Channel News Asia]

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

Singapore eyes economic changes in the following years 

(py) According to a new bill called the Significant Infrastructure Government Loan Act (SINGA), the government is enabled to raise 67.3 billion USD for public infrastructure, especially for public transit system and coastal protection plans. While the government has not issued state bonds in four decades, government bodies like the Land Transport Authority issued bonds on capital markets, which do not count towards the national debt. Such move was necessary according to experts due to a need to modernize infrastructure in the following years, changing the approach for Singapore, which is barely running on debts.

Regarding international economics, Singapore might have to brace itself for Biden’s new corporate tax policies. His proposal to raise the corporate tax from 21% to 28% was introduced very timely as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in collaboration with the G20 are also setting up cross-border tax regulations under the BEPS 2.0 scheme that would prevent multinational corporations from avoid taxes in the home country by moving their operations to other jurisdictions. Singapore, where corporates enjoy 17% tax, would be affected if the to-be-agreed tax rate is higher than the domestic one. Other investment hubs like Hong Kong, Switzerland and Ireland would also be affected. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who recently stepped aside from the succession line of the 4G leader, said that Singapore would act once the details of the BEPS 2,0 are clear. The country is ready to step up its efforts to attract inbound investment by emphasizing non-tax conditions. [The Diplomat] [South China Morning Post] [Channel News Asia]


13 April 2021

Singapore: Lee to urge government to prepare moves to allow Muslim headwear for nurses 

(nd) Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the government should prepare to allow Muslim nurses to wear the tudung with their uniform, referring to changed social and work settings. The comments came after a closed-door meeting with the Malay Muslim community and religious leaders, the first such meeting since 2014, when the issue was raised for the first time. Lee urged the government to “prepare the ground”, meaning to inform and explain to the people in order to gain acceptance of the move. Adding to this, the Minister of Muslim Affairs emphasized that the issue involved racial and religious sensitivities, and therefore needs to be approached candidly. Mufti Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir agreed and warned any move not to undermine Singapore’s social cohesion. [Channel News Asia]

13 April 2021

Singapore: Prime Minister-designate stepped aside 

(py) The succession line for the country’s leader was disrupted after Singapore’s Prime Minister-designate, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, announced that he would step aside, stating that a younger person should be the next prime minister. If PM Lee is on leave, senior minister Teo Chee Hean will be appointed Acting prime minister. This interim arrangement would be in place until the new 4G (the fourth generation of the People’s Action Party, PAP) leader is chosen. Heng’s resignation exposed internal leadership challenges of the PAP. Part of this is a reluctance to hand over power to someone outside the Lee family as well as an ongoing family feud. This in turn led to dissatisfaction among the party’s grassroots, resulting in Tan Cheng Bock’s Progress Singapore Party (PSP) challenging the PAP in the 2020 election. The lack of clear leadership is an added challenge to the repercussions of the pandemic, like an economic contraction.

Regarding international affairs, Singapore and the US representatives have discussed ways to reopen air travel and agree on the use of vaccination certificates. As both parties to the Paris agreement, the two Transport ministers will also collaborate on climate action in transportation, including alternative fuels, electrification, technology for more efficiency. Lastly, Singapore was also the first RCEP member to ratify the agreement, which the ministry of Trade and Industry believed the ratification had shown the nation’s strong commitment to the economic bloc. Singapore signifying its economic commitment to the bloc might have been its move to strike a deal to solve disputes with its neighboring countries. Scholars said that a healthy state of bilateral relations between Singapore and Indonesia should facilitate the negotiations regarding the rights to exercise militarily in the Indonesian archipelagic water, which has been a perennial problem for the two nations. Singapore still conducts military exercises in the disputed area even without the expired DCA (Defense Cooperation agreement). An expert said the current Indonesian President enjoys strong support in the parliament and thus should be able to realize a framework for the said problems.   [Voice of America] [Channel News Asia 1] [Channel News Asia 2] [Channel News Asia 3] [South China Morning Post] [The Strait Times] [East Asia Forum] [East Asia Forum]

6 April 2021

Singapore: Convicted blogger to fundraise damages

(nd) Following the conviction of blogger Leong Sze Hian to pay S$133,000 (US$98,867) in damages for defamation of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for sharing a news story on Facebook without a personal comment, the entire sum was crowdfunded within 11 days. The shared article falsely alleged Lee’s involvement in the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB scandal and was shared by thousands. While Lee argued he filed the lawsuit to protect his reputation and integrity, observers said he was increasingly following his father’s footsteps in suppressing opposition opinion by using lawsuits. Observers therefore argue, that the legal move has hurt Lee’s political standing, particularly among voters below 35 years of age, who have already started to turn on his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). In the country’s July 2020 election, PAP retained power while losing nearly nine points to the Peoples Voice (PV) opposition party, which was founded by Leong’s lawyer, with analysts estimating that more than half of young voters had cast their votes for opposition parties. [Asia Times]

6 April 2021

Singapore’s Foreign minister to visit China

(py) Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan recently made a two-day visit to Fujian where he met China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. During the visit, the two have discussed a way forward for post-Covid recovery and the mutual recognition of health certification, which is hoped to enable cross-border travel between the two countries besides the existing “fast lane” scheme for business and official proposes. Dr Balakrishnan also shared Singapore’s concerns over the ongoing bloodshed in Myanmar. Though they both hope for de-escalation and constructive dialogues between the military junta and the people, Dr Balakrishnan and Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed that they should hold fast to the principle of non-interference of domestic matters. 

Singapore’s response to the events in Myanmar is getting louder. Experts pointed out how the statements are using harsher language to describe the situations and actions of the military junta. Some argued that Singapore’s growing concerns were due to the amount of investment in Myanmar, to which Singapore currently is the largest investor. [Reuter] [Channel News Asia 1] [Channel News Asia 2


30 March 2021

Singapore: First Airbus H225M helicopter received

(dql) Singapore’s Air Force has received its first H225M medium-lift transport helicopter from the European aerospace corporation Airbus. The delivery is part of the contract Singapore’s Ministry of Defence concluded in 2016 with Airbus Helicopters for the procurement of H225M helicopters to replace the existing fleet of AS332 Super Pumas.

The H225M will be used for various operations, including search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as Maritime Security operations. It is also regularly used to conduct aeromedical evacuation missions from ships plying through nearby waters. [Defense News] [Airforce Technology]


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

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

Singapore, UAE to strengthen bilateral economic ties

(nd) Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have announced to strengthen their bilateral economic ties, including partnerships in technology, innovation, artificial intelligence (AI), space technologies and the public sector. Their first bilateral forum was held in 2007. UAE remains Singapore’s largest trading partner and investment destination in the region region, with bilateral trade of about $12.8 billion last year. [Straits Times]

23 March 2021

Singapore: Mutually recognized Covid-19 vaccination certificate 

(py) Recently, the foreign ministers of Singapore and New Zealand discussed the possibility of developing a mutual Covid-19 vaccination digital certificate. In February, Singapore announced that it had developed a globally interoperable standard for cross-border verification of health documents such as digital certificates using blockchain technology. Besides, in early March, Singapore Airlines was also the first airline to test the International Air Transport Association Travel pass, which is a mobile app to help airlines verify passengers’ Covid-19 test results and vaccines status. [Channel News Asia]

Furthermore, the Foreign minister of Singapore would also be making visits to three Southeast Asian countries, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Indonesia. The minister expected to reaffirm ties and discuss post-Covid collaborations during his visit. The media doubted whether the visit was also to discuss a way to deescalate the situation in Myanmar after the Indonesian Prime Minister called for an end to the massacre under Military Junta and urged the Southeast Asian leaders to convene. [Yahoo News]

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

Singapore: Threats to trade and security 

(py) Singapore, the economically powerful a city-state, assumes a significant role in the region’s economic and political arena, especially in the US-China trade war. The trade war between the two great powers and accompanying protectionism has threatened the globalization process. For Singapore, the US remains the main security partner and the largest investor. China, on the other hand, is Singapore’s biggest export destination. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasized Singapore could not afford to take sides and encouraged cooperation between the big powers.

Additionally, Singapore is facing growing presence of terrorism, with a 16-year-old boy arrested in January for plotting to attack mosques, the first acts of terrorism with an extreme right-wing background. Singapore has experience countering terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), setting up a rehabilitation program for militants in 2003. Such experience can help mitigate growing threats from extremism targeting ethnic and religious groups. [BBC] [The Diplomat]

9 March 2021

Singapore, US to reaffirm bilateral defense ties

(nd) In a recent telephone call, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen reaffirmed their bilateral defense ties and voiced a desire to deepen them, discussing current regional security challenges. The US expressed appreciation for the regional access provided to US forces in Singapore, and they emphasized their wish to cooperate with respect to inter alia US force posture and counterterrorism. [Straits Times]

2 March 2021

Chinese diplomatic strategy: Boats and Vaccines 

(py) China and Singapore started a joint navy exercise as part of a 2019 agreement aimed at enhancing the two navies’ mutual trust, friendship and at promoting cooperation and the construction of a maritime community. The agreement also entails more high-level dialogues, academic and think tank exchanges and an increase the current bilateral exercise scope. An expert said the reason behind such drills was the weakened defense diplomacy in the region since most military personnel have been allocated to pandemic control. In early February, the US Secretary of State also called on Singapore’s foreign minister to emphasize the importance of US-Singapore security and economic relation and the US’s intention to strengthen cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. Besides military drills, Beijing seems to be eager to spread its vaccines in the region. China has provided Singapore with Sinovac vaccines even before the authorization from the Health Ministry. Experts said the move might be part of China’s vaccine diplomacy to showcase the world its capabilities to produce vaccines that are adopted in the first-world country. [South China Morning Post 1] [South China Morning Post 2]

23 February 2021

Anti-Singapore sentiment and Singapore’s latest move towards anti-coup in Myanmar 

(py) The Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently denounced the use of lethal weapons of the junta against unarmed civilians in Myanmar after a report of two deaths in the city of Mandalay. Singapore is now under tremendous pressure as there have been anti-Singapore sentiments over the internet, urging citizens to boycott Singaporean products and business chains. Protesters urge Singapore to use its economic clout to support the movement. However, ASEAN’s principle in non-interference and respect for member’s national sovereignty might block the way for possible collective and individual actions against the junta. Nevertheless, Singapore could still exert its power by publicizing the military’s financial activities in Singapore, suspend or slow dealings with junta-linked bodies. Experts doubt such actions would be taken. [South China Morning Post] [Channel News Asia]

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]

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.


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]


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

Singapore: Law to limit scope of TraceTogether data usage

(py) A law limiting the ability to use personal data collected via the app TraceTogether was introduced to Parliament February 1. The legislative move came in response to a public outcry that the Criminal Procedure Code enabled the police to obtain any data under Singapore’s jurisdiction for criminal investigations, including data collected by the app. The app was introduced last year with government assuring its data would only be used for contract tracing with respect to the Covid-19 pandemic. The newly introduced bill shall clarify this and foresees to only allow data usage to fight the pandemic and in case of seven categories of serious offences such as with relation to terrorism, drug trafficking and serious sexual offences. The law also includes punishment for unauthorized use or personal contact data disclosure, which is listed as an offence. [The Strait Times]

9 February 2021

Singapore: Police warning not to hold protests over Myanmar 

(py) The police issued a warning not to protest with respect to “recent developments in Myanmar”. The announcement came as a reaction towards online postings in support of Myanmar, encouraging participation in demonstrations. Police reminded them of the Public Order Act, which carries as an offense to organize or participate in a public assembly without a police permit. Police reminded “foreigners visiting, working or living in Singapore” “to abide by our law” and otherwise will be “dealt with firmly”, having their visas or work passes terminated. Last week’s coup by the Myanmar military saw hundreds of thousands of protesters, including doctors and state employees, taking to the streets and staging civil disobedience. [Channel News Asia]

9 February 2021

Singaporean investor to cut ties to Myanmar military

(nd) Singaporean businessman and co-founder of Hong Kong-listed gaming group Razer, Lim Kaling, announced to cut economic ties to Myanmar’s military, following last week’s coup. Lim was a minority shareholder (49%) in Virginia Tobacco Company through RMH Singapore Pte Ltd, with the rest held by Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEHL). MEHL is one of the two conglomerates run by the military, which have connections to nearly every industry and sector in the country. Local advocacy group Justice For Myanmar welcomed the step and urged Lim to persuade RMH Singapore to end their business with MEHL. Earlier, Japanese beverage producer Kirin announced to end its long-standing joint venture with MEHL, following pressure by activists. Such moves were promoted by human rights groups to foreign investors for years. 

Myanmar’s economy, already hit by the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, is likely to suffer more from last week’s coup, with Western sanctions lurking. Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in a televised speech was eager to present stability, saying this coup would be “different”, foreign investors are invited and all development projects would continue. Although adverse reactions of foreign investors after the Military’s crimes against the Rohingya Muslims of western Myanmar in 2017 were largely inexistent, the latest coup is likely to see stronger repercussions, for its definite end to Myanmar’s era of political reform. [The Diplomat]


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

Singapore: Teenager planned attack on mosques

(nd) As the youngest person to be detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA), a Singaporean teenager was arrested in December last year for plotting an attack on two mosques with a machete. The self-radicalized teenager was inspired by the far-right extremist Brenton Tarrant, who live-streamed the massacre of more than 50 Muslims at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The attack was planned for March 15, the same day of the attack in New Zealand.

Terror plots in Southeast Asia have so far been dominated by Islamist threats, as opposed to racist far-right extremism known to Western countries. [South China Morning Post]

2 February 2021

Singapore: Contract for the rail link awarded

(py) The Singapore branch of China Communications Construction Company Limited has been awarded a S$180 million deal to construct a 25m-high viaduct and tunnels for the Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) link. Once completed, the 4-km journey between the two ends would take around five minutes. The line is expected to commence passenger service at the end of 2026. [Channel News Asia]

26 January 2021

Singapore, India sign deal for submarine rescue mission

(lm) At the 5th India-Singapore Defense Minister’s Dialogue held through video conferencing, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen on January 20 witnessed the signing of the Implementing Agreement on Submarine Rescue Support and Cooperation. Under the agreement, the navies of both countries seek to extend rescue facilities to each other’s submarines. [The Straits Times]

While discussing regional security developments, during the meeting, both ministers also reaffirmed the strong and longstanding bilateral defense relationship and their commitment to sustain defense cooperation across the three services, and in defense technology and multilateral engagements. [The Hindu]


26 January 2021

Singapore: Latest challenge to section 377A

(nd) Three Singaporean activists challenged the decision by the High Court last year, which upheld section 377A of the criminal code, penalizing male sexual intercourse. The law stems from the British colonial rule and is rarely enforced. According to the activists, the law breaches the right to equality before the law, the right to life and personal liberty and the right to freedom of expression protected by the constitution. A previous challenge of the law was rejected in 2014. Singapore has an active LGBT scene, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last year inviting LGBT people to work in Singapore.

Regionally though, socially conservative attitudes remain. Myanmar, Malaysia and Brunei have laws banning sexual relationships between men. In Indonesia, raids targeting LGBT people were on the rise in recent years. Contrarily, the Supreme Court in India has overturned the British rule on criminalizing male homosexual sex. Taiwan was the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in 2019. [South China Morning Post]

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

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

Singapore: American care packs to needy residents in Singapore

(py) As part of events leading up to the January 20th inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden, the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore along with the American Association of Singapore have organized the distribution of care packs to needy residents in Singapore. [The Straits times]

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]


12 January 2021

Singapore: New weapon law passed

(py) A new law was passed to regulate guns, explosives and weapons (GEW) and toughen penalties for unauthorized possession. The law requires class licensing for ornamental weapons such as daggers and swords, and also criminalizes unauthorized possession of 3D digital blueprints of guns and gun parts with designs taken from the interne as well as armed drones. 

Under the new law, the Minister of the Home Affairs has the power to issue security directions in certain situations, for example a situation which requires a more expedient response than modifying licensing conditions allows, such as if there is imminent threat to life or property. [The Strait Times]

12 January 2021

Singapore: Bill to make laws easier to understand passed

(py) The Parliament has passed the Statute law Reform Bill, which foresees a greater use of simplified language in legislation. The Law Revision Commissioners are granted the power to make editorial changes to shape legislation in accordance with modern drafting practices without altering their meaning. Additionally, in order to deal with the ongoing pandemic, the law extends the definition of “Parliament” to include not only Parliament House but any place appointed by the President. [The Strait Times]


5 January 2021

Singapore: Modernization of the military

(nd) Determined to find an equilibrium between the possibilities of technology for armed forces and maintaining peace and security to avoid an arms race in the region, the next-generation modernization of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is likely to focus on three major points until 2030. First, technology will be enhanced, including sensor-shooter cycle, surveillance, pre-emptive maintenance and training on data analytics. This also encompasses unmanned, automated, artificial intelligence (AI), cyber and space-based assets. While this is a global trend, in Singapore’s case, technology partially curbs the demographic issue with the number of conscripts expected to fall by a third in the next ten years. Second, technology will be expanded to cover homeland and cybersecurity threats, including special formations like the Island Defence Task Force, the Special Operations Task Force and the Maritime Security Task Force to address terrorism. Thirdly, training for kinetic operations will be continued, including larger and more realistic training areas.

In light of the growing tension with China in the region, Singapore’s modernization efforts could also be misunderstood and jeopardize its neutrality, showcased in rumors about Singapore working as a possible home port for the US Navy’s First Fleet. [East Asia Forum]

5 January 2021

Singapore: Former Chinese spy arrested

(nd) Singaporean spy Dickson Yeo, jailed in the US for spying for China earlier last year, has upon his arrival in Singapore been arrested to be questioned on whether “he had engaged in activities prejudicial to Singapore’s security.”

From 2015 to 2019, Yeo used his US-based political consultancy as a front for Chinese intelligence services, according to court documents. To do so, Yeo hired US military and government insiders with high security clearances to write reports for the consultancy, which he then provided to China. According to the court documents, he was aware that those were affiliated with Chinese intelligence. The former PhD student at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) was recruited by Chinese intelligence during his time at the university. [South China Morning Post]

5 January 2021

Singapore: New law on digital payment

(py) The parliament has passed the Payment Services (Amendment) Bill, which aims to strengthen current standards for virtual asset service providers in digital payment tokens (DPTs) also known as cryptocurrencies. Under this new amendment, the Money Authority of Singapore (MAS) will be able to regulate cryptocurrency service providers who facilitate the use of cryptocurrencies for payments to ensure consumer protection. This shall also curb the feared speed and transnational nature of cryptocurrency, which could impose higher money laundering and terrorism financing risks. [The Strait Times]

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]