Friday, 17 November 2017

Malaysia Airlines’ recovery shadowed by politics

Buffeted by two of global aviation's recent worst disasters, the renationalized carrier's foreign-led restructuring has been hit by alleged political meddling


Buffeted by two of global aviation’s worst disasters in recent history, Malaysia Airlines’ (MAS) plans for a turnaround were never going to be easy. Alleged political meddling in the state-held airline is complicating matters, with the recent resignation of two foreign chief executives raising even wider questions.

In August 2014, Khazanah Nasional, Berhad a Malaysian state investment fund that previously owned 69% of the carrier, became its sole stakeholder in a US$430 million bailout.

Earlier that year, MAS lost two aircraft, the still unresolved disappearance of Flight MH370 and the shooting down of Flight MH17 over Ukraine, sending its finances into a downward spiral.

The national carrier was delisted from the country’s stock market, effectively renationalizing the carrier, and aggressively restructured. Khazanah unveiled a five-year recovery plan, dubbed as “rebuilding a national icon”, to reverse massive losses and return to profitability in three years. The plan set a target date of March 2019 for a new initial public offering.

Two foreign chief executives were hired in short succession to professionalize management and in hope that international expertise could restore its fortunes. MAS has cut 6,000 jobs since Khazanah’s takeover while various unprofitable long-haul routes to North and South America have been discontinued.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times specialising on current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Malaysia’s sultans back in political swing

Sidelined since the 1990s, traditional rulers are reasserting their royal authority against rising ethno-religious polarization stirred by divisive politicians


Last month, Malaysia’s constitutional monarchs issued a rare statement expressing their collective concern over rising ethno-religious polarization. A string of religious controversies, which the sultans branded as “excessive actions”, have called the country’s traditionally moderate brand of Islam into question.

Monarchical activism, dormant since being sidelined politically in the early 1990s, is rising again to push back against religious institutions that have steadily expanded their jurisdiction in favor of a narrow interpretation of Islam and Muslim identity.

In October, Malaysian authorities cancelled two annual beer festivals following political objections raised by leaders of the hardline Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), signaling an increased sensitivity towards activities regarded by some as insulting to Islam.

Then, a self-service laundromat in the southern state of Johor caused a social media uproar when it attempted to ban non-Muslims for ‘hygienic’ concerns, prompting a scathing rebuke from Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar in defense of moderation and racial harmony.

“This is not the Johor we want,” said the monarch, demanding that the laundry mat’s owner end the discriminatory practice. “This is not a Taliban state and as the head of Islam in Johor, I find this action to be totally unacceptable as this is extremist in nature.”

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times specialising on current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Najib bids to buy another Malaysian election

Expansionary new budget offers tax relief, welfare benefits and cash handouts in schemes critics view as veiled pre-poll vote-buying


Malaysian premier Najib Razak recently unveiled an expansionary national budget for 2018, a politically strategic spending plan to lower middle income earner taxes and increase welfare benefits broadly ahead of general elections that must be held by next August.

Najib promised to maintain fiscal prudence despite a 7.5% year on year budgetary rise during a parliamentary address that emphasized bread and butter issues linked to rising living costs. The national leader referred to the plan in a three-hour speech as “the mother of all budgets.”

“The (people) must benefit from our economic policies,” the national leader said. “We must make sure that levels of income and the quality of life for Malaysians is improving.”

The ramped up spending is consistent with Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization’s (UMNO) past electoral tactics, where hand-outs and cash transfers are dished out to win over voters in the run-up to polls.

Government critics and opposition politicians say the spending is tantamount to vote-buying, which combined with other complaints of tainted electoral rolls, truncated campaign seasons, aggressive gerrymandering and unequal access to media unfairly tilts the electoral playing field in favor of UMNO.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times specialising on current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Lee-Trump visit underscores Singapore’s balancing act

At the same time as he has been trying to repair relations with China, Singapore's PM has tried to reaffirm bilateral cooperation with the US


Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong held talks with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office this week to reaffirm bilateral cooperation amid considerable anxieties about US commitments to free-trade multilateralism and long-standing alliances across Asia.

Lee, the fourth Southeast Asian leader to visit the White House, is on a six-day working visit to Washington at the invitation of the president. Both countries share a “deep and multi-faceted relationship” based on a “basic strategic congruence of views about the world and the region,” Lee said during a television interview with CNBC.

The US administration’s emphasis on creating job opportunities for Americans has not been lost on the Singaporean delegation, nor the other Southeast Asian leaders who have visited Washington under Trump’s tenure.

The two leaders oversaw a deal between Singapore Airlines and Boeing for the national carrier to buy 39 new planes, worth US$13.8 billion. Fulfilling that order will create 70,000 jobs in the US, according to Trump, who said the US-Singapore relationship was “now is at its highest point” and that his country was “fortunate to have such a wonderful and loyal partner”.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times specialising on current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Malaysia gives Pyongyang a pass on Kim Jong-nam murder

Ongoing trial of two women accused of killing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother will ultimately not convict the assassination's true plotters


The trial of two women charged with assassinating the North Korean leader’s estranged half-brother Kim Jong-nam has raised as many questions as proceedings have so far answered about a bizarre crime few independent observers doubt Pyongyang ordered and executed.

Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong, 28, are charged with murdering Kim Jong-nam at the Kuala Lumpur International airport in February by smearing his face with a highly toxic VX nerve agent. Four suspects on the lam mentioned in the prosecution’s charge sheet are presumed to be North Koreans who have fled the country.

Raja Subramaniam, a Malaysian government chemist, has testified he found around 1.4 times the lethal dosage of VX nerve agent on the victim’s body and detected the substance on the clothes both women wore on the day of the attack. Experts have been confounded at how the women managed to handle the chemical without causing harm to themselves.

Four North Koreans are widely believed to have arranged and coordinated the hit, including the recruitment, handling and providing the chemical components of nerve agent to the two accused women. VX is a controlled substance banned by international treaties and classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.

Read the full story at the 
Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times specialising on current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Alibaba, Amazon duel for SEAsia’s online shoppers

Global titan competition is intensifying for a region projected as the next high-growth frontier for online retailers


Competition for Southeast Asia’s fast growing e-commerce market is intensifying, as industry titans Alibaba and Amazon launch new ventures and acquisitions in a region projected to be the next high-growth frontier for online retailers.

US-based Amazon and Chinese-run Alibaba, both formidable in their home markets with an estimated 60% and 80% share of online shopping respectively, are now vying for market supremacy in a region of over 600 million consumers.

Amazon’s entry into Southeast Asia in July saw the launch of its ‘Prime Now’ service in Singapore, an app available in the country’s iTunes and Google Play stores that promises free two-hour delivery for customers across the city-state who place orders above S$40 (US$29).

Previously, Singaporeans were only able to order select items on Amazon’s website, with most products subject to high international shipping fees. Many saw Amazon’s venture into Singapore as a bold initiative: unlike other countries where it previously launched express delivery services, the e-commerce giant lacked a retail and logistics presence in the island nation.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times specialising on current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Islamic intolerance rising in pre-election Malaysia

An uptick in religious controversies coincides with premier Najib Razak's bid to rally Muslim majority voters ahead of new polls


A string of racial and religious incidents in Malaysia has brought concerns of rising Islamic conservatism to the fore, widening the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims as the government plays on identity issues ahead of what is expected to be a jarring and contentious election season.

Two annual beer festivals were recently cancelled following political objections raised by leaders of the hardline Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which claimed it has a “social responsibility” to oppose alcohol festivals and that the events would turn Kuala Lumpur into “the largest vice center in Asia.”

The ‘Better Beer Fest’, an annual craft beer showcase held without incident since 2012, was cancelled weeks before it was scheduled to take place. Police maintain their decision to bar the event was due to threats of a militant attack, though organizers believe authorities intervened due to political pressure.

An annual Oktoberfest celebration held at the 1 Utama Shopping Center in Selangor, a wealthy opposition-held state with a large upper-middle class non-Muslim population, was forced to cancel hours before the event was set to start. The cancellation, also due to alleged security reasons, resulted in financial losses of more than US$70,000 for the organizers.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times specialising on current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

A mockery of democracy in Singapore

The island state's recent presidential poll was baldly engineered in the ruling People's Action Party's favor and stirred the race-based politics it had long bid to suppress


Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is on the political defensive following last month’s controversial presidential poll that saw one of its stalwarts win in an uncontested race.

Halimah Yacob became the country’s first female head of state following sweeping constitutional changes made to ensure that an ethnic minority Malay would become the city-state’s eighth president.

Halimah’s rise to the largely ceremonial post was ushered by an uncontested poll that resulted in a walkover when a government-appointed committee disqualified two other candidates after they failed to meet newly enacted financial criteria required for eligibility.

Billed as a measure to broaden minority representation in government, the first presidential election reserved for candidates from the Malay community has been widely derided on social media for undermining democracy and the country’s highly vaunted meritocratic principles.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times specialising on current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Cloudy prospects for Kim Jong-nam murder trial

The unexplained assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's estranged half-brother is unlikely to be resolved by Malaysia's politicized judiciary


The trial of two women accused of assassinating the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader commenced this week at the Shah Alam High Court on the outskirts of Malaysia’s capital.

Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong, 28, are the only suspects in custody in a killing that South Korean intelligence officials have alleged was an elaborate plot coordinated by Pyongyang.

The pair are charged with murdering Kim Jong-nam at the Kuala Lumpur International airport this February 13 by smearing his face with a highly toxic VX nerve agent, a chemical the United Nations classifies as a weapon of mass destruction.

Both women maintain their innocence and say they were duped by North Korean handlers into believing they were carrying out a prank for a reality TV show.

Police acknowledged several North Koreans suspected of organizing the lethal poisoning had left Malaysia on the day of the attack, while others were permitted to exit in a subsequent diplomatic deal with Pyongyang.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times specialising on current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Rohingya crisis splits Asean on religious lines

Malaysia's open criticism of Myanmar's treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority speaks to the potential for wider regional communal conflict


Clear divisions are emerging among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) over Myanmar’s military operations in Rakhine state, a diplomatic divide that threatens to split the regional grouping on religious lines.

Myanmar’s military-led “clearance operations” have led to civilian causalities, allegations of grotesque rights abuses and the displacement of over 500,000 ethnic Rohingya who have sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh.

Malaysia took the rare step last week of disassociating itself from a joint statement issued by the Philippines, the grouping’s current chairman, because from Kuala Lumpur’s perspective it misrepresented the situation. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, in an unusually sharp rebuke, maintained that the chairman’s remarks failed to reflect Asean’s founding principle of consensus.

The Asean statement expressed support for Myanmar in efforts “to bring peace, stability, rule of law and to promote harmony and reconciliation between various communities,” and omitted the term “Rohingya” in referring to the persecuted Muslim minority group – in accordance with Naypyidaw’s opposition to its use as an official ethnic group classification.

Read the full story at the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times specialising on current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.