Sunday, 11 February 2018

Singapore swings and misses at the arts

State-led bid to promote the arts and a creative society has failed to capture the national imagination

Singapore, known for its robust education system, meticulous city planning and draconian laws, is more often associated with efficiency than creativity.

Derided by some as a “cultural desert” for its past lack of emphasis on the arts, the city-state of 5.6 million people has doubled down on national cultural policies over the last two decades in a push to become a center for Southeast Asian art.

The wealthy island nation, a hub for financial and wealth management services, has made massive investments in cultural infrastructure in recent years: showcase museums, a world-class national gallery and performance centers dedicated to the arts.

But despite the state-led push, with generous backing from government agencies like the National Arts Council (NAC), Economic Development Board and the Singapore Tourism Board, it’s still not clear an organically vibrant arts scene has taken root.

Top-down ambitions to nurture creativity and innovation date back to the roll-out of the government ‘Renaissance City Plan’ in 2000. The initiative envisioned the arts as “cultural ballast” to nation-building and strengthening Singaporeans’ sense of national identity. Moreover, the plan identified the importance of creative, artistic endeavors in a future-oriented economy.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at

Friday, 26 January 2018

Low hanging fruit for China-Malaysia ties

Kuala Lumpur advances "durian diplomacy" to supply a bigger share of spiking Chinese demand for the pungent fruit

Musang King, a premium variety of durian, is all the rage in China. Durians and durian-based products such as pastries, desserts and confectionery are among the most searched for items on Taobao, China’s biggest e-commerce platform, and surging Chinese demand for the spiked fruit could drive a major transformation of Malaysian agriculture in the years ahead.

Malaysian officials have recently advanced so-called “durian diplomacy” in hopes of winning a bigger share of China’s market. Currently, China does not permit the import of fresh durians from Malaysia, allowing only for frozen fruit pulp. But if negotiations with Chinese authorities to allow whole fruit exports succeed, Malaysia could soon enjoy a new type of commodity boom.

Neighboring Thailand currently has a near monopoly on China’s durian market. That’s in large part because the country is permitted to export whole fruit durian harvested from trees before ripening. Malaysia’s durian farmers, by contrast, traditionally harvest only when the fruit drops to the ground; China believes the fallen-fruit harvesting method risks exposure to dirt and pests.

Malaysian Agriculture Minister Ahmad Shabery Chee believes the prohibition could be lifted some time year, according to media reports quoting him in November. Known in Malaysia as the “King of Fruits”, officials have put high priority on courting their Chinese counterparts to expand Malaysia’s market access.

China’s new ambassador to Malaysia, Bai Tian, was treated to a durian feast earlier this month at an orchard in Bentong, a budding eco-tourism destination in Pahang, the country’s top durian-growing state. The town, roughly an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur, hosted an annual international durian tourism festival last year that drew huge crowds.

Read the full story at 
Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Golden era for Malaysia-Singapore ties

Past confrontation has yielded to rich cooperation under leaders Najib Razak and Lee Hsien Loong

The prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore convened this week for the eighth annual Leaders’ Retreat, where a range of cross-border projects, joint developments and bilateral initiatives underscored the high level of co-operation currently enjoyed between the two sides.

Convening at the Istana, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak touted the progress made in bilateral relations during his tenure at a joint press briefing with his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong, remarks that emphasize the premier’s foreign policy gains ahead of an impending general election.

“We certainly do not want to return to the era of confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric between our two countries. It was an era that we want to forget,” said the Malaysian leader, alluding to the cooperative but at times fractious relations experienced under the watch of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 92, who now leads the opposition.

Earlier this month, Pakatan Harapan (PH), Malaysia’s opposition coalition, named the nonagenarian as its prime ministerial candidate should it secure victory at polls expected to be called within the first quarter of this year. The coalition’s embrace of the ex-premier is widely regarded as a strategy to secure electoral support across rural Malay constituencies.

Najib assured premier Lee that agreements pertaining to bilateral ventures and cross-border infrastructure projects were legally binding and would not be affected by any political changes in Malaysia, ending his speech with remarks on receiving his Singaporean counterpart for a year-end visit, “provided we get the right [electoral] result.”

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at

Monday, 15 January 2018

Keppel bribes belie Singapore’s clean image

State shipbuilder's US$55 million bribes-for-business scandal has raised questions about the city-state's supposed incorruptibility

One of the largest corruption scandals in the history of Singapore’s corporate sector has come to glaring light, tarnishing the image and credentials of prominent state-backed conglomerate Keppel Corp and raising questions about the city-state’s supposed incorruptibility.

Its subsidiary, Keppel Offshore & Marine Ltd (KOM), the world’s largest builder of oil rigs, has been implicated in a 13-year-long US$55 million bribery scheme involving Brazilian executives and politicians to win business deals.

KOM’s US subsidiary last month pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate anti-bribery laws and agreed to pay US$422 million in criminal fines as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the US Department of Justice (DoJ), as well as authorities in Brazil and Singapore.

KOM made the bribe payments between 2001 and 2014 through a chain of shell companies that used the US banking system to conceal and disperse kickbacks, according to court documents released by the DoJ. The documents claimed the company “knowingly and willfully conspired” to win business through bribery.

The illegal payments were made mainly to officials at Brazil’s state-owned oil giant, Petroleo Brasileiro SA (Petrobras), the largest listed company in Latin America.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at

Friday, 12 January 2018

Singapore atop Asean with a wary eye on China

City-state takes over regional bloc's rotating leadership amid fraying cohesion on how to manage China's rising power and assertiveness

Singapore recently began its tenure as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for 2018, inaugurating what observers believe will be a critical year for the 10-member regional grouping.

The city-state presides over the bloc’s rotating chairmanship against a backdrop of divisive regional geopolitics, complex security challenges and fraying group cohesion as members are increasingly viewed as either aligned with or opposed to China’s strategic ambitions in the South China Sea.

Singapore, one of Asean’s six original founders with a vision to contain the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, has historically been a linchpin of the grouping. But the rich island nation must now balance increasingly complex intra-bloc dynamics while steering sensitive regional discussions with a perceived as even-hand.

While Asean operates on a consensus basis, the annually rotating leadership has the prerogative to set agendas that shape multilateral engagements. Duties involve chairing and facilitating official meetings, tabling new initiatives and serving as group spokesperson. The chair may also veto and unilaterally issue statements should serious divisions occur among member states.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has identified Singapore’s chairmanship as promoting a “rules-based order” capable of effectively addressing regional security challenges as well as pushing ahead with regional economic integration and projects aimed at enhancing free-trade multilateralism and economic connectivity.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at

Friday, 5 January 2018

Najib probes state losses, just not his own

An inquiry into central bank losses during ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad's tenure aims to hobble and divide his opposition coalition ahead of new polls

As speculation mounts that Malaysia’s parliament could soon be dissolved to pave the way for elections, the findings of a government task force into foreign exchange losses at the national central bank could have seismic ramifications for a political opposition already in disarray.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) was formed in July to investigate multi-billion-dollar losses suffered by Bank Negara Malaysia between 1991 and 1993 during the premiership of Mahathir Mohamad, who now spearheads the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition alliance against the long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party and Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition he formerly led.

Following a nine-day hearing on foreign exchange losses now estimated to stand at 32.1 billion ringgit (US$10.2 billion), the commission recommended that Mahathir and jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who served as finance minister from 1991 until 1998, be investigated for a criminal breach of trust.

The RCI’s findings have since been tabled at the country’s parliament but not yet been debated. Police have set up a special investigation team. The report recommends the pair be investigated under Sections 417 or 418 of the penal code, which carry maximum sentences of five and seven years respectively.

While the outcome of the RCI remains to be seen, charges brought against either figure would be widely viewed as a politically motivated attempt to exact revenge on opponents of Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose tenure has been dotted with controversies involving massive graft and money-laundering allegations.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Video games on a psychoanalyst’s couch

The new book "The Playstation Dreamworld" charmingly critiques technology and capitalism through the growing role gaming plays in modern life

How have video games transformed the nature of self? This is one of several points of philosophical inquiry examined in “The Playstation Dreamworld” (Polity, 2017) by Hong Kong-based British author Alfie Bown, a book that charmingly articulates a critical theory of technology and capitalism in the context of technological entertainment.

In contrast to other texts on the subject that are largely uncritical or laudatory in their advocacy of gaming, what’s striking here is an emphasis on caution, drawing the reader’s attention to the anti-progressive aspects of gaming’s propensity to lull players into states of enjoyment that undermine social solidarity in the service of ideology.

The ideology in question here is a form of capitalism defined by cultural neoliberalism’s emphasis on ever-enhancing worker productivity and the emergence of monopolistic tech firms with an ever-greater power to create and organize conceptions of desire. Bown’s book is unambiguous in its political bent, and thankfully so.

Yet, his volume is far from a technophobic or anti-gaming screed. With an incisive eye and an obvious affection for gaming, Bown, an assistant professor of literature at Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Management College, is compelled by the subversive potential for games to function as powerful tools in the service of counter-ideologies amid rapid technological advances and a widening space for independent game developers.

Gaming is no niche subculture. The video games industry boasted a worldwide user penetration rate of 26.1% in 2017 with a projected revenue of US$108.9 billion. Smartphone and tablet gaming, the most lucrative segment, claim 42% of the video games market, piggybacking on the centrality of mobile devices in our lives.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at

Monday, 25 December 2017

Palestine as political hobbyhorse in Malaysia

Premier Najib Razak's rally cry against Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is more about local politics than genuine Islamic outrage

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak addressed friend and foe alike at a recent mass demonstration in support of Palestine held in Putrajaya, the country’s administrative capital.

The rally followed weeks of protests across various major international cities in response to US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

More than ten thousand gathered at the pink-domed Putra Mosque for the Friday rally, which began with prayers and a sermon that lambasted Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and called on Muslims to support Palestinian self-determination and defend Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam.

Najib, who has long taken an activist stance on the Palestinian cause, urged all Malaysians to put aside their political differences to join the rally on humanitarian grounds.

He shared the stage with members of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), an Islamist opposition party that supports the imposition of Islamic law, while leaders from Malay-dominant parties of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition coalition were also in attendance.

Najib, who was warmly received at the White House in September amid an ongoing US Department of Justice money-laundering probe into a Malaysian state fund he created and oversaw, has been criticized for his professed closeness to the divisive American leader.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at

Friday, 15 December 2017

Chinese developers pump up Singapore property

Chinese firms are making record-breaking bids for land redevelopment tenders, re-energizing a market that regulators have long aimed to tame

Singapore's property market is on the upswing, with home prices rising for the first time in four years following a string of aggressive bids from mainland Chinese and other foreign developers offering record-high premiums to clinch top land redevelopment tenders.

The island nation’s property prices had been on a record downturn, dropping 12% over 15 consecutive quarters from their 2013 peak after the government imposed measures to cool the market beginning in 2010.

Those market interventions, intended to guard against a housing bubble, imposed an additional buyer’s stamp duty for non-citizens and buyers of second or third homes, and a stamp duty for sellers for transactions made within four years of original purchase.

To deter excessive vacancies, property developers were required to pay an additional buyer’s stamp duty of 10% or 15% including interest on the total land cost of a project unless all the flats were built and sold within five years.

While those measures remain mostly intact, redevelopment deals known as “en bloc” sales, or the collective sale of apartments in older buildings to developers, have exceeded US$6.34 billion in 2017, the highest such figure since 2007. That’s been a windfall to tens of thousands of property sellers.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at

Friday, 8 December 2017

An unflattering portrait of Malaysian politics

PM Najib Razak has stirred racial divisions and cynically divided rivals ahead of elections opponents hope will turn on his alleged massive corruption

As political parties begin to mobilize ahead of general elections which must be held by August 2018, Malaysia’s long-serving Prime Minister Najib Razak is arguably in his strongest political position in years.

While opposition parties continue to rally on an anti-graft platform centered on the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund multi-billion dollar money laundering scandal, Najib appears increasingly confident he has ridden out the storm.

That was seen in Najib and his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s surprise visit last month to jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in hospital after he underwent surgery for a shoulder injury. It was the first time in Malaysia’s history that a sitting prime minister visited a prisoner.

Detained since 2015, Anwar is serving a five-year jail term after being found guilty of sodomy, a criminal offense in Muslim-majority Malaysia, on charges widely seen as politically motivated. Pictures of the political rivals circulated widely on social media, showing the premier grinning ear-to-ear amid rumors of his underlying motives.

While Najib likely intended to portray himself as being compassionate and above political animosities, some interpreted the visit as an “enforced” courtesy call. Indeed, while the bedridden opposition politician appeared cordial, his pictured family members were visibly uncomfortable.

Read the full story at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at