Monday, 16 April 2018

Trump’s trade war pushes Singapore to China

Premier Lee Hsien Loong, a staunch American ally, sides with Beijing as US-led trade tensions threaten the city-state's fortunes

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent five-day trip to China signaled strongly rebounding ties with Beijing and the trade-reliant city-state’s unease with America’s moves to instigate a potentially destabilizing trade war.

In an address to the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), a talk shop held last week in China’s southern island province of Hainan, Lee spoke candidly on the prospect of souring Sino-US ties, in terms of both trade and global security.

While Lee said that a US-China trade war was “still far from inevitable”, the premier underscored the need “to be prepared psychologically” for such a turn. Strained ties between the rival powers, he noted, “would make it very difficult for all the countries in Asia who are trying very hard to become friends with both, or stay friends with both.”

Lee, a key US strategic ally and staunch advocate of free trade multilateralism, praised China’s leadership’s cautious response to the threat and attempts to defuse the standoff prompted by the Trump administration’s threats to impose tariffs on as much as US$150 billion in Chinese goods.

Beijing has responded with its own proposed retaliatory duties on US goods, targeting mostly agricultural shipments. After meeting with top Chinese officials, Lee told Singapore media that China’s leaders were “trying their best to think through how this can be resolved, trying to protect their position because it’s not possible for any country to be in this situation and not have any response whatsoever.”

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

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Europe-Asia trade war looms over palm oil

Draft EU law seeks to ban all palm oil biofuel imports by 2021, a move Malaysia has likened to 'crop apartheid' and Indonesia has vowed to retaliate

Mah Siew Keong, Malaysia’s minister for plantation industries and commodities, is on the front line of a looming trade war against what he sees as unfair European Union (EU) trade practices.

Last April, the European Parliament voted in favor of a draft law that aims to ban on palm oil biofuel imports to the EU beginning in 2021 due to environmental concerns the crop is contributing to deforestation.

The European Commission, the EU’s principal executive body, has yet to formulate a final draft law. Each of the EU’s 27 national governments will have to ratify the ban before it is uniformly enforced.

Still, the proposed move has spurred a diplomatic row with Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s top palm oil exporters, and now threatens to spiral into tit-for-tat punitive trade measures.

Mah, known as Malaysia’s global palm oil ambassador, has likened the EU proposal to “crop apartheid.” The draft law, he notes, does not prohibit other similar oils such as rapeseed, olive and soybean that are mostly grown in EU member states.

Indonesia and Malaysia employ around 3.5 million people in the palm oil industry, generating a combined export value of over US$40 billion annually.

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, 18 March 2018

China throws sinking Brunei a lifeline

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah looks to Beijing for succor as his nation's oil and gas reserves run dry

Brunei's ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, is in a race against time as his nation’s once deep stores of oil and gas rapidly run dry. While other foreign investors up stakes, China is giving the Southeast Asian sultanate a new lease on economic life.

International banks such as HSBC and Citibank have recently ceased operations in Brunei in sight of its contracting oil and gas business, driven down by years of depressed global energy prices. But one major financial institution has filled the vacuum: Bank of China (BOC).

BOC established a branch in Brunei in 2016 to facilitate Beijing’s foreign direct investments. Yang Jian, China’s ambassador to Brunei, last year described the sultanate as an important node in the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), President Xi Jinping’s signature continental and maritime infrastructure development initiative.

Some observers believe China intends to leverage its major investments and close political ties with Brunei’s ruler to sway the country’s stance on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where the sultanate is also a rival claimant. That, they say, would deter other Southeast Asian claimants from reaching consensus on the issue.

“China is placing huge pressure on Brunei to concede ‘joint development’ in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). These are rights that clearly belong to Brunei by any reading of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” says Bill Hayton, associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House.

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, 9 March 2018

‘Kleptocracy at its worst’ in Malaysia

So says US Attorney General Jeff Sessions as global investigators seize assets and tighten dragnet on premier Najib Razak's 1MDB scandal

“Kleptocracy at its worst” is how US Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently characterized dealings at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a heavily indebted state development fund currently under investigation for fraud by the US Department of Justice (DoJ).

The fund, created and until recently oversaw by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, has been at the center of ongoing embezzlement probes in multiple countries since 2015. But while the embattled premier plays down the evolving scandal in an election campaign season, new overseas asset seizures are keeping it in the headlines.

Investigators believe US$4.5 billion was misappropriated from the fund by high-ranking Malaysian officials and their associates since 2009, making it one of the world’s largest ever financial fraud cases and the biggest action ever brought under the DoJ’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative.

Najib, believed to be the unnamed “Official 1” in the DoJ’s ongoing case, has avoided scrutiny and charges at home by sacking critics, including his former deputy, appointing an attorney general who has exonerated him of all wrongdoing, and clamping down on probing media.

The premier has consistently denied involvement in any corruption and claimed the US$681 million discovered in his personal bank accounts was a “gift” from a Saudi royal family member rather than pilfered 1MDB funds.

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

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Uighur detainees test Malaysia’s diplomacy

China wants 11 ethnic Uighurs deported as terror suspects; the US and rights groups say they should be protected as potential refugees

As China ramps up anti-terrorism security measures in its restive northwestern Xinjiang region, Malaysia is suddenly at the center of an extradition controversy where Beijing is bidding to leverage its economic clout for strategic favors.

China is now requesting Malaysia to repatriate 11 ethnic Uighur Muslims, a Turkic people indigenous to the Xinjiang region, currently being held in an immigration detention without charge or legal representation. The group of 11 were among 20 Uighur migrants who dramatically escaped a jail in southern Thailand last November.

The escapees, who have identified themselves as Turkish citizens and asked to be sent to Turkey, were part of a group of more than 200 Uighur migrants detained in Thailand since 2014.

Beijing has pursued a muscular security strategy in Xinjiang following a spate of violent attacks in recent years that authorities attribute to armed Uighur separatists who seek to establish an independent state. It has deployed military and paramilitary organizations in a bid to thwart Uighur nationalist militancy.

The heavy state security presence has come alongside a raft of measures curbing religious practices and freedom of movement. Surveillance and monitoring technologies have been deployed by authorities to impose political and social control, spurring frustration and fears of cultural loss among Xinjiang’s Uighur minority.

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, 22 February 2018

Demographic time bomb ticks down on Singapore

A fast aging population threatens to stall the economy, test social cohesion and strain national finances

It is being called a “demographic time bomb.” The impact of a shrinking workforce coupled with a greying population will be among the toughest economic and social challenges Singapore faces in the decades ahead.

Already the oldest society in Southeast Asia measured by median age, the wealthy city-state is now seeking coping strategies for the economic and social impacts to come of a rapidly aging population.

While aging populations affect much of the Asia-Pacific, the expected decline in Singapore’s working-age population will be among the region’s most acute.

Indeed, this year marks the first time in modern Singapore’s history when the share of the population that is 65 years old and over will match that of those under 15 years old, according to a UOB report published last year.

UOB economist Francis Tan predicted in the research that demographic change will stall the city-state’s economic growth and raise substantially future healthcare costs.

Other data suggests that Singapore’s percentage of seniors will reach 27% by 2030, while the percentage of juniors under 15 will decrease to 10.8%, leading in a worst-case scenario to a nearly 1:1 dependency ratio, with one working-age adult supporting a child or elderly person.

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, 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