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

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