KUALA LUMPUR — At an age when most people would either be dead or coming up on three decades’ retired, Mahathir Mohamad shows no signs of slowing down in his second coming as Malaysia’s prime minister. It has been a hectic year-and-a-bit back in office for the world’s oldest head of government, who turns 94 today. From renegotiating multi-billion-dollar railway construction deals with China to lambasting the European Union over proposed curbs on palm oil imports, he has arguably been as dynamic as any leader living. Making regular public appearances and often giving lengthy speeches – hands on podium and his back goalpost-straight throughout – Mahathir is, as he put it in March, “in a hurry”. “I realise I don’t have much time,” he explained. It’s not just Mahathir’s prodigious age that has the clock ticking. After he led the Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance of Hope) coalition to a historic first-ever opposition win in Malaysia’s parliamentary elections last year, the idea was that Mahathir – the country’s longest-ruling leader by dint of his first 1981-2003 tenure – would step down after a year or two in favour of former protégé-turned-nemesis-turned-ally Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, People’s Justice Party), the biggest party in the PH alliance.
KUALA LUMPUR — “We do not want to choose between the United States and China.” So said Malaysia’s Deputy Defense Minister Chin Tong Liew during a speech last week on his country’s relations with China. Earlier this month the U.S. Secretary of Defence and his Chinese counterpart told a conference of defence ministers in Singapore that they do not expect other countries to takes sides. But many in Southeast Asia fear this is a choice they will have to make, given the increasingly-acrimonious Chinese-American rivalry.
SINGAPORE — China’s top security official articulated today (June 2) an uncompromising defense of his country’s stance on the contested South China Sea and threats to invade Taiwan in an anticipated address at a top security conference in Singapore.“Building facilities on one’s own territories is not militarization,” Lieutenant General Wei Fenghe said, responding to accusations that China has militarized islands in the sea as a means of taking effective control of what the US and others regard as international watersWei also warned of a “fight to the end” with the US in their escalating trade spat, and a “fight at all costs” for “reunification” with Taiwan, the island country China considers a renegade province. The US has recently upped its strategic support for the democratically-run Taiwan, much to Beijing’s chagrin.“No attempts to split China will succeed. Any interference in the Taiwan question is doomed to failure,” said Wei, dressed in his People’s Liberation Army (PLA) uniform.
SINGAPORE — Just over a year ago the United States moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, sparking protests in Muslim-majority countries and drawing official condemnation at the United Nations. An estimated 30,000 people demonstrated in Jakarta as Indonesian President Joko Widodo said his country “rejects” the American move as it “may disrupt the peace process in Israel and Palestine.” In late 2017, when US President Donald Trump announced he would live up to his campaign promise to move the embassy, the Malaysian government endorsed a huge protest at the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur, while Asia’s Muslim UN representatives lined up in New York to excoriate the US.
BANGKOK — More than a month after parliamentary elections, the 38 million Thais who voted still waiting for results, with the prospect of a handover to a civilian government diminishing by the day in a country ruled by the army since a 2014 coup. The complicated vote was based on mix of 350 constituency seats to be decided on simple first-past-the-post contest, with 150 more seats won in a party-list system. The latter seats are to be allocated using a complicated formula that even the election commission is, it seems, struggling to get to grips with. The commission said on Thursday that it would announce the party list seat winners after the constituency seats, but then backtracked and said all the results would be ready on time. The original final deadline for the results to be announced was May 9 – but given that the election was postponed several times since the army seized power five years ago, before finally taking place on March 24th, it will be no surprise if results are not announced as scheduled either.
JAKARTA — Joko Widodo looks set for a second term and final term as president of Indonesia, with unofficial early tallies putting him around 10 per cent ahead of challenger Prabowo Subianto, a former general who also faced off against Widodo for the presidency in the last vote in 2014. Widodo, known by his nickname “Jokowi,” did not claim victory on the back of the so-called “quick count” numbers released by several polling organizations during the afternoon after voting closed at 1pm. Greeting jubilant supporters at a Jakarta theatre, Widodo asked them to keep cool, despite previous elections’ early tallies usually proving accurate. “We’ve seen indications from exit polls and quick count results, but we must patiently wait for official counts,” he said. However, in another reprise of the 2014 contest, Prabowo declared himself the winner, citing his own campaign’s exit polls that he said put him over the 50 per cent mark. “There have been attempts from pollsters and surveys that we know of, cooperating with one side, to steer public opinion as if we have lost,”he told media and supporters as the early tallies emerged. In 2014, with the margin tighter at 6 per cent, Prabowo unsuccessfully challenged the outcome in Indonesia’s highest court, with supporters taking to the streets to back his claims. It is not clear if opposition supporters will protest again, with Prabowo cautioning against “anarchy” after voting closed. “My fellow countrymen, we must not be provoked,” he said.
JAKARTA — On Wednesday next week, perhaps the world’s most logistically-challenging elections will take place across Indonesia’s 3,000 mile wide, 13,000 island archipelago. Over 192 million people are eligible to vote at over 800,000 polling stations overseen by 6 million election officials, with roughly 245,000 candidates contesting around 20,000 seats for local and national legislatures. India’s elections, which started last week, entail much bigger numbers, around 900 million voters — the biggest elections the world has ever seen — but voting there is staggered and will run until May 19. Indonesia’s elections take place on a single day, April 17, and most eyes will be on the presidential race, a re-run of the 2014 contest between President Joko Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, and Prabowo Subianto, a former general.
DUBLIN — Business deals worth more than US$60 billion were arguably the least significant aspects of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy and France during the past five days. The key moment arrived in Paris on Tuesday when German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that the European Union wants “to play an active part” in Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). “We, as Europeans, want to play an active part [in the project] and that must lead to a certain reciprocity and we are still wrangling over that a bit,” she said at a media briefing after talks with Xi, French President Emmanuel Macro and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Her comments came despite pressure from the United States to block BRI deals and a recent statement by the EU branding China a “systemic rival.”
SINGAPORE — Candidates running in a slew of elections across Asia this year are taking to Twitter and other social media platforms to share slogans, pitch policies, rankle rivals and rouse crowds ahead of campaign rallies. For the last decade or so, elections have typically been depicted as social media-driven contests where the hashtag outranks the hustings when it comes to canvassing votes, particularly from smartphone-dependent millennials. While social media environments differ depending on the country, the importance of Twitter and Facebook might be overstated. Although some Asian candidates boast a huge social media presence, many of their followers appear to be fake or dormant, and the proportion of those who engage with posts is relatively low. Thailand, Indonesia, India are all holding general or presidential elections in the first half of this year, Australia is likely to vote in May, around the time the Philippines holds midterm polls. The three Southeast Asian countries are among the world’s five most internet-addicted, according to We Are Social’s 2019 global survey. Using the online Twitter analysis tool Sparktoro, which works by taking a representative sample of followers — along the lines of an opinion survey — it appears Indonesian President Joko Widodo has over 5.1 million fake followers. That equates to more than 47% of his total follower base.
BANGKOK — The arrest last week of a high-profile journalist in the Philippines and a gag order against a Thai television station are the latest reminders that Southeast Asia’s press freedoms rest on the whims of governments. But after investors poured a record $145 billion into the region last year, there is little reason to think they will be deterred by the latest clampdowns. Last year’s inflow, recently reported by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, included an unprecedented sum for Vietnam, a one-party communist state. As usual, around half of the money went via Singapore, which has been ruled by the People’s Action Party since independence in 1965 and where reporting is stymied by prolific use of the courts against foreign critics of the ruling elites. “In general, if we compare to other factors — political stability, infrastructure, predictability of rules — [press freedom] is not a decisive factor” in investment moves, said Miha Hribernik, head of Asia politics research at Verisk Maplecoft. Nonetheless, a free press can at least inform business decisions, according to Ebb Hinchliffe, Executive Director of American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, and John D. Forbes, Senior Adviser to the chamber. “A responsible free press is more useful and important than a censored one for the purpose of being informed,” they said in an email.