Akan Datang: A near miss for Sabah and Sarawak to get their equal status back

Malaysia - New Naratif

Akan Datang: our contributors’ take on the stories to watch in Southeast Asia this week, curated by Regional Editor Aisyah Llewellyn.

Hello New Naratif readers and welcome to another week in Southeast Asia! This week the Indonesian presidential election is upon us, it’s Khmer New Year in Cambodia, and we are still talking about the “fake news” bill over in Singapore.

This week we published this FAQ on Singapore’s “fake news” bill and this commentary on the impact the law could have on academic freedom. Also new on the site this week is the Bahasa Indonesia version of our article on death by coal on the Santan River in Kalimantan. As the Indonesian presidential election is almost upon us, we also published this piece on how indigenous communities in Indonesia have long felt marginalised by the government after a string of unfulfilled electoral campaign promises in both English and Bahasa Indonesia. There’s also this article all about Prabowo’s identity politics.

Here are all the stories to watch in Southeast Asia this week…


Over in Vietnam, our contributor Mike Tatarski has this update:

A new report from Amnesty International on capital punishment around the world in 2018 found that Vietnam is one of the few countries in which executions increased from the previous year, with the organisation estimating that at least 85 executions were carried out here last year, though official information on this subject is rare. This comes amid a global fall in application of the death penalty, with 2018 seeing the fewest executions worldwide in a decade.

At a press conference held last week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman defended Vietnam’s sovereign right to continue employing the death penalty, while adding that this punishment is only used for extremely serious crimes. There is little public debate of this topic in the country.

At the same press conference, the government official said authorities are working to verify whether a Chinese oil rig is operating within Vietnam’s territorial waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. This follows a report from Xinhua that the oil rig has been deployed to an area called the Yinggehai Basin. This is worth keeping an eye on, as in 2014 China moved an oil rig into Vietnam’s waters, sparking widespread anti-China protests, as well as violence in several industrial parks in Vietnam.


We are now entering the “Quiet Period” ahead of the elections when candidates are prohibited from any further campaigning to give everyone a time to ruminate on who they’ll vote for on 17 April 2019.

For a bit more background on the election, the Guardian has this piece on presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto and the New York Times has this article on current president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and the role of the Indonesian military in the election.


From Sabah, Consulting Editor for Sabah, Jared Abdul Rahman, has this:

The Bill to amend Article 1(2) of the Malaysian Federal Constitution failed to get the required two-thirds majority vote—they missed that threshold by just 10 votes as over 50 Members of Parliament abstained. As such, Sabah and Sarawak will remain listed as states, alongside the Peninsular states, in Article 1(2) which forms the basis of the Federal Constitution.

When Sabah and Sarawak first agreed to the union with the Federation of Malaya (and Singapore) to form the new Federation of Malaysia, they were listed as separate from the states which formed the Federation of Malaya, as was Singapore. Other than a statement of status within the new Federation, this was necessary to allow for the enactment of special provisions.

In 1976, 13 years after the formation of Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak were downgraded to states alongside those of Peninsular Malaysia.

The decision to retain Article 1(2) in its current wording has caused a stir, with some members of the community voicing that the amendment would have been purely cosmetic, while others argue that at least it would have been a first step.

Either way, let’s consider this for a moment: When the Federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore came together in 1963, did we really form a new nation, or were we merely absorbed by the Federation of Malaya with a name change?

Peninsular Malaysia

Over in Malaysia, our Deputy Editor for Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia, Adriana Nordin Manan has this dispatch:

Ahead of early overseas voting in the Indonesian elections on 17 April, news has surfaced of sacks of ballot papers found in a warehouse in Selangor state, neighbouring Kuala Lumpur.

Apparently the ballot papers had been marked in favour of  Indonesian President Joko Widodo and legislative candidates aligned to his coalition. This puts Malaysia in a quizzical spotlight in the run-up to elections in its neighbouring country. Malaysia is the country with the largest number of overseas Indonesian voters, around 1.5 million. Following the discovery, the Indonesian authorities have announced that voting in Peninsular Malaysia will be suspended.

Meanwhile, the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), a 648km train route from the west coast to the east coast of the peninsula, is back on track after being temporarily suspended following Pakatan Harapan’s victory in last year’s general elections. A lot has been reported on the reduced costs due to minor changes in the original route that led to a shorter length.

The ECRL is particularly interesting because it was one of a few mega-infrastructure projects halted since the change in Federal government, citing inflated costs during initial negotiations with China during the previous administration. China Communications Construction Co is the main contractor for the project. There was a sense that during his tenure, former Prime Minister Najib Razak had become too close to China, signing deals that were seen as lopsided, allowing for kickbacks and an escape route of sorts from the abyss of the 1MDB mess.

Making a side appearance in the saga is the topic of palm oil. Following the announcement of the ECRL being back on track, Minister of Primary Industries, Teresa Kok, said that in return, Beijing should buy more Malaysian palm oil, which is headed for a rough ride with the EU’s announcement of a ban on imports.


From Cambodia, our Consulting Editor for Cambodia, Matt Surrusco, has this news:

Cambodians will observe Khmer New Year from Sunday to Tuesday, with many returning to their home provinces to celebrate with family. This includes an estimated one million Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand, some of whom have journeyed back across the border for the holiday period.

With long queues at border checkpoints come allegations of immigration officers soliciting bribes to expedite the re-entry process.

One analyst told the Phnom Penh Post that he obtained video evidence of officers at the Poipet International Border Checkpoint asking for about KHR40,000 (about USD10) to speed up the paperwork and passport-stamping process.

An official denied that border officers were soliciting “fees,” while a labour rights worker told Voice of Democracy that he had visited a border crossing where officers were demanding THB300 (about USD9.50), with the cash being split between Thai and Cambodian officers.

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians have been pushed to find work abroad due to indebtedness and too few jobs in the country that pay a living wage. If the bribery allegations against border officers are true, then for many of those returning home, corruption will meet them on Cambodia’s doorstep.

Happy New Year!


From Singapore, our Chief Editor, Kirsten Han, has this:

We’re still talking about the “fake news” bill. (For those who are interested to know more about what’s in it, our Managing Director PJ Thum and I put together an FAQ here.)

The PAP government has been defending the bill. Law Minister K Shanmugam has been trying to convince the public that it’s really not that big a deal, and that 99% of Singaporeans won’t have to worry about it 99% of the time. Unfortunately, the headline of that article—“Draft fake news laws an ‘exercise of govt power’ to set out the truth”—is in itself pretty scary stuff. And then we have this: “On whether the proposed law may be abused, Mr Shanmugam said that he cannot vouch for how future governments will act.”

Put that down as one of the least reassuring assurances I’ve ever seen.

Academics from around the world who have expertise or experience with Singapore and Asia aren’t happy about the bill either—there are concerns that it could have an impact on academic freedom, with impact that could ripple beyond Singapore’s shores. The government has said that the law won’t affect academia. Thanks, say the academics, but we can’t accept that until it’s in legally binding language. Gotta love academics sometimes.

And that’s a wrap on this week in Southeast Asia! If you have a tip on a news story you would like to see featured in Akan Datang, then send it to us via aisyah.llewellyn@newnaratif.com !

See you next week!

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