Akan Datang: It’s a long road to building a Malaysia Baharu

Pakatan Harapan - 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 Indonesia is facing uncertainty over the results of its presidential election, Malaysia is labelled a kidnapping risk and Vietnam sees a number of huge drug busts.

This week on New Naratif an exclusive interview with Meliana we have , the Chinese-Indonesian Buddhist woman serving an 18-month jail term for blasphemy. This is a follow-up of a story we did last year, so remember to read that one too!

We also have a story about activists in Myanmar who are protesting the military and demanding accountability. They thought they would have an easier time doing under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, but it hasn’t turned out that way.

Last but not least, we have a Chinese translation of Teo You Yenn’s op-ed on how Singapore’s “fake news” bill will impact academic freedom.

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


From Cambodia, our consulting editor Matt Surrusco has this news:

Despite International Labour Day, which is celebrated around the world on 1 May, being a public holiday in Cambodia, authorities in the capital Phnom Penh have said they will not allow unions to march through the city on Wednesday, citing their recurring reason for banning public marches: it would cause traffic congestion.

Earlier this year, a march to mark International Women’s Day, also a public holiday, was similarly blocked by police. Human Rights Day marches have been prevented for a number of years.

Also this week, Myanmar state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi will make her first official visit to Cambodia since assuming her position in 2016.

Simultaneously, Rhona Smith, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, is set to arrive in Phnom Penh on Monday as part of her regular fact-finding missions. She said in a statement last week that she will continue to examine “human rights with respect to the Sustainable Development Goals, looking in particular at non-discrimination and equality, and participation and accountability.”

Once again, the Cambodian government has denied Smith permission to meet with detained opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was arrested on widely criticised treason charges in 2017, jailed for a year without trial and remains under de-facto house arrest.


Over in Singapore our chief editor Kirsten Han has this:

Last week, Monica Baey, a student at the National University of Singapore, took to Instagram to speak out against how she had been filmed in the shower on campus, and how poorly the whole thing had been handled after she’d reported the guy to both the university and police. The perpetrator, identified as a fellow student named Nicholas Lim, had been let off with a slap on the wrist: suspended for a semester from school, with a 12-month conditional warning from the police.

Monica’s case and her willingness to go public has triggered a much bigger discussion about sexual harassment in universities, and what policies exist to support those who have been harassed, while also making it clear that such crimes aren’t tolerated. NUS, especially, is under the spotlight. Students have jumped on this opportunity to raise this serious issue with the university administration and give them a kick up the backside. This pressure led to NUS holding a town hall (which was packed), where students asked questions and demanded an accounting from the vice-provost of student life, dean of students and a counsellor.

tl;dr The students were not happy about how it went, so there’ll likely be more to be said about this issue over the next week.


From Sabah, our consulting editor Jared Abdul Rahman has this dispatch:

In the midst of ever-increasing attempts to homogenise identity across Malaysia, Sabahans have been urged to celebrate our cultural diversity.

Officiating the 2019 Regatta Lepa in Semporna, Sabah Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Jaujan Sambakong encouraged efforts to explore the multiracial arts and cultural industry, and that economic growth shouldn’t focus on the exploitation of natural resources.

Jaujan even made a point of saying that he would personally provide financial assistance to those who are interested in documenting and publishing culture-related books, as an example of one job opportunity that contributes to the preservation of Sabah’s unique cultural heritage, which does not rely on the civil service.

The Regatta Lepa pays homage to the lepa: a traditional single-mast sailing boat of the Bajau people of Semporna. Characterised by its flotilla of vibrant colours, the state event is held annually and also features various cultural performances, activities and games.

While the Regatta Lepa honours Semporna’s Bajau traditions, Sabah is home to some 42 ethnic groups, each with their own language, culture and beliefs. This number varies according to whom you ask. Whatever the actual number is, being wholly categorised as “dan lain-lain” (“other”) just doesn’t cut it.

Peninsular Malaysia

From Peninsular Malaysia our Bahasa Malaysia/Melayu editor, Adriana Nordin Manan, has this update:

As the one-year anniversary of the Pakatan Harapan government approaches in two weeks, one survey by respected opinion research firm Merdeka Center revealed that the Federal government’s approval ratings have taken a nosedive. The findings in March 2019 showed an approval rating of 39%, compared to 71% in August 2018. Public approval of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 71% in August 2018, is currently at 46%.

The findings are not at all surprising, given the sense for a while now that intra-party politicking and to put it bluntly, incompetence, has painted a sobering picture of the country in the age of Malaysia Baharu. The euphoria of May 2018 has come down to earth. Many will remember the days prior to the 2018 General Elections where it felt the country was adrift, at that time because of an entrenched, kleptocratic political coalition that was wreaking havoc and haemorrhaging the nation.

It turns out, a so-called clean sweep and reset button doesn’t mean that sense of being adrift goes away. All the more reason for civil society and the general populace to be more vigilant in holding politicians accountable for what they do in the name of the people.


In Vietnam, our contributor Mike Tatarski has this update:

Vietnam is in the midst of a long holiday weekend, as Reunification Day falls on 30 April and International Labour Day is 1 May. Airports and bus stations have been packed, while popular destinations will be completely jammed for the next few days.

The biggest story to keep an eye on here is the health of President Nguyen Phu Trong, who is also General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam. Following almost two weeks of rampant social media rumours, the government finally confirmed on Thursday that Trong is sick, though no details on his condition were released. Reuters reported that a government spokesperson said Trong’s health was impacted by his “heavy workload” and “changeable weather conditions”, and that he would “resume his normal duties soon.”

This is all very vague, which is not surprising, as the health of Vietnam’s leadership is, by law, considered a national secret. Trong is 75, though he was thought to be in good health previously. It seems he is recovering well from whatever happened, but he only assumed the role of president last year, and holds the Secretary General position until 2021, while there are no clear successors to him in either spot. We are likely in for plenty of political maneuvering here over the next two years, though most of that will happen behind closed doors.


And in Indonesia the fall-out from the election on 17 April is all getting a bit boring as both sides continue to insist that they’ve won and we’ve also surely read all the “hot takes” that we could possibly stomach on the subject.

More important than the election result itself (it’s clear Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has won) are the additional reports that over 200 elections workers, police and volunteers died as a result of exhaustion and overwork.

A lot has been made of why the media is not reporting on this, particularly foreign media sources, although it’s difficult to know if these numbers are just a coincidence when you take into account the fact that over seven million workers were involved in election logistics.

In better news, Saudi Arabia has released two domestic helpers who were previously sentenced to death for “witchcraft” in the Kingdom. You can read about their cases here.

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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