From gifting Basquiat paintings to Leonardo di Caprio to pouring millions of dollars in champagne over himself and Paris Hilton, allegations of outrageous exploits and profligate spending surrounding fugitive Malaysian financier Jho Low are being read about across the globe—but not in the UK.
That is because Low’s lawyers have used Britain’s notoriously strict libel laws to effectively muzzle Billion Dollar Whale, a new book from investigative journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope that describes the playboy banker’s alleged role in siphoning off more than $4 billion from Malaysian sovereign investment fund 1MDB. Even though the book was released amid critical praise on September 18th, anyone in the UK will be hard-pressed to find a copy in their local independent bookstore— or even on the UK websites of Amazon, Waterstones, or WH Smiths. Not a single UK-based publisher agreed to take on the book due to fears over libel suits.
The Guardian published an expose this week detailing the efforts of London-based law firm Schillings to suppress the book’s sale in Britain. Low’s lawyers have tried to head off the book’s distribution by sending intimidating letters threatening to sue booksellers across the world. Outside of the UK, however, this legal campaign has failed to curb the book’s launch. The Australian owner of Boomerang Books, for example, simply rejected the threat as lawyers “blowing smoke“ and refused to take the book off shelves.
While his attorneys threaten booksellers, Low has also launched a website proclaiming his innocence and disputing allegations of his involvement in corruption, going so far as to claim his astounding wealth—at one point, Low may have had access to more liquid cash than anyone in history—comes from inheritance. A staggering inheritance is less likely than Billion Dollar Whale’s assertion that Low managed to get Goldman Sachs to transfer $3 billion of Malaysian state funds into a private Swiss bank account. Low allegedly used the stolen money to, among other things, bankroll the film Wolf of Wall Street and purchase a $250 million superyacht.
Low’s alleged role as mastermind in the 1MDB scandal may be the focus of Billion Dollar Whale, but nonagenarian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed has instead zeroed in on predecessor and onetime protégé Najib Razak. Last week, Najib’s lawyer Muhammad Shafee was detained on money laundering charges. Najib himself was then arrested on September 19th and is now awaiting trial on more than 20 counts, with anticorruption agency officials hinting at more charges still to come.
The 93-year-old Mahathir has previously stated that he has the “almost perfect case” to convict his disciple-turned-enemy. As Mahathir’s young government has moved against them, however, Najib and Shafee have pushed back. Najib has repeatedly insisted that he believes Mahathir’s focus on his role in the corruption scandal is politically motivated. He also claims the $681 million bank deposit at the heart of the money laundering accusations against him was a donation from the Saudi royal family, an assertion the Saudi government backed in 2016. Shafee revisited the details of the funds transfer this week following Najib’s arrest, pointing out that the former PM returned the vast majority of the $681 million and disputing the money laundering charges against his client as “illogical.”
While Mahathir doggedly pursues Najib, he seems to be making less of an effort to pursue or apprehend Jho Low and the billions the financier allegedly pilfered. Why the discrepancy? The answer likely lies in Mahathir’s own past as a member of the same class of strongman as the Philippine’s Ferdinand Marcos and Indonesia’s Suharto, as well as his personal history with Najib.
Mahathir may have only come to power in May, but he has already served a nearly two-decade term as Prime Minister that earned him an international reputation for ugly ethnic politics and strongarm tactics. He ushered in the “Malaysia Inc.” policy that tried to follow the Japanese model of nationalizing certain industries, but is best known for the failed nationalization of the automotive industry and the Malaysia-produced Proton car. He is also known for throwing another potential successor, Anwar Ibrahim, out of power and into prison on sodomy charges suspected to be politically motivated.
Ironically enough, Mahathir retook power this year by campaigning on the return of rule of law and an end to corruption – and is once again pointing to Anwar as his anointed successor. More than a few observers suspect Mahathir’s aspirations to return to office were born less out of any interest in saving his country, and more from a desire to wreak political vengeance on his former ally. Najib, who came to power in 2009, oversaw the reversal of many of Mahathir’s policies. Steps such as rolling back import tariffs on automobiles to the detriment of the Malaysian Proton led Mahathir to perceive Najib as undoing his political legacy.
With this personal animus playing out in the Malaysian press over the past few years, Mahathir’s current persecution of Najib risks crossing the line separating a fair judicial process from the jailing of a political rival. Asian affairs analysts have raised the specter of Mahathir using Najib as a scapegoat to avoid genuine reform. It was, after all, under Mahathir’s previous tenure that shady backroom dealings and authoritarian behavior became the norm in Malaysia.
With that track record, it certainly seems illogical to hope the man most emblematic of Malaysia’s old guard will steer the country back towards democracy after finishing with Najib. Mahathir will allegedly hand off power after two years per the terms of his agreement with Anwar Ibrahim. Two years is a long time in the context of Malaysia’s unpredictable politics and the rumblings of discontent with the arrangement within the ruling coalition.
In the interim, the new government’s single-minded focus on Najib could help Jho Low fly as low under the radar in Malaysia as he has in the UK.
Japan’s involvement in Myanmar
After the civilian-democratic transition in Myanmar, the western sanctions on trade and investment in the country were lifted. This led to a huge inflow of foreign direct investment in key infrastructural sectors and energy sector because of the nascent stage of economic progress in the conflict-torn country. Regional giants like China and Japan as well as ASEAN countries have been increasing their economic aid, assistance and cooperation with the country notwithstanding the humanitarian concerns raised by international community. The Chinese involvement in the region, especially its investment in big infrastructure and energy projects in Rakhine province have been a subject of international deliberation and criticism. However, Japan too has been competing with China to check its hegemonic ambitions under the One Belt One Road initiative. Consequently, it has been increasing its existing economic cooperation and financial investment in Myanmar since 2012. Japan’s overall investment pale in comparison to that of China (which over the past 30 years has invested, while it did peak to 1.48 Billion USD in 2017. As of July 2018, Japan was number 10 in terms of investment, while China was number 1.
Japanese involvement in Myanmar has various layers; investments in infrastructure projects ( a strong example being rail system in Yangon), Thilawa SEZ Project, (Japan’s Industrial Decisions firm as well as Marubeni are involved in two coal projects, as well as assistance in capacity building. Significantly, a survey last year revealed that Myanmar population prefers Japanese because investments have resulted in job creation, and assistance to small and medium enterprises. This is also because of the generous loan agreements and economic grants that Japan has made while having a balanced relationship with the erstwhile Junta and the resurgent democratic polity. Resentment against China is not restricted to Myanmar, but has been evident in Africa, South East Asia and even South Asia. The phenomena of Debt Trap Diplomacy has accentuated it as China takes back every last penny and that too at prohibitively high rates.
Japan’s involvement in Rakhine State
While Myanmar has been showcasing the Thilawa SEZ (49% is owned by JICA and three Japanese banks) as one of it’s successes. Japan has been pro-actively involved in development of the Rakhine State (while the state is rich in natural resources, a significant percentage of population is below the poverty line). Foreign Minister visited Japan twice last year and in January 2019, Ms. Toshiko Abe, State Minister for Foreign Affairs visited Republic of the Union of Myanmar and issues pertaining to the Rakhine State were discussed. During her visit to Japan in October 2018, Aung San Suu Kyi had praised Japan for being understanding towards Myanmar’s stand on the Rohingya issue. While Aung San Suu Kyi has been facing widespread criticism for her lacklustre and indifferent approach towards the grave human rights violations against rohingya population, she has been seeking support of the investors like Japan to emphasize the fact that Myanmar being a young democracy can not take decisive action against these violations and acting against military establishment would imperil the stability of democratic government. Nevertheless, Tokyo has been providing noteworthy assistance in state capacity building and economic revival of the Rakhine state. Only recently, the Japan International Cooperation Agency [JICA], and the Japan External Trade Organization [JETRO organized the Rakhine State Forum (February 21-23,2019). State Chancellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, made it a point to mention both these organisations during her address.
While China has invested in Rakhine State. A pipeline which commences from Kyaupkyu in Rakhine and extends till Yunnan Province in China, was inaugurated in April 2018 and China has also tried to play a role in resolving Rohingya Crisis. Tokyo’s approach towards Rakhine has been far more holistic. Japanese Envoy in an interview to the media, stated that the only way out was all round development – which included economics and politics. The Envoy also said that they would try to draw more investment
In 2018, Japan had announced assistance of over 20 Million USD for the conflict torn region. The Government of Japan and eight United Nations Agencies also signed a US$ 37 million value agreement to implement humanitarian and development projects in Shan, Kachin and Rakhine States.
While Japan is playing an important role in ensuring that Myanmar looks beyond China, it will also need to play a role in convincing Suu Kyi to adopt a different role towards Human Rights Issues and avoid curbs on the press (last year two Reuter’s journalists were arrested). While Suu Kyi has been trying to obfuscate, this will not be possible in the long run. The widespread concerns about the ongoings in Myanmar have a huge negative associative value for foreign investors who otherwise view an exceptional economic advantage in this highly under-developed and naturally endowed region with cheap labour. The fact, that some European companies have begun to exit from Myanmar, as a result of the Human Rights violations and EU is has threatened to withdraw the GSP is a strong reiteration of this point. Since investment inflows have a positive network effect that goes beyond geopolitical rivalries, it is important for the existing investors like Japan to urge the Myanmar goverment to take robust action to hold human rights violators accountable. This would go a long way in ensuring the sustainability of economic leverage that Myanmar possesses and lead to a paradigm of socio-economic stability in the region. Given the fact, that Japan, a democracy, is one of the key players in promoting the idea of a ‘Free and Open India Pacific’ (to check China’s rise) it is in a good position to do so. Myanmar will need to decide which path it needs to take – that of other authoritarian states in the region – or of a robust democracy, Japan can play an important role in the same.
*Prannv Dhawan leads the India Pakistan Research Project at the Council for International Relations and International Law. He is also a BA LLB Hons student at the National Law School University, Bangalore.
Take me to Patpong: The forgotten women of Thailand
One of the perks of going abroad and studying in many schools is that I have friends from many nationalities, backgrounds and interests, the privilege to welcome them here in Thailand. Sometimes too many faces and hair colors walk through my house at once that I joke I should receive a recognition from the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Not only is it a great way to understand the multiculturalism, it is also a good way to know more about your home country.
Amongst the usual to-do-list includes Grand Palace, Elephant Riding and Jim Thompson. Then came a highly educated, wealthy and a white male friend. He wanted nothing more than having a glimpse of Thailand infamous red right district, Patpong: “If I didn’t get to see Patpong, my friends would have thought I never made it to Thailand.”
He is not alone.
Million of men – not exaggerated – travel through Thailand each year for sex, erotic pleasure and adult entertainment. The demand for sex industry is not just high but quintessential for Thai tourism.
Of course, there is no official records of how many came for paid sex in Thailand. There is no official record of how many women sacrificed their bodies, hearts and souls to be someone sex toys so that they can make ends meet. There is no official record of how many of those women suffer and die from sexual transmitted deceases brought to them by men of different colours, backgrounds and nationalities.
There is no official record of anything.
Because according to the state perspective – these women do not exist. They are illegal workers of the underworld business.
Not only are they the destination for a lot of tourists, but they are also the contribution of underground world – where officials take unofficial numbers of brides so these parlors can run their business in the open – illegally, of course.
They have no access to official state facilities that will make them parts of the citizens.
How double standard?
Being a buddhist country, sex industry is a sin. But being a hypocrite state, the Thai state has benefited significantly from the pain, suffering and death of these prostitutes.
Welcome to the land of smile.
The election is coming up. If politicians are lacking of idea of what to do with this country, perhaps it is time they take a serious look to the lives and despair of the most excluded and underserved group of the population.
On the international woman’s day, it is the time to recognize of those “hookers” who make so many men happy. It is the time to realize that despite their plight, they are a part of our society. International woman’s day is not just about CEO on Forbes. It’s about every woman live. Because everyone matters.
Prostitutes or not, I wish every woman a happy day.
US-Vietnam economic relations: The China factor
While addressing a joint Press Conference at Hanoi, after his summit, with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, US President, Donald Trump spoke not just about the Summit, but also the current state of US-China relations. Trump criticized his predecessors, for not doing enough to address the trade imbalance with China, while also making the point, that he was all for China’s economic progress and growth, but not at the cost of the US.
If one were to look beyond the Summit in terms of the US-Vietnam economic relations, top US companies – Boeing and GE electric sealed some important deals.
Given the focus of Trump’s visit (which was the Summit with North Korean leader) perhaps these deals did not draw the attention they ought to have. The fact is that the US has begun to recognise Vietnam’s economic potential, as well as geo-political significance in Asia. This paper will give a backgrounder to Vietnam’s economic growth story in recent years, some of it’s key strategic relationships and then examine the nature of the China-US-Vietnam economic triangle.
Vietnam’s growth story: The key reasons
There is absolutely no denying the fact, that Vietnam has emerged as an important engine of economic growth within Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) region in general, and has been able to emerge as a top performer within Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam (CMLV) bloc in particular Economic reforms (doimoi) began over three decades ago in 1986. In recent years, some of the key factors which have driven Vietnam’s growth story, especially its success in drawing FDI are; a large labour force (57.5 million), lower wages for workers (there are varying estimates, but the wages of production workers are estimated at around 216 USD, monthly, and this is half of what labour would charge in China). Electricity too is way cheaper in Vietnam than other competitors in the ASEAN region. As of June 2018, Vietnam charged 7 U.S. cents per kilowatt hour, while the cost of electricity in Indonesia was 10 U.S. Cents, and Phillipines charged nearly thrice the amount — 19 U.S. Cents.
If one were to look at the growth and FDI figures, they are a clear reflection of Vietnam’s success. In 2018, Vietnam’s growth rate was estimated at a little over 7% (7.08) this was the highest in 11 years. Disbursed FDI into Vietnam was estimated at19.1 Billion for the year 2018 (disbursed FDI for three years was estimated at well over 50 Billion USD). Total FDI for the year 2018 was estimated at 35 Billion USD. Japan with over 8 Billion USD was the single largest investor in 2018. Other countries which have a strong presence in Vietnam are South Korea and Singapore. China is the 7th largest investor in Vietnam. One of the major attractions apart from the economic potential is the country’s location (it is easier to expand to other countries like Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia)
As a result of growing consumer demand and increased tourism, revenues from Retail Sales and Consumer Services and Travel and Tourism also witnessed a significant increase in 2018. Revenue from retail services was estimated at over 190 Billion USD, while from travel and tourism was nearly 2 Billion USD. The increased revenue from travel and tourism it is driven by the rise in tourism in 2018 (almost 20 percent)
Vietnam has close trade relations with both China (Vietnam is China’s largest trade partner in ASEAN) and US. Bilateral trade between both countries for the period January-November 2018 was estimated at 97 Billion USD, though this was heavily skewed in favour of Beijing (the total trade deficit was over 20 Billion USD). In the case of US-Vietnam trade, it is heavily skewed in favour of Vietnam (US runs a trade deficit of over 25 Billion USD).
Vietnam’s strategic importance is also increasing. Even before the recent Trump-Kim Jong UN Summit, Vietnam has hosted a number of important events in recent years such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in 2008 (in Hanoi) and in 2017 (in Danang), the high-powered World Economic Forum in 2018, and frequent ASEAN summits.
It is strengthening defense and security ties with Japan, US and India in recent years. One of the key reasons for this pro-active strategic outreach is the China factor.
During former Vietnam President, Truong Tan Sang’s Japan visit, both sides issued a joint statement which referred to the need for upgrading the bilateral relationship to an “Extensive Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in Asia’. The joint statement made references to closer security cooperation, the joint statement made mention of Japanese assistance for capacity building of it’s maritime enforcement agencies. Both sides also reiterated their shared opinion on the South China Sea Issue as well as denuclearization in North Korea. In July 2018, Japan and Vietnam held the 6th Defence Policy Dialogue (this was co-chaired by Deputy Defense Ministers of both countries. In September 2018,a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) submarine Kuroshio docked at Cam Ranh International Port in Kham Hoa on September 17. While security cooperation has been increasing in recent years, this development emphasized the increasing convergence of both sides on important geo-political issues. Japan has also been batting for greater Japan-Vietnam cooperation in the context of the Indo-Pacific. The Japanese PM, in an interview, in February 2019 reiterated the need for a stronger Japan-Vietnam partnership for pushing forward the idea of a ‘Free and Fair’ and ‘Open’ Indo-Pacific.
Vietnam has also been bolstering strategic ties with the US. In July 2017, Washington and Hanoi conducted the 8th Naval Engagement Activity. The United States is also providing support for Vietnam’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations. In 2018, more than four decades after the end of the Vietnam war, US Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson arrived in the city of Danang a key battle ground during the war. This was an important step in the context of strategic cooperation between both countries, but to send a message to China that the latter’s militarization and aggression over the South China Sea issue will not be taken lying down.
Vietnam is also enhancing security ties with Japan and India. During his visit to Vietnam in 2016, Indian PM Narendra Modi had offered a credit line of 500 Million for defense cooperation. During Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang both sides resolved to work jointly for a ‘free and prosperous’ Indo-Pacific.
While Vietnam has been strengthening it’s strategic ties with the above countries, it has been a tad cautious with regard to the Indo-Pacific narrative and has said that was against any military alliance as this would have an adverse impact on security in the region.
If one were to look at the trajectory of US-Vietnam relations (which were influenced by the baggage of the war) have steadily increased over the past two decades. Both sides have made efforts to put behind the acrimony arising out of the Vietnam war – though this is extremely tough given the fact that was amongst the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century. Some important steps were taken in the 1990’s during the Presidency of Bill Clinton. In 1994, US lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam. A bilateral trade agreement between both countries came into being in 2001 after it was approved by the US Congress as well as the Vietnamese National Assembly.
During the Obama Presidency again crucial steps were taken to strengthen the economic relationship. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) signed in 2015 for which Obama pushed would have benefited Vietnam immensely as the South East Asian Country would have gained preferential access to US market.
President Trump did make the massive trade deficit with Vietnam an election issue, and US exit from TPP was a setback but a number of important developments have taken place in the context of US-Vietnam bilateral ties. In May 2017, during the Vietnam President’s, Nguyen Xuan Phuc visit to the US, deals worth 8 Billion USD (two major US companies were Caterpillar and General Electric) were signed between both sides. Trump mentioned the US’ trade deficit and hoped to balance that over a period of time.
While addressing the APEC Summit in November 2017, the US President had a word of praise for Vietnam’s economic progress:
….’ Vietnamese economy is one of the fastest-growing economies on Earth. It has already increased more than 30 times over, and the Vietnamese students rank among the best students in the world..’
After the China-US trade wars many argued, that Vietnam could be the biggest beneficiary. So far, Vietnam has benefitted (export orders to certain sectors have witnessed a rise) but not in a dramatic way (some companies are likely to relocate from China with Vietnam being a possible choice, but current evidence suggests that this has not happened on a large scale.
Deals signed during Trump’s Vietnam visit: How China has sensed an opportunity
As mentioned earlier, during the US President’s Vietnam visit a number of significant deals were signed. Viet Jet will buy 100 Boeing 737-Max jets and 215 GE/CFM joint venture engines, Bamboo Airways (a start up owned by Hanoi-based conglomerate FLC Group) is buying 10 Boeing 787-9 jets.
U.S.-based aviation technology company Sabre also inked a deal with the flag carrier Vietnam Airlines. The deal estimated at 300 Million USD is supposed to help Vietnam Airlines in upgrading its digital abilities, and to achieve its aim of becoming a digital airline by 2020. Total deals signed during Trump’s visit were estimated at 20 Billion USD.
The China-US-Vietnam triangle is interesting not just from a historical context, but also an economic dimension. What is significant is that while there is talk of US-China trade wars and the likely benefit for Vietnam, Beijing kept a close eye not just on Trump’s statements with regard to North Korea, but also the deals signed during his Vietnam visit.
An article in Global Times makes a mention of how China can be part of the global production chain through a “completion and delivery center” in Zhoushan, East China’s Zhejiang Province. Interior work of over 700 planes can be completed in this centre.
The focus of the Trump visit was North Korea, the deals signed will give a boost not just to economic ties between Vietnam and US, and are a clear illustration of how much importance Trump gives to big ticket business deals. It is interesting to see the approach of China towards these deals, while keeping a close watch on the outcomes of the summit with Kim Jong Un, China also closely watched the economic outcomes of the visit and analysed how it could benefit from the same.
The conclusion of the article is especially interesting:
‘China has no reason to be jealous of Trump’s economic gain in Vietnam. In contrast, we hope the US can increase economic interaction with enterprises in Southeast Asian countries. Hopefully, everyone can learn that economic engagement is not a zero-sum game’.
The China-US-Vietnam triangle is important, not just in the strategic context especially with regard to the South China Sea Issue as well as the aim of achieving a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’. As for the economic context, both Trump and the Chinese are equally transactionalist and it is interesting to see Beijing de-hyphenate US’ strategic ties with Vietnam from the economic relationship.
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