🇲🇾 Malaysia is having a terrible time
Pandemic forces Thai society further apart
And we’re back!
Our ongoing COVID-19 update will continue once a week as the region continues to get smashed, but there’s just so much going on I wanted to crack back in.
I’m offering 50 percent off new subscriptions until Thursday, which brings this comprehensive look at the region to your inbox on Tuesday mornings. I also offer institutional memberships which can be shared by a bunch of people in an office or organisation.
I’ve also set up a special freebie link for a couple of university student organisations which is REALLY cool and I would love to do that more so please reach out if you’re involved in something like that!
Also: this is already one of my longest in an age so I’ve popped Myanmar out for a deeper look on Wednesday.
See you then!
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The last few weeks in Malaysia have been so hellish I’m not sure even Anwar envies Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Firstly, the pandemic. When we last spoke about Malaysia last month, the country was on the brink of another round of restrictions with hopes of stemming a fresh spike in cases. The spike happened anyway, Malaysia’s a week into a two-week total lockdown and it’s the worst it has ever been.
Daily new cases sit around 6,000 a day while ICU admissions have set new daily records for almost a fortnight. Health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah has warned we’ve yet to see the peak. He predicts the country could see up to 13,000 new cases a day in just weeks. Channel News Asia reports 3,378 fatalities in the pandemic to date, as of Sunday.
The sharp rise means Malaysia is now leading Asia in cases per million people — beating even India whose own crisis dominated world headlines last month.
I’ve been trying to find one of those stories that offer a bit of hope among all the dire reporting. Something well-meaning and innovative from civil society, or something like that. I can’t find much just yet and this piece from Reuters on public health authorities concerned children and young people are at higher risk than previously thought hasn’t helped. Stay safe, friends.
Which is big enough news, of course. And then China goes for a joyride!
BBC has done one of those great comprehensive explainers here beginning with the 16 Chinese aircrafts entering Malaysian airspace off Sarawak. The flights over the South China Sea triggered a fresh dispute between the two countries and the same statements we always hear.
"Malaysia's stand is clear — having friendly diplomatic relations with any countries does not mean that we will compromise on our national security," Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in a statement, promising a complaint would be lodged with Beijing.
This incident is an excellent example of how complex the China-Southeast Asia state relationships are. When I googled ‘China Malaysia’ to find the BBC link again half the links are about this incident and the other half are about desperately securing COVID vaccines. It’s brutal out here.
The 1MDB money drip continues, reports Bloomberg. Deloitte sent $800 million into a debt recovery fund, which Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz says will be used to finance 1MDB debt. The current balance of the Assets Recovery Trust Account, the minister warns, will run out by the end of next year.
I know I say this a lot but more than ever I’m glued to and guided by Between the Lines. If you’re looking to go real deep on your Malaysia coverage you can’t go past it.
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I’ve been a bit lazy on the Singapore front, I’ll be honest with you there. The city has done a really great job of catching up on its potential next wave of the pandemic while others have not been so lucky. I was very interested in this piece from VICE which looks at the difference between expat workers and others in Singapore — for most the return to restrictions was a sad reminder we’re not free of the pandemic yet, but for workers living in the dormitories, it was just more of the same. Read this in full, it’s a very confronting piece.
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The Philippines’ pandemic disaster continues but seems to have plateaued with around 7,000 new cases reported daily in recent days. Readers may be aware that I have a lowkey fascination with the vaccine process in the Philippines, so as part of the COVID-19 looks we’ll be revisiting this one.
Whoa, who saw this one coming? Rappler boss and press freedoms spokesperson for the whole dang region Maria Ressa has had the highly controversial cyber libel case filed against her dropped. Businessman Wilfredo Keng dropped his 2017 complaint, but Ressa still faces another charge which could see her jailed. We’ll have to wait and see.
Do you know what May was? The one-year kick-off to the next presidential election! I would say that because the Philippine constitution says a president can only sit for one six-year term it makes for a long, juicy race. But who am I kidding! We’re just nerds! It’s the same everywhere!
Sara Duterte, current Mayor of Davao City and her father’s daughter, seems to be on a hot run with dad walking back his previous sexist remarks on a possible candidature. Could we see a double-Duterte ticket? Possibly, but not everyone agrees on why. While being obsessed with politics certainly isn’t a trait distinct to the Philippines, the election of presidents and vice-presidents is which adds a certain element of intrigue that I’m very interested in. Watch this space!
Philippine National Police will begin rolling out body cameras after yet another incident of police violence was captured on video by bystanders went viral, underlining the absolute impunity with which the agency acts. ‘Better late than never’ feels too defeatist. Cameras are only part of the solution, but a welcome one.
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Brunei’s time as chair of Asean will be defined by the Myanmar crisis, write Asyura Salleh and Huong Le Thu for the Strategist. This is a very interesting piece laying out what Brunei had hoped would be its legacy — stability in the second year of the pandemic and encouraging economic engagement — versus what it ultimately will be: the response to Myanmar.
Elsewhere, the Sultanate is chugging along with the pandemic. A few imported cases in recent weeks but nothing like that staggering second wave we’ve seen in the region, particularly in neighbouring Malaysia.
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The long-running saga of American priest and confessed sex offender Richard Daschbach has reached the trial stage. It isn’t going too smoothly with the pandemic a convenient excuse for the defendant not to attend, but there does seem to be official interference as well.
I’m reading this at the moment looking at Australia and Indonesia and Timor, which is a huge blindspot for me, so I’ll be back!
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Reuters dropped a stunning exclusive last week in Indonesia’s pandemic response, speaking with the epidemiologists behind a new study. The seroprevalence study found that an estimated 15 percent of Indonesia’s 270 million population has contracted COVID-19 over the last year and a bit. This is a stark increase from the current official data equating to 0.7 percent. Pandu Riono from the University of Indonesia, who conducted the study with help from WHO, wasn’t shocked, citing well-known under-reporting.
No surprise then, though still sad, that officials have cancelled the traditional Hajj for the second year in a row. This is a huge bummer for the hundreds of thousands hoping to go — especially because for some areas there’s a 20-year wait to get on it! “Due to the pandemic and for pilgrims’ safety, the government decided that this year it will not send Indonesian pilgrims,” Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas said, as reported by Arab News.
A boat carrying Rohingya refugees made it to Aceh last week, refugee agencies report. It is unknown where the boat left from before the engine broke off the coast of East Aceh, leaving it up to local communities to rescue and feed the 80 or so Rohingya.
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When we last spoke about Thailand’s fresh wave of cases, the blame had been put at the feet of the country’s elite. Nightclubs patronised by the business and political elite were effectively exempted from the restrictions enforced on the rest of Thailand and became a petri dish for the current wave. This piece from the New York Times looks specifically at the inequality at play here.
“Society is very, very unequal. The phuyai destroyed the Covid situation themselves, and we, the small people, we cannot live,” Mutita Thongsopa, originally from Northern Thailand, told the paper. Click through for a great read and even better snaps.
And if that wasn’t a disturbing enough example of the inequity in Thai society impeding outcomes, get ready. The vaccination programme which kicked off Monday will focus on the AstraZeneca injection (good) produced locally at Siam Bioscience (not bad), owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn (uh ok), which has never made a vaccine before (oof). Well, we’ll see. As noted above, the Philippines shipment from Siam Bioscience has already been delayed.
Another month, another reopening plan. The Thai Enquirer takes a look at the timeline laid out by officials to reopen the struggling tourism industry to vaccinated foreigners. Phuket, which has been touted as the first cab off the rank virtually since March last year, will reopen next month to visitors.
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The Lao government is looking to crack down further on social media. This piece from the Diplomat looks at previous instances of social media dissent and what the government fears in the Milk Tea Alliance age.
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Cambodia’s desperate lockdown is over, but the pandemic is not with a record of new cases reported over the weekend. Xinhua reports a government statement putting official figures at 34,244 as of Sunday.
Well done, Magawa. The rat will be heading into retirement after clearing a staggering 141,000 square metres of possible mines in Cambodia. He even got an award! I love him!
The US and China are biffing over who loves Cambodia more. Again.
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Are some restrictions in Vietnam a little too restrictive? That’s what new Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh thinks. Fair cop in some provinces, he reckons, where cases are climbing. “Some locations, however, have slapped rigid and extreme measures that have hit production and business activities, putting supply chains and large-scale production at risk of disruption,” he said over the weekend, as reported by Bloomberg.
In the vaccine round, Vietnam’s approval of China’s Sinopharm vaccine is very interesting. It joins AstraZeneca and the Russian Sputnik V as approved but trails the rest of the region in approval. Like Malaysia above it seems like the times are adequately desperate.
Might not be for too long though. The government is keen to begin producing vaccines ASAP and has joined the chorus calling for a waiver of IP protections. "Vietnam would build the plant and would like to receive the patent so it could supply vaccines to COVAX, to other countries as well as to Vietnam," a Health Ministry statement said, as reported by Reuters. Hear, hear.