Asian Insider April 15: Malaysia rescued from China's debt trap?

Asian Insider brings you insights into a fast-changing region from our network of correspondents.


Months after he returned as Malaysia's premier last year, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad cancelled the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project with China, saying he could ill afford the RM81 billion (S$26 billion) project as he grappled with debts of over RM1 trillion. For a region that was still grappling with how Sri Lanka's Hambantota port became China's, Mahathir's actions drew wider attention to the issue. 

Now, Malaysia's decided to go ahead with the project. Did Mahathir cave in to pressure? That would be very unlike the strongman. The Prime Minister says China not only reduced the fee but also agreed to a 50-50 joint venture to operate the 640km line across Peninsula Malaysia, that will slash Kuala Lumpur's financial risk.  

Why this project is important: ECRL is a key project in China's Belt and Road Initiative that will link Port Klang in the west of Malaysia to Kuantan Port in the east, before continuing northwards to the Thai border. This would create a land bridge in one of the world's most important trade routes that connect Asian markets facing the Pacific to those near the Indian Ocean. 

So, Malaysia won't fall into the debt trap?: "It is a considerable saving for us," says Mahathir. Also, Malaysia couldn't afford to terminate the agreement as it would mean a compensation of RM21.78 billion would have to be paid to Beijing. That would be huge, by any standard. But then, Malaysia still has to resolve its debt issue. 

Meanwhile, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang has had a satisfying tour of European countries, but in reality, our Global Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Eyal who is based in London, says Europe's differences with Beijing are significant and growing. Can’t access this article? Simply click here

Go deeper: 

In breakthrough, China promises EU companies equal treatment

In Italy, China hopes for another strategic foothold in Europe


Twelve-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week. Should anyone be working that long? Well, billionaire Jack Ma thinks that's just fine. In a lengthy blog post, China's richest man has dismissed those who expect a typical eight-hour lifestyle and said that those who get to work longer are 'lucky'. This has added more fuel to a raging social media furore in China over what has come to be termed the '996' debate. 

What about labour laws in China?: Well, the debate is still inconclusive. And times are tough.  

Read more here: 

'Slackers are not my brothers', says China's boss 

Alibaba shows signs of strain as China's economy shudders


Did you hear only one side of the debate on Brunei's move to implement syariah law? The one that led celebrities like George Clooney and Ellen Degeneres calling for a boycott of hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei? The Bruneians have their own view on this matter and say the country has had Islamic law for years, for its Muslim citizens - who account for 67 per cent of its 420,000 population - although it was codified in 2013. Read our story to find out more.

Meanwhile, Muslim as well as non-Muslim Bruneians are not fussed about the implementation of syariah law.

Here's more:  

Facts about syariah around the world

Lessons from the Ottoman Empire's penal code


He’s an optimist. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has called for a fourth summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to resolve differences between them to be able to begin new chapters in how the two countries could work together.

Will it work? Things didn’t quite work out when President Trump met the North Korean leader in Hanoi. The US leader wanted firm commitments from Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programme while the latter wanted sanctions relief. This seems like a “which comes first, the chicken or the egg” situation. But this involves nuclear weapons - with potential to inflict severe damage. Will Kim budge? If his recent statements are any indication, this is not going to be easy. Here are some stories:

North Korea's Kim Jong Un gives US to year-end to become more flexible

Tributes and pledges as North Korea marks founder Kim Il Sung's birthday


Bali's kintamani dog becomes first Indonesian breed to get international recognition

This intelligent breed of dogs has not been recognised globally before and this has hampered the ability to let this breed enter competitions. That's changed now. Some dog owners should be delighted. What about animal rights folks?

In other developments

Malaysia ex-PM Najib's 1MDB graft trial resumes

Poll shows support for Australia's far-right One Nation sinking before election

K-pop scandals uncover dark side of Seoul's flashiest district

That’s it for now. It’s a Monday and the beginning of this week’s news cycle. We’ll have a lot more soon. Meanwhile, hoping you can finish your work within eight hours every day, at least this week.