Asian Insider April 3: Malaysia’s Najib in court

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

SEE YOU IN COURT!

It is Malaysia’s financial scandal of the century, and it has caused the ouster of a sitting prime minister for the first time and the return to power of an unlikely figure - 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad. Wednesday, ex-PM Najib Razak, whose father was Malaysia’s second premier, was in court for the start of his much-anticipated trial over the alleged plundering of billions of dollars from state fund 1MDB.  

Najib faces three counts of criminal breach of trust, one charge of abuse of power, and three counts of money laundering involving RM42 million (US$10.3 million) from SRC International, a former unit of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).  He pleaded not guilty.

Malaysia Correspondent Hazlin Hassan says the 65-year-old looked relaxed when he arrived at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex at about 2pm local time, stopping to greet a group of his supporters before entering the courthouse  with his lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah.

He was not accompanied by his wife Rosmah Mansor, who has also been charged with money laundering and tax evasion. His son Norashman Najib arrived shortly before 2pm.

Meanwhile, says Nadirah Rodzi, the yacht allegedly bought by fugitive Malaysian businessman Jho Low with money stolen from 1MDB will be sold to casino operator Genting Malaysia Bhd for US$126 million.

SOUTH KOREA’S RACE TO 5G

Electronics giant Samsung is set to beat US rival Motorola by releasing the world's first 5G-enabled phone to the public in its home base, South Korea.

The Galaxy S10 5G to be released Friday will allow users to surf the Web and download videos at a speed of up to 20GB per second, 20 times faster than the current 4G LTE network. The ultra-fast network's ability to process huge amounts of data at one time, as well as its low latency, which translates to minimal connection delay, will make possible things such as self-driving cars, hologram conferencing and remote robotic surgery, says South Korea Correspondent Chang May Choon. South Korea can then hail itself as the world's first country to fully commercialise 5G.

The main telco SK reportedly wanted to charge 75,000 won (US$66) a month for 150GB of data, but the proposal was rejected by the Ministry of Science and ICT. Citing a need to keep 5G affordable, the ministry instead demanded a 30,000 won plan for light users. Jitters were finally eased when Samsung announced on March 21 that its first 5G phone will hit the stores on Friday. It is expected to cost around 1.5 million won.

THAI JUNTA’s WRATH

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the telegenic leader of a Thai political party who rode to prominence during last month’s election on a wave of millennial support, stands accused of inciting unrest, he said Wednesday, calling his latest legal woes “politically motivated” by the ruling junta.

Billionaire Thanathorn heads the youth-oriented Future Forward Party, which came out of nowhere to amass more than six million votes in the March 24 vote, the first election since a 2014 coup. Future Forward has joined an anti-junta coalition with six other parties claiming the right to form a government in the aftermath of the disputed vote, whose full results will not be ratified until May 9.

But the fierce anti-junta critic said on Facebook that he has now been summoned to appear at a Bangkok police station on Saturday to hear incitement charges against him which carry a maximum sentence of seven years. He called it "an old political game" that he expected to intensify after the party's strong election showing.

BRUNEI’S SYARIAH LAWS

Will Brunei’s long-serving Sultan impose tough syariah laws, or won’t he? Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah failed to mention the controversial new penal code or announce it had entered force, as had been widely expected, even as he called for "stronger" Islamic teachings in the country in a speech on Wednesday.

The laws, which prescribe death by stoning for gay sex and adultery, also include amputation of hands and feet for thieves. It will make Brunei the first country in East or South-east Asia to have a syariah penal code at the national level, joining several mostly Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia.

The Sultan, who has been on the throne of the oil-rich nation on Borneo island for 51 years, also said that Brunei was “fair and happy”, in the face of growing global criticism about the new punishments.

CHINA’S RULES FOR THE ROAD

China is drafting rules for overseas investments to be considered part of President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, marking the first attempt to better define his signature policy, Bloomberg says, quoting people familiar with the matter.

The plan, which isn't yet final, aims to stop companies from misusing the label "Belt and Road Initiative", said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions were private. Unchecked use of the name on projects has created confusion about the initiative's scope and damaged its reputation abroad, they said.

Meanwhile, Associate Editor Vikram Khanna says rather than trashing the BRI, the EU-- as well as the US -- should try to work with China to turn the programme into a more structured, transparent and multilateral arrangement.

IN OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A global slowdown in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity in the first quarter of 2019 was precipitated by great market volatility, US-China tensions, Brexit anxiety and strengthening economic headwinds, deal intelligence service Mergermarket said in a report on Wednesday.

Globally, the value of M&A deals dropped 15 per cent to US$801.5 billion for the first quarter of 2019, from US$943.5 billion for the year-ago period. The number of deals fell 30 per cent to 3,558 from 5,085 a year ago.

Talk about concern for the environment. The three biggest supermarket chains in Vietnam - Lotte Mart, Saigon Co-op in Ho Chi Minh City and Big C in Hanoi - have started using banana leaves instead of plastic bags to wrap vegetables, the online newspaper Vnexpress reported, according to a DPA report. Vietnam generates about 2,500 tonnes of plastic waste a day, according to official figures. The country ranks fourth globally for the amount of plastic waste dumped into the ocean, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, whose news website is critical of President Rodrigo Duterte, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to the first of a series of criminal charges. Ms Ressa has been arrested twice in six weeks by Philippine authorities, prompting international criticism and allegations she is being targeted for her work. AFP says she entered her plea in a Manila court to four tax evasion charges stemming from a 2015 bond sale that raised money from a US-based investor for the news site she co-founded, Rappler.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo's lead over his election rival Prabowo Subianto has narrowed slightly, a new survey of more than 1,000 eligible voters has shown, says Indonesia Bureau Chief Francis Chan, who notes that the result was a half percentage point lower than what Mr Joki scored in a February survey. Mr Joko who is seeking a second and final term in office, has the support of 56.5 per cent of the 1,102 respondents polled by Roy Morgan, a Melbourne-based market research firm, last month.

That’s it for now. Please follow us on www.straitstimes.com for the latest on Asia, and the world.

Meanwhile, seize the day!

Ravi