Asian Insider, March 13: China blames US army for virus, Singapore’s new electoral boundaries, Mahathir not to retire

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


In today's bulletin:

Chinese official accuses the US of bringing virus to China but offers no evidence, Singapore announces new electoral boundaries raising election possibility, Mahathir says he is still inclined to being PM and more.

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Increasing a war of words with the United States, an official of China's Foreign Ministry accused the US military of bringing the coronavirus to the city of Wuhan, that has been the epicentre of the outbreak.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the ministry. sent out a strongly worded tweet in English making the accusation. "When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!" he wrote.

Zhao, however, did not offer any evidence for his statement. His tweet comes at a time when China has been trying to showcase its seemingly successful attempts to control the spread of the virus. Zhao's tweet, which has been widely reported by international media, follows criticism by the US over China's handling of the situation. On Wednesday, US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said the speed of China's reaction to the emergence of the coronavirus had probably cost the world two months when it could have been preparing for the outbreak.

And it also comes on a day when the Trump administration's decision to cut the number of Chinese employees permitted to work at the US offices of major Chinese state-owned media outlets, comes into effect. Washington had said it would cap the number of US based employees of Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corp to a total of 100, from 160, from March 13.

Read also:

Trump's 'China virus' retweet fuels tensions with Beijing

China summons US embassy official, makes stern representations over Wall Street Journal

In 'People's War' on coronavirus, Chinese propaganda faces pushback


Friday the 13th of March was a disturbing day for stocks. Markets across Asia extended a global sell-off today, one day after Wall Street's longest bull market run officially ended with all three major US indexes in bear territory, down at least 20 per cent from recent highs. It was the worst Wall Street crash since "Black Monday" on Oct 19, 1987. In Singapore, the Straits Times Index plunged as much as 6.3 per cent within the first hour of trading on Friday.

This even though central banks from the United States to Australia have pumped liquidity into their financial systems.

Airlines took a knock having been forced to cancel thousands of flights and make dramatic changes to their operations as the coronavirus wiped out travel demand. The industry has been already facing hundreds of billions of dollars in lost sales. Prospects have dimmed further after India decided to ban the entry of foreigners to the country for a month and the US imposed a 30-day ban on travel from most of Europe.

Elsewhere, reports continued to pour in of countries struggling to contain the spread of the virus. Malaysia's northern state Perlis cancelled prayers on Friday after several attendees of an Islamic meeting in Kuala Lumpur were tested positive for the coronavirus. Thailand reported the biggest daily jump in the number of cases while in Vietnam, health officials urged Ho Chi Minh City to decline permission to Bahamas-flagged cruise ship with Italians on board from docking at the hub.


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Facing a weeks-long collapse of tourism from China, Thailand's government has moved to stimulate its economy. In Indonesia, as questions hover over whether the sprawling country's public health system is up to coping with Covid-19 cases, authorities are considering establishing a quarantine centre on an uninhabited island - not the first time that islands have been used for the purpose.

Malaysia is grappling with a new challenge - thousands of people who attended a mosque at the same time as some who have since tested positive for Covid-19. The thousands are now dispersed, and not just in Malaysia.

Straits Times' Indochina Bureau Chief Tan Hui Yee, Malaysia Correspondent Nadirah Rodzi, and Regional Correspondent Arlina Arshad, discuss the region's battle with the bug with US Bureau Chief Nirmal Ghosh, in the Asian Insider video series this week.

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Download the March issue of ST Asia Report: Asia's fight to contain Covid-19


Singapore has announced it will increase the number of MPs in Parliament by four and do away with six-member group representation constituencies (GRCs) in changes to electoral boundaries, raising expectation that the next general election could be called soon.

The announcement comes on a day that Singapore said more social-distancing measures will be adopted in the Republic as the nation fights the coronavirus pandemic, which include measures such as limiting the size of gatherings to 250 people to reduce the risk of transmission. It also comes a day after the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, in a national address, that the outbreak could continue for some time - a year or maybe longer.

The dates, however, have not been announced. Deputy Political Editor Royston Sim says the next thing to watch out for will be when Parliament is dissolved and the writ of election issued. In 2015, this happened 32 days after the boundaries report was released, and in 2011, 54 days. In 2006, Parliament was dissolved 48 days after the report's release, and in 2001, a day after, he writes.

Also read:

What are the possible dates for Polling Day?

What an election during a global pandemic might look like


Ninety-four year old former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad says he is not retiring yet as his supporters still believe he is the one who can resolve their problems and want him back as the country's leader.

The former premier unexpectedly resigned three weeks ago believing he had lost the support of majority of the leaders in the party he chaired - Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, his ally and the president of Bersatu - a member of the previous ruling coalition - was sworn in thereafter as Malaysia's current PM by the King who interviewed all members of Parliament to ascertain their allegiance to the country's leaders.

This despite Dr Mahathir's claim that he had the support of 113-115 members and that a Parliamentary sitting should be held to allow both - him and the current PM - to show their support. The sitting has now been postponed to May. Few believe the former premier will give up his claim and his statements continue to be eagerly watched for his next move.

Meanwhile, in another interview, the former Premier has urged Washington to reconsider sending sums recovered as part of the 1MDB probe, said to be the biggest ever anti-kleptocracy case handled by the US Department of Justice. While over US$4.5 billion was looted from 1MDB, about US$1 billion has been recovered by the DOJ.

Also read:

Cracks in ruling, opposition pacts may plunge Malaysia into political chaos again

Mahathir and the delicate art of the strategic resignation


ASIA'S FIRST ANT MUSEUM IN SINGAPORE: Singapore's Antman Zat Low has converted a three-storey shophouse into a museum that showcases ants. Twenty-three species are displayed. One can grow to the size of a human ear while another is a species that can "live forever" by cloning themselves.

THAILAND'S FIRST PRO-DEMOCRACY MARCH SINCE 2014: Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters marched on parliament in Bangkok today (March 13), wearing black T-shirts to mourn the state of Thailand under an army-aligned government, in the first street protest for several years.

MACRON'S 'NAMASTE' TO VISITORS: Countries around the world are imposing more and stricter social-distancing measures as governments seek to limit the spread of the deadly coronavirus. This applied to greetings too. French President Emmanuel Macron relied on the traditional Indian greeting 'Namaste" to greet Spain's King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia, at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, earlier this week.

That's it for today. Thanks for reading and we'll be back with you on Monday. Stay safe and have a good weekend.



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