Asian Insider March 25: Thailand’s election shock and Nurul Izzah

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

Happy Monday!

Today we look at the aftermath of the first election in Thailand in five years, the findings of the Mueller report in the US, Jakarta’s new MRT, Nurul Izzah's interview and more.

THAILAND’S ELECTION SHOCK

Unofficial results of yesterday’s elections in Thailand had thrown up a surprising outcome: The pro-military party winning the popular vote even while anti-junta parties secured the bulk of seats. Heading into the polls - the first election in the country after five years of military rule - there was widespread anticipation that voters would lean away from the junta, especially after election rules had seemingly been adjusted in their favour. That evidently didn’t happen though and as I write this we are still waiting confirmation of vote tallies.

Why it matters: Almost more so than the result, the critical part of these elections needed to be legitimacy. Thailand has gone through more than a decade of political turmoil with multiple wide-scale protests, and governments thrown out either by the courts or in a coup. Anything less than a completely above-board election presents a risk of a return to turmoil. That rumours about voting irregularities are now swirling and Thai-language hashtags translated as “Election Commission screw-up” and “cheating the election” are trending in the wake of the polls is a worrying sign.

Go deeper: Pro-junta party picks up most votes in Thai election but opposition may win most seats

Commentary: Thailand faces political deadlock after historic polls

Get all the analysis and reactions from the Thai elections here.

TRUMP’S EXONERATION

It may not have been the “complete exoneration” that US President Donald Trump has touted, but the summary of the Mueller report from the Attorney-General still marks a significant political victory for him. There was no collusion with Russia and that finding alone should serve to lift a significant cloud over the president.

The Asian view: The Mueller report and the collusion question has typically been more a point of curiosity in this part of the world rather than a significant issue. The biggest question now that the saga seems to be reaching its end is how it will affect Trump’s foreign policy. The prevailing view is that an improvement in Trump’s domestic circumstances will likely mean he is less in need of a foreign policy win. That in turn might suggest the administration will drive a harder bargain when trade talks with China resume this week.

Go deeper:

Key findings of the Mueller report

Key players in Mueller's Russia probe

Trump declares 'complete exoneration' after Mueller report finds no collusion

NURUL IZZAH OPENS UP

Ms Nurul Izzah, the daughter of Malaysian’s would-be prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and an elected MP in her own right, spoke to The Straits Times recently about recent developments in Malaysian politics and the apparent reconciliation between her father and the man who put him in jail.

What she said:  In a wide-ranging and candid interview with Executive Editor Sumiko Tan, the woman known as Malaysia’s Reform Princess said it was a challenge to make peace with Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad given what he had done to her father. “I mean having to work with a former dictator who wreaked so much damage, not just on our lives but the system. It was not easy."

The big picture: Nurul Izzah very rarely gives interviews and her standing in the country extends beyond her position as a normal member of parliament. Hence what she says is often watched closely. That she voiced frustration with the slow pace of reforms resonated with many ordinary Malaysians but was also picked up on by political opponents as an act of disloyalty. A day after the The Straits Times published the interview, her remarks triggered a backlash within the coalition government.

The interview that sparked it all:

Lunch With Sumiko: It's been so turbulent... my heart's been broken, says Nurul Izzah Anwar

'Reform princess' Nurul Izzah serving her final term as Malaysian MP

JAKARTA’S MRT OPENS FOR BUSINESS

Over the weekend the Indonesian capital inaugurated its first mass rapid transit system. The first phase, a six-year US$1.1 billion project, is 16km long and serves only those affluent enough to live in downtown Jakarta but work on a second phase is due to start next year.

The big picture: The opening of a major infrastructure project one month before general elections tend to lead to claims of political expediency but this MRT is a critical part of a solution to one of the world’s most urgent traffic congestion problems. Jakarta houses some 30 million people and urban sprawl together with underinvestment means the city has few major transport connections. It has the density twice that of Singapore and economic losses of traffic congestion is estimated at 65 trillion rupiah (US$4.5 billion) a year. In short, it’s a big problem and the new MRT is just the start of the efforts to chip away at it.

Full story: Traffic-choked Jakarta opens first MRT line

REJECTING ISLAMOPHOBIA

The deadly terrorist attacks in Christchurch had cast a harsh spotlight on the quietly growing tide of Islamophobia. Our correspondents take a look at the rise of Islamophobia in different parts of the world as well as the efforts to combat it.

In Singapore: Singapore not exempt from global climate of Islamophobia

In Australia: Politicians accused of stoking hatred

In Europe: Surge in Islamophobia higher where few are Muslims

In US: Wave of bias fuelled by federal inaction

Commentary from News Editor Zakir HussainIslamophobia - An irrational fear that has fed violence

AND FINALLY, THERE'S A MONSTER IN HONG KONG HARBOUR

Hong Kong’s harbour is no stranger to giant monster intruders, but the latest one must be among the strangest yet. This 37-m inflatable figure, titled Kaws: Holiday, is lying in Hong Kong’s harbour until the end of the month. So there’s time left if you so decide to go see the giant greyscale Mickey Mouse with an elephant-squid head and Xs for eyes in person.

The story: Giant floating Kaws sculpture arrives in Hong Kong harbour

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The United States sent Navy and Coast Guard ships through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday, the US military said, as part of an increase in the frequency of movement through the strategic waterway despite opposition from China.

In a report released today, Reporters Without Borders detailed what it said was China's impact on a global decline in press freedom and analysed President Xi Jinping's strategy to control information outside his own country.

Through the large picture windows lining the Viking Sky, passengers last Saturday afternoon (March 23) watched the grey waves churn and the horizon teeter as their massive ship, carrying 1,373 people, became overwhelmed by the sea. They recounted harrowing hours at sea facing 8m waves.

AND ONE MORE THING:

The latest edition of the ST Asia Report magazine is out! And in this month's issue we look at the race for 5G. The Trump administration's aggressive bid to prevent countries from using Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications equipment in their next generation wireless networks has had limited impact. Where's the battle for economic supremacy on this front headed?  

Find out more by downloading the latest issue of ST Asia Report.

That's it for today. Thanks for reading and see you tomorrow.

-J