Bridget Welsh is a Senior Research Associate at NTU, a Senior Associate Fellow of THC and a University Fellow of CDU. She is also an Honorary Research Associate at University of Nottingham Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute (UNARI). She analyzes Southeast Asian politics, especially Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia. She is committed to engagement and empowerment.

China’s response to the protests in Hong Kong speaks to how it’s engaging in the region as a whole

Interview with Désirée Meili of Asia Society Switzerland Désirée Meili: When did your fascination with Asia become clear? Bridget Welsh: I’m a third culture kid, which means that I often lived in societies that I was not from in terms of nationality. We traveled around a lot, as my father was a petroleum engineer, and one of the places we ended up in was Malaysia. This is where I went to high school and thus, my association with Malaysia began in the 1980s. As a consequence of this, my understanding of Malaysian society, Malaysian politics is deeply rooted in my childhood. I consider Malaysia a second home and this serves as my connection to Southeast Asia more broadly, because Malaysia is part of a very rich and vibrant region to which I am also closely connected to. You refer to yourself as a “forensic” political scientist. What does that mean? I think there are three aspects to this. First of all, we look for factual evidence to support different sets of arguments. The second thing is that we constantly reevaluate the issues and arguments in a scientific way – as much as it can be scientific, we have to recognize the...

Kimanis – an Umno revival?

Taken from malaysiakini.com As the dust settles over the Kimanis by-election, it is valuable to look at the voting patterns that secured the Umno victory in this competitive seat and to flesh out the broader political implications of this outcome. The voting shows that even in a locally-driven contest, which this by-election was, the erosion of Pakatan Harapan and its allies’ support is taking on a now familiar form – the decline is broad, across races and generations. Voters who are disappointed with a perceived lack of reform and weak economic performance are willing to return to Umno and simultaneously send a signal to those in office that they are not doing enough to hold onto their GE14 political mandate. The Warisan loss in Kimanis – the fifth loss by Harapan and its allies in the 10 post-GE14 by-elections – only ratchets up the pressure for Harapan and Warisan to deliver and transform how they engage the electorate. Make no mistake, this loss was one of their own making. The Kimanis outcome has given a new lease of life to Umno and nationally puts the party on a stronger footing in its relationship with PAS and as a viable opposition...

US Presidential Elections 2020: Outlook for Southeast Asia

As interviewed by Mercy Kuo for thediplomat.com Identify five strategic priorities in Southeast Asia for U.S. presidential candidates to understand.   Southeast Asia is an arena for great power competition, in which Southeast Asians are not adequately respected or appreciated. U.S.-China competition has deepened this trend in recent years, as Southeast Asian countries are being asked to choose sides. This is taking place when there is a decline of U.S. power in the region, both in terms of influence among traditional allies such as Thailand and the Philippines as well as among publics. Views of the United States as a reliable ally, a democratic model, and valuable business partner are changing for the worse. The primacy of transactional politics under the Trump administration has empowered oligarchs who are not interested in creating a more competitive business environment for investment, nor promoting more democratic space for political engagement. Instead, there is increasing dependence on divisive nationalist rhetoric and identity politics. In this context, U.S. practices and priorities need to shift. Leaders need to show up to regional meetings, not just to show face but to reaffirm that the United States is relevant to Southeast Asia. This is not just about taking...

Kimanis by-election – Umno’s last hurrah in Sabah?

Taken from malaysiakini.com With the final legal appeal decided on Friday and nominations yesterday, the year begins with the 10th by-election since GE14 – Kimanis in Sabah. Located on the west coast of the state, this parliamentary seat has traditionally been an Umno stronghold – and was claimed by former foreign minister Anifah Aman and younger half-brother of the former Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman in the last general election by a narrow margin of 156 votes. After an electoral petition ruled against him for discrepancies in the electoral counting process, the contest is up for re-election. No longer a member of Umno, Anifah has opted not to recontest, saving his energies and finances for future battles. Instead, Umno has slated former Bongawan state assemblyman Mohamad Alamin to defend the party’s position in Sabah. Warisan, on its part, has offered voters its previous candidate, Karim Bujang – also a former assemblyman for Bongawan for Umno. The contest will test the relatively new party’s continued strength in the state, notably the leadership of Warisan, Sabah Chief Minister Mohd Shafie Apdal. His party aims to secure a victory in the home ground of the Aman family at the parliamentary level of his political rival,...

Finding the positive – Malaysia’s last decade, Pt II

Taken from malaysiakini.com If 2019 has been difficult, one can argue that it has been part of a broader, difficult trajectory that began in 2009 when Najib Abdul Razak de facto assumed leadership of Malaysia. While he would not become prime minister until 2011, the last decade was one where Malaysians broke from the past after the former prime minister Najib was seen to have abused his power in the now globally-known 1MDB scandal. Reflecting on the last decade and acknowledging achievements offer important lessons as Malaysia looks ahead. Corrosion of power The erosion of power of Umno intensified over the last decade. It resulted from the product of three developments – a collapse of the multi-ethnic Barisan Nasional (BN) representing non-Malays in the coalition, decay of the patronage institutions of the party connecting it to its base, and adulterated greed on the part of party leaders. Many of these developments had their roots earlier, but they deepened in the last 10 years with loss of support for parties such as MCA and MIC, failure to maintain the institutional party organs itself, and a growing chasm between the party elite and the grassroots. These experiences offer timely lessons. Foremost, despite changing demographics,...

Getting caught in the negative – Malaysia 2019, Pt I

Taken from malaysiakini.com By most accounts it has been a hard year for Malaysia politically. After a peaceful election full of hope in May last year, 2019 has brought to the surface the realities of governing a polarized country full of angry mobilized citizens with high expectations and very different visions of the country they want. Not only have the leaders clashed openly with each other in unstatesmanlike fashion – within the governing coalition and in the newly reconfigured national opposition – but the divisions in society have become heightened fault lines for mobilization of long-standing resentments, especially along ethnic lines. By year’s end race relations are worryingly worsening and the momentum of building a ‘new’ Malaysia has not just slowed, it has morphed into a baneful sentiment of cynicism and acrimony. This rancorous spirit of lashing out calls for a serious reflection on developments this year and steps that can move Malaysia forward. There are lessons from 2019 (and in the last decade, outlined in part II) that can serve to strengthen Malaysia, as underneath the sea of negativity lies a reservoir of hope and opportunity waiting to be actualized and empowered. Broadly, there are four major developments that...

The turning of the tide in Tanjong Piai

Taken from malaysiakini.com The voters in Tanjong Piai delivered the worst loss for an incumbent government in a federal by-election in Malaysian history this weekend. It was also another first: this was the highest level of swing against Dr Mahathir Mohamad in his two tenures as prime minister in any election (including the reformasi swing of 1999). Across races, generations and genders, voters not only protested, they also sent a clarion call that Mahathir, his party and his coalition partners in government are failing New Malaysia. Fittingly in this constituency by the water, the political tide turned. This analysis based on statistical estimates of the polling station results show that Pakatan Harapan lost the most ground among the key supporters it won in GE14, notably Chinese, older, and women voters. The loss among young voters, another key gain in GE14, was not as large as others, but sizeable. The discussion that follows lays out changes in turnout and support, and discusses the implications of the findings in this by-election. Harapan needs to learn the lessons from this result if (and this is a big if) it is able to turn the tide in its favour. This will mean addressing head-on...

Jokowi 2.0: Indonesia amid US-China competition

Taken from The Diplomatwhere author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation explores the priorities and personalities that will shape Indonesia during President Joko Widodo’s second term. Explain the rationale behind Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s decision to select political rival retired general Prabowo Subianto as defense minister. Jokowi has opted to bring his rival into the tent to reduce opposition within the parliament and government institutions, broadly, especially the security forces. This tactic was well honed during the Suharto era, when the former leader neutralized opposition through inclusion and an approach that was used by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) to foster cooperation. It speaks to the importance of concentrating power, reducing confrontation and the (re)emergence of party cartelization in Indonesian politics.For Jokowi, it signals a shift in political orientation, away from the ordinary people or “orang kecil.” In bringing together the different oligarchic-led political parties, Jokowi has become part of the political elite. It is expected his family will emerge as a new political dynasty. The post-election conflict after the April 2019 election, triggered in part by elite competition, has returned to backroom...

Mission Possible? Tests in Tanjong Piai

Taken from malaysiakini.com The Nov 16 by-election in Tanjong Piai in Johor will provide two telling tests: the first is the level of public support for Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership of Pakatan Harapan. This Bersatu seat was won from BN as a result of shifts of support across a variety of demographic markers – race, generation and gender – that were in line with the ‘Mahathir’ pull factor in last year’s May election. Now, almost a year and a half later, the contest will be a bellwether of his leadership. The second test is that of BN – the former governing coalition that has lost support over the last decade, especially among non-Malays. By fielding a MCA candidate – former two-term MP Wee Jeck Seng – and giving the seat to the party that traditionally held the seat, BN will showcase whether it can return to national power by capturing support across ethnic groups. It is doing so after announcing last month the Malay chauvinist Umno-PAS Unity Charter in the hope of capturing Malay sentiment, while extending outreach to Chinese voters. Tanjong Piai will thus be an indicator of different national leadership ambitions. Both aim to make the contest a...

The risks of a ‘backdoor’ government

Taken from malaysiakini.com The old adage ‘Where there is smoke, there is fire’ is apt. Over the last few months, rumours of backroom deals to restructure the composition of the government have intensified to the extent that they have been publicly addressed by political leaders. Discussion centres on a potential ‘backdoor’ government – a government not directly chosen by the people, but instead the product of elite negotiations for power. To understand the risks of these manoeuvres, it is necessary to step back and look at the drivers of this deal-making and the potential impact these have on Malaysian politics. I argue any betrayal of the GE14 mandate will leave a lasting imprint, one which will deepen political polarisation and foster instability. Despite the cavalier attitude of leaders to engaging in such deals, ‘new’ Malaysians will not forget easily. Money still the key driver At its core, Malaysia’s ‘backdoor’ dealing revolves around the Dr Mahathir Mohamad-Anwar Ibrahim axis, support for different leaders, and is tied to different views of the political transition. It builds on the distrust that has plagued Pakatan Harapan since its conception, and which has continued to fester. At issue is not only a power leadership contest,...

Can the PAS-Umno alliance win?

Taken from malaysiakini.com With great fanfare, the Islamist party PAS and Malay-nationalist party Umno joined forces officially this month to become a broader opposition force. Touting itself as a political alliance for ‘Malay unity’ to ‘protect Islam,’ long-standing enemies became brothers to fight against the governing Pakatan Harapan. On the surface, this move may appear to be a strategic one, in which the combination of the bases of support of both parties will put it in a potential position to win national power. A closer look suggests that the alliance faces more obstacles than has been publicly acknowledged. Despite these hurdles, however, and looking at different electoral scenarios, the alliance poses a real threat to Harapan. Troubled national leadership The first major obstacle facing the opposition alliance is a lack of viable leadership. Neither party president – PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang or Umno’s Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – have the national credentials to lead the country as prime minister. Hadi’s racialised discourse makes him one of the most polarising leaders in the country across ethnic communities. His five-year rudderless and exclusionary leadership of Terengganu from 1999 led to the loss of the decisive state in the 2004 general elections. Zahid,...

BJ Habibie, Indonesia’s renaissance leader

Taken from malaysiakini.com  Pak BJ Habibie, Indonesia’s third president from 1998-1999, passed away yesterday. He was 83. Born in Parepare in South Sulawesi, Habibie was a man who embodied the hopes and ambitions of Indonesia’s post-colonial generation. He won a scholarship to study aeronautical engineering in Germany. Through his hard work and dedication to his studies, he succeeded in not only completing his doctorate, but also developed important foundational ideas in thermodynamics, construction, and aerodynamics that still hold his name. He rose to become the vice-president of Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm in Hamburg, now part of Airbus. Recruited by Suharto, Habibie returned to Indonesia in 1974 to contribute to the country’s industrialisation, particularly the aviation industry. He served in six different cabinets, promoting science and technology. He led the Indonesia Muslim Intellectuals Association (ICMI) which served to widen the base of support for the New Order government, and embraced how faith, modernity and community were intertwined. In 1994, his tenure was marred by corruption allegations involving the procurement of East German retired warships for the Indonesian Navy. This story led to the controversial ban of Tempo magazine, which reinforced his role as part of the New Order regime. In March 1998, at the height of...

A new arena awaits as Myanmar warms up for 2020 polls

Taken from The Straits Times The parties, voters and issues have undergone major changes since the last elections even if Aung San Suu Kyi remains the anchor of her party’s campaign While the election campaign has not officially started, it is clear that there is a reorientation in Myanmar politics towards next year’s polls. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and ethnic parties are already developing their campaign strategies and ratcheting up their political engagement. Myanmar’s 2020 polls will be markedly different from the historic 2015 transition elections. The campaign, political parties and forms of mobilisation are changing as the country grapples with working in a more open, contentious political system. Compared with all the countries in South-east Asia, Myanmar has undergone the most rapid and intensive political, economic and social changes in the last five years. These changes are reshaping politics. Facebook Election First, the coming general election will be a Facebook election. An estimated 20 million citizens (or 38 per cent of the population) are on social media, particularly Facebook. Not only is this medium becoming the norm for sharing political news, concerns about hate speech, fake news and political...

Maju Malaysia? Anger, distrust and cynicism

Taken from malaysiakini.com A little over one year after the election of Pakatan Harapan, the dominant sentiment is not hope, but betrayal. When ministers break bread with those seen to be engaged in attacks against the nation’s social fabric, and elected representatives are charged with sexual assault, it is no wonder the level of anger of Malaysians has risen. Sadly for some, an equating of Harapan with BN is misplaced, as many of their supporters are even angrier with this no longer new government for its perceived failure to uphold the principles they rode into office. With BN they knew what to expect. Harapan is seen not to have met expectations, and this crash in expectations has evoked strong reactions. With citizens having vested so much emotional connection to a ‘New Malaysia,’ it has been a difficult year to watch the escalation of disappointment to a debilitating level of anger, distrust and cynicism. The list of ‘successes’ (and there are quite a few of these) pales in relation to perceived lost opportunities, as the focus is on the areas where Harapan supporters feel cheated. Rather than a polarised electorate, Malaysia is now a combination of voters who feel displaced from power, and others who...

Lowering the voting age – the right risk for Harapan

Taken from malaysiakini.com The constitutional amendment under consideration in the current parliamentary sitting to lower the voting age from 18 to 21 is arguably one of the most impactful reform initiatives of the Pakatan Harapan government. Bringing an estimated 3.8 million young people into the electoral roll, and in the process according young people the inclusion they deserve, is an important step towards strengthening the country’s democratic foundation. Malaysia not only joins the pattern of representation in the majority of the world, Harapan provides substance to the reform programme that got it elected and rewards the young for their support in GE14. Over the past week, I have been asked which party will benefit politically and what will be the potential electoral impact of this reform. The answer is not a simple one, as it is shaped by whether other electoral reforms are adopted (automated registration and a new delineation) as well as turnout and support levels that are shaped in a yet-fought campaign. It is important to recognise that the young will set their own path. Past voting patterns, however, suggest that all political parties can potentially gain from lowering the voting age but disproportionately, the opposition has gained...

PAS’ post-GE14 waiting game

Taken from malaysiakini.com PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang ended the party’s 65th muktamar by predicting a collapse of Pakatan Harapan. This should come as no surprise, as in the assembly he harped on the alleged failures of the government. The party has been engaged in trying to promote divisions in and dissatisfaction with Harapan since GE14. At the same assembly, Hadi received formal approval from the delegates for a partnership with Umno, a de facto relationship that has existed electorally post-GE14 but one in practice started much earlier. The move signals a change in the alliance at the leadership level to greater grassroots ties. There is little recognition that the conditions Harapan faces were the product of Umno mismanagement, or any articulation of how PAS would manage the challenges the country faces. PAS is engaged in a full-on attack on Harapan, with the hope that it will bring PAS into national power. Of the two parties in the opposition, PAS has proven (so far) most adept at navigating New Malaysia’s politics of uncertainty and has gained political traction over the last year. There have been important changes taking place in the Islamic party in recent years. PAS is clearly engaged in a...

EU-Asia Relations: New Game Changers

Taken from thediplomat.com Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Nicola Casarini, a fellow of Istituto Affari Internazionali, Italy’s leading think tank, and Dr. Bridget Welsh, associate professor of political science and director of Asian outreach at John Cabot University in Rome, is the 189th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  John Cabot University and the Istituto Affari Internazionale convened a timely conference on new game changers in EU-Asia relations. Identify the top three takeaways. The conference discussed the broad shifts impacting EU-Asia relations. Attention centered on seven major developments: 1) tensions in the transatlantic relationship between Europe and the United States arising during the Trump administration; 2) fragmentation caused by internal splits within the European Union, especially from Brexit; 3) the important rise of China not only as the second largest global economy but through its embrace of its global leadership role under Xi Jinping; 4) dynamics in the China-U.S. relationship and pressures to adopt positions in binary contentions over trade and security; 5) the increasing importance of other Asian powers, notably Japan, India, and to a lesser extent ASEAN; 6) economic realignments...

Back To The Past?

Taken from Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad’s return as Malaysia’s prime minister has brought important shifts in foreign policy priorities and partnerships from that of his predecessor Najib Tun Razak. Framed through a nationalist lens and by Mahathir’s earlier tenure as premier from 1981 to 2003, these changes are predominantly coloured by the past and do not fully reflect an appreciation of the new global environment and a calculated positioning of Malaysia for future regional uncertainties. The most touted break from the Najib era has been Mahathir’s approach to China. Najib had moved the country closer to the rising global hegemon by expanding investment ties and dampening down responses to China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea. Malaysia became a critical country in Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative due to its advantageous geopolitical location within Southeast Asia and its importance in the Obama administration’s Asia pivot policy. Najib’s government on its part had recognised China as the main driver of the region’s economy post the 2008 financial crisis. After the 2015 revelation of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandals, involving USD$4.5 billion tied to kleptocracy associated with the Najib government, China became a needed...
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"The End of UMNO" book launch - revised edition

“The End of UMNO” book launch – revised edition

  Discussing the revised edition of “The End of UMNO?” at the 2018 ANU Malaysia Update conference with James Chin, John Funston, and Clive Kessler.   Other links Soundbites on UMNO from James Chin and Clive Kessler   “Eerie Times for UMNO” – The Star, 28 Oct 2018.  

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Harapan report card: Glass half full or half empty?

Taken from malaysiakini.com Today, Pakatan Harapan faces its 100-day report card. The idea of ‘100 days’ is somewhat arbitrary and any assessment in the early days of any administration should also be treated with caution – including this one. This is especially the case given the difficult conditions Harapan has inherited, not only the financial...

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Cautions from Sungai Kandis

Taken from malaysiakini.com Pakatan Harapan won its first by-election since taking over the government in Sungai Kandis. PKR candidate ustaz Mohd Zawawi Ahmad Mughni defeated (former premier) Najib (Abdul Razak’s) loyalist and Umno supreme council member Lokman Noor Adam. Harapan won with a comfortable majority of 5,830 votes for the incumbent PKR in a straight fight against...

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A turning point for Terengganu?

Taken from malaysiakini.com On Malaysia’s beautiful east coast, PAS is experiencing a sweet honeymoon in Terengganu. On the ground, PAS is similarly receiving the positive energy and goodwill felt in the Klang Valley towards Pakatan Harapan. In fact, one could even argue that Dr Ahmad Samsuri Mokhtar’s leadership of Terengganu is seen as one of...

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‘New’ or ‘old’ Sabah in New Malaysia?

Taken from malaysiakini.com On the streets of Kota Kinabalu, there is open delight of the appointment of one of their own, Richard Malanjum, as the new chief justice. Across the diverse multiethnic mosaic of the state, many respond with the phrase “I feel Malaysian.” Given the continued resentments of unfairness of the federal government that...

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‘New Malaysia’ makes Singapore look outdated

Taken from Nikkei Asian Review Over two months after Mahathir Mohamad’s election in Malaysia, the political reverberations for Singapore show no signs of fading. The new Malaysian prime minister’s reviews of the key water-supply deal with Singapore and of the planned costly high-speed rail link from Kuala Lumpur to the city-state are only visible signs...

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Arrivals and departures in ‘New Malaysia’

Taken from malaysiakini.com Today marks two months since the May elections, coming after a dramatic week of appointments, an arrest, and a nauseating court gag order. These headlines mark the arrival of important changes taking place in Malaysia, in governance and in the adoption of new political positions. Key is whether actors in their new...

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Thwarted revolt in Umno

Taken from malaysiakini.com The results of the Umno polls are in and the internal pressures for meaningful reform have been thwarted. It would appear that the election of Najib Razak’s proxy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as president has prevented the party from bringing about needed changes from within. A closer look at the election campaign and...

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Pakatan Harapan’s vulnerabilities in the states

Taken from malaysiakini.com In the weeks following GE14, the focus has centred on developments at the national level, as Malaysians wait for a full cabinet and watch the new Pakatan Harapan government set in place its initial policies. At the state level, there are equally important and transformative developments taking place, largely off the national...

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