SINGAPORE — Perched at the cashier’s desk in MJ’s Pinoy Shop in Singapore’s Lucky Plaza, Janice Estrera’s mind drifts back to her three children at home on Cebu island in the central Philippines, where they live with their grandparents. “I would really like to go back, it is suffering to be outside [the country],” the 34-year-old business graduate lamented. Estrera is part of the estimated 180,000-strong Filipino community in Singapore, just one of the many sizeable overseas communities of expatriates who left the Philippines to work and send remittances to family members at home. In Singapore, 83,276 Filipinos are registered to vote in the May 9 national elections, in which up to 55 million voters will elect a president, vice-president and local and national lawmakers. “We have set up air-conditioned tentages to accommodate our voters. We also provided a postal ballot system to encourage voters who are not able to go out to mail in their ballots,” said Victorio Mario M. Dimagiba Jr., minister and consul general at the Philippine embassy in Singapore. Of the estimated 10 million Filipinos living overseas, 1.3 million are registered to vote at selected embassies or by post.
MANILA — In his final State of the Nation speech as president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III declared that his government had curbed corruption, long deemed a barrier to foreign investment, and overseen growth in a country once derided as “the sick man of Asia.” “More than five years have passed since we put a stop to the culture of ‘wang-wang,’ not only [on] our streets, but in society at large,” Aquino said in July 2015. “Wang wang,” note James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, co-authors of “Why Nations Fail,” a much-lauded book published in 2012, is a term “derived from the blaring sirens of politicians’ and elites’ cars urging common people to get out of the way,” and is used in the Philippines to refer to corruption. Aquino’s July 2015 speech echoed his first national address as president, five years earlier, in which he asserted: “Do you want the corrupt held accountable? So do I. Do you want to see the end of wang-wang, both on the streets and in the sense of entitlement that has led to the abuse that we have lived with for so long? ” Fighting corruption and building confidence in the country’s once-laggard economy have been key themes throughout Aquino’s term in office, which is now coming to a close with voters scheduled to elect a successor on May 9.
MANILA — In sweltering Southeast Asia’s buzzing and vibrant cities, when the temperature hits the mid-30s and the traffic is so clogged that streets sometimes seem more like car parks than freeways, there is always the mall. Such is the refuge of choice in Manila, where over 150 malls host coffee shops, cinemas, restaurants, shopping and sometimes gyms and even churches. They offer all the amenities and conveniences that are hard to find elsewhere — though churches are ubiquitous — in the vast, chaotic city. “Especially in Manila, we don’t have parks, we don’t have recreational areas, and it’s very hot outside, the malls are well-ventilated,” said Maria Isabel Cristina, who was meeting an old schoolfriend in Greenbelt, one Manila’s biggest mall complexes, located in Makati, the high-rise, high-end business and finance hub.
“Malls are where people often arrange to meet,” said Geraldine Monfort, a flight attendant who was having a coffee in the same location. Prompted by the convenience and popularity of such vast malls, the country’s election commission has announced that 86 malls across the 7,500 island archipelago will double up as voting centers for the May 9 presidential election, when 55 million Filipinos are eligible to vote.
BACOOR, Philippines — In a packed basketball arena in the province of Cavite, a half-hour’s drive south of the congested capital, Manila, Senator Grace Poe made her pitch to lead the Philippines as the country’s next president. “There is a long history of Cavitenos watching movies of my father and they remember that,” she said, referring to her famous adoptive father, the late film actor Ferdinand Poe, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004. Rather than featuring established, ideologically-driven political parties with slick campaign machines, Philippine elections are dominated by political dynasties, with a list of household names decorated with a smattering of celebrities, be they TV stars or sports icons such as world champion boxer Manny Pacquaio, who is running for a senate seat. Poe, with her cinema star father, has the background to match, and is not afraid to play it up in the quest for an edge in this close-run race.
KUALA LUMPUR — It was a brief, sudden goodbye. With its website blocked by the government since late February, hard-hitting news service The Malaysian Insider announced on March 14 that it would cease to publish on the same day. “The Edge Media Group has decided to shut down The Malaysian Insider from midnight today, for commercial reasons,” wrote the editor, Jahabar Sadiq, in a notice posted on the publication’s website, which had been blocked because of its reports on corruption allegations against Prime Minister Najib Razak. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission said The Malaysian Insider’s reporting broke the law as it amounted to “improper use of network facilities or network service.” Najib has fended off calls for his resignation over hundreds of millions of dollars credited to his personal bank accounts in 2013, saying the money was donated by the Saudi royal family. He has also brushed off recent allegations that the total sum in his accounts amounted to $1 billion and came from troubled state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, at which Najib is the chair of the advisory board.
DONG NAI, Vietnam — Pham Duy Quang made a life-changing decision 15 years ago after growing cashew nuts and coffee since the mid-1970s on two hectares of farmland in the rolling countryside 80km north of Ho Chi Minh City. It was then that the former South Vietnamese soldier tore out his coffee and cashew plants, and replanted the fields with pepper. He believed peppercorns would prove to be a more lucrative crop and would make the four-year wait for his first harvest worthwhile. “It was not an easy start. When we started growing pepper, the Vietnamese government did not have any support program for these agricultural products. Sometimes, our pepper crops were lost due to fake fertilizer and pesticides, disease and bad weather. We had to find our own way and learn from experience after years of growing them,” said Pham, who is 63. Despite the years of trial, error and disappointment, it turned out that Pham made the right decision.
YANGON — Hanging by Ma Thandar’s living-room window is a photograph of her late husband Par Gyi, his image warmed by the mid-morning sun. His grisly death in October 2014 was a stark reminder that despite five years of quasi-civilian rule in Myanmar, the military remains, in many ways, above the law. Ma Thandar — who ran for and won a parliamentary seat in Myanmar’s Nov. 8 national elections — has vowed to press on with her campaign to find out what really happened to her husband. She is among a handful of women, frustrated by lack of official progress in their home countries, who are making their voices heard on issues across the Asian political spectrum. Par Gyi, a journalist, was killed in detention by soldiers while covering one of Myanmar’s long-running civil wars. It took the army three weeks to reveal the whereabouts of his body. Senior officers claimed he was working for an ethnic rebel militia and that he was shot while trying to escape. However, Par Gyi’s body — dug up from the shallow grave in which he was hastily buried — showed signs of beating and torture. “I want to get justice but the progress is slow,” she said.
CASTLEBAR — At first it was supposed to be around 5pm, then 6pm, then “maybe another half hour.” But it was only at 8.45pm on Saturday, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny edged through a throng of paparazzi and well-wishers, that Mayo’s first count showed the Fine Gael leader to have crossed the 12,730 quota. A lot of impatient pacing in a county that knows all about long waits – particularly in football. And even the so-called “short campaign” was a long wait, according to Michael Ring, the junior minister for tourism and sport and another Mayo Fine Gael seat winner. “We were campaigning since last summer and we thought we would have a November election” said Ring, who mentioned the word “tired” several times in a short interview. Unlike on Sunday when Ring was hoisted onto supporters’ shoulders after taking Mayo’s second seat, Kenny, weighed down by other concerns, kept his feet on the ground. Or maybe even the party die-hards were too tired waiting to shoulder the burden. “This is a disappointing say for our party and a particularly disappointing say for those who lost their seats,” was Kenny’s first comment to the encroaching press pack.
CASTLEBAR — Voters in Ireland delivered a stinging rebuke to governing parties in elections that reflected concerns that the country’s economic recovery was not being widely felt. In an echo of the sort of voter anger being heard in the United States this year, anti-establishment parties and independent candidates made significant gains, winning about 25% of the vote combined. Sinn Fein, the democratic socialist party that is linked to the Irish Republican Army, won 14% of the vote, making it the country’s third largest party. A center-right coalition led by Prime Minister Enda Kenny will not retain power after seeing its share of the vote fall from 56% in 2011 elections to around 32% in voting Friday, with several seats still to be counted Monday. With no party or alliance close to winning enough seats to form a government, it is unclear who will lead Ireland’s next government. Several government ministers lost their parliamentary seats in the vote, although the prime minister held on. Speaking to media after retaining his seat, Kenny said, “Democracy is exciting, but merciless when it kicks in.”
CASTLEBAR — It was a home crowd, a backslapping gathering in the town in western Ireland where Prime Minister Enda Kenny made his first foray into national politics four decades ago. But despite the warm campaign trail welcome, Kenny could not resist a dig at “whingers” in his hometown, who, despite Ireland’s economic growth — at more than 6% last year, the highest in Europe — nonetheless “find it very difficult to see any good anywhere any time.” Coming less than a week before Friday’s parliamentary elections, Kenny’s undiplomatic outburst astonished many in a country where, despite recent growth, many people are struggling seven years after a devastating economic collapse that put 300,000 people out of work — a parallel collapse to the U.S. subprime catastrophe — and which prompted devastating cuts to health and social spending. Voters in Castlebar had mixed reactions to the prime minister’s outburst. Declan Scully said he knew several former construction workers who have been out of work since the 2008 crash, when the “Celtic Tiger,” as Ireland’s roaring economy was known, went from being one of the most successful in Europe to a near basket case. As a result, he found Kenny’s comments “a bit disrespectful.”