BANGKOK — The arrest last week of a high-profile journalist in the Philippines and a gag order against a Thai television station are the latest reminders that Southeast Asia’s press freedoms rest on the whims of governments. But after investors poured a record $145 billion into the region last year, there is little reason to think they will be deterred by the latest clampdowns. Last year’s inflow, recently reported by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, included an unprecedented sum for Vietnam, a one-party communist state. As usual, around half of the money went via Singapore, which has been ruled by the People’s Action Party since independence in 1965 and where reporting is stymied by prolific use of the courts against foreign critics of the ruling elites. “In general, if we compare to other factors — political stability, infrastructure, predictability of rules — [press freedom] is not a decisive factor” in investment moves, said Miha Hribernik, head of Asia politics research at Verisk Maplecoft. Nonetheless, a free press can at least inform business decisions, according to Ebb Hinchliffe, Executive Director of American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, and John D. Forbes, Senior Adviser to the chamber. “A responsible free press is more useful and important than a censored one for the purpose of being informed,” they said in an email.
SINGAPORE — U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam on Feb. 27-28. “Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in more than 15 months. If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” Trump said in his State of the Union address in Washington late Tuesday. “Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one.” Vietnam, which opened up its economy under Doi Moi reforms in the 1980s, has also been touted by the U.S. as a possible model for Pyongyang to follow. The country emerged as a likely host after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited last July, shortly after the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. Pompeo lauded the “once-unimaginable prosperity and partnership” between Vietnam and the U.S., before turning to North Korea.
JAKARTA — Southeast Asia is bucking the global trend of falling direct foreign investment, as the low-cost fast-growing region solidifies its position as an attractive location for multinationals. James Dyson’s recent decision to relocate the headquarters of his eponymous technology business to Singapore is not about Brexit, the company said. Rather, the British tycoon said he is looking to a region that continues to exhibit solid growth — “future proofing” as his chief executive termed it. The move follows an October announcement that Dyson — famous for its vacuum cleaners — will make electric vehicles in Singapore, citing the city-state’s proximity to “high-growth markets” in emerging Asia, where annual gross domestic product could grow by 6.1% between now and 2023, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Asia received a third of global investment in 2018 and accounted for nearly all the year’s investment growth, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. This is despite global foreign direct investment (FDI) declining 19% in 2018. Japanese retailer Aeon opened a second large mall in Cambodia in June as part of its regional expansion plans, which this year will include new shopping centers in Hanoi and Bogor, Indonesia. “As for South East countries, generally speaking, they have been showing rapid economic growth and will keep their pace in future, too,” an Aeon Asia spokesperson said.
JAKARTA — When Mahathir Mohamad’s Alliance of Hope coalition surprised the world — and perhaps even themselves — by winning last May’s parliamentary vote in Malaysia, it was not just the first-ever opposition election win in the country’s history. Some saw it as the result of the first “WhatsApp election,” where the platform’s encrypted private messaging provided a sanctuary for citizens to discuss politics away from the raucous finger-pointing of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. WhatsApp “offered security in that messages would come from ‘trusted’ contacts and thus be more ‘believable'” than open services such as Facebook or Twitter, said Serina Abdul Rahman, whose election research for the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute took her to rural areas in the south and north of Malaysia. Apprehension over commenting publicly was likely heightened by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s anti-fake news law, which was announced ahead of the elections. Some saw the law as a tool for Najib to avoid public discussion of corruption allegations related to the scandal-riddled sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB.
JAKARTA — Twin bombings during a church service in the southern Philippines killed at least 20 people and wounded 81, security officials said, days after a referendum on autonomy for the mainly Muslim region returned an overwhelming “yes” vote.
Government debt in emerging Asian economies hit 50% of gross domestic product in the third quarter of last year, according to estimates by the Institute of International Finance, in a trend that suggests a regional shift away from fiscal conservatism. “Entering a financial crisis with a weak fiscal position worsens the depth and duration of the ensuing recession, particularly in emerging-market economies, because fiscal policy tends to be procyclical in these cases,” said Vitor Gaspar, director of the International Monetary Fund’s Fiscal Affairs Department. While government debt in emerging Asia is creeping up, it remains low compared with Japan’s 223.1% of GDP and 100.8% in the U.S. “The relatively low public debt gives the region more buffer against a potential global downturn, enabling policymakers to use expansionary fiscal policy to support demand,” said Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economic research at HSBC.
JAKARTA — Governments across Asia are seeking to bring millions of informal workers into regulated employment, and stem a major economic drag on the world’s fastest-growing region. Bangladesh, Indonesia and China have taken steps this month that could help formalize employment for a vast pool of workers that are struggling on the margins of their economies, many as self-employed merchants or agricultural laborers. The World Bank estimates that informal workers make up 47% of jobs in the East Asia and Pacific region, with the figure rising to between 60% and 80% in lower income countries such as Myanmar and Laos. The government in Dhaka last week signed a $250 million deal with the institution aimed at supporting efforts “to create large-scale, better-paid and inclusive jobs.”
Updating on the recovery operations in Indonesia after the Dec. 23 tsunami that hit the coast of Sumatra and Java, both sides of the Sunda Strait
JAKARTA — The sea rose up without warning Saturday night, crashing into coastal villages on Indonesia’s two most populous islands. It killed at least 220 people, washing away buildings, roads and a rock concert on the beach, officials said Sunday evening. The tsunami that struck the western tip of Java and the southern tip of Sumatra was believed to have been triggered by an underwater landslide from the flank of an erupting volcano. Officials in Jakarta said hundreds more people were injured and 30 were missing after the tsunami, the latest in a string of deadly disasters that have killed thousands in Indonesia this year. About 600 buildings were damaged, officials said. Soldiers and rescue workers moved quickly to clear roads blocked by debris; television and social media video showed survivors pulling at wreckage trying to find loved ones. “People are still afraid to go back to their homes since there were still rumors that a tsunami might strike again,” said Aulia Arriani, a spokeswoman for the Indonesian Red Cross.