SINGAPORE — Candidates running in a slew of elections across Asia this year are taking to Twitter and other social media platforms to share slogans, pitch policies, rankle rivals and rouse crowds ahead of campaign rallies. For the last decade or so, elections have typically been depicted as social media-driven contests where the hashtag outranks the hustings when it comes to canvassing votes, particularly from smartphone-dependent millennials. While social media environments differ depending on the country, the importance of Twitter and Facebook might be overstated. Although some Asian candidates boast a huge social media presence, many of their followers appear to be fake or dormant, and the proportion of those who engage with posts is relatively low. Thailand, Indonesia, India are all holding general or presidential elections in the first half of this year, Australia is likely to vote in May, around the time the Philippines holds midterm polls. The three Southeast Asian countries are among the world’s five most internet-addicted, according to We Are Social’s 2019 global survey. Using the online Twitter analysis tool Sparktoro, which works by taking a representative sample of followers — along the lines of an opinion survey — it appears Indonesian President Joko Widodo has over 5.1 million fake followers. That equates to more than 47% of his total follower base.
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.
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.
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.”
KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia is on track to achieving high-income status, according to the World Bank, while many of its Southeast Asian neighbors face the prospect of being caught in a middle-income trap. “Malaysia is well on its way to cross the threshold into high-income and developed country status over the coming years,” Victoria Kwakwa, the World Bank vice-president for East Asia and Pacific, said this month after meeting Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Malaysia’s gross national income per capita has grown from $1,980 in 1981, when Mahathir first became prime minister, to $9,650 in 2017. Even so, the country still has some way to go to reach the World Bank’s developed country benchmark of $12,055. “As long as the country does not face growth stagnation, it is inching toward the high income level as defined by the World Bank,” said Yeah Kim Leng, Professor of Economics at Sunway University Business School in Kuala Lumpur. “Hence, it’s a question of when, give or take a couple of years, as long as it is able to sustain its current growth momentum.”
JAKARTA — Rising domestic spending across Asia is making many countries in the region less reliant on trade and foreign direct investment, providing them with a buffer against external shocks such as the ongoing tariff spat between Washington and Beijing. While goods imports to and exports from Asian countries rose 14.2% and 11.2%, respectively, in the five years through 2017, they declined relative to the wider economy due to the region’s continued world-beating growth, which hit 5.6% last year, according to new data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Fernando Cantu, senior statistician at UNCTAD, said the trade openness index (which measures the sum of exports and imports as a percentage of gross domestic product) in the Developing Asia and Oceania region declined to 25% last year from 35% in 2005.
JAKARTA — Rattled by rapid oil price swings in recent months, Southeast Asian economies are on tenterhooks ahead of an OPEC meeting this week that is expected to result in a supply cut to boost prices. The recent plunge in prices — the benchmark Brent crude dipped under $60 a barrel last week — has benefited economies such as Indonesia and the Philippines that are net importers of oil. This is helping to blunt the inflationary effects of currency slides against the U.S. dollar in these countries, which are caught in the crossfire of the U.S.-China trade war. Oil rebounded as much as 5% on Monday after the U.S. and China agreed to a truce in their trade conflict. This latest move follows a 30% slide in crude last month, after it touched four-year highs at the start of October. While nations in the region welcome the break in trade tensions — Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday that he hoped to see the U.S. and China take further “constructive” steps — they have to be prepared for further volatility after the meeting of the oil producing cartel that starts on Thursday.
JAKARTA — Wages in Asia grew by an average of 3.5% last year, nearly ten times faster than the 0.4% increase seen among the wealthiest members of the Group of 20 countries, whose leaders will meet in Argentina later this week. Driven largely by Asian economies and China in particular, wages in the G-20’s emerging or developing economies — including Indonesia and India — have tripled overall in the two decades since the Asian financial crisis, according to a new report by the International Labour Organization. The disparity between developed countries such as Japan — where wages declined by 0.4% last year — and less-developed countries in Asia, is partly due to emerging economies growing much faster and enjoying lower inflation than other emerging or developing regions such as Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe or the Middle East.