JAKARTA — As hundreds of millions of Asians enjoy higher living standards in the move from lower to middle class, a warning of the trend’s sustainability came this month from Europe, where middle class expansion has stalled. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based club that includes most of the world’s wealthiest nations, reported that many of its member states have “seen their standard of living stagnate or decline, while higher income groups have continued to accumulate income and wealth.” The middle class crisis in the West means disappointment for those who hoped that standards of living would continue to improve, as was the case for their forbears during the four or five decades after World II. But more recent times have seen the top 10% of earners’ share of total wealth rocket to nearly half the national average — findings contained in a new OECD report, Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle Class, that in turn paints a grim picture for the third of member state populations described as “economically vulnerable.”
DUBLIN — Business deals worth more than US$60 billion were arguably the least significant aspects of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy and France during the past five days. The key moment arrived in Paris on Tuesday when German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that the European Union wants “to play an active part” in Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). “We, as Europeans, want to play an active part [in the project] and that must lead to a certain reciprocity and we are still wrangling over that a bit,” she said at a media briefing after talks with Xi, French President Emmanuel Macro and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Her comments came despite pressure from the United States to block BRI deals and a recent statement by the EU branding China a “systemic rival.”
YANGON – Ahead of what reform campaigners believe will be Malaysia’s “dirtiest ever elections,” the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has engineered something of a clean-up. In recent months, it has reformed some old and oft-derided laws, such as allowing indefinite detention without trial and forcing local newspapers to apply each year for a publication permit, a stipulation that encouraged self-censorship. UMNO and its allies have governed Malaysia consecutively since independence from colonial rule, a longevity not usually associated with electoral democracies. UMNO and its Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition survived the last election in 2008, though ceded its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time and lost five out of 13 federal states to the opposition, a coalition of three parties led by controversial former UMNO firebrand Anwar Ibrahim that includes the Islamic party PAS and the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP).
MANILA – In a landmark trial the Philippines chief justice was impeached yesterday, a major political score for President Benigno Aquino III’s anti-corruption campaign – an effort that officials feel is key to helping the Philippines emulate its neighbours economic growth Chief Justice Renato C. Corona was found guilty of failing to declare financial assets by more than 2/3 of the county’s senate, in a trial coming soon after the prosecution of Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, for corruption and election fraud. After Corona’s fall, how the case against former President Macapagal-Arroyo plays out could be key to altering perceptions that the Philippines is a messy place to do business. “Corruption has made investment uncertain and means companies don’t really know how safe the Philippines is to put their money,” said Mon Casiple, director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform (IPER).
KUALA LUMPUR – Almost 10 months after security forces forcibly broke-up an electoral reform protest in the national capital, a chaotic repeat looms as the Malaysian government and city authorities attempt to close off the city center square where activists hope 100,000 people will gather this weekend to seek sweeping changes to the country’s electoral system.
BANGKOK – With Western countries and Japan seeking to get around China’s domination of the crucial but mis-named “rare earths” sector, a potentially game-changing processing site slated for Malaysia looks set to become a major election issue as that country gears up to vote. Opposition politicians and local activists from Kuantan – where Australia’s Lynas Corp hopes to build a processing plant for rare earth minerals mined in Australia – are protesting against the project. The plant will provide “a crucial link in developing a non-Chinese supply of rare earth metals,” according to Yaron Voronas of the Technology and Rare Earths Center, an online forum for the industry. The 17 materials, which are not in fact “rare”, but difficult to mine in commercially viable amounts, are growing in economic and strategic importance because they are a key component in high-tech devices such as mobile phones and computers, as well as military hardware such as night-vision goggles and guided missiles. Despite having only around 35% of estimated global rare earth deposits, China currently supplies approximately 95% of the global market – as mining and processing in western countries has been largely mothballed over environmental worries. Green concerns have animated protests against the proposed Malaysian site, which awaits the granting of a Temporary Operating Licence from the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board, initially approved in February but postponed pending an appeal by locals and activists who have come out against the project