Pandemic pummels Malaysia’s vital but controversial palm oil trade – dpa international

A handful of people outdoors in Kuala Lumpur during Malaysia's lockdown (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Palm oil exports from Malaysia, the world’s second-biggest supplier, dropped by 41.7 per cent year-on-year during the month up to April 14, Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Khairuddin Aman Razali said on Thursday. The month coincided with the imposition of a lockdown aimed at stemming the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed 102 people and resulted in 6,002 infections in the country. Malaysia is expected to suffer a 2 per cent fall in GDP in 2020 due to the virus. The lockdown, which has run since March 18, has forced many businesses to close, though the palm oil sector is operating. A vital export commodity, palm oil and related products made up 3.9 per cent of Malaysia’s total goods sold overseas in 2019.

Asia’s economic growth to halt for first time since 1960s – dpa international

Evening traffic in Kuala Lumpur before the pandemic (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — The International Monetary Fund (IMF) believes Asia’s fast-growing economies will “come to a standstill” due to the coronavirus pandemic, faring worse than during the 2008-9 global financial crisis or the 1997-98 Asian crash. The region will experience zero growth for the first time since the 1960s, said Chang Yong Rhee, director of the IMF’s Asia and Pacific Department, who forecast that the economic impact of the pandemic will be “severe, across the board, and unprecedented.” Speaking during a press conference live-streamed from Washington, Rhee said Asia faces “a crisis like no other” due to the pandemic, which has killed over 136,000 people worldwide and prompted governments to impose lockdowns that have hampered commerce. “Containment measures are severely affecting economies,” Rhee said.

Singapore reports first coronavirus deaths as case numbers rise across Southeast Asia – dpa international

People wearing facemasks inside a Kuala Lumpur mall on March 17, the day before the start of an anti-virus lockdown (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned Singaporeans on Saturday to expect more deaths from the coronavirus outbreak after the city-state’s first fatalities were announced earlier in the day.

“As we get more COVID-19 cases, more patients will need ICU [intensive care unit] care, and we must brace ourselves for more losses,” Lee said in a Facebook post.

Earlier Health Minister Gan Kim Yong announced the deaths of a 75-year-old Singaporean woman and a 64-year-old Indonesian man who had been diagnosed with Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. “We are deeply saddened by their passing,” Gan said, explaining that the woman had several medical conditions and was admitted to hospital a month ago with pneumonia.

Indonesia sends warships to drive off Chinese boats – The Times

Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian island of Bali in October 2018. Photo: Simon Roughneen

KUALA LUMPUR — Indonesia has sent an armada of warships and fishermen to waters around its northern Natuna Islands in response to recent incursions by dozens of Chinese fishing boats and coastguard ships. China’s sweeping claim to most of the South China Sea overlaps with Indonesian waters around the Natunas, with the latest flare-up prompting the usually soft-spoken Indonesian President Joko Widodo to bluntly assert that “Natuna is Indonesia” during a visit to the contested region last week. Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea, through which between US$3-5 billion worth of trade passes most years, extends 2000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland and has angered neighbouring countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, whose own smaller claims around the sea overlap with Beijing’s. 

Indonesia’s Widodo pits old school vs millennial – Asia Times

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde (both center) at the IMF/World Bank annual meetings in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia on Oct. 12 2018 (Simon Roughneen

BANGKOK — Indonesian leader Joko Widodo is bidding to put a new generation shine on his second term administration with the appointment of young business entrepreneurs and other experts to his 12-member presidential staff. Whether the new blood appointments can counter the influence and power of the many old school politicians appointed to Widodo’s new Cabinet will likely determine the new government’s reform legacy. Re-elected to a new five-year term at polls in April, Widodo recently appointed seven new top advisors aged between 23 and 36. The move came after he tapped Nadiem Makarim, the 35-year-old founder of ride-hailing giant Gojek, as his education minister.

There be dragons, and a visit could cost US$1000 – The Times

Sunset over islands in East Nusa Tenggara. (Simon Roughneen)

BANGKOK — In a hint that Indonesia could be tiring of the drunken antics of young Western visitors to the holiday island of Bali, President Joko Widodo said he wants only “super premium” visitors to nearby islands that are home to the Komodo dragon, the world’s biggest and deadliest lizard. “Don’t mix with the middle lower ones,” Widodo told a conference in capital Jakarta, implying that Labuan Bajo, an island in eastern Indonesia that is the gateway to Komodo, one of the handful of islands where the eponymous reptiles can be seen, opt for well-to-do tourists. Local officials have touted a US$1000 “annual membership” fee to visit Komodo for a look at the lizards, which hunt deer and buffalo, packing a venomous bite that can kill an adult human. 

Indonesia disasters: Washed away or move away – Southeast Asia Globe/RTÉ World Report

Robitan, Kiki Mariam and Amin at their new home. Simon Roughneen

BIMA — At first Kiki Mariam wasn’t too concerned as the tail end of a cyclone sent cascades of roof-rattling rain onto the riverside home she shared with her husband Robitan in Bima, a city of around 170,000 people on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa.“At first the water was low and then it got higher,” the 37-year-old recalled, one hand resting on a sawdust-speckled workman’s table, the other pointing to the riverbank a couple of yards away. Now the river is flowing as normal, about ten feet below ground level down a 70 degree angle bank. But during that mid-December morning in 2016, as the rain beat down hour after hour, Mariam saw the river’s ineluctable swell and soon forgot her breakfast-time frustration about a leaking roof. “I didn’t think it would get higher than that,” Mariam said, pointing at the riverbank. But as the rain hammered down relentlessly, the river rose and rose, until the water, ominously, was climbing close to ground level. “We saw it wasn’t going to stop – it took quite a long time, but it came,” Mariam said. “I was really scared, we were asked to leave, so we grabbed what we could and moved away from the river,’ she said, as husband Robitan, 39, pointed to a head-high spot on a nearby wall, the faded difference in hue indicating the high water mark of the 2016 deluge that destroyed their house and left 100,000 people homeless in and around Bima.

Stitched together – Southeast Asia Globe

PHNOM PENH — With no end in sight to the so-called trade war between the US and China, the European Union (EU) sees a chance to act as the guardian of free trade and hold its own against the two giants. But as the bloc gets increasingly bogged down in spats with individual Southeast Asian countries, prospects for a wider regional trade relationship look increasingly precarious. With Cambodia’s eligibility for preferential market access to the EU coming under question and with the likelihood growing that Myanmar could be put under similar scrutiny, the EU appears to be hedging against any consequent damage to its relations with Southeast Asia by seeking free trade agreements and closer defence ties with some of the region’s countries. While for now Cambodia can export duty-free to the 28-country, 513 million-population European Union market, this week saw the end of the “monitoring and engagement” phase of a review of that access, potentially putting $5 billion worth of Cambodian garment exports at risk. A European Commission spokesperson said in an August 12 email that “over the next six months, the Commission and the European External Action Service will analyse all the evidence collected”.

Free from darkness – Southeast Asia Globe/RTÉ World Report

Zubaidi working a new fishing boat in Kwangko. Photo: Simon Roughneen

KWANGKO, SUMBAWA ISLAND — As afternoon turns to evening and the high and blinding sun sinks slowly toward the horizon, Zubaidi still keeps the peak of his cap tilted slightly down, all the better to run an eye over the sky-blue paint job on the small skiff he and his small team are putting the finishing touches to. Behind Zubaidi’s seaside house, set about three feet up on stilts to keep the floor above any high tide, the whine of the electric saws and planes readies another batch of precision-cut timber for the next boat, each one to be sold to eager local fishermen at 1.5 million Indonesian Rupiah (US$106) a pop. Less than two years before, Zubaidi and team had to saw the planks by hand. It was only a year and a half ago that his tiny village of Kwangko on the coast of the island of Sumbawa was connected to the national electricity supply. “I can do three times as much now, more than I had before we got power,” Zubaidi says. “Now you have to pre-order if you want a boat.”

Low tax, low spend – Southeast Asia Globe

Among the finished infrastructure projects in Indonesia is the new metro in Jakarta, pictured here in April 2019 (Simon Roughneen)

PHNOM PENH – Tax And Spend has rarely been part of the Southeast Asian governance lexicon. And judging by the region’s dismal tax-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratios, it doesn’t look like that will be changing anytime soon. Newly published revenue statistics compiled by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that the five biggest Southeast Asian economies have ratios of half or less than the 2017 OECD average of 34.2%, though most countries in the region showed small increases in revenues compared with the previous year. The OECD defines the tax-to-GDP ratio as “total tax revenue, including social security contributions, as a percentage of GDP”. While more prosperous countries in Southeast Asia’s vicinity such as Australia, Japan and New Zealand all come in around the 30% mark, Southeast Asia’s own numbers were much lower, with Indonesia at 11.5%, Malaysia on 13.6 and Singapore only slightly above on 14.1. This last number in particular seems surprisingly low given that Singapore’s economy more resembles higher-tax Western counterparts than its neighbours in Southeast Asia.