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”.
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.”
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.
SINGAPORE — Efforts by Southeast Asian lawmakers to highlight religious discrimination could help prevent future atrocities along the lines of the recent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar, according to the head of the the United Nations’ human rights fact-finding mission to the country.“Religious persecution matters because, left unchecked, it leads up to atrocity crimes. This is a condition that is not unique to Myanmar but to the region as a whole,” said mission head Marzuki Darusman, an Indonesian lawyer. But the MPs may have their work cut in the wake of growing politicization of religion and persecution of minorities.“it is very important to spread the message of freedom of religion, but this is a region where religion has been exploited for political purposes,” said Kyaw Win, a Muslim from Myanmar and founder of the Burma Human Rights Network.Indonesia has seen the hounding and jailing of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Protestant ex-governor of Jakarta, and the August 2018 imprisonment of a Buddhist in North Sumatra after she allegedly complained that the speakers at a neighborhood mosque were too loud.
SINGAPORE — Just over a year ago the United States moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, sparking protests in Muslim-majority countries and drawing official condemnation at the United Nations. An estimated 30,000 people demonstrated in Jakarta as Indonesian President Joko Widodo said his country “rejects” the American move as it “may disrupt the peace process in Israel and Palestine.” In late 2017, when US President Donald Trump announced he would live up to his campaign promise to move the embassy, the Malaysian government endorsed a huge protest at the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur, while Asia’s Muslim UN representatives lined up in New York to excoriate the US.
JAKARTA — As alcohol consumption rises across Asia, Indonesians, including local Catholics, appear to be oblivious to the region’s growing taste for a tipple, but Catholics elsewhere in Asia appear to be drinking more as incomes rise. New research published by The Lancet medical journal suggests Asia is the world’s booze growth market, as consumption is either leveling off or dropping in most other places. The report found that from 1990-2017, consumption increased by 104 percent across Southeast Asia and 54 percent in Western Pacific, going by to geographical regions designated by the World Health Organization (WHO). Some 79 percent of Indonesians are teetotalers, down from 84 percent in 1990, the data showed. This compares to over 90 percent of people who abstain from drinking for life in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where Catholic charity Caritas has been working to help those young people who do fall prey to drug and alcohol addiction. “Muslim countries consume way less alcohol (than non-Muslim nations), and consequently (they have) substantially less of a problem drinking,” said Dr Jürgen Rehm from the University of Toronto, one of the authors of the report.
JAKARTA — Joko Widodo looks set for a second term and final term as president of Indonesia, with unofficial early tallies putting him around 10 per cent ahead of challenger Prabowo Subianto, a former general who also faced off against Widodo for the presidency in the last vote in 2014. Widodo, known by his nickname “Jokowi,” did not claim victory on the back of the so-called “quick count” numbers released by several polling organizations during the afternoon after voting closed at 1pm. Greeting jubilant supporters at a Jakarta theatre, Widodo asked them to keep cool, despite previous elections’ early tallies usually proving accurate. “We’ve seen indications from exit polls and quick count results, but we must patiently wait for official counts,” he said. However, in another reprise of the 2014 contest, Prabowo declared himself the winner, citing his own campaign’s exit polls that he said put him over the 50 per cent mark. “There have been attempts from pollsters and surveys that we know of, cooperating with one side, to steer public opinion as if we have lost,”he told media and supporters as the early tallies emerged. In 2014, with the margin tighter at 6 per cent, Prabowo unsuccessfully challenged the outcome in Indonesia’s highest court, with supporters taking to the streets to back his claims. It is not clear if opposition supporters will protest again, with Prabowo cautioning against “anarchy” after voting closed. “My fellow countrymen, we must not be provoked,” he said.
JAKARTA — On Wednesday next week, perhaps the world’s most logistically-challenging elections will take place across Indonesia’s 3,000 mile wide, 13,000 island archipelago. Over 192 million people are eligible to vote at over 800,000 polling stations overseen by 6 million election officials, with roughly 245,000 candidates contesting around 20,000 seats for local and national legislatures. India’s elections, which started last week, entail much bigger numbers, around 900 million voters — the biggest elections the world has ever seen — but voting there is staggered and will run until May 19. Indonesia’s elections take place on a single day, April 17, and most eyes will be on the presidential race, a re-run of the 2014 contest between President Joko Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, and Prabowo Subianto, a former general.
KUALA LUMPUR — The spread of online political rumors, false content and hoaxes has fact-checkers working overtime ahead of elections in Thailand, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. In February, a video first seen last year resurfaced on social media of Grace Poe, a Philippine politician, allegedly backing the blocking of Facebook in the country, where freedom of speech is ingrained in the constitution and the number of social media users is 76 million, much higher than the 61.8 million people who are registered to vote. But the video, which was posted by an account supporting President Rodrigo Duterte, who defeated Poe and other candidates in 2016 presidential elections, excluded some vital comments by the senator, who will defend her seat in May’s midterm elections. “Can you block a particular company like Facebook from being accessed in the Philippines? I know they do this in China,” Poe was shown saying in the video, which had omitted the preceding comments to the question she posed: “Not that we’re going to do this — I’ll be the first to disagree if they do.” The misleading video was flagged by Vera Files, a fact-checking organization that is part of an elections-focused collaboration called Tsek.ph and which includes some of the Philippines’ main newspapers, television stations and media academics.
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.