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.
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.
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.
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.
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.