JAKARTA — Malaysia’s environment minister is sure that 2017 will not see a repeat of the choking, eye-watering smog that covered parts of his country, as well as Singapore and areas in Indonesia, for around two months in 2015. “We are very likely to be haze-free this year. Even if it comes, it will not be as serious as before,” said Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, Minister for Natural Resources and Environment, on March 2. Mostly caused by the burning of peatland and forests to clear land for plantations in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s haze has for three decades been a near-annual blight that makes air in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, two of Asia’s most dynamic cities, almost unbreathable and in turn, diminishes economic output. Prolonged bouts of the haze, such as in 1997 and in 2015, caused diplomatic ructions as Singapore railed against neighboring Indonesia over the impact of the pollution on its citizens and their livelihoods. But a new Indonesian government-backed alliance of farmers, businesses, environmentalists and concerned citizens aims to prevent more debilitating blazes in southern Kalimantan and western Sumatra, home to much of Indonesia’s lucrative palm oil and pulpwood sectors. “The Indonesian government is very serious on tackling the forest fires,” said Prabianto Wibowo, assistant deputy minister for forestry at Indonesia’s economic co-ordination ministry, speaking at the Responsible Business Forum in Jakarta on March 15.
YANGON — A Feb. 3 report by the U.N. Human Rights Council featured harrowing accounts by Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh of army abuses in northern Rakhine, including the gang rape of women and murder of children. In response to the report, Myanmar’s government, which is led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, initially softened its prior outright denials of military abuse and promised to investigate the allegations. But on Feb. 7, it said it needed more information from the U.N. Naypyitaw’s earlier denials had prompted criticism from around the world. On Jan. 20, Yanghee Lee, the U.N. human rights envoy to Myanmar, said: “For the government to continue being defensive when allegations of serious human rights violations are persistently reported, that is when the government appears less and less credible.”
Previously, Myanmar railed against a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on the Rohingya crisis, held in Malaysia on Jan. 19, during which Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak reiterated harsh criticisms of Naypyitaw’s policies, saying: “The killing must stop, the burning of houses must stop, the violation of women and girls must stop.” He had earlier urged international intervention in Myanmar and accused the government of “genocide” against the Rohingya.
JAKARTA — Nearly three years after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean, Australia, China and Malaysia on Tuesday called off the underwater search, saying “no new information has been discovered” to solve what has become one of aviation’s greatest mysteries. A review of the plane’s likely trajectory as well as new information about ocean currents led experts to conclude that the aircraft might have crashed into the Indian Ocean north of the search zone, and that crews should have been hunting in a 15,000-square-mile zone to the north. The Australian government rejected that recommendation, saying the findings were not precise enough to warrant moving the search. Australia, China and Malaysia, which have funded the search, said last year that the operation would be called off once all of the 46,000-mile zone had been investigated. “It is obvious that the search should be to the north,” Ghislain Wattrelos, a 52-year-old Frenchman whose wife and two children were aboard the aircraft, said in an interview.
KUALA LUMPUR — For fifth time in less than a decade, thousands of yellow-clad supporters of an electoral reform movement called Bersih (Malay for ‘clean’) jammed streets in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday in their latest demonstration seeking change. But for the last year and a half, the group, which is backed by Malaysia’s opposition parties, have been seeking change at the top – the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak over lurid corruption allegations involving a state development fund called 1MDB. Najib is accused of trousering around $US700 billion allegedly siphoned off from 1MDB, public money that was supposed to help Malaysia meet its target of becoming a developed country by 2020 but which allegedly ended up in the prime minister’s personal bank accounts. Najib claimed the money was a Saudi Arabian donation, most of which was repaid. As well as being cleared of wrong-doing by the attorney-general, the prime minister has parried all comers so far, including his own deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who was fired after criticizing the boss over the allegations of financial impropriety.
KUALA LUMPUR – The rally was a show of strength by Najib’s opponents but looked unlikely to shake his hold on power, which has weakened amid allegations that around $700 million in public money was deposited into bank accounts in his name. The scandal over a state development fund Najib set up in 2009 has drawn the attention of law enforcement agencies from around the world. The Justice Department alleged in July that “an international conspiracy” helped siphon $3.5 billion from the fund, known as 1MDB. Some of the money is alleged to have been used to set up a Hollywood production company led by Najib’s stepson that made, among other films, “The Wolf of Wall Street” – a story of financial corruption. Najib, who was in Peru on an official visit, has said he never took money “for personal gain” and called the deposits a donation from Saudi Arabia that he mostly repaid. The corruption scandal has gripped a country that has otherwise been a bulwark of political stability in Southeast Asia, long embraced by the West for its moderate brand of Islam. Stung by the criticism, Najib has recently played up Malaysia’s growing ties with China and castigated Western powers for interfering in former colonies. In recent months, as calls for his resignation have grown louder, several leading opposition politicians have been charged or jailed on a variety of offenses including sedition and breaches of communications laws. Among those facing prison was Rafizi Ramli, an opposition parliamentarian who joined the demonstration, saying Najib “will try to cling to power because [otherwise] he will go to jail.”
JAKARTA — After the most divisive election campaign in decades, tens of thousands of Americans have protested and rioted against the winner in cities across the country, prompting international concerns about an increasingly divided superpower. During his campaign, Trump called Mexicans “rapists,” appeared to mock a disabled reporter, threatened to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., and faced accusations of sexually assaulting women. Clinton was subject to an FBI investigation over her use of a private email account while working as secretary of state, while a foundation run with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, was suspected of soliciting cash from foreign governments in return for contacts in the U.S. government. China crowed over the debacle. “The innumerable scandals, rumors, conspiracy theories and obscenities make it impossible for a person to look away,” said state media outlet Xinhua News Agency. Alongside its unrivalled economic and military strength, the U.S. has relied on intangible “soft power” to influence other countries. Joseph Nye, the Harvard University scholar who coined the term, calls it “the ability to get what one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” But Nye noted that American prestige in Asia has been undermined. “The lack of civility in the presidential debate and the nativist, xenophobic nature of a number of Trump’s statements have already had a negative effect on American soft power in Asia and elsewhere,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review.
JAKARTA — As Donald Trump spoke to a raucous, cheering crowd of supporters in New York after winning the US presidential election, Asia reacted to his unforeseen triumph over frontrunner Hillary Clinton with a mixture of surprise and optimism. “We just don’t know how a Trump presidency would be with regard to Asia, with regard to security issues such as the South China Sea,” said Richard Heydarian, a Philippine political scientist, referring to the Republican candidate’s perceived isolationism and threats to force U.S. allies in Asia to fend for themselves. Trump pledged again to put “America first,” echoing one of his campaign mantras, but in remarks aimed at “the rest of the world, the president-elect said “we will deal fairly with everyone.” That pledge includes another loud-mouthed septuagenarian president, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, who has repeatedly insulted President Barack Obama since taking office in mid-2016. The prospect of the two aging chest thumpers facing off could lead to trouble, Heydarian said. “Obama was very calm and rational in the face of Duterte’s comments [calling the US president “a son of a whore”]. How will Trump react if Duterte says the same?”
SINGAPORE — More than 300 people have been diagnosed with the Zika virus in Singapore this year, while the figure for Thailand has reached 200. Though the numbers of Zika cases in other Asian countries remain in the single digits, outbreaks in these two trade and tourism hubs could take a heavy economic toll. Such impacts are already being felt in Latin America. The spread of Zika there has resulted in around 1,800 cases of microcephaly, and the World Bank estimates that Zika could result in losses of around $3.5 billion to Latin American economies, or 1% of gross domestic product in tourism-dependent ones. In Asia, the main impact is likely to be felt in Singapore, which will host a Formula One Grand Prix race from Sept. 16-18. The event attracts not only regional motor sports fans but also corporate guests attending business meetings during the race week. The current Zika outbreak is the first ever in the city-state. Though it has not sparked any panic yet, the rapid spread of infection has reminded many residents of the SARS crisis of 2003, which saw economic activity contract 4.2% in the second quarter of that year. China, Singapore’s biggest source of tourists, issued an alert on Sept. 7 urging visitors to Zika-affected countries to take precautions against mosquito bites.
JAKARTA — Maritime piracy attacks in Asia fell by more than two-thirds in the first half of 2016 compared to a year ago, suggesting that regional efforts to reduce the number of incidents are making headway amid a global decline in the number of ships seized or ambushed. Even so, Indonesia remains a hotspot that in the first half of the year saw about one quarter of all piracy attacks reported worldwide take place in its waters. In addition, the waters between Malaysia and Indonesia remain dangerous because of kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, which recently executed two Canadian hostages and is holding at least 10 more for ransom. “A search on our database shows 141 incidents [worldwide] this year until Sept. 5,” said Natasha Brown, an official at the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency. There were 223 incidents in the comparable period of 2015, indicating “a downward year on year trend,” Brown told the Nikkei Asian Review. The International Maritime Bureau, part of the International Chamber of Commerce, also reported that pirate attacks were down significantly in 2016 compared with a year ago, with only 98 attacks worldwide in the first six months of 2016 — the lowest in 21 years.
JAKARTA — Concern is growing in Asia about the spread of the Zika virus, with a recent outbreak in Singapore followed by cases in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. There is no vaccine or treatment for the virus, which usually causes only mild fever, rashes and red eyes in infected adults but can lead to a birth defect called microcephaly if a pregnant woman is infected. The spread of Zika in Latin America has led to about 1,800 cases of microcephaly and resulted in several prominent athletes refusing to participate in the recent Olympic Games held in Brazil. In February, the World Health Organization declared Zika, which can be spread sexually but is mostly mosquito-borne, a global public health emergency. In Asia, the threat of the virus spreading around the region is causing concern for hundreds of millions of people already on guard against dengue, malaria and other conditions spread by the same mosquitoes that carry Zika. With almost 300 Zika cases reported in recent weeks in Singapore, a trade hub and city-state that is home to significant migrant worker populations from across Asia, the fear is that Zika will spread rapidly throughout the densely populated region.