BANGKOK — The arrest last week of a high-profile journalist in the Philippines and a gag order against a Thai television station are the latest reminders that Southeast Asia’s press freedoms rest on the whims of governments. But after investors poured a record $145 billion into the region last year, there is little reason to think they will be deterred by the latest clampdowns. Last year’s inflow, recently reported by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, included an unprecedented sum for Vietnam, a one-party communist state. As usual, around half of the money went via Singapore, which has been ruled by the People’s Action Party since independence in 1965 and where reporting is stymied by prolific use of the courts against foreign critics of the ruling elites. “In general, if we compare to other factors — political stability, infrastructure, predictability of rules — [press freedom] is not a decisive factor” in investment moves, said Miha Hribernik, head of Asia politics research at Verisk Maplecoft. Nonetheless, a free press can at least inform business decisions, according to Ebb Hinchliffe, Executive Director of American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, and John D. Forbes, Senior Adviser to the chamber. “A responsible free press is more useful and important than a censored one for the purpose of being informed,” they said in an email.
JAKARTA — Southeast Asia is bucking the global trend of falling direct foreign investment, as the low-cost fast-growing region solidifies its position as an attractive location for multinationals. James Dyson’s recent decision to relocate the headquarters of his eponymous technology business to Singapore is not about Brexit, the company said. Rather, the British tycoon said he is looking to a region that continues to exhibit solid growth — “future proofing” as his chief executive termed it. The move follows an October announcement that Dyson — famous for its vacuum cleaners — will make electric vehicles in Singapore, citing the city-state’s proximity to “high-growth markets” in emerging Asia, where annual gross domestic product could grow by 6.1% between now and 2023, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Asia received a third of global investment in 2018 and accounted for nearly all the year’s investment growth, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. This is despite global foreign direct investment (FDI) declining 19% in 2018. Japanese retailer Aeon opened a second large mall in Cambodia in June as part of its regional expansion plans, which this year will include new shopping centers in Hanoi and Bogor, Indonesia. “As for South East countries, generally speaking, they have been showing rapid economic growth and will keep their pace in future, too,” an Aeon Asia spokesperson said.
JAKARTA — Twin bombings during a church service in the southern Philippines killed at least 20 people and wounded 81, security officials said, days after a referendum on autonomy for the mainly Muslim region returned an overwhelming “yes” vote.
KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia is on track to achieving high-income status, according to the World Bank, while many of its Southeast Asian neighbors face the prospect of being caught in a middle-income trap. “Malaysia is well on its way to cross the threshold into high-income and developed country status over the coming years,” Victoria Kwakwa, the World Bank vice-president for East Asia and Pacific, said this month after meeting Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Malaysia’s gross national income per capita has grown from $1,980 in 1981, when Mahathir first became prime minister, to $9,650 in 2017. Even so, the country still has some way to go to reach the World Bank’s developed country benchmark of $12,055. “As long as the country does not face growth stagnation, it is inching toward the high income level as defined by the World Bank,” said Yeah Kim Leng, Professor of Economics at Sunway University Business School in Kuala Lumpur. “Hence, it’s a question of when, give or take a couple of years, as long as it is able to sustain its current growth momentum.”
JAKARTA — Rattled by rapid oil price swings in recent months, Southeast Asian economies are on tenterhooks ahead of an OPEC meeting this week that is expected to result in a supply cut to boost prices. The recent plunge in prices — the benchmark Brent crude dipped under $60 a barrel last week — has benefited economies such as Indonesia and the Philippines that are net importers of oil. This is helping to blunt the inflationary effects of currency slides against the U.S. dollar in these countries, which are caught in the crossfire of the U.S.-China trade war. Oil rebounded as much as 5% on Monday after the U.S. and China agreed to a truce in their trade conflict. This latest move follows a 30% slide in crude last month, after it touched four-year highs at the start of October. While nations in the region welcome the break in trade tensions — Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday that he hoped to see the U.S. and China take further “constructive” steps — they have to be prepared for further volatility after the meeting of the oil producing cartel that starts on Thursday.
DUBAI — The food stalls ringing the interior of Little Manila in Dubai make for a nostalgic evocation of the real thing — and serve as a home away from home for some of the estimated 750,000 Filipinos in the United Arab Emirates. Across Dubai there are dozens of similarly themed restaurants and shops, sometimes even entire streets, catering to expatriate worker communities from India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and several other Asian countries. Much of the talk in these establishments now centers on the thousands of stranded workers who are availing of a temporary amnesty provided by the government to fly home after having any prospective punishments for visa infractions revoked.
SINGAPORE — It was tame enough weighed against his usual invective, but by itself Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s account of a conversation he had with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, was startling. During a meeting between the two leaders in Beijing in May 2017, the subject turned to whether the Philippines would drill for oil in a part of the South China Sea claimed by both countries. Duterte said he was given a blunt warning by China’s president. “[Xi’s] response to me [was], ‘We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war,” Duterte recounted.
SINGAPORE — China has long bristled at the U.S. Navy’s “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea, which challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the disputed waters. So when Zhao Xiaozhuo, a senior colonel in the Chinese army, found himself with a chance to complain about them directly to U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently, he took it. The U.S. operations are a “violation of the law of the People’s Republic of China, of territorial waters,” Zhao told Mattis during a conference in Singapore on June 2. Mattis defended the naval operations by citing a 2016 international tribunal decision that dismissed China’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim to much of the sea.
JAKARTA — Since 2016, thousands of people have been killed as part of a state-sanctioned campaign against illegal drugs that critics say is rife with extrajudicial killings and impunity for the perpetrators. Duterte won a landslide victory, partly thanks to his strident anti-drug rhetoric, and has long said the Philippines faces a narcotics trafficking and addiction crisis. But Victoria Tauli-Corpuz fears “parallels” between the name-and-shame, trigger-happy tenor of the war on drugs and the publicizing of the government’s list, which she worries could encourage would-be hitmen. “I have some protection as I am from the UN, but I and others need to improve security now,” she said.
JAKARTA – Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a senior United Nations official based in the Philippines, is refusing to leave her homeland despite a legal petition by the government to designate her and about 600 others as terrorists. Tauli-Corpuz, appointed the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples in 2014, said in a telephone interview that “of course I am concerned” about the government’s list, which was filed by the justice ministry in court in Manila on February 21, but was adamant that she would not flee overseas.