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.
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?”
JAKARTA — Stalled efforts by the U.S. and European Union to forge a trans-Atlantic trade pact will remain on ice for the foreseeable future — regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election, according to the EU’s agriculture commissioner. Failure to finalize the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership pact reflects growing protectionist sentiment in both the U.S. and Europe, and mirrors problems besetting its U.S.-Asian counterpart, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Negotiations on the TTIP will not resume until the new U.S. administration — led by Democrat Hillary Clinton or her Republican rival Donald Trump — settles into office, said Phil Hogan, the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. “These are on hold at the moment until we know what the new policy position of the U.S. will be,” Hogan said on Tuesday in Jakarta, on the final leg of an EU trade mission to Asia. “We have had a lot of political rhetoric from both candidates, probably to a greater extent from Mr. Trump who has expressed himself as anti-trade, Mrs. Clinton has said less than positive things about trade as well.”
JAKARTA — Asia is home to more than half the world’s most dynamic retail hubs, according to new research that reinforces images of the region’s mall-strewn megacities. The research, by professional services and investment management company JLL, says 12 of the fastest-growing retail cities are in Asia, with eight in China alone — another indication that global economic growth is increasingly driven by the Asia-Pacific region. JLL lists Dubai as the world’s fastest-growing retail destination, with Shanghai second and Beijing third. Places 9 to 13 are occupied by Bangkok, Chengdu, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Manila, respectively. Only two European cities make the top 20 — Moscow and Istanbul — with none from Africa. Mexico City is the sole city from the western hemisphere, sitting at number 19.
PHNOM PENH — The skyline of Phnom Penh is changing as fast as that of any Asian city. Yellow cranes gleam in the sun after late-afternoon squalls, towering alongside green-netted scaffolding wrapped around dozens of new high-rise apartment blocks going up across the city. These are, literally, the green shoots of a building boom that made up a sixth of Cambodia’s economic growth last year. They are a sign of a transformation underway in the capital as Cambodia tries to catch up with its more prosperous neighbors. But the rapid changes also highlight a challenge that has faced many cities across Asia in recent decades: with 200 million people having moved from countryside to city in East and Southeast Asia since 2010, how can cities manage large-scale urban growth in a way that facilitates economic growth without increasing pollution and traffic jams. In BKK1, an upmarket part of the city, “the roads are too narrow, the area is not ready for so much construction, many small builders don’t talk to the municipality, there is no coordination,” said Sebastian Uy, co-owner of real estate agency Le Grand Mekong Property.
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.
JAKARTA – Unlike the imposing and often inaccessible buildings of the European Union in Brussels, ASEAN’s low-rise offices sit in the shadow of a partly constructed overhead railway in the southern part of Indonesia’s traffic-clogged capital. Nine months after the group’s 10 members established the ASEAN Economic Community, which aims to promote the free movement of goods, services, capital and labor, the headquarters symbolizes both ASEAN’s aspirations and its limitations. The EU was previously known as the European Economic Community, but ASEAN’s adoption of the “community” moniker does not mean it will emulate Europe’s radical, sovereignty-pooling measures, such as a common currency, central bank and free movement of labor. “The appetite to surrender sovereignty simply is not there,” said Jayant Menon, lead economist at the Asian Development Bank in Manila. “I don’t see a single currency coming into play in ASEAN, and I don’t see that as a bad thing.”