JAKARTA — The sight of commuters, their faces hidden behind masks, zipping around on the back of motorcycle taxis is common across Asia. The bikes weave through gridlock in cities like Jakarta and Bangkok, getting the passengers to work on time. The masks, sometimes worn by both driver and passenger, hint that the air they breathe might not be the cleanest. Judging from World Health Organization figures released on Wednesday, covering 4,300 cities across 108 countries, the commuters have the right idea. Of an estimated 7 million deaths worldwide per year from air pollution, just over two-thirds take place in Asia, which is home to slightly less than 60% of the global population. Breaking the numbers down further, the 10 countries in the WHO’s “South-east Asia” region account for about a quarter of the world’s population but suffer around 2.4 million, or 34%, of all air pollution deaths.
SINGAPORE — With the US and China squaring up over trade, getting the 16-country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) signed by the end of the year seems increasingly important for the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). That urgency has been sharpened by US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), now an 11-country deal rebranded as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after being signed in Chile in March. Singapore’s prime minister clearly wanted to get a message across when hosting the ASEAN summit at the weekend. “The fact is that we do not have a TPP,” Lee Hsien Loong told journalists after the meeting. “We have a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has made it more urgent that we proceed with this [RCEP].”
SINGAPORE — If China and the United States continue their charge into a full-on trade war, few regions will be as vulnerable to the resulting economic turbulence as Southeast Asia. That’s why the 10 governments of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Singapore this week are hashing out ideas about how the region can duck any shrapnel if the world’s two biggest economies keep firing protectionist salvos at each other. “Considering that China and the U.S. are ASEAN’s first and third trading partner respectively, the early exchange of blows between Washington and Beijing would be watched nervously across all ASEAN capitals,” said Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based research organization.
SINGAPORE — The recent exposé of how polling firm Cambridge Analytica mined Facebook for information on voters was focused mainly on the United States. But the investigation, which aired on the UK’s Channel 4 last month, has caused ructions in Malaysia after Mark Turnbull, a Cambridge Analytica executive, was filmed bragging that they helped the governing coalition retain power in the country’s last elections in 201, apparently by using social media to profile voters and deliver campaign messages. “We’ve done it in Mexico, we’ve done it in Malaysia and now we’re going to Brazil,” Turnbull said. With another election due anytime between now and August, Malaysia’s opposition predictably seized on that claim. The government in turn said it had nothing to answer for, blaming Mukhriz Mahathir, a former ally turned opposition member, for personally hiring Cambridge Analytica.
JAKARTA/SINGAPORE — A year ago two young female migrant workers in Indonesia, including 26 year old Indonesian Siti Nurbaya, were cast at the center of an international murder mystery when they were arrested by police for their alleged role in the audacious, Le Carré-esque assassination by poisoning of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which was carried out despite the usual bustling morning crowd at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. Preying on the women’s perceived vulnerability as relatively-poor migrant workers at the margins of society, defense lawyers contend that North Korean agents duped their clients into unwittingly carrying out the murder by bluffing they were being recruited for a series of made for TV pranks. As the trial of Nurbaya and her alleged accomplice from Vietnam rolled on last month in Shah Alam near Kuala Lumpur, another case was emerging that highlighted the perils facing migrants in Malaysia. Adelina Sao died in a Penang hospital on February 11 after she was found with head injuries and infected wounds on her limbs, succumbing after two years in Malaysia as one of around 400,000 foreign maids working in the country.
JAKARTA — As concerns grow about rising obesity in Southeast Asia, Indonesia will introduce legislation next year aimed at reducing the content of sugar, salt and fat in food. “We want to push our industry to make it low sugar, low salt, low fat,” Nina Moeloek, Indonesia’s health minister, told the Nikkei Asian Review. “Next year the Ministry of Industry will make regulations for sugar, salt and fat,” she added. In August Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong railed against sugar-laden drinks in a televized speech. Lee’s tirade prompted seven beverage makers, including Coca-Cola, to commit to “a maximum sugar content of 12% for all of their drinks sold in Singapore by 2020,” according to the health ministry of Singapore, where an estimated one in nine people are diabetic. Sugar taxes are also being considered in Singapore and will be implemented in Western countries such as France, Ireland and possibly the U.K.
PULAU UBIN, Singapore — It takes no more than 15 minutes to make the eastward crossing on a juddery old bumboat from Changi Jetty on Singapore’s main island to Pulau Ubin, where gray-barked pulai trees stretch skyward, their pillar-straight trunks evoking the slate and glossy office towers that crowd the Singapore skyline. The 1,020-hectare boomerang-shaped Pulau Ubin is “the last kampong,” or village, and “a living showcase of what Singapore was like in the 1960s,” according to Visit Singapore, part of the country’s official tourist board. Not surprisingly for a place advertised as such, the short boat trip across the narrow strait aims to take visitors back a half century. Pulau Ubin, or Granite Island, is a preservationist’s pearl — a verdant throwback to the pre-industrial, pre-urban way of life still to be found here and there in rural Malaysia and Indonesia. Those old ways are otherwise history in Singapore, where 5.6 million people are jammed onto a mere 720 sq. km. of land area.
SINGAPORE — As Southeast Asia struggles with the rise of modern illnesses that have blighted Western societies such as heart disease and diabetes, a combination of government appeals and changing lifestyle choices suggests a growing awareness of the causes of such conditions. In an Aug. 20 national day speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore recommended that citizens cut back on sugar consumption — flagging-up the soft drinks that are popular among thirsty pedestrians cooling down after a walk in the city-state’s often stifling heat. “Just one can of soft drink can contain eight cubes of sugar,” Lee said. “That’s more than you need for one whole day.”=
JAKARTA — For the first time, three Asian universities are in the top 30 of the 2018 World University Rankings published by Times Higher Education. The rankings cover more than 1,000 universities worldwide and are arguably the best-known and most prestigious of such league tables. The new list for 2018 places the National University of Singapore as the highest ranked Asian school at 22nd, level with the University of Toronto. The other Asian schools in the top 30 are China’s Peking University at 27th — tied with New York University and the University of Edinburgh — and Tsinghua University, also in China, at 30th.
JAKARTA — The world’s seaborne trade exceeded 10 billion tons in a single year for the first time in 2015, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, with about 60% passing through Asia. Sitting between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Southeast Asia’s big archipelagos should be well placed to capitalize as trade expands. Indonesia and the Philippines comprise about 17,000 and 7,500 islands respectively, while Indonesia, home to the world’s fourth-biggest population — about 260 million people — has the second-longest coastline after Canada. However, the bulk of this seaborne trade is moving between Europe and Asia’s powerhouse economies in China and Japan, mainly through the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, which lies between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. “The largest archipelagic countries in the world are not being optimized,” said Fauziah Zen, an economist with the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia, at the recent launch of a report on Southeast Asia’s maritime infrastructure published by The Habibie Center, a Jakarta-based research organization.