KUALA LUMPUR — Catholics in Southeast Asia will have to do without one of their most recognizable motifs due to the coronavirus outbreak. On February 26, the Christian holy day of Ash Wednesday this year, Catholics in Malaysia and the Philippines will have dry ash sprinkled onto their heads instead of the usual smearing of a damp grey-black ash cross. Archbishop Romulo Valles, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, stated that the measures were motivated by “our concern for the well-being of our brothers and sisters” and the taking of the “utmost care and efforts towards the prevention of the spread of COVID-19.” The virus that has spread to around two dozen countries, has killed over 2,200 people, mostly in China, where the pandemic originated.
KUALA LUMPUR — Leaked audio has emerged of Singaporean Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing criticizing not only his fellow citizens for hoarding but Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam for wearing a medical mask while holding at a press conference. The source of the audio is unknown, but appears to be a recording of a closed-door meeting last week at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The recording, which has been widely shared on Singaporean social media, features Chan claiming that the sight of the mask-clad Hong Kong leader Lam prompted panic-buying in Hong Kong. If Singaporean officials had emulated Lam, Chan said, “our hospital system would have broken down” as there would be “no more masks.”
KUALA LUMPUR — Singapore announced its 2020 budget on Tuesday, pledging 5.6 billion Singapore dollars (4.02 billion US dollars) to assist businesses and households affected financially by the coronavirus outbreak. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced the measures in Singapore’s parliament, where he said another 800 million Singapore dollars will be allocated to support “frontline agencies” that are fighting coronavirus in the city-state, where 77 cases have been confirmed. Heng warned that “the outbreak will certainly impact our economy” and said that inbound tourism and air traffic had already dropped as Chinese outbound tourism plummets. Singapore Airlines announced on Tuesday that it was temporarily reducing flights “due to weak demand as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.”
JAKARTA — In the latest warning that coronavirus could stall economic growth across Asia, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday that the city-state “could take a hit” with recession “possible” this year. Speaking during a visit to Singapore’s Changi Airport, Lee said the economic impact of the disease known as Covid-19 will likely top that of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). In 2003, the outbreak resulted in reduced commerce and travel across Asia and saw Singapore’s wealthy, trade-based economy shrink by 0.3 per cent during the second quarter. Lee warned on Friday that although Singapore was free of SARS within four months, the timetable for coronavirus “may not be so fast.”
KUALA LUMPUR — The Singapore Airshow, billed Asia’s biggest aviation event, started on Tuesday with attendances set to be down on previous years due to coronavirus concerns. Citing worries about the virus, whoch has killed over a thousand people in China and has infected over 40 people in Singapore, airshow organizers said ticket numbers were being “scaled down for the well-being and safety of all visitors.” The event will run until February 16 and will feature daredevil flying displays by fighter jets from the United States and the Chinese air force. An airshow conference featuring speeches from sector leaders, including the head of the US Federal Aviation Administration, was cancelled due to the concerns.
KUALA LUMPUR — Singapore’s minister of law and home affairs on Friday accused a Muslim religious teacher of making “racist” and “xenophobic” anti-Chinese comments about the deadly coronavirus outbreak that has killed 636 people and infected over 30,000. In a Facebook post, K Shanmugan said his ministry will investigate Abdul Halim Abdul Karim over comments suggesting that coronavirus is divine retribution for China’s policies in its western Xinjiang region, where human rights groups allege that around 1 million Muslim Uighurs have been detained in camps. The minister described as “thoroughly racist” Karim’s suggestion that coronavirus has spread because of Chinese personal hygiene habits, adding that “society has to take a clear stand against such comments.”
KUALA LUMPUR — Southeast Asia is the region most vulnerable to the new coronavirus outbreak, which has killed 170 people in China and infected almost 8,000 since the turn of the year. Several dozen cases of the virus have been reported across the region, with 14 confirmed in Thailand — the most of any country outside of China — as of Jan. 28. By Jan. 30, 10 cases were reported in Singapore. Hundreds more people are under medical observation or in quarantine, pending confirmation of infection or a disappearance of symptoms. The number of cases in Malaysia rose to eight on Jan. 30. “It looks like the volume of airline travelers from cities in mainland China are highly correlated with the number of cases reported in affected countries,” said Shengjie Lai of the University of Southampton, co-author of an analysis of travel trends within and from China which aims to predict what places might be most at risk of further outbreak. Of the 30 most exposed cities outside China, 14 are in Southeast Asia, with Bangkok facing the highest risk globally. Singapore, Phuket, and Kuala Lumpur are among the 10 cities most at risk. Seven of the 14 countries deemed most vulnerable are in Southeast Asia, according to the study, which was published on Jan. 28.
KUALA LUMPUR — Despite more than a year of tit-for-tat tariffs in the US-China trade war and anxiety about its cost to the world economy, foreign direct investment into Southeast Asia continued to grow strongly last year, even as global levels flatlined. Newly-published estimates from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) suggest that, out of a global FDI spend of US $1.39 trillion in 2019, member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations received $177 billion, breaking the region’s 2018 record of $155 billion. While Southeast Asia’s 2019 total was substantially less than European Union’s $305 billion or the United States’ $251 billion, its inward FDI is increasing while the EU’s dropped 15% and the US’s stayed the much the same.
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.
PHNOM PENH – Cambodia appears to be the latest beneficiary of the US-China trade war, joining the already exhaustively profiled Vietnam among the countries enjoying increased exports to the US as tariffed Chinese goods open the door for other cheap suppliers. Latest US government data show annual imports from Cambodia rising significantly since the start of the year, with the US$1.8 billion registered from January-May a roughly 20% increase on the same period last year. Like Vietnam, Cambodia has duty-free access to American markets under the Generalized System of Preferences, a trade program designed to promote economic growth in the developing world. Trade represented 125% of Cambodia’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017, according to the World Bank. In 2018, the bulk of Cambodia’s goods exports to the US were clothing and footwear, with the Office of the US Trade Representative listing the top four sectors as knit apparel ($1.8 billion), woven apparel ($628 million), leather products ($390 million), and footwear ($329 million). Cambodia’s 2018 trade surplus with the US was $3.4 billion — which, though relatively-small compared with Vietnam’s near-$40 billion for the same year — will continue to rise this year as Cambodia’s exports to the US surge. Parsing the numbers for a direct trade war link is not as clear-cut as it may seem, however, with both Vietnam – where trade represented 188% of GDP in 2018 – and Cambodia expanding their commerce with the US since before the start of the tariff war.