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.
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.”
SINGAPORE — “Yes, hello, fruits?” Shouting above the din, vendor Sini Mohamad leans forward into a conga line of office workers edging between dozens of lavishly provisioned stalls in Singapore’s Tekka Market. It is lunchtime, and crowds throng the market as dozens of hawker stalls dish out noodles, rice and curries. Most ignore Mohamad’s appeals. But he keeps at it, alongside stallholders selling meat, fish, vegetables and spices. The lunchtime crowd offers a fleeting chance for butchers and grocers to persuade passers-by to do a bit of grocery shopping before they head back to work, their palettes whetted by the aromas of spices and herbs clinging to the steamy market air.
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.
MANILA — Four years after a colossal Pacific Ocean storm battered the city of Tacloban in central Philippines, Jerby Santo remembered how as one of around 10 million Philippine expatriates, he was waiting anxiously for news of Typhoon Haiyan making landfall at his home town. Even though the Philippines often bears the brunt of storms veering off the southern Pacific, Haiyan had prompted an unusual level of uneasiness. “I was in Phnom Penh on the eve of the storm, the internet was abuzz, what was going to happen?” he recalled, speaking at a commemorative event organized by the Newton Tech4Dev Network and De La Salle University in Manila on Nov. 9. The biggest damage of the hurricane was caused by a storm surge, a wall of seawater like a tsunami that swept inland, quickly flooding ground levels before people could escape.
BANGKOK — Even though the afternoon temperature soared into the high 30s, the lines of black clad mourners stretched hundreds of yards in two directions around the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Old and young alike, some snoozing in the afternoon heat, towels over their faces, the crowds were waiting to pay their respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He died on October 13 last year and has since been lying in state since, a year long mourning period ahead of a lavish Buddhist and Hindu rite state funeral that will start on the 25th of this month. These last few days have been the final chance for Thais to honour to the late monarch, whose death at the age of 88 marked the end of a reign that lasted 70 years.
KUALA LUMPUR — Businesses in Southeast Asia are increasingly counting the cost of land grabs, more than half of which result in delayed projects and nearly three-quarters of which lead to lawsuits, according to a wide-ranging research report. Out of a sample of 51 major land disputes surveyed across the region, all but 6 remain unresolved, meaning that Southeast Asia is the region most prone to land conflict in the world. That is according to research published Tuesday by UK-based consultancy TMP Systems and the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global coalition of land rights activists funded in part by the British and Norwegian governments. That 88% of land disputes in Southeast Asia are not resolved puts the region above the 61% global average, according to the research, which covers land disputes dating from 2001.
JAKARTA — Official crackdowns on emigrants in Malaysia and Thailand have cast further doubt on over prospects that member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can finalize a long discussed deal on migrant workers’ rights. In June and July around 100,000 mostly Myanmar migrant workers fled Thailand after the military government in Bangkok announced hefty new fines for undocumented workers and their employers. Then, starting July 1, Malaysia made a series of arrests of alleged undocumented migrant workers, affecting more than 3,000 workers and around 60 employers accused of giving work to illegals. These tough actions — though a reprise of previous years’ crackdowns — come as the region’s governments mull proposed enhancements to the 2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, signed in Cebu in the central Philippines during one of Manila’s past tenures as the group’s chair. Two years after the Cebu declaration, ASEAN countries started moves toward a set of region-wide legal norms, but progress has been slow. With Manila again chairing ASEAN this year, there has been a renewed push to address migrant rights — an important social and political issue in the Philippines.
JAKARTA — Vehicle sales in Southeast Asia are set to outpace all other regions of the world during 2017, according to industry research, highlighting surging economic expansion in some parts of the region. But the growing number of new cars and trucks in urban centers is likely to worsen commerce-stifling traffic jams in major cities such as Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila — adding urgency to much needed transport infrastructure upgrades throughout much of the region. BMI Research — part of Fitch Group, a financial information company — has forecast that total vehicle sales in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will grow 8.1% in 2017, a marked increase in the combined 3.1% car sales growth the previous year across the 10 ASEAN countries, and more than double the sales growth rate of 3.7% projected for Asia as a whole in 2017. “Looking at passenger cars specifically, we expect Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam to be the best performing autos markets in the ASEAN region in 2017 with forecast growth of 20.4%, 19.2% and 18.0% in passenger car sales respectively,” BMI said in a recent report on the sector, citing “solid economic growth, strong private consumption and tax reform” as drivers of the car sales spike.