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.
SINGAPORE — U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam on Feb. 27-28. “Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in more than 15 months. If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” Trump said in his State of the Union address in Washington late Tuesday. “Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one.” Vietnam, which opened up its economy under Doi Moi reforms in the 1980s, has also been touted by the U.S. as a possible model for Pyongyang to follow. The country emerged as a likely host after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited last July, shortly after the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. Pompeo lauded the “once-unimaginable prosperity and partnership” between Vietnam and the U.S., before turning to North Korea.
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.
SINGAPORE — The decision by Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party to endorse General Secretary Nguyen Pho Trong as the country’s next president is akin to China’s shift to centralized rule under Xi Jinping — albeit with more limitations. The presidency has been vacant since last month’s death of Tran Dai Quang, and Vietnam’s National Assembly is expected to rubber-stamp Trong as the replacement during a monthlong session starting on Oct. 22. “The central committee has discussed about the merging for quite a long time, therefore the recent move — though it might seem accidental due to Mr. Quang’s death — it should be seen as deliberate,” said Nguyen Khac Giang, Senior Political Researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Political Research in Hanoi. “It will be the new normal of Vietnamese politics.”
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 — Long before emerging as one of the leading proponents of Brexit, Michael Gove’s role as British education minister took him to Asia, where he declared in 2010 that “places like Shanghai and Singapore put us to shame,” when it comes to quality of schooling. Perhaps Gove should not have been surprised, given that the previous year Shanghai topped the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA science rankings. The Program for International Student Assessment scores are published every three years and rank students in mathematics, science and reading. Eight years on, it is not only well-funded Asian schools such as those in Singapore, which topped PISA’s 2015 rankings, that are outpacing the West, according to a new World Bank report on education in the Asia-Pacific region. “Average performance in Vietnam and in B-S-J-G [Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong] regions in China surpassed OECD member countries,” said the report.
JAKARTA — According to legend, the world’s oldest beverage came about by accident more than 4,000 years ago, when a draft blew some tea leaves into a pot of boiling water being prepared for Shen Nung, the Chinese emperor known as “the divine farmer.” Divine intervention, maybe? Whatever the provenance of that fateful gust, it was not the first farce — or tragedy — to propel the tea industry forward and eventually globalize what was for thousands of years an Asian drink. As recently as the late 16th century, a handful of Japanese Christian pilgrims in Rome prompted much curiosity among their hosts by making tea: Locals assumed at first that the drink was just boiled water, according to “Tea: The Drink That Changed The World,” a 2007 book by John Griffiths. Kakuzo Okakura’s “The Book of Tea,” a 1906 paean to tea culture, suggested that the drink — by then almost as much of a staple in parts of Europe and North American as it had long been in Asia — could be a liquid bridge between East and West. Tea, wrote the Japanese scholar, who was also known as Tenshin Okakura, “has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa.”
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.