JAKARTA — During a visit to Jakarta on April 21, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence diluted some of the anti-trade rhetoric espoused by his recently-elected boss, President Donald Trump, saying that his country and Indonesia “can and will do more to expand commerce.” “We seek trade with Indonesia that is free and fair,” Pence said, adding that “we seek to create a win-win trading relationship for both of our nations and all of our people.” His comments mark a change in tone from the zero-sum views on trade coming from the White House under President Trump, rhetoric that prompted Washington to compile a list of 16 countries — including Indonesia — that have trade deficits with the U.S. Pence, who was on the second day of a visit to Indonesia after stopovers in South Korea and Japan and before heading on to Australia, announced that American companies, including ExxonMobil, General Electric and Lockheed Martin, would sign “11 major deals worth more than $10 billion” in Indonesia.
JAKARTA — Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce more than 80% of the world’s palm oil, are resisting proposals by European parliamentarians that could limit their access to the second biggest palm oil market after India. Government ministers from Malaysia and Indonesia, along with some regional palm oil producers, met in Jakarta on April 11 to plan a response to a resolution approved on April 4 by European parliament members concerning “palm oil and deforestation.” The parliamentarians requested the EU to “introduce a single certification scheme for palm oil entering the EU market and phase out the use of vegetable oils that drive deforestation by 2020.” They hope for an EU-wide ban on biodiesel made from palm oil by 2020, claiming that the expansion of palm oil plantations, mostly in Southeast Asia, is causing “massive forest fires, the drying up of rivers, soil erosion, peatland drainage, the pollution of waterways and overall loss of biodiversity.” Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar called the EU proposals an “insult,” while the foreign ministry accused the EU of “protectionism” and of ignoring the rights of millions of Indonesian farmers whose main source of income is from small oil palm plots.
SINGAPORE — In contrast to the anguish and astonishment expressed in many national capitals, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomed Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president in November. While the warm response augured well for Phnom Penh’s often troubled relations with Washington, prospects for improved bilateral ties have since faded. In January, the month of Trump’s inauguration, Cambodia pulled out of the “Angkor Sentinel” joint military exercises with the U.S. In early April Phnom Penh followed up that snub to Washington by halting a nine-year-old humanitarian program run by the U.S. military that involved building schools and maternity facilities in rural areas of Cambodia. These affronts were punctuated by testy exchanges between the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh and the Cambodian government, notably over a political parties law passed in February that will make it easier for the Cambodian courts to suspend or even dissolve opposition parties. “Any government action to ban or restrict parties under the new amendments would constitute a significant setback for Cambodia’s political development, and would seriously call into question the legitimacy of the upcoming elections,” the embassy said, referring to local elections scheduled for June and a national poll due in 2018. The law has been widely criticized in Cambodia, too. Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, described it as “an affront to the principles of liberal democracy, [which] effectively gives the ruling party a delete button which can be arbitrarily applied to their political opponents at any time.”
YANGON — Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, made a rare admission of fallibility in a televised address to the nation on March 30. “We did what we could for the sake of our country and the people in the first year,” she said in a speech marking the first anniversary of her civilian-dominated government. “We know that we haven’t been able to make as much progress as people had hoped.” That seemed an uncharacteristic acknowledgement of a sputtering economy under her National League for Democracy-led administration. Key economic data suggest that “progress,” as Suu Kyi herself conceded, has slowed. Approved foreign direct investment is estimated to have fallen by a third in fiscal 2016, which ended on March 31, from the record $9.4 billion achieved in fiscal 2015, the last year under the government of former President Thein Sein. Annual growth in gross domestic product is expected to slow to 6.5% in fiscal year 2016, from 7.3% the previous year, according to the World Bank.
TANJUNG GUSTO — Coming from all over Indonesia, vividly-garbed traditional dancers yelled ‘horas’, which means hello in the Batak language of north Sumatra. But the pageantry could not mask their disappointment at being snubbed by the country’s president. Hundreds of Indonesia’s tribal leaders had traveled to Tanjung Gusto, a small village on Sumatra, the biggest of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. They arrived with high expectations that the government was about to grant at least some of their demands for control of what they claim as their ancestral lands.
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 — If Claudio Ranieri was in front of a television when English Premier League soccer champions Leicester City hosted five-times European club champions Liverpool on Feb. 27, the mild-mannered Italian might have been tempted into an uncharacteristic show of anger. The 65-year-old had been sacked as team manager three days previously by Leicester City’s billionaire Thai owner and chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, founder of the King Power Group chain of duty-free shops. After a series of tepid losses, the team had been dragged into a struggle with a half dozen rivals desperate to stave off relegation from the premier league to the less high-profile English Championship, where Leicester City had languished for a decade prior to 2014. But with Ranieri gone, the team rediscovered the verve that brought them success the previous year. Ranieri’s ex-charges followed their comfortable 3-1 win over Liverpool with a March 4 victory over Hull City by the same margin.
JAKARTA — One of the world’s leading university ranking systems has found significant improvement in Asia’s tertiary education institutions over the past year, although long-established Western bodies continue to dominate the field in most key academic subjects. QS Quacquarelli Symonds, a London-based group, published its 2017 rankings covering 1,127 universities from 74 countries across 46 subjects. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described as “perennial rivals” by QS, led all universities in the field in 15 and 12 subjects, respectively. But the prominence of Asian universities has been increasing in recent years. While elite U.S. and European institutions are likely to remain at the top of the rankings in the near future, more Asian universities nonetheless are moving up the list, as regional economies grow and education spending increases. “It seems certain that Asia’s leading institutions will continue to strongly displace the second tier of North American and European institutions,” said QS research director Ben Sowter.
DOONBEG — Every time President Trump rails against big “pharma” over the jobs that have been shipped overseas, his pledges to streamline regulations and lower taxes to lure them home prompt grimaces 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. More than 50,000 people are employed with pharmaceutical and medical device companies here in Ireland, with most of the companies refugees from America. Baxter, a medical equipment manufacturer based in Deerfield, Illinois, employs a thousand people in Ireland. Pfizer, Boston Scientific and Johnson & Johnson all have substantial Irish operations. Dublin’s Silicon Docks neighborhood earned its nickname after Facebook, Google, Twitter and other U.S. tech companies set up in glossy offices, often mammoth European headquarters, close to the River Liffey. They are among an estimated 700 U.S. companies which, attracted by Ireland’s low corporate tax rate and English-speaking work force, have helped drive a multinational invasion on the Emerald Isle that once turned it into the “Celtic Tiger” of Europe, employing around 170,000 people in all.
YANGON — The World Bank’s forecast on Jan. 30 that Myanmar’s economy will grow by more than 7% annually for the next three years appears optimistic in some quarters. In the latest issue of its Myanmar Economic Monitor, the World Bank said that while growth would most likely be around 6.5% for fiscal 2017 (ending March 31), it would then accelerate on increased investment in infrastructure and sectors such as hospitality. The adverse effects of floods in 2015 would wear off, particularly in the agricultural sector, which accounts for about 60% of the workforce and nearly 40% of the economy. In 2015/16, the final year of the previous administration headed by President Thein Sein, Myanmar’s annual growth was 7.3% — a significant increase from the 5.5% reached in 2011/12, the first year of Thein Sein’s presidency. “The World Bank forecast is somewhat at odds with the mood in the local business community,” said Stuart Larkin, a Yangon-based economic consultant.