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.
PHNOM PENH — The skyline of Phnom Penh is changing as fast as that of any Asian city. Yellow cranes gleam in the sun after late-afternoon squalls, towering alongside green-netted scaffolding wrapped around dozens of new high-rise apartment blocks going up across the city. These are, literally, the green shoots of a building boom that made up a sixth of Cambodia’s economic growth last year. They are a sign of a transformation underway in the capital as Cambodia tries to catch up with its more prosperous neighbors. But the rapid changes also highlight a challenge that has faced many cities across Asia in recent decades: with 200 million people having moved from countryside to city in East and Southeast Asia since 2010, how can cities manage large-scale urban growth in a way that facilitates economic growth without increasing pollution and traffic jams. In BKK1, an upmarket part of the city, “the roads are too narrow, the area is not ready for so much construction, many small builders don’t talk to the municipality, there is no coordination,” said Sebastian Uy, co-owner of real estate agency Le Grand Mekong Property.
SINGAPORE — More than 300 people have been diagnosed with the Zika virus in Singapore this year, while the figure for Thailand has reached 200. Though the numbers of Zika cases in other Asian countries remain in the single digits, outbreaks in these two trade and tourism hubs could take a heavy economic toll. Such impacts are already being felt in Latin America. The spread of Zika there has resulted in around 1,800 cases of microcephaly, and the World Bank estimates that Zika could result in losses of around $3.5 billion to Latin American economies, or 1% of gross domestic product in tourism-dependent ones. In Asia, the main impact is likely to be felt in Singapore, which will host a Formula One Grand Prix race from Sept. 16-18. The event attracts not only regional motor sports fans but also corporate guests attending business meetings during the race week. The current Zika outbreak is the first ever in the city-state. Though it has not sparked any panic yet, the rapid spread of infection has reminded many residents of the SARS crisis of 2003, which saw economic activity contract 4.2% in the second quarter of that year. China, Singapore’s biggest source of tourists, issued an alert on Sept. 7 urging visitors to Zika-affected countries to take precautions against mosquito bites.
KUALA LUMPUR — For environmentalists, coal is a bad word. But for some of Asia’s biggest economies, the same fuel that was the bedrock of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain in the 19th century is key to economic development plans two centuries later. While China, the world’s biggest coal producer and consumer, is slowly cutting back on its use of coal for fuel, both Japan, a coal importer, and Indonesia, the world’s biggest coal exporter by weight, plan to expand their coal-fired supplies in the coming years. Other developing economies are turning to coal as they expand their electricity grids. Vietnam is likely to double coal consumption in the coming years, as will India — which recently overtook Japan as the world’s third-biggest oil importer and where roughly 250-300 million people do not have electricity. “China’s expected energy mix points to decreased use of coal, with the share of coal-fired power generation expected to fall to 61% by 2020 from the current 72%,” said Deepak Kannan, S&P Global Platts editor for thermal coal in Asia.
KUALA LUMPUR — It was a meeting to mark the 25th anniversary of relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China, held in the the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, in a region known for historically close trading links with the Southeast Asian countries to the south, including Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Surprisingly, given the location and the commemoration, ASEAN member state Malaysia issued a statement on behalf of the bloc criticizing China over its territorial claims in the contested South China Sea. The statement noted that recent developments in the disputed sea — where China has been building artificial islands and constructing what it calls “defensive facilities” while the U.S., an ally of the Philippines, has been conducting naval patrols and reconnaissance flights in the name of freedom of navigation — had raised concerns about a spillover clash with China. Those fears, the statement added, had “the potential to undermine peace”. “We stressed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea,” the ASEAN foreign ministers said. But in an about-turn more startling than the earlier statement, Malaysia, which chaired the bloc in 2015 before passing the leadership to Laos, a Communist-ruled country with close ties to China, led the way in issuing a sudden retraction, saying there were “urgent amendments to be made.”
SINGAPORE – East Timor, also called the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, wants to delineate maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea with its neighbors Indonesia and Australia in a way that Dili believes could be worth up to $40 billion in oil and gas revenues. Frustrated at perceived stonewalling by Australia, the Timorese government initiated “compulsory conciliation” on April 11 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — a move that could lead to the establishment of a commission to report on the boundary issue to the U.N. Secretary General. That document could in turn be used as a basis for any future boundary negotiations. The dispute is becoming increasingly heated on both sides. In March, around 1,000 Timorese protested outside the Australian embassy in Dili at Canberra’s perceived intransigence.”The government and the people now consider that the establishment of permanent maritime boundaries is a national priority,” Timorese Prime Minister Rui de Araujo told a conference on the issue in Dili on May 19. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the Nikkei Asian Review that “the Australian Government is disappointed that Timor-Leste has decided to initiate compulsory conciliation over maritime boundaries. Australia has repeatedly made clear to Timor-Leste our preference for a full and frank discussion of all issues in the bilateral relationship.” Citing a past agreement between the two countries to shelve the boundary issue, DFAT added that “both countries agreed to a moratorium on boundary negotiations to allow joint development of the resources. We also agreed not to pursue any proceedings relating to maritime boundaries — this includes compulsory conciliation.”
JAKARTA — After a year waging war on foreigners fishing illegally in the country’s waters, Indonesia’s straight-talking maritime minister wants to make the fight a global one and have such activities declared a transnational crime. “I’m pushing for illegal fishing to be a transnational crime, as there are too many other crimes linked to it, such as arms-smuggling, drugs,” said Susi Pudjiastuti, a businesswoman who was appointed Indonesia’s minister of maritime affairs and fisheries in October 2014 by President Joko Widodo, also a former entrepreneur. “We are starting now. Papua New Guinea, Norway, seems they agree. A few European countries will agree with us, Pacific countries, a few of them,” Pudjiastuti told the Nikkei Asian Review.
CIPAKU, Indonesia — It might have been just another arcadian Saturday morning on Aug. 1 in Cipaku, a farming village 240km east of Jakarta. The dawn euphony filled the air: a chorus of songbirds, crowing roosters and dogs offering up their first soft barks of the day. Shortly after, as the sun rose and as the first wan sunlight filtered a few beams through the tree-shaded village in West Java, drowsy parents swept doorways and ushered sprucely uniformed children out the gate ahead of the 7 a.m. start of school. That same day — if government plans had gone ahead — the newly completed 110-meter high Jatigede Dam, just 3km away, would have shut its floodgates, blocking the Cimanuk river and submerging Cipaku’s 1,200 homes under water 50 meters deep. But Aug. 1 came and went and the Cimanuk was left to flow as usual, marking yet another delay in the dam’s opening that Public Works and Housing Minister Basuki Hadimuljono attributed to “administrative glitches.”
JAKARTA – Meeting Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Monday to discuss mutual trade and investment prospects, UK Prime Minister David Cameron told media that “we [the U.K. and Indonesia] are natural business partners and there is much more we can do.” In return for considering British investments, Indonesia wants greater access to the U.K. and to the wider European market for its exports, which are mostly commodities such as palm oil, rubber, coal, coffee, copper, oil and natural gas. “The lower tariff [is] needed on Indonesian [primary] products like wood, clothing, coffee and fisheries,” Widodo said after meeting Cameron, adding that British applications for investment in Indonesian infrastructure would be considered.
DILI – Gusmao’s administration was tarnished with corruption allegations against two of his highest-profile ministers. And despite eye-popping growth, oil and gas extraction have not generated jobs for the hundreds of thousands of Timorese who eke out a living as subsistence farmers or are jobless. Moreover, the oil and gas revenue that comprises around three-quarters of GDP will run out in around a decade, meaning there is an urgent need to develop other sectors of the economy. But Araujo does not have long to implement his policies, as elections are due in 2017. Tourism and agriculture will be two priority areas, he said: “At least we could set some foundation for the next government to follow on these.”