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 — When Mahathir Mohamad’s Alliance of Hope coalition surprised the world — and perhaps even themselves — by winning last May’s parliamentary vote in Malaysia, it was not just the first-ever opposition election win in the country’s history. Some saw it as the result of the first “WhatsApp election,” where the platform’s encrypted private messaging provided a sanctuary for citizens to discuss politics away from the raucous finger-pointing of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. WhatsApp “offered security in that messages would come from ‘trusted’ contacts and thus be more ‘believable'” than open services such as Facebook or Twitter, said Serina Abdul Rahman, whose election research for the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute took her to rural areas in the south and north of Malaysia. Apprehension over commenting publicly was likely heightened by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s anti-fake news law, which was announced ahead of the elections. Some saw the law as a tool for Najib to avoid public discussion of corruption allegations related to the scandal-riddled sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB.
SINGAPORE — The recent exposé of how polling firm Cambridge Analytica mined Facebook for information on voters was focused mainly on the United States. But the investigation, which aired on the UK’s Channel 4 last month, has caused ructions in Malaysia after Mark Turnbull, a Cambridge Analytica executive, was filmed bragging that they helped the governing coalition retain power in the country’s last elections in 201, apparently by using social media to profile voters and deliver campaign messages. “We’ve done it in Mexico, we’ve done it in Malaysia and now we’re going to Brazil,” Turnbull said. With another election due anytime between now and August, Malaysia’s opposition predictably seized on that claim. The government in turn said it had nothing to answer for, blaming Mukhriz Mahathir, a former ally turned opposition member, for personally hiring Cambridge Analytica.
JAKARTA — The region’s jarring social media jousting means that platforms such as Twitter are not really “social” anymore, but have become “weaponized” according to Indonesian political analyst Wimar Witoelar, who has 439,000 Twitter followers. “So interaction is more often divisive than not. You cannot form a consensus. Instead you sharpen your differences,” he said via WhatsApp. Even Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, is not immune to savaging on social media, taking to Facebook in September to make his point. “I was asked, ‘President Jokowi, how is the state of social media in Indonesia?’, I replied, ‘In Indonesia, it can get very vicious,” he posted.
JAKARTA – Widodo has come under fire in social media for aspects of his presidency so far, with critics and supporters alike lambasting his perceived indecision after Indonesia’s unloved national police filed charges against leaders of the country’s popular Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which had branded Widodo’s nominee for new police chief a corruption suspect. Widodo’s electoral success had partly been down to his own clean image and his anti-graft rhetoric, so it is little wonder, perhaps, that Widodo has kept his own fingers off the “send” button as millions of Indonesians weigh in, often using hashtags such as #SaveKPK and #Shameonyoujokowi.
JAKARTA – In a darkened university classroom in east Jakarta earlier this week, 50 or so students looked straight ahead, silent. On screen in front, a shrivelled, twitchy old man recounted how he killed, often gruesomely, a half century before. “Human blood tastes both salty and sweet, did you know that?” Inong, the murderer, said. He was recounting a half century old memory – that of his own savagery carried out during Indonesia’s mass killings of 1965-66. The footage appears in director Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest, The Look of Silence, which was given a rare airing in the Indonesian capital.