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 — 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 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.”
DUBLIN — Pope Francis on Saturday vowed to adopt “stringent” measures to rid a crisis-convulsed Catholic Church of the “pain and shame” caused by decades of sexual abuse and its tolerance by clerical authorities. Francis traveled to Ireland, once a bastion of Catholic belief, but where religious practice that has been eroded by years of church scandal that has fed a process of secularization similar to preceding variants elsewhere in Europe. He met privately for an hour and a half with eight survivors, the Vatican said, without providing details. Two of the participants in the meeting later said the pontiff equated the scandal and cover-up with excrement.
KNOCK — When Pope Francis lands in Dublin on Saturday morning, he will encounter a land much changed from the one that gave predecessor John Paul II a euphoric welcome nearly four decades ago. “Devotion was at its peak, there were around 450,000 people here in Knock to see the pope,” said Bernard Byrne, 74, sitting inside his souvenir shop next to the parish church in Knock, a village in the west of Ireland. Behind him loomed statues of the Virgin Mary and framed photos of Francis, who will visit the Catholic pilgrimage site on Sunday, emulating John Paul II.
JAKARTA –The presidential election in Indonesia next year may see a reprise of the testy 2014 contest between President Joko Widodo and retired general Prabowo Subianto after both men registered their candidacies Friday. The incumbent, popularly known as Jokowi, selected a 75-year-old cleric as his running mate, a move designed to shore up his support from Islamists as he seeks a second five-year term leading the world’s most populous Muslim country. Jokowi is the early favorite to win the April election as a former political outsider who has spent his first term focusing on infrastructure projects. He is the first president from outside Indonesia’s political and military elite since the dictator Suharto resigned in 1998.
JAKARTA — In contrast to Malaysia’s electoral earthquake in May, which resulted in the first opposition win since independence, last Sunday’s elections in Cambodia produced a predictable landslide victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power since 1985. His Cambodian People’s Party claims to have won all 125 seats available, prompting Mu Sochea, an exiled opposition leader, to tell media in Jakarta that election day “marked the death of democracy in Cambodia.” The view from Malaysia: “Millions of Cambodians were denied a genuine choice, as the CPP’s victory was guaranteed even before the first ballot was cast,” said Charles Santiago, a member of the Democratic Action Party, which is now part of the new Mahathir Mohamad-led governing coalition, in a statement released on Monday.
JAKARTA – A businessman alleged to have aided Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak siphon millions from a state development fund has fled the country as an Interpol warrant was issued for his arrest. Mr Najib, who has pleaded not guilty to three counts of criminal breach of trust and one of abuse of power, is alleged to been involved in the laundering of millions from the state fund he established – 1MDB. Malaysian authorities said that Jho Low, a financier who US prosecutors claim was a central figure in the looting of the fund, had fled the country.
SINGAPORE– After U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis accused China of “intimidation” and “coercion” in the disputed South China Sea on Saturday, a Chinese general responded by saying that “countries accusing China” are the ones causing tension in the region. In an early morning speech in Singapore, Mattis said that “China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promises, it calls into question China’s broader goals.” Mattis was speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual military conference staged by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British research organization. Responding later the same day, Lt. Gen. He Lei, head of the Chinese delegation attending the conference, said “China has resolve and capability to defend its sovereignty.”