PHNOM PENH — Visiting Dili in late August to mark the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s blood-soaked vote for independence from Indonesia, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared the opening of a “new chapter” in bilateral relations. “In a region where some boundary disputes remain unresolved,” Morrison said, in a seeming reference to the disputed South China Sea further north, “Australia and Timor-Leste have set an example by sitting down, as neighbours, partners, and friends, to finalise a new maritime boundary.” Though Morrison followed up by announcing plans to help upgrade East Timor’s internet connectivity and its navy, his Timorese counterpart Taur Matan Ruak was less gushing. “Today will mark a new beginning, a new phase for both countries,” he said. The implication, of course, was that the previous two decades of the relationship had been less than amicable. While Australia stood by the hundreds of thousands of East Timorese who defiantly voted for independence in the face of scorched-earth Indonesian-backed intimidation, sending 5,000 soldiers to the country shortly after the vote, it later stood accused of strong-arming its tiny and impoverished neighbour out of billions of dollars of vital oil and gas revenues – in part by refusing to delineate a maritime boundary in the Timor Sea until 2018.
PHNOM PENH – Going by the sometimes breathless reports about how well Vietnam has done out of the US-China tariff joust, a reader would be forgiven for thinking that an authoritarian single-party state where farmers make up 40% of the workforce has been transformed into a kind of scaled-up Singapore, which despite its small size usually sucks in around half the annual foreign investment bound for Southeast Asia. The numbers in so far suggest that Vietnam’s trade war triumph is indeed nigh. Its economy grew by just over 7% in 2018 – though that has dipped a notch, according to government statistics, to around 6.7% so far this year. But even that slight fall-off will nonetheless make for high growth – due in part to record levels of foreign investment, including some business seemingly diverted to Vietnam as American tariffs add to the cost of exporting to the US from China. “Following the US-China trade tensions, there is evidence of companies making adjustments to avoid the high tariffs situation,” said Bansi Madhavani, economist at ANZ Research, part of Australia and New Zealand Banking Group. According to Madhavani’s counterparts at Maybank Kim Eng, part of Malaysia’s Maybank, Vietnam “is emerging as the biggest beneficiary” of those adjustments, “with FDI [foreign direct investment] registration up by +86% in the first quarter of 2019”.
PHNOM PENH — With no end in sight to the so-called trade war between the US and China, the European Union (EU) sees a chance to act as the guardian of free trade and hold its own against the two giants. But as the bloc gets increasingly bogged down in spats with individual Southeast Asian countries, prospects for a wider regional trade relationship look increasingly precarious. With Cambodia’s eligibility for preferential market access to the EU coming under question and with the likelihood growing that Myanmar could be put under similar scrutiny, the EU appears to be hedging against any consequent damage to its relations with Southeast Asia by seeking free trade agreements and closer defence ties with some of the region’s countries. While for now Cambodia can export duty-free to the 28-country, 513 million-population European Union market, this week saw the end of the “monitoring and engagement” phase of a review of that access, potentially putting $5 billion worth of Cambodian garment exports at risk. A European Commission spokesperson said in an August 12 email that “over the next six months, the Commission and the European External Action Service will analyse all the evidence collected”.
KWANGKO, SUMBAWA ISLAND — As afternoon turns to evening and the high and blinding sun sinks slowly toward the horizon, Zubaidi still keeps the peak of his cap tilted slightly down, all the better to run an eye over the sky-blue paint job on the small skiff he and his small team are putting the finishing touches to. Behind Zubaidi’s seaside house, set about three feet up on stilts to keep the floor above any high tide, the whine of the electric saws and planes readies another batch of precision-cut timber for the next boat, each one to be sold to eager local fishermen at 1.5 million Indonesian Rupiah (US$106) a pop. Less than two years before, Zubaidi and team had to saw the planks by hand. It was only a year and a half ago that his tiny village of Kwangko on the coast of the island of Sumbawa was connected to the national electricity supply. “I can do three times as much now, more than I had before we got power,” Zubaidi says. “Now you have to pre-order if you want a boat.”
PHNOM PENH – Tax And Spend has rarely been part of the Southeast Asian governance lexicon. And judging by the region’s dismal tax-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratios, it doesn’t look like that will be changing anytime soon. Newly published revenue statistics compiled by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that the five biggest Southeast Asian economies have ratios of half or less than the 2017 OECD average of 34.2%, though most countries in the region showed small increases in revenues compared with the previous year. The OECD defines the tax-to-GDP ratio as “total tax revenue, including social security contributions, as a percentage of GDP”. While more prosperous countries in Southeast Asia’s vicinity such as Australia, Japan and New Zealand all come in around the 30% mark, Southeast Asia’s own numbers were much lower, with Indonesia at 11.5%, Malaysia on 13.6 and Singapore only slightly above on 14.1. This last number in particular seems surprisingly low given that Singapore’s economy more resembles higher-tax Western counterparts than its neighbours in Southeast Asia.
KUALA LUMPUR — At an age when most people would either be dead or coming up on three decades’ retired, Mahathir Mohamad shows no signs of slowing down in his second coming as Malaysia’s prime minister. It has been a hectic year-and-a-bit back in office for the world’s oldest head of government, who turns 94 today. From renegotiating multi-billion-dollar railway construction deals with China to lambasting the European Union over proposed curbs on palm oil imports, he has arguably been as dynamic as any leader living. Making regular public appearances and often giving lengthy speeches – hands on podium and his back goalpost-straight throughout – Mahathir is, as he put it in March, “in a hurry”. “I realise I don’t have much time,” he explained. It’s not just Mahathir’s prodigious age that has the clock ticking. After he led the Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance of Hope) coalition to a historic first-ever opposition win in Malaysia’s parliamentary elections last year, the idea was that Mahathir – the country’s longest-ruling leader by dint of his first 1981-2003 tenure – would step down after a year or two in favour of former protégé-turned-nemesis-turned-ally Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, People’s Justice Party), the biggest party in the PH alliance.