SINGAPORE — It was tame enough weighed against his usual invective, but by itself Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s account of a conversation he had with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, was startling. During a meeting between the two leaders in Beijing in May 2017, the subject turned to whether the Philippines would drill for oil in a part of the South China Sea claimed by both countries. Duterte said he was given a blunt warning by China’s president. “[Xi’s] response to me [was], ‘We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war,” Duterte recounted.
JAKARTA — One stereotype of Asian cities such as Jakarta and Manila is a stark juxtaposition between sprawling slums and gleaming shopping malls stocked with luxury goods — an image with some accuracy, going by a new World Bank report. About 250 million people live in slums across the East Asia Pacific region, which does not include India, the report found, even as the number of billionaires rose 30% per year from 2002 to 2014. Income inequality has risen across the region, chiefly driven by the growing rich-poor divide in Indonesia and China, according to data in Riding the Wave: An East Asian miracle for the 21st Century, a World Bank report released Monday.The findings suggest Asia’s continued high economic growth is less effective in curbing poverty than in past decades. “Income inequality is high or rising in most countries,” the report said.
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.
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.
MANILA — If crowds are anything to go by, the May 9 presidential election is a foregone conclusion. Two days before the vote, leading candidate Rodrigo Duterte drew between 300,000 to 500,000 people at his final election rally at a landmark grandstand near Manila’s Rizal Park. The turnout was at least double that of any other candidate. “This is the next president of the Philippines,” yelled supporter Angel Valeron, one of thousands of fist-pumping “Dutertards,” clad in red t-shirts bearing the slogan “Iron fist,” a reference to the 71- year-old Duterte’s no-nonsense style of running Davao on the southern island of Mindanao. “Dutertard” is a slur leveled at Duterte supporters by rivals, but since appropriated by backers of the Davao City mayor in self-styled defiance. As mayor for 22 years, Duterte oversaw a clean-up of the once dangerous and chaotic city, allegedly even participating in the extrajudicial shooting of alleged criminals. Duterte said he will do the same nationally if elected, telling the crowd in Manila that he will “butcher” criminals. “If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out,” Duterte said, drawing a thunderous roar from the crowd.
MANILA — In his final State of the Nation speech as president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III declared that his government had curbed corruption, long deemed a barrier to foreign investment, and overseen growth in a country once derided as “the sick man of Asia.” “More than five years have passed since we put a stop to the culture of ‘wang-wang,’ not only [on] our streets, but in society at large,” Aquino said in July 2015. “Wang wang,” note James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, co-authors of “Why Nations Fail,” a much-lauded book published in 2012, is a term “derived from the blaring sirens of politicians’ and elites’ cars urging common people to get out of the way,” and is used in the Philippines to refer to corruption. Aquino’s July 2015 speech echoed his first national address as president, five years earlier, in which he asserted: “Do you want the corrupt held accountable? So do I. Do you want to see the end of wang-wang, both on the streets and in the sense of entitlement that has led to the abuse that we have lived with for so long? ” Fighting corruption and building confidence in the country’s once-laggard economy have been key themes throughout Aquino’s term in office, which is now coming to a close with voters scheduled to elect a successor on May 9.
KUALA LUMPUR — Laos, as the incoming chair of the 2016 Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has urged member states to agree on a region-wide regime for Special Economic Zones, which have proliferated in recent years. “We think that a framework for Special Economic Zones would be good to set up because we see that in each ASEAN member state, we develop different economic zones,” Laos Minister of Industry and Commerce Khemmani Pholsena told a business forum in Kuala Lumpur during the recent ASEAN summit. Whether Laos can persuade other governments in the region to sign up for a level SEZ playing field is questionable — despite the signing of the ASEAN community in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 22, just hours before Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak ceded the chairmanship of ASEAN to Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong. “SEZs in Malaysia and the industrial estates in the eastern seaboard of Thailand are much more advanced than SEZs in CLMV [an abbreviation for Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam]. Therefore, to create a common set of rules might be difficult,” said Vanthana Nolintha.
GEORGE TOWN – Haja Mohideen is the last of his kind, the sole fashioner of the traditional Malaysian hat called songkok melayu who is still working on Penang island. With that impending finality on his mind, the 69 year old milliner sits at his street-side desk for 11-12 hours a day, cutting and stitching the 5 or 6 hats that make up his daily output. “Most of the orders come when there are ceremonies, holidays,” Haja said.
JAKARTA – A five year slump in rubber prices has hit Indonesia’s 2 million rubber farmers hard, slashing their incomes almost in half and prompting some to look at switching to other crops. “In the current price scenario of continuous fall in prices, small growers across regions are expected to respond through controlling natural rubber supply, irregular tapping plus accelerated clearing of aging trees and a shift to other crops like oil palm,” said Lekshmi Nair.
YANGON – It was hot Tuesday evening just before the start of the Myanmar’s rainy season, and Ni Ni Shein sat in her car, the engine running, next to Junction Mawtin, a shopping mall just a few minutes’ walk from the city’s Chinatown.