JAKARTA — On Wednesday next week, perhaps the world’s most logistically-challenging elections will take place across Indonesia’s 3,000 mile wide, 13,000 island archipelago. Over 192 million people are eligible to vote at over 800,000 polling stations overseen by 6 million election officials, with roughly 245,000 candidates contesting around 20,000 seats for local and national legislatures. India’s elections, which started last week, entail much bigger numbers, around 900 million voters — the biggest elections the world has ever seen — but voting there is staggered and will run until May 19. Indonesia’s elections take place on a single day, April 17, and most eyes will be on the presidential race, a re-run of the 2014 contest between President Joko Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, and Prabowo Subianto, a former general.
KUALA LUMPUR — On April 7, Taiwan’s foreign ministry posted a short video clip on Twitter that it said showed the razing of a Catholic Church building in Shaanxi in central China. The tweet tagged Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, who had said in a March 8 speech in Hong Kong that “the Chinese government’s abuse of members of Catholic communities has continued” — despite a September 2018 deal between the Catholic Church and Beijing ostensibly covering the appointing of bishops in China. Questions sent to the Taiwanese foreign ministry about the source and date of the video had gone unanswered at the time of this writing, but leveling of the building was reported on websites such as AsiaNews.it, which publishes articles from Catholic sources inside China and which dated the razing to March 31. Asia News reported April 9 that local Catholics in the diocese also had rallied to protect a Marian shrine from police and government officials who were seeking to destroy it. An estimated 12 million Chinese Catholics are split between the so-called “underground” Church, the faithful who follow the Pope, and the government’s Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. The Vatican has expressed hope that the September deal could lead to better relations between its faithful and those Chinese subject to the state-run version. But the clip, if authentic, is but the latest indication that China’s Catholics continue to be oppressed.
KUALA LUMPUR — Laguna Restaurant, a two minute walk downhill from St. John’s Cathedral – the centre of Catholic worship in Kuala Lumpur – is a home away from home for Philippine expatriates in Malaysia hankering for a taste of the motherland. Owner Ronnie Tan launched Laguna six and half years ago after spotting a gap in the market in a country where hundreds of thousands of Filipinos live. They work in a diverse range of industries – from construction to casinos, and IT to domestic work – but at the weekend many can be found in the Laguna. “On weekends it is full. If you say Sunday, I believe 95 per cent are Filipino customers,” Tan said.
DUBLIN — Business deals worth more than US$60 billion were arguably the least significant aspects of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy and France during the past five days. The key moment arrived in Paris on Tuesday when German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that the European Union wants “to play an active part” in Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). “We, as Europeans, want to play an active part [in the project] and that must lead to a certain reciprocity and we are still wrangling over that a bit,” she said at a media briefing after talks with Xi, French President Emmanuel Macro and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Her comments came despite pressure from the United States to block BRI deals and a recent statement by the EU branding China a “systemic rival.”
KUALA LUMPUR — The spread of online political rumors, false content and hoaxes has fact-checkers working overtime ahead of elections in Thailand, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. In February, a video first seen last year resurfaced on social media of Grace Poe, a Philippine politician, allegedly backing the blocking of Facebook in the country, where freedom of speech is ingrained in the constitution and the number of social media users is 76 million, much higher than the 61.8 million people who are registered to vote. But the video, which was posted by an account supporting President Rodrigo Duterte, who defeated Poe and other candidates in 2016 presidential elections, excluded some vital comments by the senator, who will defend her seat in May’s midterm elections. “Can you block a particular company like Facebook from being accessed in the Philippines? I know they do this in China,” Poe was shown saying in the video, which had omitted the preceding comments to the question she posed: “Not that we’re going to do this — I’ll be the first to disagree if they do.” The misleading video was flagged by Vera Files, a fact-checking organization that is part of an elections-focused collaboration called Tsek.ph and which includes some of the Philippines’ main newspapers, television stations and media academics.
KUALA LUMPUR — U.S. President Donald Trump is seeking to rein in China’s technological ambitions. Last week Washington took the unprecedented step of threatening to suspend intelligence-sharing with an ally — in this case Germany — should Berlin allow Huawei to supply equipment for 5G networks. At a U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing last Tuesday, Democrat Ron Wyden cited intellectual property theft, forced tech transfers and the firewall in blasting China for using “schemes and entities to strong-arm American businesses, steal American innovations and rip off American jobs.” But despite the hostility from Washington, Huawei has over half a million followers on Twitter and 1.3 million on Facebook. “5G gaming beats the 4G experience every time with even lower latency and ultrahigh bandwidth,” Huawei wrote on its Facebook page during the Mobile World Congress in Spain in late February. A tweet posted a day earlier said: “Huawei’s playing its part too to bringing [sic] safer, faster and smarter 5G experiences.”
SINGAPORE — Candidates running in a slew of elections across Asia this year are taking to Twitter and other social media platforms to share slogans, pitch policies, rankle rivals and rouse crowds ahead of campaign rallies. For the last decade or so, elections have typically been depicted as social media-driven contests where the hashtag outranks the hustings when it comes to canvassing votes, particularly from smartphone-dependent millennials. While social media environments differ depending on the country, the importance of Twitter and Facebook might be overstated. Although some Asian candidates boast a huge social media presence, many of their followers appear to be fake or dormant, and the proportion of those who engage with posts is relatively low. Thailand, Indonesia, India are all holding general or presidential elections in the first half of this year, Australia is likely to vote in May, around the time the Philippines holds midterm polls. The three Southeast Asian countries are among the world’s five most internet-addicted, according to We Are Social’s 2019 global survey. Using the online Twitter analysis tool Sparktoro, which works by taking a representative sample of followers — along the lines of an opinion survey — it appears Indonesian President Joko Widodo has over 5.1 million fake followers. That equates to more than 47% of his total follower base.
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 — Southeast Asia is bucking the global trend of falling direct foreign investment, as the low-cost fast-growing region solidifies its position as an attractive location for multinationals. James Dyson’s recent decision to relocate the headquarters of his eponymous technology business to Singapore is not about Brexit, the company said. Rather, the British tycoon said he is looking to a region that continues to exhibit solid growth — “future proofing” as his chief executive termed it. The move follows an October announcement that Dyson — famous for its vacuum cleaners — will make electric vehicles in Singapore, citing the city-state’s proximity to “high-growth markets” in emerging Asia, where annual gross domestic product could grow by 6.1% between now and 2023, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Asia received a third of global investment in 2018 and accounted for nearly all the year’s investment growth, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. This is despite global foreign direct investment (FDI) declining 19% in 2018. Japanese retailer Aeon opened a second large mall in Cambodia in June as part of its regional expansion plans, which this year will include new shopping centers in Hanoi and Bogor, Indonesia. “As for South East countries, generally speaking, they have been showing rapid economic growth and will keep their pace in future, too,” an Aeon Asia spokesperson said.