Singapore to spend over 4bn dollars to dampen coronavirus impact – dpa international

KUALA LUMPUR — Singapore announced its 2020 budget on Tuesday, pledging 5.6 billion Singapore dollars (4.02 billion US dollars) to assist businesses and households affected financially by the coronavirus outbreak. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced the measures in Singapore’s parliament, where he said another 800 million Singapore dollars will be allocated to support “frontline agencies” that are fighting coronavirus in the city-state, where 77 cases have been confirmed.  Heng warned that “the outbreak will certainly impact our economy” and said that inbound tourism and air traffic had already dropped as Chinese outbound tourism plummets. Singapore Airlines announced on Tuesday that it was temporarily reducing flights “due to weak demand as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.”

Malaysia’s durian farmers fret over virus fallout – dpa international

Durian-flavoured ice-cream is becoming more popular in parts of Asia (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s hopes of exporting 500 million ringgit (120 million dollars) worth of durian a year to China could be stalled by the deadly coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than a thousand people. With much of central China under lockdown and commerce slow to revive after the Chinese New Year, Malaysian growers are noticing falling demand and prices. “People are not working in parts of China, people are not going out, not spending – demand is down,” said Jimmy Loke, owner of Jimmy’s Durian Orchard in the region of Pahang, east of Kuala Lumpur. Prices in the region have dropped by “around a quarter” since the outbreak, Loke said.

Singapore minister slams Muslim teacher over anti-Chinese comments – dpa international

KUALA LUMPUR — Singapore’s minister of law and home affairs on Friday accused a Muslim religious teacher of making “racist” and “xenophobic” anti-Chinese comments about the deadly coronavirus outbreak that has killed 636 people and infected over 30,000. In a Facebook post, K Shanmugan said his ministry will investigate Abdul Halim Abdul Karim over comments suggesting that coronavirus is divine retribution for China’s policies in its western Xinjiang region, where human rights groups allege that around 1 million Muslim Uighurs have been detained in camps. The minister described as “thoroughly racist” Karim’s suggestion that coronavirus has spread because of Chinese personal hygiene habits, adding that “society has to take a clear stand against such comments.”

Malaysia’s trade with US up due to Chinese-American tensions – dpa international

Malaysia's Deputy Trade and Industry Minister Ong Kian Ming speaking a Feb. 4 2020 press conference to announce his country's 2019 trade statistics (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s trade with the US grew by 5.6 per cent to 164.45 billion ringgit (40 billion dollars) in 2019, government statistics released Tuesday show. The surge came despite an overall trade decline of 2.5 per cent during what Deputy Trade and Industry Minister Ong Kian Ming described as “a very challenging 2019”. Malaysia’s increased trade with the US was “to a large extent” a result of commerce being diverted from China because of trade tensions between Washington and Beijing, Ong told dpa during a press conference announcing the 2019 trade data. “E and E exports to the US increased significantly,” Ong added, referring to electrical and electronic goods, of which Malaysia is the world’s seventh-largest manufacturer.

Indonesia sends warships to drive off Chinese boats – The Times

Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian island of Bali in October 2018. Photo: Simon Roughneen

KUALA LUMPUR — Indonesia has sent an armada of warships and fishermen to waters around its northern Natuna Islands in response to recent incursions by dozens of Chinese fishing boats and coastguard ships. China’s sweeping claim to most of the South China Sea overlaps with Indonesian waters around the Natunas, with the latest flare-up prompting the usually soft-spoken Indonesian President Joko Widodo to bluntly assert that “Natuna is Indonesia” during a visit to the contested region last week. Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea, through which between US$3-5 billion worth of trade passes most years, extends 2000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland and has angered neighbouring countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, whose own smaller claims around the sea overlap with Beijing’s. 

East versus West battle looms over 5G rollout – Asia Times

PHNOM PENH – Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei predicted in late December that the number of 5G connections worldwide would jump from around 20 million in 2019 to over 200 million by the end of 2020. Nowhere will the corporate and geopolitical contest to lead that rollout be more hotly contested than in Southeast Asia. Since a successful launch of commercial 5G services last April in South Korea, where around 3.5 million people have signed up for more expensive high-speed 5G and are using three times the data of 4G subscribers, mobile network providers across Asia could be set to cash in if the technology is made widespread soon. If those millions can soon become tens or even hundreds of millions, 5G, which promises download speeds between 20 to 100 times faster than the current leading 4G system, could revolutionize fields from public transport to healthcare to manufacturing, a potential that Dutch bank ING suggests could be “an economic light-bulb moment.”

Pentagon in the driving seat with Trump’s Southeast Asia diplomacy – Asia Times

PHNOM PENH – Perhaps trying to pick up the pieces after President Donald Trump skipped an October 31-November 4 series of summit meetings organised by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a ten country regional organisation, the United States Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spent the last week exchanging bromides and handshakes in South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. The trip’s purpose, Esper said on the flight to Asia on November 13, is “to reinforce the importance of allies and partners, discuss key issues to make sure that they understand clearly that the INDOPACOM [Indo-Pacific] theater is DOD’s [Department of Defense] number one priority.”

Phnom Penh’s China-backed building spree booms on – The Interpreter/RTÉ World Report

PHNOM PENH –Towering over low shops and French colonial–era townhouses grows a new city in tribute to the politics of the present Phnom Penh was long known as a relatively low-rise city, at least compared to towering neighbours such as Bangkok, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, and Singapore. These cities all saw their skylines shoot up in recent decades – long before Phnom Penh’s belated boom – as their country’s economies expanded and modernised. Cambodia, too, has seen heady economic growth over the past two decades, rarely dipping below 8%. Yet the ravages of war and foreign occupation from the late 1960s until at least the early 1990s meant catch-up for the capital’s skyline did not come until midway through the current decade.

Vietnam’s dependence on tech investors leaves it vulnerable to trade war swings – Southeast Asia Globe/RTÉ World Report

Roadside decor in Hanoi as Vietnam's ruling Communist Party held a major conference in Jan. 2016. Photo: Simon Roughneen

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”.  

Low tax, low spend – Southeast Asia Globe

Among the finished infrastructure projects in Indonesia is the new metro in Jakarta, pictured here in April 2019 (Simon Roughneen)

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.