HANOI — Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the long-ruling Communist Party of Vietnam kept his post during a week-long party congress in Hanoi that ended Jan. 28 as he easily fended off a challenge by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who has championed economic reforms. The CPV holds a congress every five years to make leadership changes and set policy guidelines. Although the congress was held behind closed doors, the preceding weeks saw an unprecedented tussle among party apparatchiks as contending factions “played out via the Internet through blogs, leaks, rumors and innuendos,” according to Hung Nguyen, a former Vietnam government advisor who now lectures at George Mason University in the U.S. Despite Vietnam’s closed political system and censored media, internet access is growing, with social media widely used and a proliferation of activist blogs and online comments — often penned anonymously — showing that many Vietnamese are keenly interested in politics and want to have a say in how the country is run.
SINGAPORE — While China’s economy continues to grow much faster than those of Japan and most Western countries, according to official figures, the country’s mix of slowing imports, wobbly stock markets and a weakening currency is a growing concern for Southeast Asian countries that have grown increasingly dependent on trade with Asia’s largest economy. China’s official 7% annual rate of growth in gross domestic product in 2015 is the lowest in a quarter century, down from the 7.4% posted in 2014. It leaves Southeast Asian countries vulnerable to slowing Chinese growth, six years after Beijing signed a landmark trade agreement with the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations. As China’s economy expanded to become the world’s second biggest, trade between Southeast Asia and China grew, as the latter sought raw materials for massive infrastructure and city building. However, since riding out the 2008 financial crisis that brought several Western economies close to ruin, China has slowly tried to shift the basis of economic growth from investment to domestic consumption. As a result, China’s demand for commodities has declined. Jia Qingguo, Dean of International Studies at Peking University, said that “the Chinese economy and the Southeast Asian economies are integrated, and the slowdown in the Chinese economy will affect Southeast Asia in a negative way.”
SINGAPORE — The Indonesian government remains concerned about the threat posed by the self-described Islamic State, despite the group’s recent territorial losses in Iraq and Syria including the ceding of the key city of Ramadi to the Iraqi army in late December. “Indonesia is very vulnerable,” said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an adviser to Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, airing Jakarta’s fears that Indonesian members of IS could return home to carry out terrorist attacks. “We are exploring the role played by religious leaders to develop counter narratives,” Anwar said, discussing the ideological appeal of the extremist group to hundreds of Indonesians thought to have traveled to Iraq and Syria in recent years. Anwar was speaking in Singapore at a regional forum organized by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
SOLO — In Indonesia’s recent local elections, Hadi Rudyatmo, a former sidekick of President Joko Widodo, seemed set to easily retain the mayor’s job in this city of around half a million people in central Java. But that does not say much about the current standing of Widodo himself in the national political scene. The nationwide vote for mayors and other local government positions was staged on Dec. 9. Although the country’s election commission is not due to announce results until Dec.18, provisional results indicate that Rudyatmo is likely to win Solo with around 60% of the vote. Siska Sitiawan Sanjaya and her brother Sandro voted together in central Solo early on polling day. Both opted for the incumbent who, like his better-known predecessor as mayor and current president, Widodo, goes by a nickname. “I choose Rudy,” Siska said. “I think he can manage Solo city well, and can make it better.”
KUALA LUMPUR — It must have been through gritted teeth, but Malaysia’s troubled Prime Minister Najib Razak affected a sanguine air when asked about his reaction to U.S. President Barack Obama’s comments on the recent crackdown on dissent during their meeting on Nov. 20. “Malaysia is committed to reforms,” Najib said.The Malaysian prime minster added that he is “taking into account some of the president’s views” on freedom of speech and the role of civil society in a democracy — a contribution Obama sees as significant given that while in Kuala Lumpur he also met with the organizer of a demonstration in August demanding Najib’s resignation. Since a narrow 2013 election win, Najib has overseen the charging of hundreds of journalists, activists, cartoonists and lawmakers with sedition, while opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been sent back to jail for allegedly sodomizing a male colleague — a criminal offence in Malaysia. “Najib has been in a touchy mode since the May 5, 2013 general elections. He does not seem to take criticism very well, and so I imagine that Obama meeting opposition people upset Najib,” said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania.
JAKARTA – Since taking office in October, Joko Widodo’s promises of reform have faltered in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy. Widodo’s supporters say he has had to balance the demands of powerful politicians who backed his candidacy, particularly former President Megawati Sukarnoputri and wealthy businessman Surya Paloh, one of whose allies Widodo appointed as attorney general. Abdee Negara, a popular Indonesian guitarist who campaigned for Widodo, said, “He has a baby-step approach to getting things done. There is a lot of politics between the president and his parties.” Still, Negara said, “I was glad I was part of the wind of change.”
YOGYAKARTA – Before Joko Widodo takes over as President, Indonesia’s MP’s will vote on September 25 whether to revert to an old system under which heads of local government – including mayors – are chosen by local lawmakers rather than directly elected by voters. The proposed legislation is proving divisive, with the president-elect describing it as a potential setback for democracy in Indonesia. Another opposing change is Yogyakarta Mayor H. Haryadi Suyuti. “Let the people decide, let the people choose their own representative,” the mayor said.