🇲🇾 Back to work
🇰🇭 Australia wades into labour dispute
I feel I have been very fixated on Malaysia and Thailand recently and have been a bit neglectful of some of the other countries which usually make for large portions of this premium newsletter. Will be working on slightly longer update-type emails for the rest of the week so we can get levelled out before the holidays.
See you then!
🇲🇾 Getting on with it
Okay! A new cabinet is here. Freshly-minted PM Anwar Ibrahim has given himself the finance portfolio in a sign of how seriously his government intends on focusing on the economy, at least in the immediate months. Predecessors Najib Razak and Mahathir Mohamad did the same thing so very mixed company there on results. Bloomberg reports: watch out, subsidies!
The rest is a bit of a mixed bag of coalition representatives. Barisan Nasional’s Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Gabungan Parti Sarawak’s Fadillah Yusof will serve as deputy prime ministers. Rafizi Ramli has been named as economics minister — his Twitter bio ominously notes he has an attention span of two years so Inshallah the world economy improves very quickly. Mohamad Hasan is in for defence and I must say, this is a very difficult name for SEO in this region! He is better known as Tok Mat, in case you would like to read more.
Barisan Nasional heavy-hitter Zambry Abdul Kadir is now foreign minister. He is an unknown quantity to me, particularly after the deliberately high profile of Saifuddin Abdullah. As in all national elections, Malaysia is very much looking inward at the moment. I’m looking forward to what the new government's foreign policy may look like in the region and especially what the reignited Anwar-Jokowi bromance may bring.
🇰🇭 Union arrest stresses relations
NagaWorld union boss Chhim Sithar was arrested in Phnom Penh last Saturday on her return to the country after attending the International Trade Union Confederation World Congress in Melbourne. She has, of course, been very prominent in the fight between NagaWorld’s workers and its owners.
Police told VOD that she’s being held in Prey Sar Prison for violating her bail conditions. She has previously been arrested in the ongoing labour dispute. Police said Chhim Sithar’s bail prohibited her from travelling overseas, but union vice president Chhim Sokhom shared with VOD her bail papers that showed no such stipulation. Similarly, Chhim Sithar’s legal team said they were not aware of any restrictions.
Australia is, in my very biased view, very good at managing its Cambodia relationship and has weighed in. Australian ambassador to Cambodia Pablo Kang said he is “concerned to hear about the recent arrest and detention of union leader Chhim Sithar, after her return from Australia where she attended an international conference and had a number of meetings.”
He also told Sydney Morning Herald he’d flagged Australia’s concerns with Justice Minister Koeut Rith. Australian federal MP Julian Hill, whose electorate in Victoria is home to a large Khmer community, has been very vocal on these issues for years. He met with Chhim Sithar while she was in Melbourne and told the SMH: “...she wasn’t plotting the overthrow of Hun Sen’s gangster regime. She wasn’t trying to bring down capitalism or end corruption in Cambodia.” He called on the government to release her asap. The US has made similar comments.
🇻🇳 Corruption crackdown continues
When it comes to talking about corruption in Vietnam, really can’t go past Mike Tatarski’s Vietnam Weekly which covers developments very consistently.
I have been very intrigued though by recent reporting. The repatriation flights alleged graft case is back in the headlines with the arrests of two former diplomats and an aviation official, as per VN Express. The trio are the most recently named in a 10-month-long investigation now involving around 30 suspects who are accused of taking bribes for approving the organisation of repatriation flights which then went on to overcharge passengers.
It’s part of a broader crackdown on corruption in the country. Analysis from Reuters shows the investigations — that have touched virtually all of Vietnam’s major sectors — are having an impact on global supply chains. This is a longer piece that is worth reading in full, but I was particularly taken by this view: “While fighting bribery is broadly considered positive in the long-term, short-term disruptions can paralyse business, especially if enforcement is seen as opaque and politically driven. As investigations multiply, officials fear they could be caught if they inadvertently break rules, which are often badly written and hard to interpret.”
🇲🇲 Death penalty ‘tool’
At least seven male students in Myanmar were sentenced to death last week, taking the death row tally up to at least 139, the United Nations said. The junta is using the death penalty as a “tool to crush opposition,” the UN said, per Channel News Asia. The students were accused of taking part in a violent bank robbery earlier in the year.
We’re probably overdue for a deeper Myanmar look, particularly with the changing of hands in Asean and the departure of Malaysia’s foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah.
🇹🇭 Guns and guns and guns
I spent that perfect amount of time in Thailand to go through the full life-cycle of ‘I don’t know what’s happening here’ > ‘I think I’m starting to get it’ > ‘Wait, I know now how little I know’ multiple times. I read some excellent books to help me get across it better which certainly helps. A lot of very, very smart people doing some brilliant work.
One book I read was Duncan McCargo’s (I actually read a shit load of Duncan McCargo, I stan) Tearing Apart the Land on the ever-ongoing Deep South conflict. I feel somehow both better equipped to understand it and worse off than ever. Big recommend, particularly if last month’s small car bomb that killed one and injured dozens of others is a sign of anything.
Elsewhere, the Bangkok Post has taken a look at incidents of gun violence in the wake of the hideous massacre back in October. The drug abuse angle still seems awkwardly shoe-horned into this but the overview is very balanced and points to other aspects of Thai culture — particularly patriarchal structures — as perhaps carrying more weight. Similarly, ease of access and abuse of arms by those who need them for work are larger issues.
🇸🇬 It’s as expensive as ever, now what?
Singapore is on par with New York City for the most expensive city in the world, says the Economist Intelligence Unit. CNBC says this is the eighth time in 10 years the island has topped the poll. This is a crazy big problem. I think about Singapore like, existentially, way too much and I know it’s starting to annoy some Singaporean readers and I’m sorry! But this is really bad! Young Singaporeans don’t need EIU to tell them — they’re already reporting the cost of living and other financial pressures as devastating to their mental health.
Last year, the Trade Ministry told Today that the ranking “may not reflect the cost of living of Singaporean households.” It suggested that the basket of goods and services used for the index include things like foreign newspapers when Singaporeans buy local. But, I will say, my Straits Times monthly subscription is bang in the middle average of what I pay for a whole load of international subscriptions.
In a statement, the EIU explained further how it came to its finding and it kinda doesn’t look great for the government’s protests, I think. “The city-state has the world’s highest transport prices, owing to strict government controls on car numbers. It is also among the most expensive cities for clothing, alcohol and tobacco, thanks to its success as a premier location for business investment,” the statement said.
This is the other side of Singapore’s remarkable, rapid development coin and I’m very interested in the next few years. Singapore often has very creative and innovative policy responses to social and economic issues that go on to inspire similar responses across Asia-Pacific. This is a fantastic opportunity in many ways.
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🇧🇳 First in, best dressed
Indonesian President Joko Widodo might’ve gotten the first phone call with Anwar Ibrahim, but Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah had the first sit down in Putrajaya. Malaysia and Brunei are, of course, very close in many ways and the monarch says he is keen to continue cooperation under the new government.