Page 78

Reading Time: 2 minutes
O
Cris Frianeza, Secretary General of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industries

Investvine sat down with Cris Frianeza, Secretary General of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industries, to discuss the latest economic developments in the Philippines.

Where do you see the greatest job growth potential? The semiconductor and the food-processing industries account for a significant number of jobs in the manufacturing sector.

Really? Yes, several food-processing companies have not only made it big here in the country but in Asia and other parts of the world as well.

What else in manufacturing is essential? The automotive sector has been identified as crucial to sustaining the growth of the manufacturing sector in the Philippines.

How do you see the BPO sector developing? The BPO sector will continue to grow and diversify over the coming years. Aside from call centers, medical and legal transcription, back office operations of multinational firms have expanded as well. Significant growth is also projected for creative industries, animation as well as engineering and architectural designs and processes.

Lets talk property. Is the real estate market stable? The Manila property market is still on the rise and far from plateauing right now. The implementation of major tourism projects as well as the emergence of new business centers in the country will continue to spur the growth of this sector.

Manufacturing is booming now. But what else makes the Philippines an attractive hub as compared to Thailand and Indonesia? The Philippines’ advantage is its English-speaking and highly trainable manpower. Many foreign firms have recognised these traits which have influenced their decision to put up operations in the country.

President Benigno Aquino III has led the fastest economic growth the country has seen in 40 years. How do you hope foreign investors will see the Philippines now? The Philippines became known as a BPO hub and these kinds of services are something that our workforce can do well.

And what segments do you believe the Philippines can become thought leaders in? Data analytics is a low hanging fruit, engineering and architectural design services can be provided competently as well.

What is blocking the Philippines from growing these industries? [The] government will have to recalibrate its systems and workforce to conform to global standards. This will also require a partnership with the private sector. At present, we are working with the Department of Education and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority not only with regard to the K-12 programmes, but also in ensuring that industries are provided the right skills to sustain their growth.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

go-jek helmetRanked as the city with the worst traffic by Castrol’s Stop-Start Index, Jakarta’s congestion is a huge pain. For decades, the Indonesian government has failed to curtail the capital city’s gridlock nightmare, which has only continued to create negative economic implications on business.

By Christin Huang

But thanks to revolutionary technology platforms, transportation in Jakarta may become smoother.

On January this year, Go-Jek officially unveiled its mobile application for iOS and Android, letting users order “ojek” – or motorcycle taxis – from their smartphones for personal transportation, courier and food services.

Businesses and commuters aren’t the only ones receiving the benefits of Go-jek. Drivers say that their income skyrocketed since joining the company, which now employs over 2,500 drivers in Jakarta.

“Back then, when I drove a (regular) ojek it was hard to even earn 50,000 rupiah in a day. Now with Go-Jek I can earn 150,000 to 200,000 rupiah a day,” Zulkarnain, a Go-Jek driver, told Coconuts Jakarta.

“[Before I joined], my friend said the earnings were pretty good and we don’t have to fight over passengers,” he continued.

Jakarta’s current government has asked Go-Jek to create another app called Go-Truck to solve the city’s docking bottlenecks.

“We’re considering an expansion by gathering truck drivers, for instance. This is because Ojek drivers aren’t the only one that needs mobile app. Just you wait,” Nadiem Makarim, Go-Jek’s CEO, told tech blog Daily Social.

However, Go-Jek is not alone on the Indonesia’s market. GrabTaxi officially launched GrabBike in late May, creating a competition in the country’s nascent ride-sharing service industry.

Charging 5,000 rupiah ($0.36) for pick-up and delivery in Jakarta area, GrabBike has successfully grabbed the attention of 8,000 users from its launch date.

But both applications are still considered new in Indonesia, and new customers need incentives to enter their credit card details.

“Both of them (Go-Jek and GrabBike) are still offering many promotions, so most likely I’m going to take advantage of both of these applications when I need a ride. I’ll take whichever available when I need an ojek. But after the promotion period, if the regular ojek is cheaper, I will definitely stick to it,” said Lala, an Indonesian blogger who has tried both Go-Jek and GrabBike.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has given full support to Go-Jek. During a session of the Dialog Komunitas Kreatif in South Jakarta on August 8 he mentioned that Go-Jek has been “successful in providing an efficient service to people.” Go-Jek’s founder Nadiem Makarim also attended the event.

Future plans are in the pipeline to integrate Go-Jek and GrabBike with Jakarta’s bus service TransJakarta, according to the company.

“We are going to cooperate with Go-Jek to build an application called ‘GoBusway,’ which can be downloaded on users’ smartphones,” said President Director of PT Transjakarta Antonius Kosasih.

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Ortigas_Manila_Arno Maierbrugger
Skyline of Ortigas, part of Metro Manila © Arno Maierbrugger

Philippine economic growth missed analysts’ estimates last quarter even as state spending increased, with a government official saying the expansion target for this year will likely be cut.

Gross domestic product increased 5.6 per cent in the three months through June from a year earlier, the Philippine Statistics Authority said Thursday. That compares with a median estimate of 5.7 per cent in a Bloomberg survey, and a 5 per cent pace in the first quarter.

External risks make meeting this year’s growth target of at least 7 per cent “very much a challenge,” Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan said today. Still, a consumption-based economy and steady dollar inflows insulate the country more than other emerging nations from the yuan’s devaluation and US interest-rate increases, Jay Peiris, the International Monetary Fund’s representative in Manila, said last week.

“The government stepped up spending and private consumption also remains fairly strong,” Gundy Cahyadi, Singapore-based economist at DBS Group Holdings Ltd, said before the report. “There’s going to be some negative growth impact from financial-market volatility, but fundamentals are way more important at this point.”

Government spending climbed 3.9 per cent in the second quarter from a year earlier, and consumer spending gained 6.2 per cent. That helped counter weakening exports, which fell every month in the second quarter.

“The second-quarter GDP growth shows the expanse of the country’s resiliency from the prevailing weakness of the global economy,” Balisacan told a briefing. The significant improvement in government spending “gives us more confidence about the performance of the public sector in the coming quarters of the year.”

President Benigno Aquino, whose term ends in June 2016, had targeted growth of 7 to 8 per cent this year and next. The Philippine central bank kept the benchmark rate unchanged this month, and governor Amando Tetangco said this week that while private consumption will continue to be well supported, it is necessary to find other drivers of growth.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Asia stock traderVolatile stock markets in Asia on August 25 showed signs of a respite from the recent blood-letting, as bargain hunters helped most stocks off three-year lows hit on fears that China’s economy was risking a hard landing.

However, Chinese shares continued their slump, and Japan’s Nikkei followed.

The Shanghai composite index declined 7.5 per cent to 2,970.29. The index is now below the psychologically important 3,000 level. China’s smaller Shenzhen composite index also saw sharp declines, falling over 7 per cent.

The Tokyo market also fell sharply after earlier rebounding. The benchmark Nikkei 225 index reversed early gains before falling nearly 4 per cent. That followed a 4.6 per cent plunge on August 24 to the lowest level seen since late February.

But most Southeast Asian stock markets rebounded on August 25, helped by bargain hunting and share buyback plans of some companies, with Indonesian benchmark recovering from over one-and-a-half-year low, but concerns over China’s economy limited further gains.

The Jakarta composite index rose nearly 2 per cent, regaining some of the 4 per cent fall to the lowest close since December 2013 on the previous day. State-controlled firms such as Telekomunikasi Indonesia and Bank Mandiri led the rebound after a cabinet minister said state-owned enterprises are repurchasing their shares.

The Thai SET index was up 0.4 per cent after volatile trading. Some large-caps and energy shares such as PTT Exploration and Production fell amid further routs in US stocks and drop in oil prices overnight. Shares of PTT Global Chemical jumped 6 per cent following a share buyback plan, a day after its stock hit an all-time closing low. Broker Maybank Kim Eng Securities expected more listed firms to buy back shares as prices are now undervalued.

Singapore’s Straight Times Index climbed 1.8 per cent, with shares in top three lenders, including DBS Group Holdings, rising after sharp falls the day before.

The indexes of Malaysia and Vietnam both rebounded from an early slide to new multi-year lows. The Philippines’ benchmark stock index was a tad 0.09 per cent lower after touching a 16-month low in early trading.

Meanwhile, a relief rally is spreading across Europe after markets opened on August 25. France’s CAC40 was the biggest riser in Europe, up 2 per cent today with most European bourses comfortable gaining over 1 per cent in the first hour of trading.

 

Reading Time: 3 minutes

1mdb_Greater KLAlthough the Malaysian government is trying its best to return to a normal agenda after the scandal surrounding state-owned fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad has been calming down a bit, at least in the public, there is a lot going on behind the scenes.

First of all, Swiss financial regulator FINMA said on August 19 that it will check with some of the country’s banks on whether they carried out any business with 1MDB and whether fishy transactions were involved.
“We are contact with several banks in this matter,” a FINMA spokesman said, adding that the regulatory body is “clarifying whether and to what extent banks were involved and how the terms of Swiss regulatory law were implemented.”

While he did not name the banks, at least four are known to have dealt with 1MDB: Falcon Private Bank, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi-based Aabar investment and Lugano, Switzerland -headquartered private bank BSI, both through their Singapore branches, as well as JP Morgan (Swiss), the house bank of Saudi oil company PetroSaudi, and Zurich-based bank Coutts & Co. Overall, according to Swiss media reports, there are at least “half a dozen” Swiss banks under scrutiny, and some of them have already been ordered to block accounts during investigations.

Secondly, the Swiss Attorney General’s Office confirmed on August 22 that it has opened criminal proceedings against two entities of 1MDB as well as against an unknown person and will investigate Swiss banks and businesses over their role in the scandal. The related complaint, alleging money laundering and other financial offenses, was filed by Basel, Switzerland-based Bruno Manser Fund, a non-governmental organisation and legacy of Swiss-born environmental activist Bruno Manser, who in the 1990s fought for rainforest preservation and against timber corruption in Malaysia’s state of Sarawak but disappeared in the Borneo jungle without a trace in 2000 and is presumed dead. Since then, the fund is at loggerheads with the Sarawak government in particular and the Malaysian government in general. Its representatives call on Swiss authorities in particular to investigate the legal compliance of the Singapore subsidiaries of Swiss banks Falcon Private Bank and BSI with Swiss banking laws. According to the Swiss penal code, Swiss banks and businesses are forbidden to get involved in money laundering or corruption anywhere in the world.

Particularly helpful for the investigation is data material including account details and payment receipts that have been brought into circulation by former PetroSaudi employee Xavier Justo. The Swiss national, acting from Thailand, confessed to stealing data from PetroSaudi and trying to blackmail his former employer. He was caught by Thai authorities and handed a three-year prison sentence on August 17 at a Bangkok criminal court. But the information made it to several whistleblowers, among them Khairuddin Abu Hassan, a former politician of Malaysia’s ruling UMNO party who was sacked earlier this year because of his criticism of 1MDB. Khairuddin said on his Facebook page that he personally submitted documents and evidence on 1MDB to the Swiss Attorney General’s Chambers in Bern, Switzerland, on August 18, saying he was “disappointed with law enforcement and monetary agencies in Malaysia.” Khairuddin also lodged a police report with French police last month against 1MDB and one with UK police on August 21.

In the 1MDB case, the whereabouts of $1.8 billion of its funds are unknown. A probe found that around $680 million made their way on a private bank account of Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak, who denied any wrongdoing and claimed that the money was a “donor” from Saudi Arabia, meant as of appreciation to Malaysia for “championing Islam” and fighting militant group Isis.

However, unease is growing in the Middle East over the issue. The Saudi government is reportedly not amused about making in into the headlines in the 1MDB case, and at Falcon Private Bank’s parent, Aabar Investment, which is a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi-government-owned International Petroleum Investment Company, two top executives, Chairman Khadem al Qubassi and CEO Mohamed al Husseiny, have been shown the door.

Reading Time: 16 minutes
Starfish
A starfish from Davao waters

The woman sitting in seat 16A hadn’t noticed me yet, and I honestly wasn’t expecting her to. It was a short flight and she, I observed, was contented in her window seat. For the most part, the short lady busied herself flipping through the in-flight magazine, a flourish made with each flip, and then by motionlessly slipping into a soft nap.

It wasn’t until we began to descend that she looked up and decided to break the ice.

“Is this your first time to Davao?” she asked.

“Yes, I have always wanted to come to Mindanao. And I figured that the best place to start would be its capital,” I answered.

A healthcare seminar had called her to Manila and she was on the way back home where she trained medical technicians at a local college. The short woman wore the face of an endearing schoolteacher that could have also been an aunt. Davao was far from Manila, she said, and not only in distance.

“You can make more money in Manila. But the traffic is bad and the people aren’t so friendly,” she insisted. “In Davao, we have the friendliest taxi drivers in the country. They will always follow the meter and never cheat you.”

I had heard Davao billed this way before – as some commuter paradise. The politeness of the cab drivers is legendary, and – of all the things a city could be known for – it was this reliable demeanor that made the city most marketable to Filipinos. She then approached me with another familiar line just as the plane touched down:

“The girls here are beautiful, too. I can introduce you to some of my students if you want.”

With that, she scribbled down her number on a shredded piece of paper, and we began to disembark.

The land Duterte built

“Mindanao?” a friend from Manila once scrutinised. “Why would you go there?”

To many Filipinos of Luzon, the Luzoneros, Mindanao is a backwater only noteworthy for its decades-long conflicts and as the third star on the national flag, represented but only in passing. It’s a disturbed and remote place that would disappear from consciousness if not for the drama, like a wind-swept Kansan prairie without Dorothy or tornados.

But if Mindanao is the poster child of chaos, its largest city is exemplary of how it can be controlled. The Philippines’ southern capital, Davao is characterized by statistics and sensation, mostly because many have simply never been. Its home to the country’s tallest mountain; it is the safest, due to a hard-handed approach to law; and, by a political stroke of the pen, is the largest city municipality in the country.

A hodgepodge of superlatives and whispers paints a place that comes across as odd when compared to the country’s otherwise rowdy reputation. Davao is run, instead, by a governance style that seems unsettlingly apt for uncharted frontier filled with rebels, a description that much of Mindanao fits into. This strict rule of law and its efficacy in created security has earned the city the title of the “Singapore of the Philippines.” Even for a parachuting outsider, the Singapore comparison wasn’t hard to reconcile. It is illegal to smoke in public; the downtown speed limit is 30 kilometers per hour; and homicides, in a resolute aberration from other major Philippine cities, have been in steady incremental decline for many years.

RodrigoDuterte_Davao
Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte

The transformation of the city into a citadel of control in a disorderly archipelago is largely due to one man, who is paradoxically both feared and respected. In his campaigns to purge Davao of criminals, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte instigated the ire of the UN and global human rights groups, which accuse the strongman politician of condoning – or perhaps even funding – a group of vignettes to round up and kill suspected murderers, rapists drug users and drug dealers.

This silent but swift hand of the law became known in the media as the “Davao Death Squad,” and the shadowy group’s affinity for extrajudicial justice is perhaps the most significant force behind the blanket cleanup of the city. The tactic has been, disheartening as it is to admit, as successful as it is abhorrent, and the foremost legacy of Duterte’s 20-year run in Mindanao politics.

The leather-skinned, motor-cycling riding mayor of strikes up the image of a Marvel comics anti-hero – TIME magazine once labeled him “the Punisher.” But this is merely a one-dimensional attempt to caricature the man. At his most controversial, Duterte could be considered the Donald Trump of the Philippines. He recently said to media that he should not run for president because by the end of his six-year term he’d be tried for genocide.

“You commit robbery and rape your victim? I will kill you,” is his motto.

And at his most effective, he can’t help but to be cringingly controversial. Today, Davao is ranked the fourth safest city in the world by crowdsourced survey site Numbeo, up from the ninth spot on that list last year. Duterte attributes the consistent praise from such lists to his no-nonsense law enforcement. “The best practices in the city,” he once told former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, “are the killings (of criminals).”

Western governments “want to rehabilitate,” he says, “instead of just killing the idiots.”

A refreshing different capital

My in-flight medical professional friend’s in-flight magazine cover story featured Davao titled Southern Comfort. Much of the draconian practices that Duterte has risen to fame for are written at the top of the story, as well as the some of the more sensual superlatives of the city’s landscape and people, save for one: the politeness of the taxi drivers.

Wondering whether or not the story would check out, I exited from the Francisco B. Reyes Airport to pick up a taxi of my own. Outside the squat terminal – really more of a glorified kiosk – an unusual scene for the Philippines greets travelers: There is a well-maintained walkway and an orderly line of taxis; no one is touting fares. I entered one of the taxis second in line while a white man simultaneously entered the one in the front. “Take me to the Bagobo Guesthouse,” I said. “Is that far?”

“No, sir,” the cabbie responded, putting the car into drive and pulling out to the airport exit, where an armed guard wearing a standard assault rifle slung across his shoulder asked for my name and nationality.

“Is that normal?” I asked the cabbie as we drove away and towards downtown. “Yes, its for foreigners and locals. They want to count the people.”

trikes
Trikes in Davao

It would be the last time i’d see a gun in Davao, hold for the portside area, where fresh-faced military soldiers aimlessly patrol the bay. That was one of the most astonishing differences of Davao – whereas Philippine cities are defined by gun-toting guards wearing everything from pistols to shotguns to automatic rifles, the sight of guns is rare here. Malls, banks and Jollibees have guards, yes, but they aren’t carrying anything more than batons. Whereas the presence of armed guards in Manila is said to install a sense of security for visitors, I couldn’t help but sense just the opposite – it was only here in Davao, where the conspicuous show of guns was a rarity, that I felt safer than anywhere else I’ve been in the country.

We drove further into the steady traffic of the Davao night, passing by a crush of fruit vendors as we snaked up short hills. Bananas, durians and pomelos – the latter stacked into neat pyramids in front of wood-plank stands – are set out like natural mileposts across the entrance to the city. The fruits are categorically grouped together; eight or so stands to each type, to one side of the road. Durian vendors dominate. And women manage all of the stalls.

Mindanao means more to the national economy than armed insurgencies. The island is responsible for about 14 per cent of the country’s GDP, mostly in agriculture, providing eight out of ten of the country’s agri-commodity exports. This is the Philippines’ rice bowl. A rarely touted perk to visiting Davao is that the fruit is nowhere as fresh or sumptuous as they are here.

I found it comforting to think, especially after a day of travel, that I had landed in a fruit-laden tropical outpost – secure, if remote. The cab meter steadily counted my fare while we made way across the city to my hotel, where I paid just over 300 pesos and called it a night.

Identifying an identity

The next morning I followed my stomach straight to the famous Luz’s Place restaurant, located southeast of one of Chinatown’s main strips. When I arrived, two women were sternly working rotisseries of chickens on iron spits over a charcoal barbeque, their faces as intense as the sun’s heat. I wasn’t here for roast chicken, however. Luz’s Place became a Davao landmark for its kinilaw, a plate of raw fish cured in lime and topped with onions equally as drenched in the citrus juices. The dish served at Luz’s Place is nothing like kinilaw found elsewhere in the Philippines. Instead, the raw tuna that came accompanied by a delightfully sour soup was closer to fresh sashimi than the ceviche dish of similar taste and texture originating from Latin America, as so many things do in the Philippines.

A plate of fresh tuna kinilaw at Luz's Place
A plate of fresh tuna kinilaw at Luz’s Place

After a final swig of my San Miguel, I sauntered off back into the heat, lost and looking for directions to a park next to the city’s central Santa Ana Wharf. Trikes are a cheap way to get around if you are traveling only small distances. So when I spotted a row of ready riders catching respite underneath umbrellas, I called out to one.

“I want to go to Magsaysay Park. Will you take me?” I asked the young driver.

I received not words, but a wry glance in response that meant to say, “Come again?” English, unlike in Manila, is not widely spoken in Davao. Few foreigners venture to this isolated extremity of the country, offering little opportunity to polish the business language preferred by educated Luzoneros. The Dabawenyos, instead, have formed a colloquial tongue made an amalgamation of Tagalog and Bisaya (the native tongue of Cebu, the second largest city).

Cutting to the chase, he opted for the direct approach. “Veinte pesos?”

In Bisaya, numerals are the same as in Spanish, making this particular request of 20 pesos easily understandable for myself. Fifty cents, I thought – OK, no problem there. I hoped in, and we peddled off.

The trike driver pulled out into light traffic and biked us down a block lined with small shops. Then, almost as promptly as we had begun, the trike arrived at my destination. The 20-peso fee, or just over fifty US cents, had gotten me one street block. He entered the park without me asking and slipped into the shadows of the trees before letting me off.

Ramon Magsaysay Park is a nook of a public square, not much larger than a football field and a half in length. The stretch of grassy patches and sidewalks are bordered to the east by the Gulf of Davao, looking outwards to hulking barges and stapled-together pile dwellings. There is an al fresco, roofless church with a stone tablet in front, announcing the 10 commandants in English on one side, and Tagalog on the other.

The memorial monument at Magsaysay Park
The memorial monument at Magsaysay Park

At the northern edge, a neglected poured cement obelisk dedicated to former President Magsaysay stands cracked and forlorn; it seems to crumble with purpose. Mindanao has never contributed a president to Malacanang Palace, the equivalaent of the Philippines’ White House, and many Dabawenyos consider Luzon to be an imperialist power. Magsaysay could be included in this enmity – the former president was born in Zambales, another Luzonero imposing himself on the south.

The irony of the monument doesn’t seem to impact the park goers, however. Today, it casts a anodyne shadow like a sundial perfectly positioned to chiming in high noon, which is more important than politics. I notice a pair of older men sitting on a concrete bench in the shade not far from where my trike dropped me off. And just across the monument’s small circle walkway, a skateboarder finds his own form of respite, dozing on the raised pavement, a baseball cap covering his head with his board kicked up against the curb. As I walk towards the monument, a couple holding hands giggles – either at me or some surreptitious joke shared between the two. I never find out.

Magsaysay Park is one of a handful of places in Davao that exhibit such a show of community outside of what has become the modern public square – air-conditioned shopping malls, or air-conditioned churches.. It’s just a quick walk away from Chinatown, with its hustle, cell phone stands, full street-block-length of durian vendors and home goods. It’s a district that has everything you would need if you were a Dabawenyo, and nothing more.

A prominent criticism of Davao, reported by the in-flight magazine story, is that the city, in its zeal to overcome crime and install civility, has alloyed its culture. I found this particular critique true but unfair. It’s a condition of many Filipino cities to lack charisma or identity, not just Davao. Yes, the industrial warehouses, goat-wandering alleys and sidewalk-absent streets of the downtown aren’t perfect for postcards, but the city is not entirely devoid of charm – especially if you don’t mind sharing paths with the occasional meandering farm animal.

Mt Apo seen from Babu Santa beach.
Mt Apo seen from Babu Santa beach

Just around the corner from the Bagabo Hotel, People’s Park sets an example of how Davao isn’t necessarily strangled by a black and white interpretation of the law. Here, in front of the park’s low iron fencing, street hawkers sell pearls, wire statues and gems of dubious origin, directly within view of a sign instructing them specifically not to. I overlooked as some Filipino tourists listened to a sales pitch – in English – from one of the hawkers, both parties paying more attention to the art than the law. It’s probably the kind of bold business Duterte would approve of. And, I thought, at least they aren’t hawking in front of the city’s only other downtown park, the Davao Mental Hospital Park, located just up the road past the iconic Marco Polo Hotel.

As the sun began to close light on the day, I headed up to Jack’s Ridge, where restaurants and family KTV halls have long replaced the soldiers that once camped here. The ridge was the site of a watchtower and a largely forgotten battle 70 years ago. At the end of World War II, US forces landed in Davao and pressed up to the ridge, pushing back the Japanese and capturing the city’s strategically invaluable overlook. Today, before taking in the final view of the Gulf the Japanese saw before fleeing downhill northwards, visitors can also dip their heads into preserved underground tunnels dug by the Japanese, as well as other relics of a battle that is largely unmentioned in history books, as remote in the annals of war as the city is to the rest of the world.

A Muslim girl

She set up her rented tent on the beach just beneath the canopy of the coconut tree line. The rental service didn’t come with a pillow – soft and powdery sand like this would do, especially for Mary. On the western side of Talikud Island, opposite of Isla Reta’s white sand beach, you can see Mary’s hometown of Santa Cruz, cloaked in a tropical haze at the base of the Philippines’ tallest peak, Mount Apo. This was her backyard, and she has spent many nights before, sometimes with family, playing in the turquoise waters that lapped upon Isla Reta’s postcard-perfect beach. Across a narrow body of water too small for a name are verdant hills, part of southern Samal Island. The two islands are grouped together by a political stroke of the pen, jointly classified as the Island Garden City of Samal, Davao’s mainstay tourist attraction

A boy playing in the Gulf of Davao at Isla Reta, Talikud Island
A boy playing in the Gulf of Davao at Isla Reta, Talikud Island

I had to see it. And not only because the Philippines is a purist traveler’s collection of natural paradises; there also is an undeniable link between people and the beach, every city across the archipelago never quite far from a envy-evoking weekend retreat.

I first saw Mary just after I checked in. It was a Saturday and all of the three private cabins, set far back behind the tree line, were full. Instead, I booked myself a room with three beds in a long and stilted bamboo cabin – it was the only space available, hold for the tent. A ladder made of drift wood leads up to the stilted room, and there was no fan; the bathroom a shared affair located just past a patch of hens pecking at parched grass. Mary was sitting at the common area that also served as the check-in counter, waiting on an order of pancit canton. She had high cheekbones and was wearing a rainbow-splashed sarong around her waist with a floral bikini top, the only one on the beach that day. Davao women, like many from the provinces, dress conservatively. Here on the Island Garden City of Samal, Mary stuck out.

The Philippine version of the popular singing show The Voice played out from a TV cradled from the ceiling in the wooden box. Mary turned her head back to watch, facing me and casting a defining tone on her wide nose, now pronounced in glow of the long florescent light bulbs above. Perhaps it was her poise – coming from her reassuring familiarity in this place – or maybe the fact that she was traveling alone, and that a fellow solo traveler from Manila that she just met had just walked off to her beach-drawn tent, but she was confident to start up a conversation, and we began sharing the fried noodles and an over-priced plate of kinilaw.

Or maybe she just fancied me. Mary bought a bottle of cheap red wine – some local brand that was dry and strong, the Red Horse of merlots. We began to trade stories: Her father was Muslim, she said, and brought her up strictly. She was the oldest of three children, and always felt that she was fighting a Sisyphean battle to win her father’s acceptance but always fell short compared to her two younger and infallible brothers. Her mother was, like the majority of the Philippines, a Catholic, and the two parent’s interpretation of how to raise their daughter created deep domestic fault lines. Mary ran away from home at the age of 19.

Mindanao is the source of the Philippines Muslim population, specifically the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The group of west-lying provinces and islands are also the source of insurgent movements against the Manila government and all the tragedies associated with the country’s long-running civil wars. Maguindanao, a province here, was the site of the deadliest massacre of journalists in the world, most of them Filipino. Last year the Aquino administration made history by signing a landmark peace accord with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the closest that Mindanao has ever come to greatly reducing or stopping conflict. The deal remains unstable. A botched raid in Mamasapanao, part of the ARMM, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Philippine Special Forces has become an unfortunate testament to just how unsecure the region remains, and the flimsiness of diplomacy.

Food vendor
Women roasting chicken at Luz’s Place

Such a political and historical narrative doesn’t deliver a happy scenario for the integration of Muslim Filipinos, but that isn’t the reality in Davao. Duterte’s unique approach – threaten violent lawbreakers with swift and severe punishment – has had a lot to do with the level of civility between sects here. It’s an anomaly that further separates Davao from the rest of the country. The city is both secure and religiously tolerant, at least superficially. Plywood signs advertising halal standards are common. Luz’s Place serves halal dishes, in fact. Colleges are exemplary of this tolerance in diversity: Just across from Davao’s Santa Ana Parish (notable for its powerful air-conditioning system, my taxi driver tells me), I saw a group of South Asians, presumably Indians, walking into San Pedro College. Men wearing knitted skullcaps and long white robes walk about in Chinatown, and just after I was finished with my citrus-soaked kinilaw, I saw a group of three women wearing hijab ascend to the second floor of Luz’s Place where there is an air-conditioned room – and less men.

In Davao, Muslims and Catholics mix, but not in balanced quantities. About one out of four people are Muslim in Mindanao, and most of the population lives in the ARMM. Muslims in Davao are a clear minority and it was hard to truly discern just how tolerant these communities would be towards each other if Durtere wasn’t in power.

Mary tacitly acknowledged this troubling societal rift in her own story. By the time we finished the dark wine, she had revealed very little about why she was back in Davao, so close to the family she had ran away from. I drained the last cup of wine into my mouth and went into the gulf, where we swam underneath an unimpeded view of the stars and shared a first kiss.

Habal habal
Habal-habal, the motorcycle taxi of Mindanao

The next morning we prepared to leave Isla Reta and its solely owned hotel service for the northwestern point of Talikud, Babu Santa. This trip would require us to traverse steep hills and remote farm villages by habal-habal, the Mindanao version of a motorcycle taxi. The habal-habal drivers on Talikud, however, weren’t of the extraordinary variety popular elsewhere in Mindanao. In an apparent hope to economize their service, it is typical for habal-habal drivers in Mindanao to fit their bikes with planks on each side, allowing the driver to carry over six people at a time. The inexplicable strength and dexterity necessary to balance a motorcycle overloaded with passengers is beyond me. I was, I must say, glad when the bikes waiting at the wharf were not fitted with any additional “seating.”

Sixty pesos is all the 30-minute trip by motorcycle would cost us. Our driver had on a red baseball hat and a light wind jacket. He was an islander, for sure; sunburnt to the point where at first glance his complexion made his origins hard to guess. “General Santos,” he said, “the same city as Manny Pacquiao.”

Providing transport for tourists on Talikud paid for his family, who were still in General Santos. I didn’t bother negotiating and, after squeezing on the motorcycle behind him, Mary sitting in-between us, we took off up a cement path. When the bike passed the crest of the hill, we drove onto a plateau of villages. We bounced along the dirt path and the driver showcased his habal-habal credentials by dodging between potholes and listless cattle wandering the path. Thick jungle would occasionally give way to vast banana plantations, their tenders toiling away amid the intense sun. We hummed past a mechanic shop with a sign offering a “vulcanize tire” service – a common service across the Philippines. Many tires here absorb the brunt of brutally paved roads, and vulcanizing rubber tires helps to increase their resiliency. I hoped, looking out at the mechanic fade behind us, that our habal-habal driver had taken similar precautions.

Along the pass, an abrupt drop appeared – a steep slope of small but exposed boulders checkered the path on its curved descendent. I blurted out, “Are you sure we can drive down here? How often do you do this?”

O, po – Yes, sir, this is good. I drive through here six times a day,” he said as he began to skip the bike down the slope. Halfway down, the gradient became so steep that the driver, in what appeared more instinct than improvisation, kicked out his legs, holding up the weight of the bike, with us on back. Mary and I held to each other gasping in excited fear. But the driver didn’t flinch. He steadily walked the bike down the slope, almost slipped once, rocking us out of our frozen daze and reminding me that this danger was all too real.

The next slip was intentional. With a sudden burst of engine, he lifted up his legs and we rolled into drive, gravity propelling us down the rest of that terrible hill and launching us, almost immediately, out on to the beach of Babu Santa. Just ahead of us across the gulf was Davao City, which, from this vista, was more like an overgrown town – the Marco Polo Hotel is the only noticeable feature in the skyline. To the south of the island, Mary pointed out, was her hometown of Santa Cruz, and just above the translucent waters of the bay, Mount Apo climbed into the mist. I was so happy to have survived the trip and place my feet in the sand that I paid the driver twice the original rate, and asked him to pick us both up tomorrow, around the same time. We checked into a 700-peso room at the Dayang Beach Resort, this time with a fan. There were no other guests there that day.

From the stilted porch in front of the bungalow, Mary could see the town that she grew up in. She hadn’t been there in over five years. “My father wants me marry a man, but I don’t want to. He is Muslim. I have known him since I was in high school and he seems nice but I am too independent. My father will get payment for the marriage and thinks I am disrespectful for saying no,” she told me. “Because I refused to follow his rules, he kicked me out of the house. If I go back, my father will force me into marriage,” she continued, now with a wistful pang in her voice. “I miss my brothers and my mothers. I wish I could see them again.”

Mary had kept in touch wither family through email and the Internet over the years. After she moved out, a single 19-year-old girl on her own, she didn’t get in touch with them for several years. It wasn’t until she found a job as a call center agent through an ad in a Davao paper that she decided to reconnect, this time from her new office in Cebu. Email, text and Facebook messages became more frequent, but, no matter how much her mother implored, her father continued to firmly stand his line: If Mary ever returned, she would be married off on the spot, and the dowry – a handful of goats and cattle, a few buckets of rice and a partnership for growing pomelo –would be completed.

hermit crab
A hermit crab at Dayang, Babu Santa

A new email came later that night, this time conjuring up a much different emotion in her. She shot right up in bed, looking at me with the glimmering eyes of a lottery winner. “I got the promotion I have been waiting for. I will be moving to Manila. They will keep me on the same account for a US telecommunication company, working in data analysis.” Her outsourcing company was hired by T-Mobile, the US’s third largest telecom servicer.

Mary wouldn’t be seeing her family on this trip back to Davao. Though her family knew she was in town and that her career was now rapidly progressing, an obstinate persistence remained the norm and she planned to continue forward, traveling back to Cebu tomorrow to pack up her bags for the next leg of her solo journey.

The following afternoon after we docked back at Santa Ana Wharf in Davao we rode in a taxi together, still reeling from our return trip on the habal-habal, but, this time, glad we unequivocal decided to walk up that steep. The in-flight medical professional friend had offered to introduce me to locals, but I had found a friend without her help. After the taxi dropped Mary off at a friend’s house in the suburbs of northern Davao City, the car sped away heading for the airport. It was the last time I saw her. Although the taxi ride out of Davao was quick and simple, a final glance at this comfortable complacent town, I couldn’t help but feel how the mundane could be so magical.

Davao Gulf
Boys play on a black sand bar on the Gulf of Davao

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Indonesia visa on arrival_Arno Maierbrugger
Indonesia: No more visa or visa on arrival necessary for 45 countries © Arno Maierbrugger

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s tourist visa exemption policy, now eligible for citizens of 45 countries, has positively impacted arrival numbers in Bali.

By Christin Huang

However, Australians, amongst the most frequent visitors to Bali, still require a visa.

The relationship between Indonesia and Australia has deteriorated greatly since Indonesia earlier this year executed Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, two Australians convicted of drug trafficking under Indonesia’s strict anti-drug laws.

Yet, Indonesian officials have told local media that rapprochement is not impossible.

“I can guarantee that if the Australian government wants [to agree to visa-free travel], the foreign minister and president will almost definitely want it, too,” Arief Yahya, Indonesia’s Minister of Tourism, said.

There is a catch, however. This visa exemption will require eligible countries to provide reciprocity, implementing a visa-free policy for Indonesians to enter their country, as well.

Some countries, such as France, commented that they welcomed the visa-free policy to enter Indonesia, but are unable to provide the same policy for Indonesians. France is a part of Schengen Area, which allows for travel to 22 of 28 EU countries and to 4 non-EU countries, and cannot establish such policies without consulting other partner countries.

By extending this visa exemption to 45 countries, the minister of tourism added, the government can expect revenue of $11 billion from 10 million foreign visitors this year.

The number of tourists arriving in Bali from the East Asia region – namely China, Japan and South Korea – has shown a 19% increase in numbers, said Dewa Nyoman Putra, a Bali-based tourism analyst, in Denpasar on Monday, August 17, according to Indonesian daily Bisnis.

For instance, the number of Chinese tourists increased 28,.64 per cent to 340,711 in the first 6 months of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014. Similarly, the number of Japanese tourists increased 11.86 per cent to 104,127. Arrival numbers from South Korea were up 10.65 per cent to 75,433.

Intriguingly, Dewa also stated that the government has added Russia to the visa exemption list. However, arrival numbers from Russia remained low due to challenging economic conditions at home, down 35 per cent to 25,574 year-on-year.

Widodo’s visa-free policy is available for tourists who are planning to stay in Indonesia up to 30 days. The five international airports that citizens from the 45 countries covered by the policy can enter Indonesia visa-free are Soekarno-Hatta in Jakarta, Ngurah Rai in Bali, Kuala Namu in Medan, Juanda in Surabaya and Hang Nadim in Batam, as well as at four seaports in Balam and Bintan for travelers arriving by ferry from Singapore.

Nationals of these countries can now enter Indonesia without a visa for max. 30 days:

Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Brunei, Cambodia, Chile, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Russia, Singapore, Sweden, South Korea, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States and Vietnam.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Kim with grenade launcherJust one day after the first-ever concert of a Western rock group, Laibach from Slovenia, in North Korea, the situation on the peninsula seems to  start escalating – although its not Laibach that’s to blame.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has advised his troops to be fully ready for military operations at any time from 5pm local time on Friday, August 21, North Korea’s official Central News Agency (KCNA) reported. The troops should be “fully battle ready to launch surprise operations” while the entire frontline should be placed in a “semi-war state”, KCNA quoted him as saying.

One day earlier, he gave South Korea  an ultimatum of 48 hours – also starting from 5pm – to remove its massive loudspeakers from the southern border and stop blasting propaganda messages towards the North. Technically, war actions could be expected when the ultimatum ends on Saturday, August 22, 5pm local time.

To complicate things, “local time” means 5pm in the North and 5:30pm in the South because North Korea moved its clock back by half an hour earlier this month to mark the anniversary of liberation from Japanese colonial rule.

Tensions spiked on the peninsula after two South Korean soldiers were seriously wounded by landmines on August 4 in the demilitarised zone that separates the two countries. South Korea has accused the North of deliberately planting the mines, an allegation that Pyongyang denies.

Seoul vowed a “harsh” response to the landmines and resumed blaring propaganda messages over the border from huge loudspeakers last week, a method that the South stopped applying in 2004. The move infuriated North Korea, which called the broadcasting “a direct action of declaring a war.” It threatened to blow up the South Korean loudspeakers and also warned of “indiscriminate strikes.”

After that, the North allegedly fired shells into South Korean territory on August 20, prompting the South to respond with a barrage of artillery. However, the North denied having fired on the South. In turn, South Korea put its military on high alert and President Park Geun Hye canceled her public engagements to focus on the crisis.

Only a few days ago, North Korea threatened to “retaliate against the US with tremendous muscle” if it didn’t cancel joint military exercises with South Korea, indicating that it may use weapons from its nuclear arsenal.

US officials said they were “monitoring the situation closely.”

Reading Time: 1 minute

SuukyishwemannMyanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi announced that she wants to form an alliance with Shwe Mann, the recently ousted chairman of the governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

“Now the picture is clearer as to who is a friend and an enemy, and our relationship with our allies is stronger,” she told reporters in Naypyidaw on August 18. She said that her party, the National League for Democracy, would “work with the ally.”

The changes in the ruling party would likely boost the oppositions’s vote count in the coming November 8 election, she said.

Last week Shwe Mann was dramatically removed from his position. His dismissal was seen as an emphatic move by President Thein Sein to tighten his political grip ahead of the vote.

However, Suu Kyi did not detail how they would work together.

As chairman of the USDP, Shwe Mann sought to build ties with Suu Kyi previously, which sparked suspicion among some members of the ruling party and contributed to his sacking. However, he initially planned to run as a candidate for his own party.

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Bangkok_bomb attack1_Arno Maierbrugger
The Erawan shrine in Bangkok reopened on August 19 for worshipers and mourners © Arno Maierbrugger

Thailand’s tourism industry, just as it was on the way to recovery from last year’s coup and the subsequent imposition of martial law countrywide, has been dealt a heavy blow by the fatal bombing in Downtown Bangkok on August 17.

While there are still tourists around, many of them now have a nervous look in their eyes – and many of the normally well patronised restaurants and bars in the Sukhumvit area were almost empty in the days after the blast – more so, as the discovery of a suspicious object has lead to a closedown two exits of Nana BTS station on August 19. The item, however, fortunately turned out to be just a dummy bomb.

Thai authorities set up extra security around Bangkok, and the Royal Thai Police urged tourists to exercise caution when out and about. Tourism groups mobilised to provide interpreters and change travel arrangements.

More than 20 countries have issued travel alerts, including the US, Australia, China and Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Canada, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Russia and the UK.

Hong Kong’s security bureau urged citizens to adjust travel plans and avoid non-essential trips such as leisure travel to Bangkok, which represented a “significant threat.” This “red alert” is Hong Kong’s second strongest tier of travel advisory in its three-tier system.

China told citizens to remain alert when traveling to Thailand after four Chinese tourists were killed in Monday’s bombing.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade notified citizens to “exercise a high degree of caution” in Thailand, steering clear of demonstrations or political rallies and avoiding southern provinces entirely. “The security situation remains volatile,” the department said.

The US Embassy in Bangkok urged travelers to maintain a high level of vigilance and monitor news.

Thai Airways said that 20 per cent of travelers changed their flight plans for Thailand after the bomb explosion, according to President Charamporn Jotikasthira, who added that he hopes the situation would “soon return to normal.”

But it is very clear that the bombings will hurt rebuilding efforts in the tourism sector after the 2014 coup.

“The explosion that struck a major tourism hot spot in the heart of Bangkok on August 17 could undermine the recovery of the tourism industry, deepening the country’s economic woes,” a report by BMI Research said.

The blast also fell in the high season when tourist spots in the city are usually extremely busy.

Thailand originally forecast 28.5 to 29 million foreign tourists to visit the country this year, according to Minister of Tourism and Sports Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, up from 24.7 million in 2014. The total number of visitors until July 2015 stood at 17.5 million and the year-end target is unlikely to be reached after the bomb attacks, especially since there were several blast victims from the most important source countries, China and Malaysia.

Thailand depends heavily on tourism, which has a share of 9 per cent in GDP,  according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Now, however, tourism could drop 10 per cent in the short term, Adithep Vanabriksha, Bangkok-based chief investment officer at Aberdeen Asset Management Co, said.

BMI Research said the blast would add to the country’s economic woes, especially since the economy was still recovering from last year’s political turmoil. The hotel and restaurant sectors could see particular setbacks “undermining government efforts to bolster the ailing economy”.

Bangkok_bomb attack5_Arno Maierbrugger
The reopened shrine. The statue was quickly repaired © Arno Maierbrugger

 

Bangkok_bomb attack6_Arno Maierbrugger
Security cameras at the Erawan shrine that caught the suspect with the yellow T-shirt and backpack © Arno Maierbrugger

 

Bangkok_bomb attack8_Arno Maierbrugger
Steel fence at the Erawan shrine deformed by the huge explosion © Arno Maierbrugger

 

Coffins
Coffins waiting for blast victims at Chulalongkorn hospital

 

Bangkok_bomb attack2_Arno Maierbrugger
People paying their respect for the blast victims at the reopened Erawan shrine © Arno Maierbrugger

 

Bangkok_bomb attack3_Arno Maierbrugger
Rest in Place, aka Rest in Peace. Flowers and garlands at the Erawan shrine © Arno Maierbrugger

 

Bangkok_bomb attack4_Arno Maierbrugger
Window damaged by the bomb blast at a shopping mall some 50 meters away © Arno Maierbrugger

 

Bangkok_bomb attack9_Arno Maierbrugger
The reopened shrine site with the damaged Grand Hyatt hotel in the background © Arno Maierbrugger

 

Bangkok_bomb attack8_Arno Maierbrugger
The reopened Ratchaprasong junction at the Erawan shrine. The white lines on the tarmac show where some blast victims and shattered motorbikes were found © Arno Maierbrugger

 

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Bangkok blast
The moment of the detonation in Bangkok at 18.55h on August 17, 2015.

Thailand’s currency, the baht, fell to a six-year low against the US dollar on August 18 in the aftermath of the devastating bomb attack in the capital Bangkok on the previous evening that left more than 20 people dead and more than 125 wounded. It is known at the present stages that at least eight tourists from China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are among those killed in the attack.

Stocks slumped too amid heightened uncertainty over what to expect next after what authorities said was the worst ever attack on Thai soil, targeted at foreigners and a bid to “destroy the economy.”

The benchmark SET index opened down 2.7 per cent at 1,408, while the Thai baht lost as much as 0.5 per cent, falling to 35.55 against the US dollar, its lowest since April 2009.

Thai authorities have launched an urgent investigation to determine who was behind the attack. So far, no one has claimed responsibility. The US State Department said overnight that it was too soon to tell if the blast was a terrorist attack.
The attack poses a fresh threat for an economy that is already slowing amid weaker private consumption and investment growth. On August 17, Thailand reported that GDP expanded by 2.8 per cent on year in the second quarter, down from 3.0 per cent in the previous three months.

The National Economic and Social Development Board expected (ahead of the attacks) exports to contract 3.5 per cent this year, rather than a rise of 0.2 per cent.

The tourism sector, which accounts for about 10 per cent of Thailand’s GDP, in particular is expected to suffer a blow from the incident as governments begin to issue travel warnings. Hong Kong has advised its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Thailand, while the US has asked its nationals to stay clear of the effected area and monitor local media for updates. The Australian government advised its national to stay clear of the central business district.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Tony Fernandes ASEANTony Fernandes, flamboyant Malaysian entrepreneur, co-founder and group chief executive of AirAsia Group and chairman of Tune Group, a Kuala Lumpur-based leisure and entertainment corporation, is reportedly thinking of stepping down from his businesses to pursue new endeavours, possibly in politics, where he seems to be eyeing a leading position within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretariat.

“Good leadership is to know when to go and to refresh the organisation with young and energetic leaders,” he said in an interview with the Bangkok Post published on August 15, naming Aireen Omar, current CEO of AirAsia Malaysia, as one possible candidate for his succession at the helm of AirAsia Group.

“My time is coming, maybe within the next two years,” he added.

Fernandes dropped hints about his withdrawal as a business executive before, but would never be concrete about the possibility of entering politics.

However, this time he mentioned to the newspaper that “[Leading] the ASEAN Secretariat would be good” and “if you put me there, I will [sic!] make a lot of changes.”

However, it is not as easy as Fernandes might think. The ASEAN Secretary-General is normally proposed and chosen from a group of politicians or diplomats of a member country and gets appointed by the ASEAN Summit for a non-renewable term of five years. While this is not necessarily a hurdle as Fernandes could turn politician easily, the problem is that the selection of an ASEAN national to become SecGen is based on alphabetical rotation of the member countries.

The term of the current ASEAN Secretary-General, Le Luong Minh from Vietnam, ends in December 2017. As per the alphabetical rotation, the next SecGen will therefore have to come from Brunei. Being a Malaysian citizen, the earliest chance for Fernandes to become ASEAN SecGen is January 1, 2038, when he will be 73 years of age.

Even if he changes his nationality to Indonesian, a country where he currently stays most of the time after AirAsia moved its headquarters for the Southeast Asia region to Jakarta, and where the ASEAN secretariat is situated, a possible ASEAN SecGen post would be open for him not before 2028.

However, this does not mean that he isn’t allowed to take over other roles in the secretariat. Or get a Brunei passport and vie for the post.

In the past, Fernandes has been a frequent critic of the ASEAN secretariat’s performance, claiming it has been too weak or inactive to form a stronger regional bloc and push economic integration. However, he also pursued his own agenda, advocating a common ASEAN visa for non-ASEAN visitors to boost travel also for the benefit of his airline group, and a “truly single” ASEAN aviation market.

He is also commenting on Malaysian politics from time to time, unfolding his liberal, business-oriented mindset. Recently, he was quoted as saying that the Malaysian government should better “handle the economy and the plunging ringgit instead of trying to shut down the Internet,” hinting at the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak blocking Internet access to whistleblower portal Sarawak Report and others being openly critical of Razak’s alleged involvement in unexplained payments surrounding state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

However, Fernandes was hit with a strong rebuff by Abdul Rahman Dahlan, chief spokesman of the ruling Barisan Nasional party, who at least described him as a “friend” but said:

“This is a government, Tony,” Dahlan said. “We are not just talking about dollars and cents. The government is responsible for the security of the nation. As a company you might not want to be interested in the security of the nation or the unity of the people. If you are a government, you care about the economy, security and unity. It goes hand in hand.”

Next ASEAN Secretary-General rotations (assuming unchanged regulations and no new member countries):

Vietnam 2013-2017

Brunei 2018-2022

Cambodia 2023-2027

Indonesia 2028-2032

Laos 2033-2037

Malaysia 2038-2042

Myanmar 2043-2047

Philippines 2048-2052

Singapore 2053-2057

Thailand 2058-2062

 

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Careers aliens do not
Click to enlarge

A recent unintentionally hilarious, but nevertheless highly embarrassing case of “lost in translation” calls to mind that English proficiency is not at its best in Thailand.

Well, we all know that. But that it’s so bad at the highest levels is a bit astounding.

Here is a list published by the Thai Ministry of Labour a few days ago on its Internet portal, listing occupations and professions that are prohibited for foreign workers.

The fun starts with the headline  “Careers aliens do not”

and carries on by saying “Not alien to the professional set of career. Professional and not an alien to do. Set in professional video and tea alien life that do not. 2522.”

Among the prohibited professions are some really cryptic ones:

“The Proletariat”

“Farmers gas party animals of the forest or fishery”

“The driving vehicle”

“The sale of every page”

“The haircut or the curl of beauty”

“Paper hand job”

“Lghin a job”

“Job Thai dolls”

“Job Buddha”

Thankfully, interpreter is not on that list, and after it went viral in the Internet, the Ministry of Labour obviously called one in that can do the job, and published the corrected list here, replacing what was obviously a machine translation.

The episode was made the central topic of an August 16 editorial in the Bangkok Post, which rightly said that the are deeper issues and the problem is bigger than just shoddy translations. The big issue is that Thailand, instead of bracing itself for new competition within the upcoming ASEAN Economic Community, counters with protectionism as it is worried that Thais will lose out in the job market to Myanmar nationals, Cambodians and Filipinos – instead of better qualifying its own people. That this is not a great concept for the future, goes without saying.

However, actually we would miss the world-famous Thainglish which is probably why we should keep calling the country “Land of Smiles.”

whore dust
“Sea cook whore dust”? To translate this, one needs to know that “curry” ( กะหรี่ – ga ree) is a derogatory Thai slang term for “prostitute”. What the whole thing means is therefore “Seafood cooked in curry powder.” Yummy nonetheless.
Hero
Well-intentioned, but wrongly spelled, and therefore awkward
Close
What’s missing here?
Flu
A beauty salon for those who are eager to try out new things: “Flu flighter” and “Pregnant Love”, whatever that means

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Filipina beachGreater economic vitality in the Philippines has put more disposable income in the pockets of members of the middle class, who are increasingly discovering their own country in greater volumes. The number of domestic tourists has grown 21.4 per to 56 million this year from 44 million last year, according to Assistant Secretary of Tourism Arturo Boncato Jr.

The Philippines continues to be one of the best-performing economies in the region, and a survey of Bloomberg experts predict that only China will post a faster rate by the end of this year and the Philippines will probably surpass China’s growth by 2016. An immediate impact has been a steady rise in consumer confidence, with Filipinos now considered the “most optimistic” spenders in Asia.

According to market research firm Nielsen, the burgeoning Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector, a rise in construction sector jobs and greater consumer spending has contributed to these high confidence levels.

Indeed, sales in fast-moving consumer goods rose 9.8 per cent in the first four months of the year, Nielsen Philippines managing director Stuart Jamieson said. And, on the same token, Filipinos have, after many decades of disenchantment, begun to feel more secure about the local job market.

Yet, poorly maintained infrastructure – or an all-together lack of it – across the archipelago continues to threaten growth, especially in Philippine domestic tourism. While foreign visitors rose 7.6 per cent the first half of 2015, and the country expects to hit a landmark 5.5 million arrivals, the Department of Tourism’s widely publicised “It’s more fun in the Philippines” campaign has faced criticism; local journalists and commentators wonder whether or not it is losing steam.

To maintain the momentum of the government’s tourism campaign, the private sector has stepped up, hoping to cash in on the rising tide of young and employed Filipinos and foreign tourists lured in by the “fun.”

Summit Media, through its hotel booking site TravelBook.ph, is running a contest titled “Juanderlust” to award a travel writer an 80-day assignment to discover the country and document his travels.

The company, helmed by Lisa Gokongwei-Cheng, the daughter of the Philippines’ fifth richest man John Gokongwei, will be taking video submissions up until November.

Globe, the second largest telecom company, recently launched its own initiative to provide free SIM cards to tourists in hopes of capturing sales from increasing arrivals.

The free SIM card campaign will continue until December 31, 2015, and returning Filipinos (balikbayan) will also be eligible.

 

 

Reading Time: 2 minutes

KLCC lightningIt is nothing less than literally a bloodbath what currently happens on Malaysia’s financial markets. The country’s currency, the ringgit, on August 14 dropped to a new decade-long daily low of 4.1335 to the US dollar, the weakest exchange rate since the Asian Financial Crisis ended in 1998.

The ringgit was in decline almost all over 2015, but the drop escalated in August as political tensions mounted as a result of financial insecurity stemming from high debts of state-owned fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad and corruption allegations against Prime Minister Najib Razak. Since August 3, the ringgit lost 10.2 per cent, and around 30 per cent over the past year. Adding to that, Malaysia has also been hit worst by China’s new currency regime whose effects are rippling across the region.

Malaysia’s foreign reserves fell from $140 billion in the first quarter of 2013 to $100.5 billion by July 15 this year, prompting economists to warn that Malaysia’s credit rating may be revised downwards by global ratings agencies if the central bank does not stop utilising the dwindling foreign reserves to buffer the falling ringgit value. Indeed, the drastic drop in August indicates that Malaysia’s central bank might have opted to step back from intervening in the market, unleashing pent-up downward pressure on the ringgit.

Bank Negara Governor Dr. Zeti Akhtar Aziz, who came under siege over issues surrounding 1Malaysia Development Berhad and the special task force investigating it and has not been seen in public for a while, fueling speculations that Najib Razak might have sacked her from her post, appeared on August 13 at a press conference and rejected rumours over her possible resignation.

Regarding a measure of last resort, namely pegging the ringgit to the US dollar in order to stabilise the exchange rate,  she said that there was currently “no need” to do that or introduce capital controls.

“We have moved on since the Asian Financial Crisis to a larger developed financial market which is able to absorb the volatility,” Aziz said, adding that “once the external environment improves and domestic issues are sorted out, the ringgit will better reflect the fundamentals.”

Malaysia pegged the ringgit to the greenback at RM3.80 during the Asian Financial Crisis and removed it to float in 2005.

However, investors and traders at Bursa Malaysia, the country’s stock exchange, are not very impressed. The Malaysian stock index KLSE hitting a near three-year on August 14 low as a weakening ringgit and tumbling global oil prices prompted investors to cut holdings in regional energy shares. The index was down nearly two per cent at times, its lowest since November 2012. Shares of oil and gas services firm Sapurakencana Petroleum Bhd and electricity utility Tenaga Nasional Bhd topped the losers. Similar to the ringgit, the index’s drop was steepest in August so far, diving 8.8 per cent since August 3.

Malaysia’s economic growth moderated to 4.9 per cent in the second quarter year-on-year as slower global demand dampened exports, while higher prices following the implementation of a goods and services tax in April shrank private consumption from 8.8 to 6.4 per cent in the period. GDP growth is slowest since 2013, whereby the weakness of the ringgit has caused external debt to balloon to 68 per cent of GDP.

 

 

 

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Shwe Mann_MyanmarMyanmar’s powerful ruling party chief and reformist Shwe Mann, who just a few weeks ago registered as candidate for the November 8 elections, has been ousted from his post on the morning of August 13, one day before registration deadline. Observers say he apparently lost a power struggle with President Thein Sein.

Security forces surrounded the headquarters of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw, took control of the compound and prevented members there from leaving.

Shew Mann, who, according to his family, at that time was at home in his Naypyitaw house, is said to be put under house arrest.

The ouster from the party follows rare discord within the establishment over the role of the military, which handed power to a semi-civilian government in 2011 but retains an effective veto over the political system.

“Shwe Mann isn’t the chairman of the party anymore,” said a USDP member of parliament, adding that “he is in good health and at home now.”

Shwe Mann still holds the position of speaker of parliament, party sources said, but as party chief has been replaced by USDP vice chairman Htay Oo, a close ally of Thein Sein.

Another one of Thein Sein’s closest aides, Tin Naing Thein, resigned from his post of Minister at the President’s Office on August 12 and has become the new secretary general of the party, a senior party official said. He replaces Maung Maung Thein, a supporter of Shwe Mann.

Tension has risen between Thein Sein and Shwe Mann, both former top military officers, over the selection of candidates for the November Myanmar elections, party sources said earlier. The two are old rivals and both have suggested they would accept the job of president after the parliamentary election.

Shwe Mann has built ties with Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has called repeatedly for the military to withdraw from politics, and he supported an attempt in parliament in June to amend the constitution to limit the military’s political role.

Tension rose in particular after the USDP selected only 59 of 159 senior officers who retired from the military to run as candidates for the party in the coming election, the party sources said.

“What I heard… was that there was a lot of reorganisation in the party last night,” said government spokesman Ye Htut, who said he could not give further details as he is not a member of the party.

Despite the establishment of the new government, the military has resisted recent efforts to introduce constitutional amendments to loosen its grip. The USDP is comprised largely of former military officers and was created from a social movement set up by the former junta.

It is unclear why the party selected only 59 of 159 senior officers to be candidates in the election but the decision likely angered officers and politicians keen to preserve the military’s sway. The party is expected to fare poorly against Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the election.

The constitution reserves 25 per cent of seats in parliament for unelected military officers. Changes to the constitution require the support of at least 75 per cent of lawmakers, giving the military an effective veto over changes. An amendment that would have seen the threshold of support lowered to 70 per cent failed, as expected, to gain enough support with lawmakers in a June vote.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Yuan devaluationAsian currencies suffered big time after after China’s surprise decision to devalue the yuan on August 11, and got a double whammy after Beijing stunned markets by devaluing the currency a second time the day after. The daily fix that sets the value of the Chinese currency against the greenback was lowered to 6.3306 yuan on August 12 from 6.2298 the day earlier. That marks the weakest guidance rate for the currency since October 2012.

What followed was a chain reaction of devaluations across Asia. The Indonesian rupiah led the declines, falling 1.7 per cent against the US dollar to its lowest level since July 1998. The Malaysian ringgit slid 1.4 per cent to its weakest since September 1998, crossing the psychologically important 4-dollar-mark. Thai baht, Singapore dollar, Taiwan dollar and Philippine peso, meanwhile, all touched five-year lows. The Indian rupee fell to a 23-month low of 64.885, before the Reserve Bank of India reportedly intervened to control the fall.

The sell-off in Asian currencies also reflects the market expectations that the respective countries shall respond to the drop in the yuan by weakening their currencies via interest rate cuts. Moreover, the Yuan also acts as a regional anchor, thereby leading other Asian currencies lower along with it. And the magnitude of the sell off is also reflective of the facts that a weaker yuan hurts the export competitiveness of China’s neighbours and erodes China’s purchasing power, potentially reducing imports.

Several central bank officials and finance ministers in the region issued statements regarding the sharp losses in their currencies. The Indonesian central bank said the rupiah depreciation did not reflect economic fundamentals but global sentiment, while the South Korean finance minister said the government was closely monitoring the foreign exchange markets.

With the US Federal Reserve expected to raise interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade this September and weakening economic momentum in the region, it certainly means more downside risk for Asian currencies, say analysts.

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Indonesia_street
Indonesia’s formerly emerging economy has taken a hit from sluggish exports, high inflation and fewer investments.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo believes that now is “the best time to invest” in the country despite its current economic problems. During his first official visit to Singapore end-July, he recalled moments of Indonesia’s crisis in 1997 and claimed that many investors – including many Singaporeans – who stayed invested have gained huge profits today.

By Christin Huang

He advised more than 150 business leaders at an event to “invest early” in Indonesia, as a “new economic cycle is beginning.”

“The social media revolution has begun. The smartphone revolution has begun. Around the world, around the region, and yes – also in Indonesia,” he proclaimed.

But it’s hard for many investors to ignore Indonesia’s lackluster economic performance, especially compared to some other soaring economies in the region. Indonesia posted growth of relatively disappointing 4.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2015, setting the nation off course to meet the International Monetary Fund’s 5.5 per cent growth forecast for 2015.

The relatively low GDP growth rate for Indonesia as a once strongly emerging nation is the result of the strengthening US dollar, weak exports and high domestic interest rates, according to Suryamin, Head of Statistics Indonesia (BPS).

Moreover, Indonesia’s weakening exports are seen as a symptom of the global economic slowdown, as particularly the recent weakness in China – which accounts for one-tenth of Indonesia’s exports – has led to negative side effects, with Indonesia’s exports to China dropping to 7 per cent from 7.4 per cent in the first quarter of 2015. Coal, natural gas and palm oil exports have all been hit.

Widodo predicts that exports will remain weak, but he sees investment opportunities in infrastructure development as a main trigger of economic growth.

“[The infrastructure programmes] will trigger economic growth,” Widodo said last December. “But we do not start those projects in mid-year because the absorption of the budget will determine whether or not our economy grows throughout 2015,” he added.

Indonesia’s Vice-President Jusuf Kalla expects that Indonesia’s GDP growth will accelerate soon after several infrastructure projects will have been launched. Such acceleration should happen in the next few quarters, and the annual growth rate is estimated to increase from this year’s target of 5.5 per cent to 5.8 per cent, according to Finance Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro.

Overall, Indonesia estimates that it needs $450 billion over five years for roads, railways, power stations and ports to revive the economy; currently, it can only cover about 30 per cent of that.

Meanwhile, the country’s central bank Bank Indonesia has been maintaining its high interbank interest rate of 7.5 per cent, limiting people’s purchasing power and keeping loans for businesses expensive. However, the high rate is owing to the country’s account deficit and fears that inflation could accelerate, the central bank argues.

One of the results was that the Indonesian rupiah depreciated to 13,630 per US dollar on August 11, dripping by around 10 per cent this year so far, which makes it the second-worst performing currency in Southeast Asia in 2015 only behind the Malaysian ringgit.

During this year’s Asian African Conference Commemoration Indonesia held in April 2015 in Jakarta, a regular event where peace, security and economic development on both continents are discussed, Widodo held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on economic matters.

With China’s wages rising and economic growth slowing, Chinese companies have showed more eagerness to invest abroad. Hence, Indonesia’s State-Owned Enterprises Minister Rini Soemarno said the government was considering China’s offer to build a railway as a $50-billion funding commitment. She also told media that China’s offer was attractive because it didn’t require any funding guarantees.

According to Rizal Affandi Lukman, Deputy Minister of International Economic and Financial Cooperation, China is expected to jump from currently being the tenth-biggest investor in Indonesia to the top-five within just five years.

China’s drive to invest in infrastructure through the newly formed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, or AIIB, has also been welcomed by Widodo, who remains confident that Indonesia’s economy will double in terms of GDP in 10 to 15 years.

Similarly, Japanese companies are keen to build a mass rapid transit system for Jakarta worth $499 million. Furthermore, Widodo urged a group of Japanese businessmen to invest into Indonesia’s infrastructure on his business trip to Japan in March, promising to settle land disputes that have blocked another Japanese project,  a power station in Java.

Widodo also emphasised his commitment to build new transportation infrastructure, including ten new airports and ten new seaports in the country, keeping promises made during his election campaign in 2014.