Asian Insider April 1: Welcome to the Reiwa era

Asian Insider brings you insights into a fast-changing region from our network of correspondents.

Happy Monday,

Today, Japan unveils a new imperial era name, the Vietnamese woman accused of killing Kim Jong Nam escapes the death penalty, the fallout from Brunei’s Syariah law continues and Singapore debates hate speech.

(April Fools' Day disclaimer: There are no April Fools' Day jokes in this newsletter. Promise.)

A NEW ERA DAWNS IN JAPAN

Japan’s Heisei (achieving peace) era comes to an end on the first of May, the day Crown Prince Naruhito succeeds his father Emperor Akihito as the country’s 126th monarch. Today, the name of the new imperial era was unveiled. It will be called “Reiwa” - a term taken from classic Japanese literature that loosely translates into auspicious harmony. The name was revealed when Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga help up a framed white placard during a ceremony televised nationwide.

Why it matters: This isn’t just any ordinary naming exercise. As Japan Correspondent Walter Sim notes, the imperial era is often used to bookmark a particular period in time, reflecting the zeitgeist and overall mood of the population.

Origins: The name Reiwa is derived from a passage in the eighth century poetry anthology Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves). The passage relates to the scent of plum blossoms in the breeze (How very Japanese):

“On a moonlit night in early spring; the air is fresh and the breeze is calm; plum blossoms are blooming like a beautiful woman applying powder in front of a mirror; the fragrance of orchids are like that of robes scented with incense.”

Go deeper: Japan picks Reiwa to succeed Heisei as new imperial era from May 1

Background: How the era name is chosen and what is the significance of gengo names

An aside: Reiwa burger: Tokyo chef whips up $1,200 monster for new emperor Naruhito

A SURREAL MURDER TRIAL

Doan Thi Huong, 30, the Vietnamese woman accused of murdering the estranged half-brother of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, escaped the death penalty in a plea deal that saw prosecutors offering a charge of causing hurt instead of murder. Huong pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years and four months in jail. Counting time served and a possible discount for good behaviour, she could be released in May.

The big picture: Two women were caught on camera killing Kim Jong Nam in broad daylight in an airport. Both later said they thought they were in a reality TV show. One had charges dropped in part because her country’s strong relationship with Malaysia. The other had a request for the same deal rejected, only to be then offered a deal that would see her released 1.5 months later than her co-accused. Few things in this saga make any sense. A surreal, unbelievable crime has just been given a surreal, unbelievable ending.

Go deeper:

Vietnamese woman escapes gallows, to be freed in May after jail for lesser charge

Vietnam stepmum of accused Kim Jong Nam assassin 'happy' over new sentence

OUTCRY OVER BRUNEI’S ISLAMIC LAWS

Brunei is defending its new Islamic laws even as a growing chorus of critics condemned the practice. The Brunei government had initially kept silent after saying last week it would implement the law that would allow death by stoning for adultery and homosexuality but said yesterday that the law aims to “educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals, society or nationality of any faiths and race”. The UN has decried the “cruel and inhuman” laws adding its voice to those of a long list of politicians and celebrities - including George Clooney and Elton John  - who have condemned the practice and called for a boycott of hotels owned by the sultanate.

The big picture:  Until a few years ago and the first attempt to implement strict Syariah law, the Brunei royal family did not really strike anyone as religious hardliners. Hence, it remains a big unanswered question why the sultan is currently pushing an agenda too extreme even for its Muslim-majority neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia. Even if there is an expectation that the more controversial provisions of the law will never take place, it is unclear why the palace would even want it on the books.

Full story: UN slams 'inhuman' Brunei law on stoning for adultery, gay sex

SINGAPORE DEBATES REGULATING HATE SPEECH

Lawmakers in Singapore are today debating how to regulate hate speech, while noting that tech companies like Facebook and Google have shown that they are not able to do so effectively. The debate is meant to help determine how laws on hate speech should be framed and applied here.

The big picture: In the wake of the New Zealand terror attack that was streamed online for 17 minutes and evidence that fake news can have a significant impact on an election, there has been a growing appetite around the world for more state regulation of tech giants. Australia, India and Indonesia have also all of late sought to rein in the tech companies that now play an outsized role in information distribution. The pressure has gotten strong enough that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has himself called for regulations governing  hateful and violent content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.

Full story: Hate speech 'disengages morality'; leads to social divides and increases prejudice, says Singapore Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam

AND FINALLY, MEET THAILAND’S FIRST TRANSGENDER MP

We thought we would bring you a different type of Thai election story today, after the deluge of stories about political manoeuvring and confusion. Meet Ms Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, a 45-year-old filmmaker, who - barring some unforeseen development - will become the country’s first transgender member of parliament. Though chatter has focused on how she will add colour to Thai politics, she told Indochina Bureau Chief Tan Hui Yee that she is dead serious about her legislative work. She is eyeing a post of Culture Minister.

Watch the video and read the whole interview: I am intelligent, capable, and a katoey: Thailand's first transgender MP

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS:

Malaysia plans to develop what it bills as the "world's largest" ship-to-ship transfer hub in the waters of Johor Baru port.

Thirty people have gone missing while battling a forest fire in south-west China's Sichuan province, local authorities said today. They have been unaccounted for since Sunday afternoon after a sudden change in wind direction caused an outburst of the blaze, according to the authorities in Sichuan's Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture.

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn issued a rare rebuke of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra about a week after an inconclusive national election, making it more likely that a pro-military party would form a government.

A comedian with a popular anti-corruption message but no political experience took the lead in the first round of Ukraine's presidential election on Sunday, early exit polls showed. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, who plays a fictional president in a TV show, had consistently led opinion polls in a three-horse race against incumbent Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Thanks for reading and see you tomorrow,

-Jeremy