Asian Insider: Asia’s virus spike | Global infrastructure wars

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

Dear ST reader,

We hope your week has been going well. 

In our Asian Insider newsletter this week, we examine the new waves of Covid-19 threatening to overwhelm countries across the region; the infrastructure rivalry playing out across the world; and the latest developments in Malaysia’s political scene.

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Covid-19 spikes in Asia

The world’s biggest continent is struggling to contain a resurgence of coronavirus infections, with less than 100 days to go before it is due to host the Olympics in Japan. The Straits Times’ bureaus around the region look into the reasons for the rebound in cases

In Japan, pleas to avoid non-essential outings have been ignored by politicians and bureaucrats, and streets are teeming with people again even as infections rise, Japan correspondent Walter Sim reports. The Malaysian government has relaxed social distancing rules for the Ramadan fasting month, though new cases remain stubbornly above 1,000 on most days, Malaysia correspondent Hazlin Hassan writes. In India, which is experiencing a massive new wave of infections, people were simply confused by contradictory messaging as mass gatherings were taking place even while officials threatened lockdowns, says India bureau chief Nirmala Ganapathy. 

More stories: 

Pandemic fatigue in South Korea as fourth wave looms 

Phuket’s tourism comeback plan at stake amid third virus wave 

Philippines lockdown slows virus spread but wipes out jobs 

India’s fearful migrant workers head home 

Infrastructure wars

In our latest Asian Insider Special, The Straits Times correspondents explore the “infrastructure wars” playing out across the globe, and the political and economic calculus driving them. Check out our comprehensive comparison of countries’ infrastructure injections in our graphic. 

The United States is going all out to challenge China’s belief that the West is in decline, and to prove that democracies are better than autocracies in delivering for their people, US bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh writes. Beijing, meanwhile, is reinventing President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, positioning the ambitious plan as a "Green Silk Road", "Health Silk Road" and "Digital Silk Road" instead, China bureau chief Tan Dawn Wei and Tan Tam Mei report. In India, a drive to sharpen the country’s competitive edge against China is behind a massive plan to build more highways and railway lines, writes India bureau chief Nirmala Ganapathy. 

More from this package: 

Cooperation in third countries on Japan PM Suga's mind 

Indonesian govt won't let Covid-19 derail much-needed projects 

Tap private partnerships in Indonesia to boost public services 

Malaysia’s PM candidates

The troubles facing Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi appear to fuel the premiership ambitions of his “clean” deputy Mohamad Hasan, says Malaysia bureau chief Shannon Teoh. 

The recent leak of an audio clip purportedly of Zahid conspiring with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim - if authentic - lays bare the pair’s joint efforts to wrest power from Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Zahid is also facing 87 charges of corruption. Calls are growing for him to step down and hand over the reins to his deputy. But Mr Mohamad, while fairly popular within the party, may lack a firm grip on the influential warlords within the group. 

Malaysia’s most stable political party, the opposition Democratic Action Party, is also in a state of flux as it debates whether to “dilute its Chineseness” to gain the acceptance and support of Malay voters. Meanwhile, the opposition pact, Pakatan Harapan, last week named Datuk Seri Anwar as its prime ministerial candidate for the next general election, Malaysia correspondent Hazlin Hassan reports. 

Thailand’s protests shift gear

A new movement has sprung from the fading embers of Thailand's pro-democracy protests, Indochina bureau chief Tan Hui Yee writes. A coalition of political and civic groups called "Re-Solution" launched a campaign last week to collect a million signatures to amend Thailand’s Constitution - a goal broadly similar to that of the youth protests that roiled the country for much of the past year. But it has one key difference from the previous movement.

Hong Kong’s silent outsiders

Hong Kong’s foreign-born residents describe how they continue to be treated like outsiders after decades of living in the cosmopolitan business hub that calls itself “Asia’s World City”, Hong Kong correspondent Claire Huang reports in the latest instalment of our Invisible Asia series

On a daily basis, these Hong Kong residents face varying degrees of discrimination and micro-aggressions. People in the ethnic majority aren’t spared either, with the lines of segregation shifting as ethnic otherness gets eclipsed by a politicised cultural war driven by anti-mainlandism. Watch the video on YouTube, and listen to the podcast here

Follow the other stories in this ongoing series on our Invisible Asia microsite.

A Sino-US race to the top

The competitive instincts of the world’s two greatest rivals - China and the US - can be harnessed for a good cause: To protect our climate by reining in carbon emissions, US correspondent Charissa Yong writes in our weekly Power Play column. Climate change was an oasis of rare agreement at the heated Sino-US talks in Alaska last month, but the path ahead is still lined with potential pitfalls. 

Look out for our next Asian Insider Special package on climate action this Saturday, ahead of a virtual summit of world leaders hosted by US President Joe Biden. Our correspondents will cover the plans for action, the issues hindering the way forward, and more.

Asia’s strongman leaders

Are Asians more prone to looking away from the liberal order as a trade-in for what they interpret as "order", Associate editor Ravi Velloor muses in his latest column as he outlines signs of increasingly autocratic leadership around the region. Strongmen are an uneasy fit anywhere, because excessive centralisation of power is dangerous, he says. But when such leaders seem to thrive, questions arise as to what it takes to keep democracy alive.

That’s it for today. See you next Thursday. Until then, keep safe and keep reading! 

Magdalene Fung 

Assistant Foreign Editor