Asian Insider Jan 29,2019: Huawei, the US-China rift and Singapore's bicentennial

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

The little island that could

Once a mosquito-ridden swamp and colonial backwater, Singapore’s amazing story from Third World to First has been well-chronicled. This week, the ‘Little Red Dot’ -- the mocking description of the island by a former Southeast Asian leader that the entrepot city-state cheerily, and cheekily, adopted as its own label -- kicks off a year-long celebration to mark 200 years since Sir Stamford Raffles arrived on the island to establish a trading station for the British East India Company. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says the story is one of “from Singapore, to Singaporeans”.

The visually-inclined can watch the videos here. We also have articles from Singapore icon Prof Tommy Koh on the island’s enduring ties with its colonial master and Wednesday morning at 8 a.m. Singapore time (Monday, 7 p.m. US Eastern time) you can listen to British High Commissioner (Ambassador) Scott Wightman on our radio channel MoneyFM 89.3.

Unlike some post-colonial societies that have sought to erase their colonial heritage, Singapore has accepted its history while carrying no “colonial cringe”, as founding father Lee Kuan Yew once described it. For an unsentimental perspective of how the island regards its past and looks to the future read Editor in Chief Warren Fernandez’s column: Instead of angst over the bicentennial, draw lessons from the past.

That China worry

Chipmaker Nvidia, and earth-moving firm Caterpillar, have reported earnings and both are talking their short-term prospects and blaming slowing China sales. A sluggish Chinese economy radiates shivers across Asia and we asked our correspondents to tap local reactions for its potential fallout. You can read the detailed coverage here: China slowdown: Waking a dozing dragon.

Meanwhile, things are not looking pretty on the bilateral front, never mind the high-level talks scheduled to be held in Washington this week. Our China correspondent Lim Yan Liang has this story on China demanding a halt to the ‘unreasonable suppression’ of Chinese firms such as Huawei. In New York, US Federal prosecutors unveiled a sweeping set of criminal indictments against Huawei, accusing the  Technologies Co. in its latest salvo against the telecom giant, with authorities unsealing a pair of indictments just days before U.S.-China trade talks are set to resume.

In the cases unsealed Monday, says US Correspondent Charissa Yong, federal prosecutors accused Huawei of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran and of stealing trade secrets from a U.S. business partner, portraying the company as a serial violator of US laws and global business practices. Asian stocks were mixed as investors digested the news.

Next question: What happens to Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, now in home detention in Vancouver, Canada pending extradition to the US? Should the US press for extradition a fresh wave of verbal sparring between Washington and Beijing is on the cards.

Crunch time in KL

Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s 93 year old premier, is following through with his vow to relook all significant contracts signed by the previous administration, suspecting corruption and cosy dealings in the deals. After a week of embarrassing flip-flops, Kuala Lumpur indicated Tuesday that it will scrap the 55 billion-ringgit East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project the government of Najib Razak had signed with China Communications Construction Company (CCCC).

Regional Correspondent Leslie Lopez says there is nervousness in Kuala Lumpur that China - Malaysia's largest trading partner - could get tough by suspending large annual contracted purchases of Malaysian palm oil, a move that would hurt large Malaysian state-controlled entities. More punishing for Malaysia would be if the Chinese were to make a full-blown declaration of a default on the project.

But Malaysia seems to be prepared for that. Mahathir said the huge compensation for cancelling “is not as huge as the amount we have to carry for the next 30 years." Separately, he launched an anti corruption drive, identifying 22 priority areas out of a total 115 where it seeks to improve the transparency and accountability across all levels of the administration.

Scraping the bottom of India's vote barrel

Election season has kicked into gear in India, the world’s biggest democracy, and the political class is predictably scraping the bottom -- of the electoral barrel. Rahul Gandhi, president of the opposition Indian National Congress Party, fresh after drafting his charismatic kid-sister Priyanka to lead the challenge in the eastern part of populous Uttar Pradesh state, says Congress will introduce a “minimum income guarantee” for the poor if voted into office.

Although, not exactly equivalent to universal basic income, since he appears to have an income ceiling in mind for eligibility, it is not the first time Congress has tried similar moves. In the decade from 2004 when Dr Manmohan Singh headed a Congress-led coalition a rural employment guarantee plan was introduced nationwide that gave 100 days of assured work a year for rural folk. Other parties are locking into the minimum income idea as well. India Correspondent Debarshi Dasgupta says the regional party leading the Himalayan state of Sikkim has proposed a minimum basic income for all residents, the first such move by an Indian province.

And now, there are just 23

Kim Bok-dong (left), a South Korean victim of sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II -- known around the world as ‘comfort women’ -- died late on Monday, aged 93, the Korea Herald reports. Kim, was a leading figure in the movement to raise awareness about Japanese military sexual slavery. She died at Seoul’s Yonsei Severance Hospital and had been battling colorectal cancer for about a year,  according to the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance. With Ms Kim’s death only 23 of the known ‘comfort women’ survive.

We will be back tomorrow with the next update. Stay tuned.

-Ravi Velloor

"If you must play, decide on three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time. -- Chinese Proverb"


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Thickly wooded Singapore can often throw up a surprise or two. Shoppers on Orchard Road were surprised to see living snake skin on the pavement outside a fashionable  mall. As always, wildlife wardens handled the situation respectfully, and the 3m long reptile was returned to a more natural habitat.