Asian Insider March 19: Pricey cities

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

Greetings!

In today’s Asian Insider:Thailand’s choreographed election, Australia holds interest rates and Singapore’s en bloc millionaires.

GENERAL STABILITY

Coup-prone Thailand is familiar with retired generals wading into electoral politics but analysts say the country is entering new territory as it approaches its March 24 election. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha, a former military chief, has said he overthrew the government in 2014 to prevent Thailand from sliding further into turmoil. However, critics saw it as the latest attempt by the royalist military establishment to dislodge the country's most successful politicians over the past two decades.

Rather than resolve Thailand's deep political conflict, the military has only suppressed it, analysts say. Mr Prayut's foray into politics has cast him as a partisan player in the deep political divide and he is now up for ‘re-election’ -- Thai style. Under the military-written Constitution, Mr Prayut only needs the support of 126 of the 500 Lower House MPs to stay on as Premier.

Our Indochina bureau chief Tan Hui Yee followed him to Khon Kaen to file this report: Thai coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha reinvents himself

Follow our coverage of the Thai election here. We'll be bringing you the lastest on election day on March 24 and when results start to come in.

AUSTRALIA HOLDS RATES

Australia is often called a teflon economy because it has escaped recession for a quarter-century, thanks in part to booming demand for its commodities from a rising China. Now, its central bank is holding fire on interest rates as it awaits a resolution to the divergence between strong hiring and decelerating economic growth.

The Reserve Bank of Australia said the labour market is "particularly important" to the outlook and reiterated there's considerable uncertainty over consumption, minutes of its March 5 policy meeting released on Tuesday showed. It said dwelling investment was expected to subtract from growth and the decline "could be sharper" than currently expected.

"Members agreed that there was not a strong case for a near-term adjustment in monetary policy," it said.  The board met a day before the release of GDP data showing the economy decelerated in the second half of the year to an annualised 1 per cent from almost 4 per cent in the first half. The RBA has kept rates on hold for two-and-a-half years as it aims to boost employment, lift wages and reignite inflation.

Go deeper: Australian housing slide deepens as central bank holds fire on interest rates

TRADE’S THE KEY

China and Singapore will always be Malaysia's key trade partners despite differences in views, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told international investors gathered for a conference in the Malaysian capital. This was the latest assurance from Putrajaya to the two countries that their ongoing disputes with Malaysia will not dampen economic ties with the country. "We may have differences of views - as with Singapore and China - but let me tell you we see them as close partners," Dr Mahathir said in his keynote address at the Invest Malaysia 2019 conference. "They are our top two key trading and investment partners."

Singapore and Malaysia have been trying to iron out their differences over their long-standing water supply deal. The neighbours also have locked horns in recent months over their maritime and airspace borders. Meanwhile Malaysia’s initial decision to cancel several Chinese-funded large-scale infrastructure projects, including the RM80 billion East Coast Rail Link, was said to have upset Beijing.

Go deeper: China, Singapore will always be Malaysia's key trade partners despite differences: Mahathir

PRICE OF SUCCESS

How do you tell that a city is thriving and attracting skilled workers with high salaries? Check how expensive it is to live there.

Paris and Hong Kong for the first time joined Singapore as the world's most expensive cities for expatriates to live in, a study revealed on Tuesday, with utilities and transport driving up the cost of living. Zurich, Geneva and Japan's Osaka trailed closely, with emerging market cities like Istanbul and Moscow plummeting down the ranking due to high inflation and currency depreciation, said the Economist Intelligence Unit's bi-annual survey of 133 cities.

It was the first time in more than 30 years that three cities shared the top spot, a sign that pricey global cities are growing more alike, said the report's author, Roxana Slavcheva. "Converging costs in traditionally more expensive cities ... is a testament to globalisation and the similarity of tastes and shopping patterns."

Rising costs in cities are often driven by a vibrant job market attracting skilled workers with high wages, said Anthony Breach, an analyst with the British think tank Centre for Cities - which was not involved in the study.

Full storySingapore, Hong Kong, and Paris are the most expensive cities for expatriates to live in

EN BLOC MILLIONAIRES

In Singaporean life -- and certainly for the 20 percent or so that live in private estates rather than housing board flats -- one topic that comes up frequently in conversation is the ‘en bloc’ sale.

This is when four-fifths of an estate get together to agree to sell their property jointly to a bidder at a significant premium to the market, so the buyer can then build more densely, and higher, to make his own profit. Now, Singapore's largest private residential site - Braddell View - has announced that it will be launched for collective sale by public tender on March 27 at a reserve price of S$2.08 billion, with residential owners standing to receive between S$2 million and S$4 million each, marketing agent Colliers International said on Tuesday). The price is, in some cases, three times what the original owners paid for their flats.

The development in Braddell Hill is the largest of the 18 Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) estates in Singapore. It has 918 residential units and two commercial units. The residential units comprise 824 apartments, 78 maisonettes and 16 penthouses.

Go deeper: Ex-HUDC estate Braddell View to launch en bloc sale with $2.08b reserve price

IN OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

-The safety of a new signalling system which Hong Kong’s rail operator planned to roll out has been called into question after two subway trains collided in the wee hours of  Monday during a trial run.

-The spokesman for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group emerged from nearly six months of silence to mock America's assertion of having defeated the group and to call for retaliation over last week's mosque attacks in New Zealand.

- South Korea President Moon Jae-in ordered thorough investigations of prominent scandals involving celebrities and a former high-ranking Ministry of Justice official.

- In the world’s best airport, not everything goes to plan. Ground-handling firm Sats is investigating a fight that broke out on the tarmac at Singapore’s Changi Airport. In a video that The Straits Times obtained, two Sats employees - both women - are seen hitting each other while at least five other staff members are seen trying to break up the fight. Take a look.

- Finally, every two months we curate some of our best work on Asia into a magazine-format publication called Asia Report. Please help yourself to our March-April issue just out. You can download it here.

Asian Insider will be back tomorrow, same time.

Meanwhile, seize the day!

Ravi Velloor