Asian Insider March 21: Indonesia’s shifting currents

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

Greetings!

In today’s Asian Insider: Gun control in New Zealand, election warm-up in Indonesia, Thailand and India, and Chinese kids who pay for praise.

NO HURRY OVER TARIFFS

America’s tariffs on Chinese goods will remain for some time even after both countries seal a deal on trade, said US President Donald Trump on Wednesday ahead of a fresh round of talks in Beijing next week.

“We’re talking about leaving them and for a substantial period of time, because we have to make sure that if we do the deal with China, that China lives by the deal. Because they’ve had a lot of problems living by certain deals and we have to make sure,” said Mr Trump in brief remarks before departing to Ohio.

US Correspondent Charissa Yong says his comments come as the United States prepares to send a trade delegation to Beijing this weekend for the next round of negotiations over a trade deal that the President said was “coming along nicely”, despite reports that negotiators had yet to agree on a way of enforcing any trade deal.

INDONESIA RACE NARROWS

It was thought to have been a bit of a cakewalk for Indonesian President Joko Widodo as he prepares for polls that would give him a second term in office. Now, though, says Indonesia Bureau Chief Francis Chan, the tide may have turned somewhat and a close finish is probably on the cards.

With polling day less than a month away, the survey conducted by Kompas, Indonesia's largest newspaper, showed the electability of Mr Joko and his vice-presidential candidate, Dr Ma'ruf Amin, dropping to 49.2 per cent, from 52.6 per cent six months ago. In contrast, support for presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto and his running mate Sandiaga Uno rose to 37.4 per cent, up almost five points from the previous survey by Kompas released last October.

The survey also raised eyebrows as it showed the challengers enjoying more support than the incumbent in the capital Jakarta and West Java, which has the largest electorate of 32.5 million voters.

Meanwhile, Correspondent Nur Asyiqin Mohammed Salleh says that even as intolerance has been rising in recent years, minority Chinese candidates in the Indonesian election are pressing on, believing it is their ideas, not race, that will appeal to what is one of Asia’s youngest electorates. 

A THAI DEADLOCK?

If the race is getting tighter in South-east Asia’s biggest economy, things are also stirring in the No. 2, Thailand, which is having its main polling this weekend. Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a former Asean official now a fellow at the Asean Studies Centre of the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, warns in this commentary that Thailand is heading towards a dreadful political deadlock, with the general election looking set to produce an inconclusive outcome.

None of the top three parties is strong enough to win a majority of seats in the 500-member House of Representatives. Yet, says Khun Termsak, none wants to join a coalition government led by either of its two rivals, and play second fiddle, because the premiership is at stake.

The key to ending the deadlock may lie in the Senate, which will be filled with 250 senators handpicked by the junta National Council for Peace and Order. The appointed senators will join the elected House members in voting for a new prime minister in a joint parliamentary sitting. In order to win the premiership, at least 376 votes are needed.

MANILA’S WATER WOES

Meanwhile, in the capital of South-east Asia’s third largest economy, people are steamed up over an altogether different issue — a water shortage in large parts of sprawling Metropolitan Manila, home to 13 million people.

A quarter century ago, Singapore stepped in to help alleviate Manila’s infamous brownouts and now it is being asked to advise on the water issue. Philippines Correspondent Raul Dancel says President Rodrigo Duterte raised the matter with new Singapore Ambassador Gerard Ho, when the diplomat showed up to present credentials.

Hospitals have had to cut water supply to their rooms and scale back on surgery. Malls have had to close toilets, and police stations and jails have had to purchase extra pails for inmates in their cells. Taps are running dry because Manila Water, which supplies half of Metro Manila, does not have access to enough water sources to cover growing demand.

NEW ZEALAND MOVES ON GUN CONTROL

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is not one to be fazed by the gun lobby. On Thursday she announced an immediate ban on military-style semi-automatic and assault rifles as part of sweeping changes to the nation's gun laws in the wake of last Friday's attacks on two mosques in Christchurch that left 50 people dead and dozens wounded.

She added that high-capacity magazines and devices similar to bump stocks – which make rifles fire faster – will also be banned. “In short, every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned in this country,” she said.

For the guns that are still out there, Ms Ardern announced a buy-back scheme that will cost between NZ$100 million and NZ$200 million, depending on the number of weapons received.

CUMBERBATCH NIXES MAHATHIR

The second son of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has confirmed that Hollywood actor Benedict Cumberbatch has severed business ties with him because of his father's anti-Semitic remarks. Mr Mokhzani Mahathir said that it was Cumberbatch's prerogative to do so.

Mr Mokhzani was said to have invested £1 million in SunnyMarch productions, a company involved in movies and TV programmes, in partnership with Cumberbatch and two others.

"Ben has decided that being associated with me is the same as being associated with my father indirectly, so that's his prerogative,” Mr Mokhzani said.

In a BBC interview last October,  PM Mahathir had described Jews as "hook-nosed" and blamed them for the troubles in the Middle East, comments which were seen as anti-Semitic.

REGULATION, MAS STYLE

The Monetary Authority of Singapore, the island-state’s central bank, regulator and key promoter of the nation’s pitch to be the top financial centre in its time zone, has offered a rare peek into its internal operations.

In its first enforcement report, MAS said it had issued 223 warnings to players in the financial sector, and more than 400 supervisory reminders.

One widely watched probe it conducted was its investigation into the scandal surrounding 1MDB, the controversial state fund operated by Malaysia’s ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak. As a result of that probe, two Swiss private banks were ordered to close their Singapore operations and other banks were fined a total of S$30 million.

Ng Jun Sen has these reports:

Singapore's 1MDB probe not due to political influence

Rare peek into role of a financial crime investigator

THAT FIRST TIME FEELING

India’s elections are often described as a "festival of democracy" and those partaking in the festivities come April, when 900 million voters head to polls to determine whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi stays, or leaves, are 84 million new voters.

Debarshi Dasgupta says these first-time voters could hold the key to more than half the 544 Lower House seats at stake.

Meanwhile, says India Bureau Chief Nirmala Ganapathy, Mr Modi is now pitching himself as the nation’s ‘chowkidar’ -- the lowly but honest watchman and guardian of the nation’s security.

In the last election, Mr Modi turned a dismissive jibe from a senior Congress party figure that he was nothing but a chai-wallah (tea seller) to his advantage, stressing his humble but hardworking origins and his deep knowledge of the issues that face common Indians.

PAY-FOR-PRAISE

Who couldn’t do with a word of praise, and encouragement? In China, you can earn it — with a little spend, says China Correspondent Lim Yan Liang. A phenomenon known as "kuakuaqun" or "praise groups" has taken Chinese social media by storm whereby users can now join a chat group on WeChat or QQ, where they are showered with lavish praise and encouragement.

On e-commerce sites like Taobao, membership in such WeChat and QQ groups starts at 50 yuan (US$7.40) for five minutes of compliments. It can also be custom-tailored for a friend or loved one.

The phenomenon is said to have started last month at universities, with chat groups created by students to cheer each other on. Chinese media reported that such groups, with hundreds of users, now exist in more than a dozen universities, including Fudan, Tsinghua and Xi'an Jiaotong.

SKATER’S LOW BLOW

An American professional figure skater has been accused of striking her South Korean rival in the leg with her skate during the world championships in Japan, says Ng Huiwen. Mariah Bell, 22, had collided into 16-year-old Lim Eun-soo during the warm-up session on Wednesday before the women's short programme at the International Skating Union World Championships in Saitama.

Lim suffered a gash to her leg and she was treated for her injury immediately. Despite her injury, Lim went on to set a personal high in her first senior world championships with 72.91 points to rank fifth. Bell placed sixth, reported The Korea Herald.

All That Sports said that it has asked the Korea Skating Union to lodge a formal complaint on Lim's behalf, the report added.

And that’s it, for now. Track us on www.straitstimes.com for the latest on Asia, and the world.

Meanwhile, seize the day!

Ravi Velloor