Asian Insider Sept 23: Howdy, Modi! Rally a rare mass showing for a foreign leader on American soil

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

Greetings! 

In today’s bulletin: A widening footprint for South-east Asia’s haze, Vettel takes Singapore Grand Prix for a fifth time and a political party in Myanmar that bears watching.

Reading this on the web or know someone who might enjoy receiving Asian Insider? Our sign-up page is here.

‘I CAN’T SEE CLEARLY NOW…’

South-east Asia’s haze menace caused by forest fires in Indonesia continue to keep air quality poor in parts of the sprawling archipelago, and in next-door Malaysia and Singapore. Indonesia Correspondent Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja says air quality in Riau's capital of Pekanbaru worsened to a record low on Sunday (Sept 22) night after the haze intensified as a result of raging fires in the province, but especially in neighbouring Jambi and South Sumatra provinces. 

The PM10 Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in Pekanbaru surged at 10pm to cross 700, above the levels seen during Indonesia's worst haze episode in 2015. The reading dropped to 489 at 7am Monday morning. 

Singapore, meanwhile, is looking for a brief respite says Venessa Lee. While air quality over the island remained unhealthy on Monday morning showers expected later in the day and the coming week could bring some relief from the haze.The National Environment Agency (NEA) said that with winds forecast to blow from the east-northeast or east-southeast on Monday, “the shift in winds is expected to bring some showers over the region”.

In Malaysia, the geographical scope of the haze has widened, with more parts of the country experiencing polluted air. As of 5pm on Sunday, the number of areas with high Air Pollutant Index (API) readings across the country had risen to 45, a stark contrast to only 18 areas which were classified as having unhealthy or very unhealthy API levels at 5pm on Saturday.

HOT WHEELS

The haze nevertheless did not dampen the enthusiasm of car racing enthusiasts, who turned up in large numbers on Sunday night to watch the Formula One race in Singapore that’s become an annual fixture this time of year. 

Assistant Sports Editor Jonathan Wong says the race was sweet vindication for Sebastian Vettel, who won after an interval of 22 races and nearly 400 days of waiting. The German is now the first driver to capture the Singapore Grand Prix five times. 

Red fireworks that greeted him as he claimed the chequered flag in his No. 5 car ahead of teammate Charles Leclerc, with Red Bull's Max Verstappen third; the bear hugs from his mechanics after he climbed out of his Ferrari SF90 "Lina" - Vettel names all his F1 cars - and the celebratory champagne he poured into his mouth on the podium.

HOWDY, MODI!

No global leader quite likes a spectacle the way India’s Narendra Modi seems to do. Early in his tenure, he showed off his popularity with overseas Indians with a well-attended public address at New York’s Madison Square Garden. 

On Sunday, it was the turn of Houston, Texas. But there was one difference - US President Donald Trump, forgoing Sunday morning golf, turned up to share the stage with him. 

Both showered each other with praise at the “Howdy, Modi!” rally attended by upward of 50,000 people, a rare mass showing for a foreign leader on American soil. 

Mr Trump, calling the gathering a “profoundly historic event,” was greeted with a standing ovation by the Indian-American crowd and his speech was interrupted several times by roars of approval. The US leader hailed the India-US relationship and the Indian-American community as he reached out to an ethnic group that voted overwhelmingly against him in 2016.

MYANMAR STIRRINGS

As the Ang San Suu Kyi-led government heads towards the conclusion of its five year term, politics is stirring in the country that once cherished its isolation, reports Indochina Bureau Chief Tan Hui Yee. 

Two new parties have been created as the country counts down to next year’s general election. 

One, led by Mr Ko Ko Gyi, is filled with former students activists who rose against the ruling junta in 1988 - but decided to stand apart from the ruling National League for Democracy. The other, led by Mr Soe Maung, is packed with former generals and led by a retired officer said to have close links to former regime leader Than Shwe.

HONG KONG CLEANUP

Hong Kong cleaned up on Monday and resumed train services after a weekend of sometimes violent protests that saw pro-democracy activists vandalise a railway station and shopping mall. Mass Transit Rail said on Monday train services had returned to normal.

Regional Correspondent Elizabeth Law reports that protesters in Hong Kong rampaged through several metro stations and shopping malls, prompting at least four stations to close and police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.

As anti-government protests entered their 16th week, protesters tried to find novel ways to stay one step ahead of the police while expressing their dissatisfaction with the government. Dramatic scenes emerged from the upscale New Town Plaza mall where thousands of protesters clad in black gathered.

The biggest of several clashes took place in or near MTR stations, now a familiar target of attack because stations are often closed at the government's behest to stop demonstrators from gathering. Hundreds of protesters had gathered in the New Town Plaza in the New Territories town of Sha Tin on Sunday, chanting: "Fight for freedom" and "Liberate Hong Kong." Activists also trampled on a Chinese flag near the train station and rounded on a man they believed had opposed them. Protesters also smashed video cameras and ticket booths in the station.

IN OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Lion Air crash: Indonesian investigators have found that design and oversight lapses played a key role in the fatal crash of a Boeing Co's 737 MAX jet in October, the Wall Street Journal reported. The draft conclusions, which are expected to be the first formal government finding that the design and US regulatory approval were flawed, also identifies a string of pilot errors and maintenance mistakes as causal factors of the Lion Air crash, killing all 189 aboard, WSJ said.

Duterte's drugs war:  Philippine citizens are overwhelmingly satisfied with President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody war on drugs, a survey showed, giving a boost to a government outraged by an international push to investigate allegations of systematic murders by police. Reuters reported that the quarterly poll of 1,200 Filipinos by Social Weather Stations returned a rating of "excellent" for Mr Duterte's three-year campaign, with 82 per cent satisfied due to a perception of less drugs and crime in the country. 

Sri Lanka Easter explosions: A fresh inquiry into the Easter suicide bombings that hit Sri Lanka, killing at least 258 people, has been ordered by President Maithripala Sirisena after concerns from the Catholic Church that current probes are not independent. The government has blamed a local militant group, the National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ), for the April 21 attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group also claimed responsibility.

Typhoon Tapah: A powerful typhoon battered southern South Korea, injuring 26 people and knocking out power to about 27,790 houses, officials said on Monday. Typhoon Tapah hit the southern Japanese island of Okinawa on Friday and Saturday and left 18 people with minor injuries. The storm disrupted air and train travel in the region during a three-day holiday weekend. Typhoon Tapah earlier lashed parts of Japan's southern islands with heavy rains and winds that caused flooding and some minor injuries.

For the latest developments in Asia, and the world, stay updated via www.straitstimes.com

Seize the day!

- Ravi