This Week Around Asia

Power women, ID cards for holy cows, Liar's Poker

This is a weekly blog by Associate Editor Ravi Velloor offering his take on events around Asia and those that affect the region. It is exclusive to The Straits Times digital edition.

Singapore's elevation of Mrs Josephine Teo to the status of full Cabinet Minister makes her the second woman in the Republic to carry that rank currently. This is a welcome development; women bring experience and insights, and often, unique perspectives that enrich every situation.

Hopefully, there will be more additions to those ranks in time to come.

In Dubai, for instance, Sheikh Mohammed's Cabinet is nearly a third women.

Across the Asia Pacific, women leaders are stepping up to the plate and not doing badly at all. Mrs Carrie Lam has just been elected Hong Kong's Chief Executive, albeit from a slate cherry-picked by Beijing. In Australia, Mrs Julie Bishop is heard around the world as its foreign minister. Last year, when the Chinese Coast Guard intruded into the waters off the Natunas, Indonesia's Minister for Maritime Resources and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti led the chorus of protest in her country, demanding Beijing respect Indonesian sovereignty and its Exclusive Economic Zone.

Interestingly, South Asia has done better on this score than the rest of the region.

Starting with Sri Lanka in the 1950s, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have elected women prime ministers although it must also be stated that all these women owed their political birth to having a famous father or husband, even if they later held power on their own steam. Myanmar's political supremo Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and former Indonesian President Megawati Soekarnoputri fall in a similar category.

In Southeast Asia one of the feistiest women politicians in recent times was Malaysia's Rafidah Aziz, who served as Trade Minister for 11 years, first under Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and later, under Abdullah Badawi.

Whether it was to slap down an ambassador's remarks on appropriate dress codes for women or to send a letter in bold type to a recalcitrant Indian counterpart, Tan Sri Rafidah made her views plain.

Speaking in Cary, North Carolina, she once described herself as a fundamentalist.

"Those people who kill and bomb are deviants and extremists. They are not fundamentalists. They use the name Islam but Islam does not teach us to kill and bomb. We are the fundamentalists who practise the fundamentals of the religion," she said.

Another time she told Singapore's Business Times: "I am a Muslim woman. I am a grandmother and I play golf."

Now 73 and retired, Tan Sri Rafidah, the Malay Mail reported last month, has found a new love: scuba diving.

Who's talking China to Trump

This week, discussing his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, US President Donald Trump said: "I like him, and I am told he likes me a lot."

Strong personal bonding between the leaders of the great powers is something to be welcomed. In Mr Trump's case, he's met his Chinese counterpart over two days in a relaxed atmosphere at his Mar-a-Lago resort and pronounced himself impressed not just by his interlocutor but also his wife -- "she is terrific".

Backstate, who could be influencing Mr Trump's views on China?

A few days ago, the New York Times put out a list of Trump friends and advisers beyond the circle of government who the president often calls for a chat. Three of the names were Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who owns Fox News and Wall Street Journal, the tycoon Carl Icahn and billionaire investor Stephen Shwarzman of Blackstone.

Mr Icahn was once mentioned as a potential Trump administration ambassador to China, or lead negotiator with the mainland. A year ago, he sold off all his 46 million shares in Apple Inc., later telling MSNBC: "If China blows up... you are going to have a major problem in the markets."

Mr Schwarzman thinks getting the US-China relationship right is the most important challenge. Hearing Mr Trump's harangues against China on the campaign trail, Mr Schwarzman recognised that anti China sentiment was something that wouldn't go away, especially as the world recognised that China had been the biggest beneficiary of globalisation. To mitigate this he launched Schwarzman Scholars, a programme that brought internaitonal scholars to China's Tsinghua University for an immersion programme. This he seeded with US$100 million (S$140 million) of his own money. Talk about putting his money where his mouth is!

His explanation: "I worry about a situation that could get out of control particularly with weapons in the modern world. So I looked at that and I said, 'What can I do as a person to try and lower the temperature and avoid extreme outcomes?"

What of Mr Murdoch, who was once married to the China-born Wendi Deng?

The media tycoon pursuit of the China market ended in anger and frustration in 2014 when his company, 20th Century Fox sold its remaining stake in Star China Group. Mr Murdoch had previously complained of being thwarted in his attempt to grow the China business because of stifling regulations. In short, "a brick wall" as he described it.

ID cards for India's holy cows

India has no shortage of holy cows, actual and metaphorical. Some years ago, the politician and former UN diplomat Shashi Tharoor waded into a sea of trouble for tweeting about the austerity drive imposed on ministers.

"Travelling cattle class in solidarity with our holy cows" he said on his handle, drawing instant howls of protest. One Congress party chief minister accused him of mocking party chief Sonia Gandhi with that comment.

 

Jokes aside, cows are serious business in India, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, influenced by the Hindu nationalist RSS outfit, stands all ready to trample beef-eaters underfoot. Cow meat is banned in many states, while buffalo is tolerated. The RSS now has more fully embraced the cow, seeing the bovine as possibly a useful vehicle to channel Hindu nationalism. It has called for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter.

Now, a federal government committee has recommended that each cow be given a unique identity number, much like humans carry an Identification Certificate number in many countries. The unique ID, in the form of a polyurethane bag, will contain details of the cattle's age, breed, sex, height, body colour, horn type, tail switch and special marks, according to the panel set up by the Indian home ministry.

In truth, cows are no more inviolate in Hinduism than any other animal since all living beings are believed to have a soul. The most popular deity, some would say, is in fact Hanuman, the man-monkey. So far, the RSS has not spoken its mind on monkeys.

China, India Stocks: Liar's Poker?

China stocks have been getting much attention lately, after sharp falls on Monday (April 24). The Shanghai Composite is down about 3 per cent for the month. On the other hand, the Mumbai Sensitive Index, or Sensex, soared past 30,000 this week and then settled a mite lower. Does that mean the stocks reflect the underlying economies? Not entirely.

China pessimists are looking a bit embarrassed after first quarter economic growth came in at 6.9 per cent, better than expected. Strange as it may sound, one way to interpret the Shanghai dip is that thanks to underlying strength investors are not as worried about the swings in the China market as they were before. Thus, they can adjust to a situation where the Chinese government is squeezing speculation out of the market.

 

In India, the rally is mostly sentiment driven by fund flows after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party took control of Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, fueling hope that this will aid the reform process. Fundamentals need to improve significantly before this can be justified.

The strengthening rupee will drag on exporters' profit and sclerotic lending by public sector banks laded by non performing loans isn't helping. There's also doubt that the Indian economy is actually expanding at the 7 per cent plus rate claimed by New Delhi.

For the moment the party's on and their story is selling well. On Friday (April 28), as this column was being written, DBS Research even put out a note suggesting that the country, currently at the lowest investment grade of ratings companies, may be a worthy candidate for an upgrade.


Ravi Velloor is on holiday in May. This blog will resume in June.