The View From Asia

Hopes and fears over a bumpy 2019

Asia News Network writers give their take on priorities for their countries, this year. Here are excerpts.

China, US should improve ties

Editorial China Daily, China

The start of a new year always generates fresh hopes and expectations, and this year is no exception. The leaders of China and the United States have fuelled the seasonal sense of anticipation by raising hopes that the tensions between the two countries will be eased.

As long as both sides bear in mind the larger picture of bilateral ties and opt for dialogue and negotiations to resolve their differences, there is no reason why their relations cannot continue the general trend of increasing engagement that has benefited both countries over the past 40 years.

And at a time when the world is undergoing profound changes and facing rising challenges and uncertainties, a rapport between Washington and Beijing would also be a welcome signal that they recognise that no country can be an island unto itself in today's interconnected world.

It is to be hoped the two sides can demonstrate the political wisdom that will enable them to deliver on the welcome sense of optimism that prevails as we enter 2019.

Work on growth potential

Editorial The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan

Will the Japanese economy, which is now stranded, be able to regain pace and put itself on a track towards stable growth?

The nominal gross domestic product (GDP) has increased by about 150 trillion yen (S$1.9 trillion) over the 30 years of the Heisei era, while the ratio of registered job offers to registered job seekers, which shows the employment situation, is at a record-high level.

Yet the potential growth rate, which was higher than 4 per cent 30 years ago, has been hovering low, at around 1 per cent, for more than five years. Economic momentum is weak.

Deregulation and growth strategies will foster new industries and enhance productivity. The government must strive to help realise such a private sector-led propping-up of the economy.

The current phase of economic expansion, which has been continuing since the second Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was launched in December 2012, is expected to renew the post-war record length of expansion this month. Yet the basic tone of expansion is slow, with little sense of reality. It stems from sluggishness in consumer spending, which accounts for the greater part of the GDP.

In order to boost consumption, continued high-level pay increases are essential. Fortunately, companies' business performance is brisk in general, enjoying record-high levels of profit.

The government needs to create an environment that makes it easier for women and the elderly to work and also steadily push ahead with steps to accept more foreign workers in Japan.

The biggest concern for Japan's economy in 2019 is the fact that signs of a slowdown in the global economy are getting stronger. If trade friction between the United States and China intensifies, the impact on the world's economy will grow. The situation surrounding Britain's upcoming departure from the European Union has also descended into chaos.

It is impossible to dismiss the risk that the yen will gain further strength and capital will leave developing nations due to factors such as movements in US monetary policy. This situation will require the government and the Bank of Japan to be even more vigilant.

Acid tests for Thailand

Editorial The Nation, Thailand

Thailand faces two major challenges in 2019 - conducting a general election and chairing Asean.

Mishandling either task would invite serious damage to both the country and the wider region.

Junta chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha has made a bad start in tackling the first challenge, repeatedly announcing an election date only to break his pledge, and the world is now watching to see whether Thailand will actually return to the fold of civilian rule this spring.

Thailand raised eyebrows in the region by proposing that the year's first Asean summit be held in late June, rather than early in the year. The Asean chair usually hosts summits twice a year, the first one around March or April followed by another in November. But the schedule has been put back to make way for the Thai election, to establish a new government to lead the regional grouping.

The region is now waiting to see whether the election delivers the kind of political turmoil that ruined the Asean summit of 2009 in Pattaya.

Tackle the distress

Ivanpal Singh Grewal The Star, Malaysia

The New Malaysia is in distress.

Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice-president Rafizi Ramli put it best when he said that many Malay voters, especially those in rural areas, voted for Pakatan Harapan because they felt Pakatan could better handle Malaysia's perennial cost-of-living problem.

The drop in the price of palm oil and rubber has created a lot of economic hardship for rural Malaysians who rely on commodities.

The lack of cohesive action on the part of the government to address this and the removal of aid programmes designed to help them cope in a low commodity price cycle has exacerbated the feelings of anger and distrust.

Also, the rationalisation of the many welfare schemes for farmers and fishermen has deprived them of a source of income which, though not ideal, they have become accustomed to.

Many rural folks, who are very price sensitive, were taken in by the promise of lower prices (after abolishing GST and tolls). The non-materialisation of (some) promises has also contributed to the unease they have about the new government.

The Pakatan administration is very new; it is only six months old. I believe their immediate task should be to clean up the administration, enact important institutional reforms, repeal oppressive laws and put the economy on the right footing.

Democracy on trial

B. Herry Priyono The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

Democracy on trial; this is surely the pathos of the nation in 2019.

The trial will unfold not because the 2019 elections are at stake, but because of the threat from a menace capable of wrecking the nation's fabric and the precarious growth of democracy.

The name of the menace is religious tribalism, bred by political entrepreneurs of a peculiar type.

Religious tribalism is a form of populism.

The way it works depends on which tribal sentiments are most ripe to be exploited in particular cultural soils to mobilise voters in electoral races.

What is ironic is not that populism discards electoral politics but, rather, that it plays on atavistic pathos that makes electoral politics degenerate into its ugliest state.

No example is more conspicuous than the gubernatorial election in Jakarta in 2017, where the race rotted into a war of religious sentiments.

A shattered aftermath was only to be expected, that is, a society injured by a climate of heightened distrust, making the scheme of cooperation more difficult.

It is this breed of unscrupulous political entrepreneurs who have brought this country's politics to the ugliest low. We will have more of them in the coming months.

There's still time for BJP

Vinod Saigal The Statesman, India

Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) losing the plot? Yes it is. The reasons are many.

It started with the scale of the BJP victory in the 2014 election. Such an enormous mandate by the people of India should have led to humility over the trust the electorate had reposed in them. This did not happen. Instead, there was arrogance writ large on the faces of the winning side right from the top leadership to the rank and file of the BJP.

The second biggest mistake made by the BJP leadership was not to confer upon a decimated Congress the status of opposition leader. The latter was only one seat short of the minimum required for the status. Yet the BJP parliamentary party did not look ahead to realise that they did not have a majority in the Upper House.

It could hamper many important Bills from being passed. Leaders who appreciate that electoral fortunes can change and have been changing would realise the need for bringing the opposition into the fold.

There are still over 150 days before the 2019 election. Much will depend on Mr Modi to undo the damage that has been done.

• The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 23 news organisations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2019, with the headline 'Hopes and fears over a bumpy 2019'. Print Edition | Subscribe