The Week Ahead: A historic changing of the guard in Singapore

Vietnam's corruption crusade stops for no one and things are getting weird between Beijing and Manila

Hello friends!

I had a hellish week as Canberra shifted from slightly chill summer to bone-jittering autumn and it went straight to my immune system. 

Despite it all, I had two brilliant conversations. Firstly, a total treat to chat with Dewi Fortuna Anwar with Kevin O’Rourke on the Reformasi podcast. Bu Dewi has had a legendary career with a loooong CV, including with Indonesia’s third president BJ Habibie and the think tank he founded, and a fascinating perspective of the Reformasi period. The election of Prabowo Subianto can be seen as a circle-closing but, as she says here, there’s more to it and we ought to wait and see. 

The other one is a surprise for Wednesday, so get ready to talk canals! Mekong! Weird Hun family! 

Thank you so much to all premium readers who help support free updates like this. If you’d like to join the list, please do so here I’d love to have ya: 

Tomorrow, I’ll be in premium readers’ inboxes with a Malaysia and Singapore update.  

See you then,
Erin Cook

The countdown is on in the Lee Hsien Loong era

We’ve got one week left to say ‘Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’ before we switch to ‘former prime minister’ on May 15. What a shift! 

He used his final May Day address to ask Singapore to support the 4G — the fourth generation of leadership — in the People’s Action Party. “I ask all Singaporeans to rally behind them and work together to make Singapore succeed for your sake,” he said Wednesday at the National Trades Union Congress event. “The system doesn’t have to fail outright for Singapore to get into trouble. Even if we just become ordinary, average, we will already be in serious trouble.” 

Singapore is in a better place than most countries with the world facing some serious struggles in the years ahead, he noted. It’s up to the next leader, Lawrence Wong, his government and all Singaporeans to continue the hard work: “Stay united, think long term, and maintain our political stability. That is the way forward for Singapore,” he said, as per Today

The PM was given a hero’s farewell. “He doesn’t just talk, he takes action,” Zahra Hadir, a member of the United Workers of Electronics and Electrical Industries, told Channel News Asia at the event after reflecting on his two decades at the top. “If there’s anything you want to share with him, there are no gaps and no filter. And this is what we appreciate in a leader, being transparent and accessible,” MP Desmond Choo agreed. He helped organise the event and noted that this year was extra special in tribute to LHL’s contribution to the labour movement in Singapore. 

PM-to-be Lawrence Wong, who is set to take over on May 15, was widely welcomed and endorsed by unionists. He has the “fullest support” of the movement, NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng said, adding that Wong has been “a consistent and strong advocate for workers” throughout his career. At an event last year, Wong said the NTUC was the most important of the government’s partners and that was music to the organisation’s ears: “This sent a very strong message that our uniquely Singapore tripartite partnership will continue for many years to come under your leadership, and we look forward to it,” Ng Chee Meng added. 

(Enormous caveat here that the Singaporean union movement does not play the same role as we see in freer democracies and is tightly regulated by the People’s Action Party-affiliated NTUC. BUT this close relationship functions differently from an actual labour party, like in Australia or the UK and has, according to critics, softened the ability of unions to work on behalf of their members [which, to be fair, is also a criticism of traditional labour parties elsewhere lol].) 

Vietnam’s ‘burning furnace’ booking overtime

All of us need to take a break once in a while or else we’ll burn out and collapse, I tried to remind myself last week from my sick bed. Except for Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security which hasn’t stopped coming for everyone since the launch of the anti-graft drive during the pandemic. 

Vuong Dinh Hue, chairman of the National Assembly, lost his scalp on Thursday after the legislature voted to boot him out, Reuters reports. No public comments yet nor specifics on allegations, but the ditching is reportedly related to corruption cases that have taken down people close to him. The departure ‘leaves Vietnam with no permanent holders for two of its four top leadership positions,’ the wire notes. 

On Saturday, police arrested Mai Tien Dung, the former chairman of the government office, over allegations related to an ecotourism project in Lam Dong province in the Central Highlands, VNExpress reported over the weekend. He is under investigation for abuse of power allegations, Ministry of Public Security spokesman To An Xo said Saturday. 

No paper, but lots of dead coral in South China Sea this week

The Chinese embassy in Manila has escalated its beef with Malacanang over Schrodinger’s agreement with former president Rodrigo Duterte. The agreement, which has not been sighted by Bongbong Marcos, but which he publicly believes is true, was allegedly hatched between Duterte and Beijing to keep both sides relatively quiet in the waters during the Duterte presidency. Duterte has been fairly cagey on the whole thing, suggesting a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ to maintain stability may have happened but nothing that would’ve given up Filipino sovereignty. 

The agreement was definitely real, the embassy said on Thursday, and it’s only been ditched by Marcos because the new administration wants to “fulfill its own political agenda,” AP reports. “This is the basic reason for the ceaseless disputes at sea between China and the Philippines over the past year and more,” the embassy said in a statement. 

The wording is telling, says Collin Koh, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s NTU. The statement “is noteworthy in showing that Beijing has no official document to prove its case and thus could only rely mainly on Duterte’s verbal claim,” he said. 

Hold on, what’s this about? Evidence of dead coral piling up near the Pag-asa Island (or Thitu, or Đảo Thị Tứ or Zhongye Dao), the second-largest in the Spratly Islands and formally, legally, administered by the Philippines, has a group of biologists very suspicious.

Speaking at a forum in Quezon City, Jonathan Anticamara of the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute of Biology said his group of researchers had observed marine life across the island in March and found signs of degradation and plenty of dead coral. 

The piles of dead coral and sand “have many characteristics that are atypical of naturally formed coral or sandy barrier islands, indicating that these are possibly products of island-building activities that are observed in the West Philippine Sea, but with some degree of uncertainty,” his presentation said, as reported by the Inquirer

While we still don’t know exactly what’s going on here, Anticamara used his presentation to remind vigilance is needed and manmade islands have popped up in the waters very near Pag-asa in the past. He also noted that during the research period, researchers reported harassment from the Chinese Coast Guard and ‘the Chinese maritime militia.’ 

Reads you better not miss

Hello, Netflix? I have an idea. 

Car stuff is usually a bore to me, but Singapore’s tight regulations around car ownership make it far more interesting than elsewhere. Add to that the government’s push to become an electric vehicle-first city and things get intriguing. Some stunning numbers here from the always excellent RoW, including that Singapore is now — and very quickly — a world leader in recharge station availability, making conversion far more attractive. 

This heatwave hell has come for Thailand’s durian industry. “This year is a crisis,” durian farmer Busaba Nakpipat told the wire in this report on the heat — and climate change — threatening the future of Thailand’s durians. “If the hot weather continues to rise in the future, it’ll be over. Farmers wouldn’t be able to produce durian any more,” she said. 

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