Briefing MONTHLY #53 | August 2022
Philippines special | Indian business | Wong’s way | Asia’s richest women | Singapore’s gay economy
Animation by Rocco Fazzari.
A NEW MABUHAY
Two distinct impressions linger from a short visit to the Philippines now under a newly elected but eponymously familiar president and emerging from one of the region’s longest struggles with the pandemic.
With public schools only opening for the first time in two years last month, Filipino’s are showing a striking commitment to wearing masks given their reputation for an otherwise relaxed attitude to life. From government offices to the streets, they could teach Australians a lot about living with an endemic disease.
And after viewing the country from the perspective of the first foreign business delegation since Ferdinand Marcos Jr came to power in May (and also the first since COVID hit), it is notable how much outward oriented economic reform still continued under the chaotic leadership of former president Rodrigo Duterte.
Marcos inherits this momentum with one of the strongest electoral mandates in his country’s history and compared with his peers in Southeast Asia. The return of the family that ran the nation under martial law in the 1970s has received a muted response in Australia. But how Marcos handles the more recent reform inheritance will determine whether Australia can bolster a relationship which is one of its weaker economic links in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile Marcos is also pursuing a challenge in common with Australia – trying to balance the US and China.
In a change of pace this month, Briefing MONTHLY is giving special attention to the re-emerging Philippines, including a new history which suggests the country should embrace its Malay archipelagic geography rather than its Spanish and American colonial heritage. It could almost be another shared challenge.
No countries are more dependent on Australia but also more practised at playing that same card in bilateral negotiations than Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste. So, Penny Wong may have done some of the hardest yards yet in her regional listening tour by visiting them both in the same week. (See: WONG’S WAY below)
The striking thing about these two countries despite their considerable economic and social challenges is that they have managed to remain more committed to democracy than many other regional countries - notwithstanding PNG’s poorly administered recent election. So, Australia can hardly complain that diplomatic engagement remains beholden to their political cycles.
PNG under returned Prime Minister James Marape and new Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko seems ready to re-engage on a deeper bilateral relationship after playing the resource nationalism and China alternative cards in the run-up to the election. Marape was re-elected with a likely unruly 21 party coalition but is protected from a challenge for 18 months.
However with the parliamentary election still to come in Timor by next year, the longstanding pressure for the Australia to support domestic gas processing in the country is still potent issue in local politics.
Meanwhile Tkatchenko is warning the Solomon Islands about cosying up to China rather Australia and talking enthusiastically about strengthening his own country’s security ties with Canberra. Or as he told The Australian: “With Australia, they are not only an economic partner, with trade and other things, they’re also a key ally in defence and security in the region.”
On the other hand, not only has new Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta warned he is looking to China to support a gas pipeline to an onshore processing plant, but former president and potential future prime minister Xanana Gusmao is raising concerns about Australia’s nuclear submarines.
Australia provides almost $600 million in annual development aid to PNG and more than $100 million to Timor but increasingly the Chinese presence means the real balance of diplomatic power is more even. So, Wong will be welcoming more security talks with PNG in Canberra in November while watching resource nationalism play out in Timorese politics as Ramos Horta visits Australia this week. In the meantime, all she has been able to do is warn Timor about the risk of taking on Chinese debt.
- Former ambassador Geoff Raby says in The Australian Financial Review Australia must carefully choose its rivalry with China and supporting Timor on gas processing makes the cut.
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
Singapore likes to position itself at the center of changing Asia but has now even applied that approach to its citizens private lives. The decision to decriminalise sexual relations between men leaves Singapore behind the region’s pacesetters in Taiwan and Thailand, but ahead of the diminishing space for gay rights in places like Indonesia and China.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is taking a particularly conservative approach of repealing a colonial-era law which wasn’t actually enforced but then going as far as to amend the Constitution to define marriage as between men and women. Warning that Singapore doesn’t want culture wars, he argued in his National Day speech: “In a society where diverse groups have strongly held opposing views, everyone has to accept that no group can have things all their way.”
Taiwan legislated same sex marriage in 2019, Thailand took the first steps to approval in June and some municipal level governments in Japan have endorsed same sex partnerships without national government recognition.
Lee’s declaration that Singapore was more accepting of gay people hinted at the real economic driving force for change: the country’s renewed push to attract global talent despite longstanding unhappiness amongst its citizens over too many expatriates. A week after the decriminalisation decision, Singapore announced a new visa which allows high earning foreign workers to stay for five years and work for multiple employers. “As a country with little or no natural resources, talent is our only resource and talent acquisition is an offensive strategy for us,” Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said.
A jail sentence can do unexpected things in Malaysian politics, so the remarkable jail term for one of the country’s most establishment leaders – former prime minister Najib Razak – remains a work in progress.
For example, the late 1990s jailing of Anwar Ibrahim under then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad seeded an eventually triumphant political reform movement. But his return to prison in 2015 under Najib led to Mahathir changing sides and leading the reform movement to power.
So Najib’s 12-year sentence for his role in the 1MDB government fund corruption scandal could give incumbent Prime Minister Ismael Sabri Yaakob more control over the government ahead of an election. On the other hand, it may leave him prone to attacks from Malay opponents for not helping the former prime minister with an intervention in the trial.
Najib’s supporters in the United Malays National Organisation are pushing for an early election which they apparently expect to win compared with the existing uneasy coalition arrangement. But if the once dominant UMNO returns to power in the election that must be held by next year, its new leaders may then find it convenient to have the still influential Najib behind bars.
THE PHILIPPINES IN FOCUS
Ferdinand Marcos Jr on the election trail
1: PRODIGAL SON?
Only two previous Philippines presidents have taken on a Cabinet secretary role in addition to running the whole country. Given that Ferdinand Marcos Sr took on the defence ministry in 1965 amid security uncertainties, it was perhaps not surprising that his son also decided to add the Agriculture Department to his duties when he became president.
Marcos Jr (widely known as Bong Bong) was differently motivated by the long running concern in the Philippines that a fertile country with a big share of its population employed in farming hasn’t been able to make itself a productive food exporter like, for example, Thailand. Instead, powerful political families continue to dominate feudal food production system as Philip Bowring explores in his new history reviewed below.
Critics said that taking on a specific portfolio would be a distraction from broader presidential duties for Marcos, while others said it would set back reform by making agriculture officials reluctant to report bad news upwards. But Marcos’ choice has now become the first real test of his ability to manage a major reform task in the Philippines after his relatively easy May election victory. A decision by officials to import emergency supplies of sugar amid rising domestic prices apparently without Presidential approval has forced Marcos to make decisions in an industry with powerful land-owning and manufacturing vested interests. He has previously criticised imports for hurting small farmers but now has conceded imports can help restrain inflation as local food manufacturers struggle with high prices. “We don’t want to import. But the problem is our production is not enough,” he has complained of a key productivity issue he is now responsible for fixing.
The Marcos family had three decades to ponder how to manage power again, and it is still early days. But so far, the new President has made mostly credible choices for his Cabinet secretaries, notably rejected expensive tax concessions for a new airport backed by his senator sister Imee and postponed slow moving promised Chinese infrastructure projects.
2: STRATEGIC AUTONOMY
With its northernmost island just 140 km from Taiwan, the Philippines has a window with a better view than most countries on the consequences of a US-China conflict in the region. Marcos has embraced a much most restrained approach to diplomacy than his erratic predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, declaring that the Philippines is “a friend to all and enemy of none.”
He has chosen a career diplomat in Enrique Manalo as his new Foreign Secretary and will take the first steps into the world this month in a considered way by first meeting his counterparts in Singapore and Indonesia to be followed by the United Nations General Assembly in New York and a possible meeting with US President Joe Biden.
Marcos appeared to tilt towards China during the election campaign reflecting a long family connection to the country following his father’s relatively early diplomatic recognition of China in 1975. But in government he has taken a more balanced approach in an apparent attempt to pursue strategic autonomy which would be tested in any conflict given China’s proximity and economic importance but the Philippines’ long-standing military ties with the US.
Public opinion polls show a declining confidence in China reflecting both concerns about South China (or West Philippines) Sea territory claims and discontent about use of Chinese workers on Chinese-sponsored domestic projects. Indeed, Manalo appeared to send a subtle signal recently by welcoming the way the country’s free media communicated its national interests to the world. The battle to woo the new president has played out in recent days with Marcos praising US aid for small business only to be followed by China proposing new cooperation in renewable energy.
3: NEW PARTNERSHIP
The Philippines has long occupied a curious position in Australian Asian relations supplying a relatively large share of temporary or permanent new migrants (See: DATAWATCH) and having a 76 year long diplomatic relationship, but sitting outside the inner ranks of Australia’s Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships (CSP) with the other five large Southeast Asian countries. It ranks as Australia’s 8th largest aid recipient, but is only the 18th largest export market and 31st largest import source. The bilateral relationship took on more gravitas in pre-COVID years as the Philippines’ rivalled Vietnam for the highest economic growth in the region and Australia played a major role in containing Islamic terrorist threats in Mindanao.
Now as the country emerges from one of the worst pandemic experiences in Asia, the numbers are looking up again. Australia has this year risen sharply up the ranks of approved investment, tourist arrivals and country of choice for offshore study. Ambassador to Australia Hellen De La Vega, who managed to organise the first foreign business delegation to the country since Marcos came to office and COVID hit, says the country is open for business again on the foundations of tax, foreign investment and privatisation reforms which continued through the pandemic disruption.* And she says she is constantly approached by businesses in Australia suffering from skilled worker shortages who could readily find staff in the Philippines. As the Philippines aims to move into the list of Australia’s CSPs, she points out that it has risen up the ranks of Southeast Asian foreign investment recipient from six in 2012-16 to four in 2017-21. Meanwhile Philippines Australia Business Council chairman Dennis Quintero says the foreign ownership restrictions which have long been a disincentive for investment have been substantially reduced in the COVID period reforms. He nominates electrification, renewable energy, business process outsourcing, services trade, manufacturing, data centres and mineral processing as having potential for future Australian participation in the Philippines economy.
Source: Board of Investments
4: FROM BPOs TO CHICKEN SHEDS
There are about 300 Australian businesses operating in the Philippines with business process outsourcing and mining commonly seen as the biggest areas of engagement. But two of the more recent entrants show how the opportunities are diversifying.
Agriculture infrastructure provider Australian Farm Innovations has switched its focus from mainly exporting poultry farm equipment and housing manufactured in the Philippines to now largely just servicing the local market. Chief executive Hugh McDougall ran a factory in China before scoping Southeast Asia for a new base and settling on the free trade north of Manila at the former US Subic Bay naval base. After starting a small export-oriented business in 2016, he says he is now one of the top five poultry housing manufacturers and installers in the Philippines competing against local, Malaysia and Chinese suppliers. “We’ve completely changed our business model. It shows the Philippines can be a competitive place to do business,” he says after finding it easier to find skilled staff than in China.
Meanwhile, a short distance away in the separate free trade zone built around the former US air force base of Clark, Queensland accountant Richard Croaker has given a new meaning to business process outsourcing by building an accounting operation in the Philippines which services small business in Australia. Profitmaster BPO has been operating since 2014 with five staff and one client, and now has 64 employees diversified across four divisions offering a range of disciplines including accounting and bookkeeping, IT management, administration services and secretarial support as well as marketing and customer service. It services about 20 Australian businesses in several states meeting the professional and compliance standards required in Australia. Croaker says the Philippines time zone is perfect for servicing Australian clients but that the business success has been due to the skills and work ethic of his local employees who have been able to remain living in the country with their families when they might otherwise have sought to do the same work overseas.
* Greg Earl was a member of the Pacific Business Mission to the Philippines
Indian and Indigenous Australian dancers at the AIBC Business Summit Picture: DFAT
Outgoing Australia India Business Council national chair Jim Varghese is ending a six-year term at the top of one of the country’s most active Asian business groups on a roll amid the broader government effort to expand the Indian economic relationship.
Last week the AIBC launched an Indigenous Business Chapter after an innovative cultural performance for a business group at its national summit in Sydney which combined indigenous and Indian themes. It was certainly a well-timed move given the summit’s dinner speaker, foreign minister Penny Wong, wants to integrate indigenous themes into foreign policy. Varghese says: “This (Indigenous Chapter) is a very unique even and very important to the way Australian business is done overseas.” Meanwhile this week the group is also set to elect its first female chair and deputy chair for the first time to take over from Varghese as part of a revamped executive structure and a push to make participation by women in the AIBC more attractive.
Also, this week in an even more ambitious move, the AIBC will launch Australia India Business Enterprises (AIBE) which will be an in-house commercial advisory service. It aims to draw on the Council’s membership knowledge base and connections to boost bilateral business while also providing a new revenue stream to fund its expand activities. It could charge fees or take small stakes in projects.
Varghese says the idea is partly inspired by similar activities by the Israel Business Council and he hopes it will eventually produce income much greater than memberships fees. “We are a different sort of business chamber,” says Varghese of the way he has drawn on private and public sector experience to prepare the group for the challenges and opportunities involved in much greater economic integration with India. The AIBC now has 17 industry chapters to accommodate the diversity of bilateral economic relationship and members who want to participate via specialist streams rather than a traditional business chamber.
Wong used her speech to embrace the fast-growing Indian diaspora in Australia as a key part of her commitment to making multicultural Australia a central theme of her approach to foreign policy. Describing India as “an extraordinary nation” she said: “Our partnership extends well beyond the bilateral because we share a region. We share a region that is being reshaped, so our relationship is profoundly important.”
Trade minister Don Farrell and Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts are both due to visit India this month marking the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries which saw buildings around Australia lit in Indian colours on August 15. The Australia India Business Dialogue will be held in New Delhi this week focussed on the scope for technology cooperation.
- India Today editor Aroon Purie has a good read on the anniversary arguing: “The fact that we have survived for 75 years as a democracy, in however flawed a form, is cause for celebration. I regard this as one of the miracles of modern history.”
Penny Wong in Timor Leste last week Picture: DFAT
Foreign minister Penny Wong has identified Southeast Asia and the Pacific as the primary concerns for her time in power – a choice underlined by her overseas visits in the past three months.
She told the Australia in the World podcast: “I’ve made the resource decision, or the prioritisation decision, that my focus will be primarily regions – so Southeast Asia and the Pacific.” But she added: “Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t believe that we have to engage with other parts of the world. And I would make the point that multilateralism is just so important for a country of Australia’s size.”
She argued that there had been an expansion of the ministerial structure of her portfolio to manage the priorities alongside Australia’s global interests with an Assistant Minister for Trade in Tim Ayres and an additional Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs in Tim Watts. “We needed people in lots of places, and we need to be able to pursue our global interests – climate, multilateralism, rules-based trade, pandemic preparedness – in our region, but also beyond our region,” Wong said.
The election of a new federal government is filtering down through the parliamentary committees which often ventilate sensitive Asia policy issues before they reach ministerial considerations.
Queensland House of Representatives member Shayne Neumann is the new chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Newman was dropped from the Labor frontbench in the new Albanese ministry in the factional wrangling to make way for more female members. He had served for several years as Labor’s spokesman on immigration, border protection and some defence related roles.
Victorian Labor MPs have taken most of the sub-committee top roles with Josh Burns heading the foreign affairs and aid sub-committee, Julian Hill heading the defence sub-committee and Maria Vanvakinou heading the human rights sub-committee. NSW MP Deborah O’Neill, who was touted as a potential minister, will head the trade sub-committee.
SKILLS: SPEAKING ASIAN
Understanding the region got relatively little attention as the Federal government’s jobs summit focused on the immediate challenges of finding new skilled workers and removing obstacles to retraining for future jobs.
However, with Asian countries increasingly dominating Australia’s permanent migrant intake (See: DATAWATCH below), the summit focus on shifting from short term foreign workers to longer term migration may well see more long-term Asian citizens.
But a new report argues that the old quest for Asian literacy needs its own form of upskilling to accommodate the way more young Australians already speak Asian languages at home and are studying in the region.
The Asian Literacy and Employability report notes that 410,000 Australian citizens aged 18-35 speak Asian languages at home and the number of Australian undergraduates studying in the Indo-Pacific rose 83 per cent in the five years to 2019.
So, while mainstream measures of Asian literacy such as Asian languages being studied at university may be in decline, there still needs to be a focus on providing jobs for those who are already skilled in this area and ensuring they maintain those skills.
“Australia’s immediate, post-pandemic future will also bring significant economic and security challenges; a re-framed Asia literacy will help Australian businesses and Australian communities navigate these complex issues,” says the report from the International Education Association of Australia and Asia Society Australia.
SKILLS: FARMING OUT
Agriculture minister Murray Watt has essentially abandoned the Southeast Asian country focused agriculture visa which his Coalition predecessor David Littleproud had talked up as expanding Australia’s “ASEAN family”.
Speaking at the National Press Club on August 9 he said he would abide by the agreement with Vietnam on the visa because it had been negotiated before the May election but would not continue negotiations with the countries which had proceeded slowly despite Littleproud’s forceful earlier backing of the visa which tended to compete with the Pacific labour programs at that time.
“What's important I think is to put in place systems that work for farmers but also respect people's protections, and I think that the PALM (revamped Pacific) scheme that we're talking about will make a big dent in the needs of farm workers,” Watt said. He said he would talk to farmers about their needs, but it wasn’t necessary to have a separate visa for agriculture.
CHINA, CLIMATE AND THE PACIFIC
New research on China’s role in dealing with climate change in the Pacific suggests that it is open to discussions with regional countries but not playing a leading role.
The Griffith Asia Institute research focused on four countries to assess how the issue was dealt with at a bilateral and regional level at a time when the new Australian government sees climate cooperation as a way to fend off China’s rising influence in the region.
The Climate conversations and disconnected discourses report concludes that “engagement with China in relation to climate change is a diverse concept, as is so often the way in the Pacific islands region. The nature of the engagement differs between different countries, and the way the engagement operates at the regional level is often different again.”
It says there is room for Australia to cooperate with China on climate issues in the region since Pacific officials have long been concerned that a lack of coordination by international partners is a drain on resources. China is also likely to adopt a more coherent approach as the Pacific countries make their Blue Pacific Strategy their guiding framework. China’s creation of a Pacific Islands Climate Change Cooperation Center will also lead to a more targeted focus on its part.
DEALS AND DOLLARS
Telstra says its government-backed investment in Pacific mobile phone company Digicel Pacific is performing ahead of financial expectations just months after the deal was finalised.
Telstra International chief executive Oliver Camplin-Warner told The Australian Financial Review the investment had given his business new subsea cable options and would combine well with its existing operations in Asia. “[Digicel Pacific] is performing well, and I think it is going to provide us with a lot of upsides. We are market leaders in Asia, and with the Digicel Pacific acquisition, we’re really now stretching that into Asia-Pacific.”
But he also said Telstra would only be removing hardware installed by Chinese telecommunications company Huawei as part of general upgrading rather than immediately. “In terms of any refreshes or upgrades in future dates, then that’s when we’ll look to fall in line with the standards we have here in Australia,” he said.
The government backed Telstra’s takeover due to concerns that the sale of Digicel to a Chinese company would allow Chinese security agencies to monitor telecommunications across the region.
GANBEI FOR CHINA
With a Chinese court victory in its favour, Treasury Wine Estates continues to stand out amongst Australian companies for having faith in an eventual reconciliation of some sort with China.
The company won a long running copyright action in August to protect its high end Penfolds brand name in the Supreme People’s Court of China against a South Australian-based company which had sought to register the Chinese character for Penfolds. The court win comes as the company is preparing to launch a Chinese-made version of Penfolds in China this month. Penfolds managing director, Tom King, who is based in Shanghai, said the judgement “highlighted China’s unwavering commitment to protecting intellectual property rights.”
Treasury was one of the hardest hit Australian wine companies from China’s 2020 tariff increases, but says it is on track to reallocate that Australian wine to other Asian markets but still service the Chinese market from other countries or from Chinese sourced wine.
Moving up … Savitri Jindal
And, down … Yang Huiyan
India may be set to finally overtake China’s population next year. But in a more personal sign of the changing regional economic climate, India’s richest businesswoman is also overtaking her longstanding Chinese rivals.
According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the wealth of Savitri Jindal (US$11.3 billion) has overtaken Asia’s richest woman Yang Huiyan (US$11 billion) and is now about the same as Fan Hongwei (US$11.3 billion) as economic growth in Asia’s two large rivals diverges. India is growing at about seven per cent this year compared with possibly less than four per cent in China.
Jindal, 72, is India’s richest woman and the 10th-richest person in the country. She became the chairwoman of the Jindal Group after her husband died in a helicopter crash in 2005. The company is best known as a steel manufacturer but has broader interests in cement, energy and infrastructure.
Yang, 41, controls Country Garden Holdings, China's largest real estate developer by sales, which she largely inherited from her father in 2007. But her wealth has halved in the past year due to China’s property crisis. Meanwhile the wealth of Fan, 55, has been more stable since it is based on a more diverse chemical-fibre company Hengli Petrochemical, which has its origins in a bankrupt state-owned textile factory.
"I think we (Australia) are better off not to involve ourselves in political stunts (such as visiting Taiwan), but to do what we can to speak honestly about the situation."
- Opposition leader Peter Dutton
"I’m pleased that she (Nancy Pelosi) did (visit Taiwan) because the reaction from China is completely over the top, and it’s disproportionate to the visit by a Speaker of the House of Representatives in the world’s biggest democracy to visit an independent country."
- Dutton again
"All parties should consider how they best contribute to de-escalating the current tensions. We all want peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Obviously, the level of US engagement with their Taiwanese counterparts is a matter for them."
- Foreign minister Penny Wong
"Our congress is a co-equal branch of government. It's not a parliamentary system. So, the president doesn't get to tell members of congress where they can travel and many have travelled to Taiwan. So, this is a very disproportionate response."
- Deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman
"Instead of expressing sympathy and support to the victim, the Australia side has condemned the victim along with the perpetrators. This is completely putting the cart before the horse and reversing the right from the wrong."
- Chinese embassy spokesperson
Source: Home Affairs
The Philippines retained its relatively longstanding position as one of Australia’s largest sources of permanent migrants last year as migration started to recover after COVID. But the number of permanent migrants from Hong Kong shot up since China imposed its new national security laws in 2020 and Hong Kong people took advantage of new visa pathways into Australia.
ON THE HORIZON WHAT WE'RE READING
THE MAKING OF THE MODERN PHILIPPINES by PHILIP BOWRING (Bloomsbury Academic)
A curious publishing deadline meant Philip Bowring missed the election of Ferdinand Marcos as the new Philippines president forcing him to very cautiously write just months before the result that the election “may have less impact than some hoped and some feared”. That poor timing aside, this new history makes clear what a challenge the latest Marcos faces: “Whatever the result, there was no escaping the need of the country to overcome seven decades of under-performance in social and economic spheres compared with almost all its east and southeast Asian neighbours.” And with particular resonance, given the result, he says “These now cannot all be blamed on the debts of the Marcos years.”
As a visitor to the country since 1973 Bowring places current challenges in a long historical context but them overlays this with a series of more interesting and useful thematic chapters. He laments the contradiction between poor standards of government and corruption over more than half a century but a more civil and tolerant culture than in many neighbouring countries. He notes, for example, the surprising number of women in the middle ranks of government and business.
He argues that governance reforms are needed to rein in political dynasties, fragmentation of power across the island country, and to bring some of the talented offshore workforce back home. But as the Philippines is locked into the regional tussle for power between the US and China, he argues that it needs to shift from a colonial heritage under Spain and the US to seeing itself as more part of the Malay world from which it emerged. “Philippine historiography often has a distinctly nationalist tone but more as a reaction to Western imperialism than to a pre-colonial identity,” Bowring writes suggesting it look to Vietnam for living with China.
ON THE HORIZON
The ruins of the Sari nightclub in Bali
Australia marks the 20th Anniversary of the 2002 Bali bombings on October 12 with a memorial service at Parliament House in Canberra and a commemorative ceremony at the Australian Consulate General in Bali. More than 200 people, including 88 Australians and 38 Indonesians, were killed in the bombing, and many others injured.
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