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  Oct - Dec 2007
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• Sultan of
Brunei Darussalam

Sultan scores a victory
The oil-rich country rarely makes headlines in Asean. But when it did it was among the most-read. On August 7, tabloids and dailies alike from Australia to England ran on their front page the story of the Sultan of Brunei who won a court battle in Australia over an alleged agreement to buy a 400- year-old gold-lined miniature Koran for $8 million. Some said Southeast Asian potentate’s extraordinary wealth has its limits.

Once the world’s richest and now among the globe’s top-ten, the 61-year-old sultan had allegedly agreed to buy it as a wedding present for his third wife, a glamorous television hostess 32 years his junior, and then backed out of a deal with Australian businessmen to buy the matchbox-size holy book.

The Australians claimed to have bought the tiny treasure from a former colonel in the KGB, who told them the Ottoman Empire relic had been in his family’s possession for more than a century.



• Slums on the bank
of Tonle Sap

Gas reserves in the Great Lake?
Tonle Sap, or the Great Lake, apparently, Asean’s largest freshwater lake that touches six provinces, has attracted the attention of Cambodian authorities who believe the lake has onshore oil and gas reserves. The government has set up a body to manage the lake located about 200 kilometers (120 miles) northwest of the capital Phnom Penh.

Tonle Sap, which covers about 250,000 hectares (618,000 acres) during the dry season and expands to about 1.25 million hectares (3 million acres) during the rainy season, holds a rich biosphere of more than 200 species of fish, 42 types of reptiles, 225 species of birds and 46 kinds of mammals.

The authorities won’t comment on their tasks or on prospective oil and gas reserves but promise that they will make sure there is no pollution from the exploration.

Tears and flowers in Bali

• Bali Bombing Memorial

Relatives and friends of victims of the 2002 Bali bombings gathered at the Kuta beach in Bali mid- October to pay tribute to the 202 people killed in the blasts five years ago.

Scores of people, from countries such as Australia which lost 88 people, Japan and New Zealand placed flowers at Kuta’s ground zero where the explosions ripped apart a nightclub strip on the resort island, sparking a deadly inferno.

The attack, blamed on the militant Jemaah Islamiyah network linked to Al-Qaeda, claimed the lives of people from 22 countries.




• Kayaking in Laos

Eco tours to bring in $190 million
The number one contributor to the country’s coffers, tourism, particularly ecotourism, is expected to bring in $190 million in foreign exchange through the 1.3 million visitors flocking to the land-locked country in Asean this year.

By comparison, Laos recorded 1.2 million tourist arrivals and $173 million in revenues in 2006, making the sector the country's second largest foreign exchange earner after mining.

Laos, which has been promoting ecotourism to appeal to the European market, has set a target of 2 million arrivals by 2010 generating revenues of 290 million for the country, currently ranked among the world's poorest nations.




• Zainuddin Maidin

Is press freedom universal?
There is no such thing as universal press freedom, at least for Zainuddin Maidin, Malaysian information minister who said fellow Asean and Asian countries should ignore the freedom ratings made by the Parisbased Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Zainuddin believes in local values when it comes to judging press freedom, saying RSF based the ratings on the Western values, mainly driven by the market and money.

He was commenting as RSF’s Malaysia's ratings plunged to 124th spot this year from 92nd in 2006 while Singapore edged up to 141st spot from 146th previously.

The Malaysian information chief had nothing but praises for Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's former prime minister, for fighting the Western values of press freedom and winning against the influential Financial Times recently.




• Ruby-mining town of Mogok

Gems and the junta
Very often described as one of the world’s poorest nations, Myanmar is probably the richest among the ten countries in Asean in terms of natural resources.

It is the source of up to 90 percent of the world’s rubies, and carat for carat the rare blood-red stones are worth more than diamonds. Jade, highly prized in China, is found almost nowhere else. Forget about the economic sanctions from the US and EU.

The junta is again poised to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars through the sale of precious gems and jewellery in November.

It will be the fifth gems auction this year, up from four last year. The junta is believed to have earned more than $100 million so far this year.


• Marcos lying in state

Recovering Marcos’ wealth
The government has said it is open to deals with the family and business partners of former president Ferdinand Marcos to end court cases involving about 180 billion pesos ($4 billion).

There are 23 ‘banner’ or big cases pending in the anti-graft court. According to Camilo Sabio, head of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), an agency tasked to search and recover nearly $10 billion worth of assets allegedly stolen by the late dictator, his family and partners, the authorities are ready to consider proposals for amicable settlement depending on the nature of proposals.

Since 1986, when PCGG was created, only $1.8 billion has been recovered, including $658 million in various Swiss bank accounts. The government has entered into deals in the past with some minor partners of the Marcoses, but not with the family itself or his major allies.

Two of the former dictator’s big business allies are top businessmen - San Miguel Corp chairman Eduardo Cojuangco and billionaire Lucio Tan, whose varied interests include Philippine Airlines, Allied Bank, Fortune Tobacco and Asia Brewery.


The gloomiest lot
When it comes to the future, affluent Singaporeans, despite being relatively well-off and well-prepared for retirement, have turned out to be the gloomiest lot in Asia.

A recent survey conducted by AXA Life Insurance has found Singaporeans, who bought the most insurance in the region, had the lowest level of confidence and satisfaction about life among 2,400 respondents from eight countries who took part in the study.

AXA’s Life Outlook Index revealed that six in 10 ‘mass affluent’ Singaporeans, whose monthly personal incomes average S$4,000, (US$2,705) started to plan for retirement as early as at the age of 34 on average, compared with the regional average of 39.

No belly, please … we’re Thais
Among the Asia-Pacific rim countries Thailand has the fifth most serious problem with obesity, as some 10 million of the country's 65 million people, including many soldiers, are rated fat due to a lack of exercise and over-consumption of fast food.

The report prepared by World Health Organisation (WHO) said most of those people, particularly office workers, in Bangkok and other cities, have problems with weight and obesity.

Office workers are not the only ones with weight problems. The armed forces face a similar problem, with up to 24 percent of 12,227 soldiers at Supreme Command headquarters found to be overweight or obese.



• President Yudhoyono

No strikes here, please!
The government has banned strikes in key public services and in sectors that are ‘of extreme importance to the national economy’, which include power stations, the oil and gas sectors, airports and train stations, the postal service, newspaper delivery, and water supply, irrigation and drainage services.

The list of companies and state agencies, released in a decree by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, is subject to revision ‘depending on the socioeconomic circumstances,’ the government said in a notice posted on the official website.

Government ministers and local authorities would meet every six months with employers and trade unions in the sectors banned from strike action ‘to hear and handle legitimate requests from the workers,’ the website said.

The government’s call against strikes, however, excludes most private sector businesses. About 30,000 Vietnamese workers went on strike in October in 38 foreign and locally owned companies in a southern province near Ho Chi Minh City.



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