Jan 1, 2013

ASEAN - Southeast Asia’s Biggest Stories of 2012

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Over the past year, the varied region shared one common theme–relative political and economic stability, as Southeast Asia continues to establish itself as one of the brightest spots for investment and growth amid turbulent economic times.

Southeast Asia has experienced a record year for deals, with Malaysia emerging as one of the world’s most robust IPO markets, while the Philippines–once considered one of the riskiest economies in Asia–has experienced its strongest currency and real-estate market in years. Political and security issues, especially rising tensions in the South China Sea, continue to mar the region’s potential as a cohesive bloc, but with Indonesia’s continued rise and high expectations for Myanmar’s reforms, 2012 suggests that Southeast Asia may remain firmly on the global investment map for some time yet. Here is our roundup of the top stories in the region this year:

Resurgence of South China Sea Tensions

Competing claims over territory in the South China Sea marred the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ steps toward regional cooperation this year, even preventing the bloc from settling on a joint communiqué at the end of an Asean summit in July–the first time in its 45-year history. The US and China have made it clear that the countries and waterways in the region are growing in importance, which analysts say may risk polarizing Southeast Asia in years to come.

Southeast Asia’s Deal Boom

2012 will be remembered as the year Southeast Asia stole the limelight from China in the financial arena, playing host to some of Asia’s biggest and most contested mergers and acquisitions. M&A activity involving companies in Southeast Asia–primarily in Singapore and Thailand–stands at its highest level since the financial crisis in 2008, with deals worth more than $105.4 billion either completed or pending completion this year. The region has also become a hotbed for IPOs, and more of Southeast Asia’s companies are taking their ambitions further, aggressively expanding overseas and becoming formidable players on the international stage.

Continued Reforms in Myanmar

After decades of harsh military rule and stubborn defiance, Myanmar continued blazing through political and economic reform. Aung San Suu Kyi moved from prisoner to parliamentarian this year in a historic by-election that saw her party represented in the country’s civilian government, moving the U.S. and EU to lift long-standing sanctions on the country. President Obama, fresh off his re-election, became the first US President to visit the country, and companies such as  and  are taking bold steps toward entry into the once-banned market.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia

Indonesia: While Indonesia’s economy continued to shine in 2012 as it attracted a record amount of foreign direct investment and witnessed another year of higher than 6% GDP growth, some observers would say it was the year the country started to slip, with the government increasingly aggressive in applying new policies that many observers see as protectionist and nationalist. The country’s highest-profile international venture, the London-listed Bumi PLC has been hammered by a muddy battle between board members and investors that pushed the  to pull out.

The race to replace Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as president in 2014 heated up, with familiar names that have been around since the Suharto era announcing their plans to run. Meanwhile a new political star–small-town mayor Joko Widodo–grabbed the country’s attention by beating a powerful incumbent to become the governor of the Jakarta capital region.

Thailand: After securing a landslide election win, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra focused on rewarding voters with populist measures such as a multibillion-dollar rice subsidy. But it is a policy that may come back to haunt her, as does the question of how to help her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, return to Thailand a free man. Simmering political tensions continue to spook investors who worry that coups and deadly political violence will return to the kingdom.

Singapore: The rich city-state established itself this year as a destination for the world’s richest, as billionaires and millionaires rush to call Singapore home, reaping benefits from its low taxes and stellar infrastructure. But unusual political dissent–and rising anti-foreigner sentiment–continues to rock the tiny nation, as the ruling People’s Action Party continues to see its popularity chipped away since holding on to power with the lowest vote share in the 2011 general elections.

Malaysia: With opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim declared a free man this year, cleared of sodomy charges against him, Malaysia gears up for its most robust election fight in decades. The country has also emerged as one of the region’s hottest IPO markets, with Malaysian palm-oil firm Felda raising the third-biggest IPO listing in the world this year.

The Philippines: President Benigno Aquino III continued with his drive to clean up and reinvigorate the Philippines. He scored a series of notable successes: Including removing the Supreme Court chief justice, driving up growth rates and pushing Congress to pass a new bill enabling poorer families to get access to contraceptives and birth-control advice. Boxer Manny Pacquiao, meanwhile, began looking to life after boxing–and perhaps just as well as after his recent defeat to Juan Manuel Marquez.

Vietnam: The country was once one of the region’s brightest economic spots, but policy-makers are struggling to arrest a worsening bad-debt problem, while authorities this year moved to crackdown heavily on the Internet and a widening dissident movement. Both caused investors to fret about the socialist nation’s potential.

Laos: Laos attracted more attention as a serious economic player this year, hosting the Asia-Europe summit and finally being accepted into the World Trade Organization. The country has become a surprisingly fast-growing economy, with corporate players such as Coca-Cola taking bets on the region’s smallest economy.

Shibani Mahtani


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