Taylor Swift shows why Asia needs to 'shake up' as 'sparks fly'

Deflation in China is intensifying. Japan is in recession again. North Korea appears to be preparing for some kind of war. Current and former leaders of the Philippines are brawling. The Thai economy is contracting. The new Indonesian president worries some international investors. And yet everyone in Asia seems to be talking about Taylor Swift.

As the pop music sensation works through his six-concert residency in Singapore, Southeast Asian leaders are behaving like a group of MCs engaged in the geopolitical equivalent of a rap battle. And in a way that tells a larger – and out of tune – story of what's wrong in the most promising economic regions on the planet.

The source of this bad blood, of course, is Singapore which gets a exclusive arrangement with Swift to confine the Southeast Asia leg of her hugely lucrative Eras tour to the city-state. This deprives rabid fans in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and elsewhere of seeing Swift perform locally. “Swifties” are forced to travel to Singapore, which benefits from transportation, hotel reservations, spending in restaurants, bars, shopping malls, etc.

Filipino lawmaker Joey Salceda led the charge to question the merits of the Singapore agreement, saying that “that’s not what good neighbors do.» Thailand's new Prime Minister, Srettha Thavisin, also reviewed the agreement and pledged to offer tax incentives and other sweeteners to ensure his nation becomes a regional hub for mega-concerts.

That's fair enough, until rancor spills over into a meeting of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

To be sure, the ASEAN-Australia “special summit” held March 4-6 in Melbourne was not a typical gathering of 10 countries. Especially since Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong finds himself facing Swift related questions.

“A deal was reached and so it turned out to be a very successful deal,” Lee said. “If we hadn't made such an arrangement, would she have come elsewhere in Southeast Asia or other places in Southeast Asia? Maybe, maybe not.”

Or would Swift have bothered to perform in Southeast Asia? Hong Kong is still suffering from its failure to perform there last month, before or after its concerts in Tokyo.

January and February have been difficult months for Hong Kong, which began the process of enacting a controversial national security law that many fear will go further in an effort to remake the city in its image. from Beijing.

However, most Hong Kongers seemed able to talk about their fury over football. Lionel Messi remaining on the bench while his team, Inter Miami, played an exhibition match there. And of course, Swift made a pass in Hong Kong while she and Messi played in neighboring Japan.

Before we continue, can we really blame Singapore for a smart business decision? The rest of ASEAN has simply failed to stay away.

And yet, ASEAN's inability to “get rid of it” as “Sparks”, as Taylor sings in two of her most popular tracks, Singapore’s financial duet with a pop superstar tells a bigger story.

It reminds us that for all the chatter about ASEAN brotherhood (and sisterhood), Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are too often compete more than cooperate.

And this is a negative point given the scale of the challenges that make the region's 2024 deadline a wild card on too many levels.

Starting with the Chinese failure of the National People's Congress which is being held in Beijing this week. Xi's team must already defend its 5% growth target for 2024 is plausible, especially since it proposes too few policies to get there. Meanwhile, China's real estate sector is collapsing, deflation is taking hold, and youth unemployment is reaching record levels.

In Japan, the Bank of Japan is considering ending more than 24 years of zero interest rates as the economy contracts. Germany is stumbling, reminding Asia that Europe is not much help as a destination for manufactured goods. In the United States, the Federal Reserve's multiple rate cuts that everyone was so sure of are suspended.

Never mind how the US elections on November 5 could test ASEAN economies. President Joe Biden's efforts to limit China's access to semiconductors and other vital technologies are one thing. Donald Trump's threats of a 60% tax on all Chinese goods are far more dangerous for Asian exporters.

Former President Trump, who is seeking the Republican nomination, is also proposing a blanket 10% tariff on all goods entering the United States. Add to that the ways China could retaliate, and it's not hard to imagine how Southeast Asia could soon find itself trampled. by confronting the economic giants.

The fact is that ASEAN has always been a strange beast. It brings together democrats, communists, military governments and a sultanate claiming to speak with one voice. In reality, it's as dysfunctional as families can get. ASEAN summits tend to be disappointing and unproductive, even when officials aren't arguing Taylor Swift.

Leaders get together, agree closely on what precious few things they can, do good for the cameras, write vaguely worded communiqués, promise to pursue a common future for 660 million people, then go home to do what they want.

For ASEAN to be more than just background music, the bloc could create a true free trade area. It could go further by harmonizing customs, regulatory and tax systems, limiting migration, cracking down on money laundering and, where appropriate, sharing security intelligence. Why not find ways to connect the bond, stock and money markets? Pooling certain foreign exchange reserves could serve as an economic shock absorber.

The Swift/Singapore affair is hardly responsible for the ASEAN resentment in Melbourne. But it highlights “Blank Space,” to riff on another favorite Swift song, which too often seems to signify the group’s lack of accomplishments in a chaotic global climate.

ASEAN can do better. But, again taking a cue from Swift, the mindset needs to be more “You belong to me” than “We're never getting back together.”

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