Good morning. Here's my take on some of the stories driving the debate in politics, finance and social issues across Asia today:
Rakuten grabs Viber and sends message.
Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani has long wanted to tap faster-growing markets overseas as his nation ages and deflation proves hard to defeat. Today, the founder of online retailer Rakuten took a $900 million leap in that direction by buying the Cyprus-based Viber Internet messaging and calling service. The platform gives Mikitani access to 300 million instant-messaging enthusiasts to whom he can sell games and goods. More importantly, he's showing his peers that they should be tapping into a rapidly-growing and increasingly dynamic business world outside Japan's borders. Consider this his direct message to Japan Inc.
China's subdued inflation data.
Much as China tries to reassure the world it's not about to crash, factory-gate prices are extending the longest drop since the 1990s. A January drop in producer prices to the tune of 1.6 percent is a clear sign of heightened downside risks in the world’s second-largest economy. It could be harbinger of a downgrade in gross domestic product growth as the year unfolds. Premier Li Keqiang has set a 7 percent “bottom line” to sustain employment. These data suggest that will be a hard line to hold.
Seven decades of North Asian bitterness.
For anyone wondering why the Chinese and Japanese just can't get along, BBC reporter Mariko Oi's latest piece is worth a read. It explains, in very personal terms, her own misgivings as a Japanese about her government's failure to teach children adequately about the nation's World War II atrocities, but also China's use of nationalism to turn public opinion against Japan since the Tiananmen Square massacre. It's troubling that, after traveling around China and Japan with a Chinese journalist and interviewing scores of people on both sides, Oi concludes: "We both felt less optimistic about our nations' future relationship than we had when we set out."
Australia ‘methadone’ rehab begins.
Once upon a time, a central banker's job was to take away the punchbowl just as the party got going. Now, all too many are leaving the punchbowl out too long and Joe Hockey has had enough of it. In a colorful Bloomberg interview, the Australian treasurer said: “The world can no longer rely on methadone every day. Sooner or later we need to wean ourselves off and that’s what [Federal Reserve] tapering is about.” Here's another way of saying the same thing: It's closing time!
Press freedom plunge in Malaysia.
The Southeast Asian economy has been in relative freefall in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders for a couple of years now. In 2013, for example, it fell 23 rungs to 145 out of 180 countries. This year, it's 147th. Prime Minister Najib Razak's administration claims journalists in Malaysia have never been freer. The outside world begs to differ, as Malaysian publications that try to uncover corruption find themselves under fire. If that's Najib's idea of freedom, it must mean something different in his own personal lexicon.
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