The Latest on Southeast Asia: September 28, 2023

On Friday, September 22, world leaders and other officials met in New York City for the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Among them was newly minted prime minister Hun Manet of Cambodia, who addressed the General Assembly highlighting Cambodia’s strides toward poverty reduction. He emphasized the efficacy of poverty alleviation over 20 years and stressed Cambodia’s steadfastness toward its economic goals. He used the July 2023 elections as a marker for the country’s commitment to democracy, underscored by the 85 percent turnout in the general elections. Critics, especially among the Cambodian diaspora, protested Hun Manet’s visit, arguing that international acceptance of his premiership indicated a lack of concern for continued human rights abuses in Cambodia and resignation to its flawed democracy.

On the sidelines of UNGA, ASEAN leaders met with prominent business leaders to promote their countries to foreign investors. Thailand's new prime minister Srettha Thavisin, for instance, met with Elon Musk on Thursday, September 21, to discuss Tesla’s electric vehicle manufacturing, SpaceX satellites and rockets, and Musk’s Starlink satellite-based internet service. In the past year, Musk has met with multiple ASEAN leaders, hoping to capitalize on the region’s intensifying push toward renewable energy solutions for infrastructure and transportation. 

Tesla began operations in Malaysia in July, signaling the emphasis placed by global companies, including Japanese and Korean vehicle makers, to break into the region’s market and expand the electric vehicle manufacturing sector. Indonesia and Thailand are becoming large stakeholders in the automotive industry in Southeast Asia, with the industry in the latter accounting for 12 percent of economic growth as of 2018. Both Indonesia and Thailand implemented lucrative investor-friendly policies to boost the EV sector.

There has also been a push to prop up domestic EV companies. In Malaysia, a recent merger of two major automobile conglomerates under a state-owned investment firm is set to strengthen the domestic auto industry. Moreover, the ubiquity of motorbikes across Southeast Asia led to a push for greater e-motorbike usage and production. Roughly 6.5 million motorcycles were sold per 1 million cars in the past decade in Indonesia alone. Subsidies decreasing the cost of such motorcycles and optimism in domestic companies such as Maka Motors demonstrate the interest in two-wheeled EVs; however, lack of charging infrastructure continues to be a barrier.

With climate change being one of the top priorities at UNGA, increasing EV production and consumption in Southeast Asia is a bellwether for foreign investment priority shifts, and perhaps most critically, an indication of further work required to ensure that the infrastructure for these vehicles continues to improve.

Yumei Lin is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Japhet Quitzon is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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Yumei Lin

Research Intern, Southeast Asia Program