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Recent Stories: Grab <--> Lyft; Microsoft Exec on Self-Driving Cars; Venture Capital in Southeast Asia

I’m behind in sharing some of the stories I’ve been working on. Here are a few from last week.

The first, on Grab’s integration with Lyft in the U.S., begins:

The latest step in a global ride-sharing alliance between rivals of Uber Technologies Inc. went into effect Thursday, allowing users of a popular Southeast Asia-focused transportation app to begin making car bookings via Lyft Inc. in the U.S.

Users of the app from GrabTaxi Holdings Pte. Ltd., which operates in 30 cities across six Southeast Asian countries, can now use the service to hail vehicles in more than 200 U.S. cities via Lyft. In December, Lyft said it was teaming up with Grab, as the company is known, after announcing a similar agreement with Chinese startup Didi Chuxing Technology Co. in September, bolstering the competitive field against the much larger Uber.

The second, on Microsoft, which I wrote while in Hong Kong for our Converge tech conference, begins:

Microsoft Corp. isn’t building its own self-driving car, but is bullish on helping others with related technology, a senior executive said.

“We won’t be building our own autonomous vehicle but we would like to enable autonomous vehicles and assisted driving as well,” said Peggy Johnson, who heads business development for the Redmond, Wash., tech titan, speaking at the Converge technology conference hosted by The Wall Street Journal and f.ounders in Hong Kong Friday.

Ms. Johnson said Microsoft has asked various auto makers what kind of technological applications they are looking for, whether it is working with Azure, its cloud-based service for businesses, Office 365, the cloud version of its productivity software suite, or its Windows operating system.

And finally, another from the conference: a look at how investors – such as Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin – are increasingly pouring venture capital funds into Southeast Asia:

Venture capitalists and investors attending the Converge technology conference in Hong Kong on Friday expressed optimism about the future of startups in Southeast Asia, despite significant challenges.

“Between Southeast Asia and India there are about two billion people,” said Facebook Inc. co-founder Eduardo Saverin, speaking on a panel about investment opportunities in the region. “It’s arguably the fastest-growing internet market in the world.”

In the first quarter of this year, funding to companies in Singaporethe region’s startup hub–rose sharply to $199 million from $53.1 million a year earlier, according to Hong Kong-based AVCJ Research.

Book Notes — ‘Asian Godfathers,’ by Joe Studwell

Note: I have long kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

2016 06 01 asian godfathers

Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia
By Joe Studwell
Published: Oct. 2007
Read: Nov. 2015
Amazon link

Brief recap: An incisive look at how Southeast Asia’s godfathers got rich by exploiting the region’s dysfunctional governments — and how local elites have used godfathers, in turn.

One of the best books, if not the very best, on the region that I’ve encountered; should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the history of modern Southeast Asia.

My notes:

  • The region’s godfathers — largely Chinese and Indians — emigrated to Southeast Asia before World War II, taking advantage of opportunities for concessions and monopolies from local political elites in exchange for not seeking their own political power. Typical godfather behavior would be, for example, to bribe local politicians for lucrative monopolies, which they then used to build their own fortunes. Local elites got a steady stream of incoming cash in return, and weren’t challenged in the governmental sphere.

  • Southeast Asia and Hong Kong have very few global brands because they employ “technology-less industrialization” — entrepreneurs seek rents and have monopolies, so don’t need to improve productivity or become globally competitive.

  • The economic landscape in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong is “shaped by the interaction of two historical forces: migration and colonization.” That is, migrants came to Southeast Asia and began building their riches by taking advantage of colonial systems.

  • Thailand’s Thaksin was a godfather who committed the sin of political ambition — and alienated his fellow godfathers.

  • Studwell is highly critical of Singapore despite the fact it is known globally for good governance and its outsized economic development. He argues that its small size makes comparisons with countries irrelevant, and that both the city-state and Hong Kong show that small cities with deep water ports and good banking facilities were always destined to flourish in the region, despite their very different political models. “As relatively easily managed city states, with highly motivated and purely immigrant populations,” Studwell writes, “Hong Kong and Singapore perform a simple economic trick: they arbitrage the relative economic inefficiency of their hinterlands. In other words, business comes to them because they perform certain tasks — principally services — a little better than surrounding countries.”

By Me Last Week: GrabTaxi Is Becoming Grab

2016 02 01 grab

The story begins:

Uber Technologies Inc.’s main rival in Southeast Asia wants people to know that it—like the San Francisco, Calif. startup—offers not just taxis, but private cars.

Singapore-based GrabTaxi Holdings Pte. Ltd. said Thursday it is shortening its name to simply Grab. The goal: to highlight that in addition to allowing users to book taxis in 28 cities across Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam, it also offers newer services like private cars—not to mention car pooling and even motorbike rides.

The re-branding comes as competition heats up for new users in the populous region. The U.S.’s Lyft Inc. in December said it was teaming up with GrabTaxi — er, make that Grab — and ANI Technologies Pvt. Ltd.’s Ola in India to permit users of each app to hail rides from drivers of the other apps while traveling abroad. That gives the alliance more leverage to compete against Uber, a global titan that has expanded its ride sharing platform, which includes private cars and taxis in some markets, to more than 370 cities across 68 countries since launching in the U.S. in 2010.

Notable Addition to the Southeast Asia Starbucks Misspellings Collection: ‘Newrick’

IMG 1290

A new one for my collection: “Newrick.”

I love it. 🙂

President Obama, ‘If You Were a Rohingya…”

A Thai attendee at a recent Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative event at the White House asked President Obama the following question: “If you were a Rohinya, which country would you prefer to live in, and why?”

Now, the question drew snickers, because it’s a bit odd to ask the world’s most powerful man what he would do if he were a member of one of the world’s most persecuted peoples.

But it was actually an effective query because it forced him to personalize the question. Part of his answer: I think I’d like to live in the country where I was born.

For more on the plight of the Rohingya, here’s a recent story providing the context:

Since early May, more than 4,600 boat people from Myanmar and Bangladesh have been brought ashore from Southeast Asian waters. Several thousand more are believed to still be at sea after human smugglers abandoned their boats amid a regional crackdown.

Some are Bangladeshis who left their impoverished homeland in hope of finding jobs abroad. But many are Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which has denied them basic rights, including citizenship, and confined more than 100,000 to camps. There are more than one million Rohingya living in the country formerly known as Burma.

You can also click on the Rohingya tag to see posts I’ve written about them dating back to 2009.

(Formatting note: This link to the video should take you to the 41:58 mark in the video, when President Obama was asked the question. The embedded video starts from the beginning of the event.)

Arsenal Players + Durian = Funny

English Premier League sides Arsenal, Everton and Stoke are coming here to Singapore in July for some pre-season exhibition matches.

Ahead of the trip, Arsenal players were asked to try the notoriously stinky durian fruit, native to Southeast Asia. Love their reactions.

The video is embedded above and on YouTube here.

By Me Today: GrabTaxi’s Splashing the Cash New R&D Center, More Staff

The story begins:

Southeast Asia-focused Taxi booking app GrabTaxi says it’s about to splash the cash, mostly on new hires.

The Singapore-based company said Wednesday it will spend $100 million over the next five years on a new research and development center in the city-state, with a “significant portion” of that sum going to lure talent.

GrabTaxi, which launched in 2012 and operates in 20 cities across six countries, said in December it secured a $250 million investment from Japanese telecommunications and Internet giant SoftBank.

That brought its total funding nearly $340 million, with its valuation as of December reaching $1 billion, according to data from The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones VentureSource.

Among the new hires GrabTaxi says it has recently made are Kevin Lee, who was head of Asia for U.S. data mining software company Palantir Technologies. Another is Arul Kumaravel, who previously held a senior engineering role

By Me Today: Uber’s Controversial ‘Surge Pricing’ in Sydney

Earlier today, I wrote:

Uber acted quickly Monday in an attempt to tamp down the latest controversy to hit the company, saying it is offering passengers free rides amid an unfolding siege at a Sydney café after complaints that rates had soared to exorbitant levels.

The reversal came just a short time after the ride-sharing app drew criticism on Twitter for saying it was raising prices to attract more drivers to the city’s central business district, where at least one gunman had taken hostages in a cafe and placed an Islamic flag in the window, sparking concerns a terrorist attack was under way.

The fare uptick was the result of an Uber policy called surge pricing, in which an algorithm charges customers more money during times of high demand — as was apparently the case in Sydney. Some users reported that the minimum fare had skyrocketed to $100 Australian dollars ($82) for a ride.

Click through for more. And for updates about the situation in Sydney, see our live blog.

Meanwhile, I neglected to mention that I recently wrote about Uber’s regulatory issues in Southeast Asia.

Travelfish Founder Stuart McDonald Talks Southeast Asia Travel

If you’re interested in Southeast Asia travel, you might enjoy listening to this podcast interview with Stuart McDonald, founder of the travel site

McDonald has been traveling in the region for more than 20 years, and has some interesting thoughts on how travel — and travelers — have changed over time.

He talks mainly about Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia, and suggests an intinerary for a one-month tour through the region. His recommendation might surprise you.

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