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Hong Kong tourism, retail sales may not improve in November: Economist

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Pedestrians cross Russell Street in front of the Times Square shopping mall, operated by Wharf (Holdings) Ltd., in the Causeway Bay shopping district of Hong Kong, China.

Xaume Olleros | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Hong Kong’s tourist arrivals and retail sales figures are unlikely to be any better in November after their dismal showing in October, an economist said on Tuesday.

“It’s very hard to imagine that the retail sales numbers and tourist arrival numbers will be any better in November given how much of a step-up in protest and violence that happened during that time,” said Martin Rasmussen, China economist at Capital Economics.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, has seen widespread demonstrations since June, some of which have led to violent clashes between protesters and the police. The protests were initially sparked by a proposed law that would have allowed extradition to mainland China, but the unrest later morphed into broader anti-government demonstrations that include demands such as greater democracy and universal suffrage.

In October, retail sales fell 24.3% from a year ago, according to preliminary Hong Kong government data. The city’s government said that slump is the worst on record.

Tourist arrivals slumped 43.7% in October from year ago to 3.31 million, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board. That’s a sharper drop than the 34.2% decline in September. Mainland Chinese visitors fell 45.9% in October from a year ago.

“The Chinese tourists, we don’t think that they will feel welcomed in the city again anytime soon especially given the big step-up in state media on the mainland regarding the Hong Kong situation,” Rasmussen told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

The Hong Kong government has pushed out stimulus to support the city’s economy. But the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar, which Rasmussen said leaves little space for the government to adjust monetary conditions, although they could step up fiscal spending to boost the economy.

Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law two bills supporting Hong Kong protesters. China subsequently suspended U.S. military visits to Hong Kong and sanctioned several U.S. non-government organizations.

Rasmussen said, however, the upside of that development is that Beijing appears to want to contain the fallout of the act to Hong Kong and not link it to trade talks — a positive for the U.S.-China relationship.

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World Bank says Indonesia fires cost $5.2 billion in economic losses

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This picture taken on October 6, 2019 shows a firefighter battling a forest fire in Pekanbaru, Riau. Indonesia’s fires have been an annual problem for decades, though this year’s were particularly bad because of the dry weather.

Wahyudi | AFP | Getty Images

The total damage and economic loss from forest fires in Indonesia this year amounted to at least $5.2 billion, equal to 0.5% of gross domestic product, the World Bank said in a report on Wednesday.

The estimate was based on its assessment in eight affected provinces from June to October 2019, though analysts at the multinational bank said fires had continued to rage through to November.

“The forest and land fires, as well as the resulting haze, led to significant negative economic impacts, estimated at $157 million in direct damage to assets and $5.0 billion in losses from affected economic activities,” the World Bank wrote in the report.

Over 900,000 people reported respiratory illnesses, 12 national airports halted operations, and hundreds of schools in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore had to temporarily close due to the fires.

Drifting smoke at the height of the dry season in September triggered a diplomatic spat between Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.

More than 942,000 hectares (2.3 million acres) of forests and lands were burned this year, the biggest since devastating fires in 2015 when Indonesia saw 2.6 million hectares burned, according to official figures. Officials said the spike was due to El Nino weather patterns lengthening the dry season.

The World Bank also estimated a 0.09 and 0.05 percentage points reduction in Indonesia’s economic growth in 2019 and 2020, respectively, due to the fires. Its growth forecast for Indonesia is 5% for 2019 and 5.1% for 2020.

The blazes were “manmade and have become a chronic problem annually since 1997” because fire is considered the cheapest method to prepare land for cultivation, the bank said.

Because about 44% of the areas burned in 2019 were in peatlands, carbon emissions from Indonesia’s fires were estimated to be almost double the emissions from the fires in the Brazilian Amazon this year.

The European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecast estimated a total of 720 megatonnes of CO2 emissions came from Indonesian forest fires in January-November this year.

Longer-term effects of repeated fires were not included in this estimate, the World Bank said. Repeated haze exposure would reduce health and education quality and damage the global image of palm oil – an important commodity for Indonesia.

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UK politicians ‘don’t do God’ but religion matters in this election

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People hold up placards and Union flags as they gather for a demonstration organised by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism outside the head office of the British opposition Labour Party in central London on April 8, 2018.

TOLGA AKMEN | AFP | Getty Images

An infamous political tale tells of the occasion when former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair once wanted to discuss his faith in public but was interrupted by his top communications advisor Alistair Campbell who abruptly told him: “We don’t do God.”

The curt riposte to Blair’s desire to talk about his Christian faith reflects a general attitude in the U.K. — both among the political establishment and the general public — that politics and religion don’t mix well.

In the case of the forthcoming U.K. election on Thursday December 12, however, political parties have been unable to dodge religion with controversies over discrimination coming to the fore for both the Conservative and Labour parties.

The bigger prominence of religion in the 2019 snap election, one which will decide the direction the U.K.’s departure from the EU takes, is more to do with identity politics, experts say.

“We’re not a mainstream religious country,” Vince Cable, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, told CNBC Tuesday.

“This isn’t America, it’s not Poland, we’re a fairly secular country so it’s not the vast majority of people wanting to express a religious view. But I think it’s one manifestation of the politics of identity that is becoming increasingly common,” he said.

“Identity is sometimes about religion, sometimes about color, sometimes about nationality. And I think what is happening is that traditional left-right class alignments are becoming less and less relevant, and it’s identity, in those different forms, that becomes salient,” Cable added.

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

Religious identity has featured prominently in the run up to the election in the U.K. with both the main parties accused of failing to deal with religious discrimination and prejudice within their own ranks.

In late November, the U.K.’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis attacked the Labour party for failing to tackle anti-Semitism within its ranks, adding that the party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn was “unfit for office.”

He also said in an interview with The Times newspaper that “the overwhelming majority of British Jews are gripped by anxiety” ahead of polling day as they fear a potential Labour government.

Mirvis’ comments came on the same day that Labour had launched a “race and faith manifesto,” which it said aimed to tackle prejudice across all faiths. Labour has repeatedly denied accusations of anti-Semitism and has expelled party members after complaints of anti-Semitism were upheld yet it remains accused of not doing enough.

The party came under fresh pressure this weekend when it emerged there was a backlog of unresolved complaints over anti-Jewish racism within the party, some dating back years. Shadow Finance Minister John McDonnell apologized to the Jewish community “for the suffering we have inflicted on them.”

People hold banners during a protest, organized by Stand Up To Racism platform, against former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson after his Islamaphobic article, which includes hate crime on women those who wear niqab or burqa, in front of the contact office of Conservative Party in London, United Kingdom on August 09, 2018.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

While Labour’s reputation has been tarnished in the Jewish community, the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has been accused of not doing enough to tackle Islamophobia within the party. Johnson has come under fire himself for previous comments in which he likened Muslim women wearing burkas as looking “like letter boxes.”

On Sunday, Conservative Chairman James Cleverly apologized for cases of Islamophobia in his party and reiterated a promise made by Johnson that there would be an inquiry into prejudice and discrimination within the party by the end of the year. Like Labour, the Conservatives have expelled a number of party members for alleged Islamophobia.

Cable, who once led the third-largest opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, said both the mainstream parties had upset ethnic minorities in the U.K.

“The Labour party has got a very specific issue which relates to anti-Semitism … they’ve got to clean up their act and I don’t think they can do that as long as (Jeremy) Corbyn is their leader, frankly,” he said.

“The Tories are tapping into an underlying, often very racist feeling in parts of the country … there is an undercurrent of hostility to ethnic minorities and Johnson has, through his language, has played into that, and I think they (the Tories) are a bigger problem than the Labour Party.”

Ben Ryan, head of research at Christian think tank Theos, told CNBC that the main problem with modern political parties in the U.K. was a failure to engage with faith groups on all sides, and tending to regard the issue of faith in negative terms.

“There’s been nothing really positive from the parties about how they’re going to engage faith groups,” he said. “There’s been almost purely negative messaging about faith groups … and a total absence from the debates of positive things faith groups can offer society. They’re often pillars of social services in the community.”

Don’t mention God

Political parties might have trouble engaging with faith groups but they also have problems dealing with the religious identities of their own lawmakers at times. In fact, Vince Cable’s predecessor Tim Farron, resigned from the leadership of the Liberal Democrats because he said he could not reconcile his faith, and remain “faithful to Christ” with being party leader.

The difference between the U.S. and U.K. when it comes to religion and faith in politics is pronounced.

In the U.S., former President George W. Bush was seen by the Christian right as a way to push a conservative Christian agenda while in the U.K., his then-counterpart Tony Blair (incidentally, both Bush and Blair were religious converts to a certain extent; Bush was born again as an evangelical Christian in 1985 and Blair who converted to Catholicism) was discouraged from expressing views on his personal faith.

When announcing to the nation the start of the 2003 war in Iraq, Blair was apparently dissuaded by aides from ending his message with the phrase “God bless you” — a marked contrast from then-President George W. Bush who told the world that he was spurred to intervene in Iraq because, “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq.”

Theos’ Head of Research Ben Ryan told CNBC that politicians in the U.K. “are certainly more reserved about expressing their religious identity than in the U.S.”

“It’s easier to treat it (religious identity) as a cultural marker than an explicit expression of faith. It’s more of a muted identity in the U.K. It’s far more unusual for politicians here to put their faith out there. People who have done so have been burnt, like Tim Farron, an evangelical Christian that felt he couldn’t do both,” he said.

“It is becoming a harsher environment in terms of how religious identity can be used against you, particularly for Muslim MPs,” he said, adding “it’s not a left-right thing, it’s affecting all Muslim MPs.” Ryan claimed that the language used by political rivals against Muslim MPs was often religiously charged.

He cited the example of Zac Goldsmith using the terms “radical and divisive” to describe his political rival Sadiq Khan in the race to become mayor of London. Goldsmith was criticized for using the language of extremism to describe Khan.

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Apple Tim Cook seen eating Singaporean foods in Tiong Bahru Market

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Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple, in Sun Valley, Idaho, United States, on July 12, 2019.

Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Apple CEO Tim Cook started his Wednesday with a Singaporean breakfast in the quaint and charming neighborhood of Tiong Bahru — one of the oldest housing estates in Singapore known for its 1930s streamline moderne architecture.

In a post on his professional Facebook page, Darren Soh said he and fellow photographer Aik Beng Chia had breakfast with Cook at the Tiong Bahru Market and gave the tech CEO a “quick tour.”

On what appears to be Soh’s private page, he said, “Tim tried Chwee Kueh, Carrot Cake, Soya Bean Milk but his favourite was pandan flavoured Gao Teng Kueh.”

Chwee kueh is a dish of steamed rice cakes topped with preserved radish. The carrot cake that Cook tried is likely a savory dish of stir-fried radish cake, and does not contain carrots like the Western dessert. Cook’s apparent favorite dish of the morning, “gao teng kueh,” is a multi-layered cake typically made with tapioca flour, rice flour and coconut milk.

Earlier this week, Cook was in Japan, based on recent photos shared on Twitter.

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