2011

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Here’s a summary of some of the major events that have shaped our world and our little nation of Singapore in 2015 and earlier.

But please note: this is NOT meant as a substitute for your own regular reading of newspapers/ news websites. If you hope to excel in GP, you must stay connected with the world. Don’t just read about the world – take a personal interest in it. General Paper is a subject in which engagement and passion are particularly important.

The world in 2011

Mass anti-government protests break out in Tunisia and Egypt, toppling both countries’ governments. Online social networks Facebook and Twitter are actively used to organise these uprisings, which then inspire similar protests and riots in Iran, Libya, Bahrain, Morocco, Algeria and Yemen.  The ruler of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, is killed after 42 years in power after rebels mount an armed resistance against his military forces with the aid of French, British and American forces. This wave of political unrest and even armed revolt against autocratic governments in the Middle East and North Africa is widely referred to as the Arab Spring.

An initiative known as the Occupy Movement started in America and spread all over the world. Protesters in America rallied against Wall Street, which is symbolic of finance and capitalism in America, in a show of anger over the wobbly US economy and what they see as corporate greed. They accused the rich of manipulating the economic and political system to their own advantage, widening the income gap in the country. Later, the Occupy Movement spread to  over 90 cities around the world, from Tokyo to Taipei, Paris to Auckland.

Saudi King Abdullah promises to protect women’s rights and decrees that women will be allowed to participate in municipal elections in 2015,the first time in the kingdom’s history that women will  be allowed to vote. Soon after, he overturned a ruling by Saudi court to punish a woman with ten lashes for defying the ban on women driving. The woman was participating in a civil action in which women got behind the wheels of their cars to challenge the authorities’ refusal to lift the ban, the only such restriction in the world. Saudi Arabia enforces gender restrictions interpreted from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam.

China develops anti-aircraft carrier missile and a stealth fighter jet able to compete with the best of American fighter aircraft, years ahead of US predictions

China is building up to five aircraft carriers, say analysts

Japan is hit by a massive tsunami, which devastates towns and cities on its north-eastern coast, kills more than 15,000 people and severely damages a nuclear power plant, triggering the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl

The People’s Action Party is returned to power in the General Election, but receives only 60.1 percent of the vote, its lowest vote share since Singapore’s independence. During the election campaign, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew angered many voters when he warned that Aljunied residents would “live and repent” if they voted in the opposition Workers’ Party. Aljunied voters did just that, handing the PAP their first-ever defeat in a group representation constituency (GRC).

Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong retire from the Cabinet after the General Election.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) launches a “happiness index” known as Your Better Life Index, a wide-ranging measure of well-being and progress which covers 11 areas: housing, incomes, employment, social relationships, education, the environment, the administration of institutions, health, general satisfaction, security and the balance between work and family. The index is the first concrete result of a report by former Nobel economics prizewinner Joseph Stiglitz. It assesses both material living conditions and quality of life, and is intended to provide a more complete measure of human well-being and progress than Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Osama bin Laden is killed in a dramatic night-time raid by US helicopters and troops in his hideout in Abbottabad, a town that is home to a military academy and that is less then two hours’ drive from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

Hardline Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir is sentenced to 15 years in prison for terrorist activities. He had been charged with helping to channel thousands of dollars to a militant training camp in Aceh province, which had aimed to train dozens of militants to use guns and explosives to attack Indonesian government officials as well as foreign targets. Bashir had also served two years in jail from 2004-2006 for his connections to the 2002 Bali bombing and the 2003 JW Marriott Hotel attack in Jakarta.

Wages surge in China and its main low-cost Asian rivals, benefiting workers across the region. But the increases confront trading companies and Western retailers with surging costs and make higher price tags likely for American and European consumers. Wages have risen rapidly in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other countries as they follow China’s example. Bangladesh raised its minimum wage by 87 percent in 2010, yet apparel factories there are still struggling to find enough workers to complete ever-rising orders. Apparel giant Gap announced on May 19 that a 20 percent jump in costs from its suppliers would depress its profits, causing its share price to plunge.

Germany announces plans to abandon the use of nuclear power by 2022, becoming the first major industrialised power to give up nuclear power in the wake of the disaster in Japan.

Popular British tabloid News of the World (NOTW) closes down after it is revealed that its journalists hacked into the mobile phone voicemail of several crime victims, including 13-year old Milly Dowler who was murdered in 2002. The phone-hacking scandal first surfaced in 2007, when an NOTW journalist responsible for covering the British royal family was jailed for intercepting mobile phone messages. The newspaper’s owner Rupert Murdoch closed it down to appease public outrage.

Bombs go off at three locations in Mumbai, the second time in three years that India’s wealthiest city has been hit by a major terrorist attack. 21 people are killed and 113 injured.

Terror attack in Norway by right-wing Christian extremist Anders Breivik kills 86 people. He triggered a bomb in Oslo and then attacked a youth camp with an assault rifle. Breivik was against Muslim immigration into Europe, which he saw as “Muslim colonisation”.

Book retail giant Borders goes bankrupt after losing a battle with technology and competitors. It blamed the rise of e-books and e-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad, as well as the poor economy for its demise. Its more than 600 stores in the US will close, and over 10,000 people will lose their jobs. Later, online retail giant Amazon launches the Kindle Fire, which is not just an e-book reader like the original Kindle, but a tablet. At half the size of the iPad and less than half the price (at US$199), it is expected by many analysts to give the iPad some fierce competition. Beyond that, the Kindle Fire provides easy access to e-shopping on Amazon’s website, where consumers can buy everything from music to videos to electrical applicances to diapers, often at lower prices than at physical stores. Amazon poses a major threat to many traditional retail businesses such as bookstores and video stores, which have seen their profits fall steadily in recent years.

Over 10,000 protesters clash with police in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia’s biggest street march in years. Known as the Bersih rally, it called for electoral reform in Malaysia and was organised by a loose coalition of non-governmental organisations and opposition parties. It proceeded in bold defiance of government and police orders. One man died, many were injured, and 1,600 people were arrested as police retaliated with water cannons and tear gas.

Two months after the Bersih rally, Malaysian PM Najib Razak announced that his government would scrap the Internal Security Act (ISA), a tough 51-year-old law allowing detention without trial. Najib said the abolition of the ISA was aimed at striking a balance between security and democratic rights. The ISA allows an individual to be held virtually indefinitely for acts considered a threat to national security or to prevent such acts.

Thousands of people have been detained under the ISA over the past five decades, typically those suspected of Islamic militancy and government critics.

Riots and looting break out in several major cities in Britain, including London, Birmingham and Manchester after a black Englishman Mark Duggan, 29, is shot during a police operation in North London. Politicians and police firmly blamed the violence on criminals and hooligans. But some commentators and local residents in London said its roots lay in tensions and anger over economic hardship in a city where the gap between the haves and have-nots is highly visible and prospects for many young people are dim. The unrest poses an added challenge to Prime Minister David Cameron as Britain’s economy struggles to grow while his government slashes public spending and raises taxes to help eliminate a budget deficit.

The historic Tanjong Pagar Railway Station changes hands from Malaysia to Singapore as the land swap deal between Singapore and Malaysia under the Points of Agreement (POA) takes effect. Malayan Railway (KTM) has relocated its operations to the Woodlands Checkpoint, with Singapore resuming ownership over all Malayan Railway land south of Woodlands Train Checkpoint. Concurrently, the Singapore Government has vested four parcels of land in Marina South and two parcels in Ophir-Rochor in a joint venture company jointly owned by the two countries. Said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: “Today, we mark a historic breakthrough in our bilateral relations…. The amicable resolution of a bilateral issue which has remained outstanding for almost 20 years is of great significance.”

Activist Mr Anna Hazare stages a hunger strike in New Delhi in an effort to force the Indian government to draft new legislation for a strong anti-corruption authority. Though corruption is widespread in India and can be traced back to the very first years of independent India, the magnitude of recent corruption scandals has brought the issue to centre stage. In 2010, serious allegations were made against the organisers of the Commonwealth Games. But this was overshadowed by the scandal exposed in 2011 involving allotment of spectrum for wireless telephone services, which is estimated to have cost the Indian government US$40 billion. Three Members of Parliament, including a federal minister, were jailed for their crimes.

An electronic bidding system for public construction projects has helped cut corruption in China’s Nanjing city, saving buyers millions of dollars in inflated prices and boosting the authorities’ efforts to use technology in the fight against graft. Called e-Sunshine, the computerised platform for bidding for multi-million dollar construction projects prevents rigging by analysing bid documents and recording bidders’ details, right down to where they are submitting their bids from. The system cuts the opportunities for corruption by making face-to-face contact between bidders and officials redundant, and forcing evaluation committees to make decisions through it. e-Sunshine is one example of how China is capitalising on information technology to combat the rampant corruption that has plagued the country. Such close checks, say officials, have cut down the number of cases of graft involving bidding for projects in Nanjing from the hundreds that the city typically sees to just two last year. Nanjing’s success has inspired at least five other cities in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces to launch electronic platforms for administration.

A World War II fighter plane plunges into a crowd at an air race and air show in Reno, Nevada, killing at least nine people and injuring dozens, with some in critical condition and others with severed limbs. Air shows have a rather grim record of accidents. In 2002, 77 people were killed and 543 injured when a Ukrainian military jet flew into a crowd of spectators and exploded. In 1988, 70 people were killed during a show at the US airbase in Ramstein, Germany.

Hundreds of villagers in Guangdong Province in Southern China protest over a government seizure of land. Incensed by the sale of collectively owned land by local government officials to a property developer for one billion yuan (S$200 million) without their consent, farmers and residents clashed with police over several days in Lufeng City. Later in the year, 13,000 citizens in Wukan village, also in Guangdong Province, launched a revolt which sent their leaders fleeing and repulsed efforts by police to retake the village. The villagers in Wukan were furious at repeated rip-offs by their corrupt village elite. Tensions are rising in many of the 625,000 locally run villages in China over injustices arising from governance and accountability problems. China’s village committees are elected by the villagers themselves. This “village self-administration” is seen by many foreigners as a democratic experiment by China. However, there is frequently a relationship of back-scratching and corruption between village officials and their overseers in Communist Party-controlled townships. Village officials allegedly often make big profits from land sales without the support of their village folk, and siphon off money from village accounts.

The second typhoon in a week battered the rain-soaked northern Philippines, adding misery to thousands of people, some of whom were still perched on rooftops from previous flooding. Thousands of people were ordered to evacuate their homes after Typhoon Nalgae slammed ashore south of northeastern Palanan Bay in Isabela province. It was making a similar path across the saturated Luzon Island as Typhoon Nesat, which earlier in the week killed at least 50 people, left 31 missing and thousands stranded and sent huge waves that breached a seawall in Manila Bay. From June to September, prolonged monsoon flooding, typhoon and storms across Southeast Asia, China, Japan and South Asia left more than 600 people dead or missing. In India alone, the damage is estimated to be worth US$1 billion. Several studies suggest an intensification of the Asian summer monsoon rainfall with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, the state-run Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology said. Still, it is not clear that this is entirely because of climate change, especially in India, it said.

India is working to create a biometric identity database of all its 1.2 billion citizens by scanning their fingerprints and irises, and giving them a 12-digit ID number.  The project aims to reduce the inequality corroding India’s economic rise by enabling citizens, especially the poor, to access welfare benefits, open a bank account or get a cellphone, which can be difficult to do without a reliable ID. The project also aims to reduce corruption. With electronic transmission and verification of government services, the identity system will make it much harder for corrupt officials to steal citizens’ benefits. The system will be able to verify the identity of any Indian anywhere in the country within eight seconds, using inexpensive handheld devices linked to the mobile network.

The US House of Representatives approved legislation to raise the US debt limit by at least US$2.1 trillion and cut federal spending by US$2.4 trillion or more, one day before a threatened default. The US government has US$14.3 trillion in debt, which was the previous legal limit. It was rapidly running out of money to pay interest to its debtors and finance government expenditures. The Democratic Party, who control the White House and the Senate, were locked in very tense negotiations with the Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, to reach an agreement to raise the debt limit. If they had not reached an agreement in time, the US government would have had to shut down as it would have been unable to pay its employees and pay for its programmes and public services.

A sovereign debt (government debt) crisis engulfs Europe as Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain (playfully dubbed the “PIIGS” countries) struggle to meet debt repayments. Greece is worst affected after many years of government profligacy. The European Union agreed to provide Greece with rescue loans worth 209 billion euros to keep its government operating and prevent a default on Greek government debt. However, the European Union put tremendous pressure on the Greek government to slash its spending and increase its revenues as conditions for receiving each tranche of the emergency loans. To appease the EU, Greece has introduced a highly unpopular new property tax while slashing the wages and benefits of state workers (civil servants) and promised to raise other taxes and lay off a fifth of state workers by 2015. In response, Greeks took to the streets repeatedly in heated protests that made it even more difficult for the government to carry out the above measures and resolve the crisis.

Thailand suffers its worst flood in 50 years. Two-thirds of the country is inundated, including the capital Bangkok and many industrial parks, disrupting the production of cars, electronics and other goods. At least 342 people have been killed.

US signs free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia

Apple founder Steve Jobs dies

A worldwide movement known as the Occupy Movement sparks protests against income inequality, corporate greed and corporate influence on governments. The protests started in America, but spread to Hong Kong, Canada, Italy, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and many other countries. The protests were organised on social networking websites. In Italy, the protests turned violent.

US government announces plans to withdraw its troops from Iraq by end-2011, ending its eight-year military engagement that removed Saddam Hussein from power and led to his execution.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tables a bid for full membership in the United Nations for Palestine. The Palestinians needed at least nine nations on the Security Council to vote in favor of their membership in order to move the application to the General Assembly. The US, which holds veto power in the Security Council, had sworn to use its veto if it appeared that the Palestinians had secured the necessary votes. U.S. diplomats managed to secure enough abstentions from among the Security Council’s 15 members to deny the Palestinians nine votes, thus saving the US from having to veto.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN agency, citing a significant amount of information received from undisclosed member states, issued a report that Iran was on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon. It said that while some of Iran’s activities have civilian as well as military applications, others are “specific to nuclear weapons”. This report heightened tensions between Iran and Western nations, as well as with Iran’s bitter enemies Israel. Western nations put pressure on China to take a firmer stand against Iran’s nuclear activities, but China is reluctant to do so because it is dependent on Iranian oil and has growing business interests in Iran.

The nine nations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) set an ambitious goal of completing their ground-breaking multilateral free trade agreement by July 2012. The TPP was started in 2005 with just four nations – Singapore, Brunei, Chile and New Zealand. It now also includes the US, Malaysia, Vietnam, Peru and Australia as well. Even Japan has announced its intention to take part. The pact aims to boost trade, economic growth and job creation in a large potential market of about 500 million people. The TPP also hopes to become a blueprint for future trade agreements around the world by taking on new issues such as green technologies and the digital economy. It is worth noting that the world has tried in vain for many years to create a truly global free trade agreement, through forums such as the Doha Round of global trade talks under the World Trade Organisation. Singapore was one of the pioneer TPP countries who conceived the innovative idea of starting with a small agreement first, like planting a little seed, and hoping that it would attract more countries to join as it became successful.

A Singapore-based online video start-up called ViKi received a total of US$24.3 million of investment from major players including Greylock Partners, SK Planet and BBC Worldwide, which have picked some major winners over the years such as the career social networking site Linkedin. The sum is believed to be the largest sum raised by a tech start-up here in recent years. ViKi’s website offers thousands of films and TV programmes subtitled by an organised volunteer community.

Global luxury giant LVMH, which owns some of the world’s top labels like Dior and Givenchy, bought a 20 percent stake in Singapore shoe retailer Charles & Keith for more than $30 million. Charles & Keith started out as just a humble shoe store in Ang Mo Kio, and now has 229 stores across Asia and the Middle East. It now wants to conquer the US, China, India and Western Europe.

The US announces plans to shift its foreign policy focus towards Asia and will station troops in Australia on a permanent basis. 250 marines will initially be stationed in Darwin, but the deployment will increase to 2,500 in five years. American aircraft will also be allowed to operate from Australian air force bases. Many analysts believe that the US move is aimed at countering China, which is becoming increasingly assertive in pursuing its claims in territorial disputes with neighbouring countries such as South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Analysts believe these Asian countries are keen for the US to increase its security engagement in Asia, to keep China in check. While the US already has military bases in South Korea and Japan, their forces in Australia will be out of range of Chinese missiles.

Myanmar carries out political reforms in an attempt to end the country’s two-decade long international isolation and build its impoverished economy. Last year, it held elections for a civilian government after 20 years of rule by a military junta, and released pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyii from house arrest. This year, it has freed some 200 political dissidents and passed a law allowing workers to form unions and go on strike. In 1990, Ms Suu Kyii’s political party, the National League for Democracy, won the elections but the military seized power from her and kept her under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years between 1989 and 2010.

Cambodia were reminded of their tragic history as the country put on trial three top Khmer Rouge leaders accused of orchestrating Cambodia’s “Killing Fields” in the late 1970s. They were Nuon Chea, 85, the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologist and No. 2 leader; Khieu Samphan, 80, a former head of state; and Ieng Sary, 86, the former foreign minister. The charges include crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture. Their leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 in the jungle while a prisoner of his own comrades. An estimated 1.7 million people died of execution, starvation, exhaustion or lack of medical care as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s radical policies, which essentially turned all of Cambodia into a forced labour camp as the movement attempted to create a pure agrarian socialist society.

Indonesia’s longest bridge, the 710-metre Kutai Kartanegara bridge in East Kalimantan, collapsed while being repaired, killing 21. Also this year, a 10-metre high wall in Makassar, South Sulawesi collapsed during a downpour, killing eight people.The incidents cast the spotlight on cutting corners and kickbacks common in the Indonesian building industry. It is well-known in Indonesia that up to half the money meant for public infrastructure projects is siphoned off by corrupt officials in the form of fictitious “consultant’s fees” or “monitoring and supervision fees”. As a result, construction companies have to use substandard materials and workmanship when building the infrastructure, leading to serious safety issues.

Dozens of Taiwanese school principals were investigated and detained for allegedly taking bribes from students’ lunch caterers. In what could be Taiwan’s worst ever education-related corruption scandal, 25 heads of primary and secondary schools were detained or released on bail for taking kickbacks and gifts from about ten caterers. Two others turned themselves in.

North Korea’s dictatorial leader Kim Jong-il dies at the age of 69. His son Kim Jong Un, who is reported to be in his 20s, takes over as leader of the reclusive, impoverished nation believed to be developing nuclear weapons. The international community reacts with concern over the uncertainty over political stability in North Korea, amid fears of a power struggle breaking out or unpredictable aggression from the new leader as he seeks to establish himself. Japan urged China, North Korea’s only ally, to help to stabilise North Korea.

Eight cases of cancer were reported in French women who used breast implants made by a company called Poly Implant Prothese (PIP), leading to strong suspicions that the implants caused the cancer. The company was accused of using industrial-grade silicone, normally used in everything from computers to cookware.

The Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) network suffers two massive breakdowns that leave thousands stranded, the worst system failures in its 24-year history. The lights and ventilation failed in some trains, prompting a commuter to smash the window using a fire extinguisher. Some passengers had to evacuate the trains in mid-tunnel and walk through the tunnels to the next station. A public outcry followed, with many calling for the SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa to resign. The Prime Minister called for a Committee of Inquiry to be set up to look into the breakdowns.

Factory employment is rising again in America after a long period of decline. However, a new generation of manufacturing workers in the US are having to accept sharply lower wages compared to past generations. At the Louisville, Kentucky factory of General Electric (GE), newcomers are put on a pay scale of US$12 to $19 per hour, compared to US$21 to $32 for long-time staff. Globalisation and competition from low-wage countries such as China have forced American workers to accept these “globally competitive” wages. The willingness of these workers and their unions to accept lower wages has prompted global manufacturers like GE and Ford to move some of their production back to the US. With unemployment high in the US, younger workers are generally thankful to have a job, even at the reduced wage that makes it very difficult for them to attain the middle-class status their predecessors took for granted. Linda Thomas, 37, whose hourly wage of $18.19 is far below the $32 her older colleagues make,  said that she does not protest. Too many unemployed people, she explained, would clamour for her job and her wage if she did. “You don’t want to rock the boat,” Ms Thomas said. “You take a chance on losing everything you have if you do.” The decline in unit labour costs is striking. In manufacturing, the wages and benefits invested in each unit of production have fallen in eight of the past 10 years, a net decline of 13.6 percentage points, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Productivity played a role — modern factories require fewer workers. Still, the decline is the greatest in such a short time since the statistic was first tracked in 1951. In China, in sharp contrast, unit labour costs in manufacturing have risen in recent years, which means the gap between the US and China, while still great, is nevertheless narrowing slightly — one reason that GE is making its new water heater in the US. “We are at an inflection point in manufacturing in terms of relative cost structures,” said Mark M. Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “Ten years ago, it was a no-brainer to locate in China, and now it isn’t so clear whether China is the low-cost place to produce.”

Saudi Arabia signed a deal to buy 84 new US fighter jets to maximize its defense capabilities as tension between the United States and Iran escalates following Teheran’s threat to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz. The US$29.4 billion deal, which was signed on Dec 24 in Riyadh, will supply 84 new Boeing F-15SA aircraft and modernize 70 existing planes. The deal is the single priciest US arms sale ever to a foreign country. The announcement came amid rising tensions between Iran and the United States after Teheran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers if Washington implements new sanctions over its nuclear programme. This deal is one of several recent major deals to sell fighter jets to Middle East states, including $600 m and $835 m contracts to supply F-16s to Oman and and Iraq, respectively. These fighter jet contracts will boost growth and employment in the sluggish US economy just ahead of the Presidential Election in 2012.

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