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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 2012
A statue of Adolf Hitler as a small boy praying on his knees is on display in the former Warsaw Ghetto in Poland, the place where so many Jews were killed by Hitler’s regime, and it is provoking mixed reactions. The work, HIM by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, is an installation which makes the Hitler statue visible only from a hole in a wooden gate. Viewers see only the back of the small figure praying in a courtyard. Some Jews have denounced the installation as an insult to the memory of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. But Mr Fabio Cavallucci, director of the Center for Centemporary Art which oversaw the installation, said, “There is no intention from the side of the artist or the centre to insult Jewish memory. It’s an artwork that tries to speak about the situation of hidden evil everywhere.” Poland’s chief rabbi Michael Schudrich did not oppose it, saying there could be educational value in it and that art can “force us to face the evil of the world”. Many visitors praised the work. “It had a big emotional impact on me. It’s provocative, but it’s not offensive,” said 30-year old lawyer Zofia Jablonska.
Singapore’s economy grew by a feeble 1.2 percent in 2012 as exports to the economically sluggish United States and financial crisis-hit Europe slowed sharply. The Singapore economy was also constrained by tighter government restrictions on the intake of foreign workers in its long-term drive to reduce reliance on foreigners and raise productivity. Many businesses are struggling to find enough workers, particularly in industries which Singaporeans shun, such as retail. The Singapore Business Federation (SBF), representing more than 18,000 firms, warned that the foreign worker policy could stifle economic growth, drive some businesses to the wall and others overseas.
China opened the world’s longest high-speed rail line that more than halved the time required to travel from the country’s capital Beijing in the north to Guangzhou, an economic hub in the south. The opening of the 2,298 km line cut travel time from more than 20 hours to eight.
Violent protests broke out in India after a 23-year old woman was brutally gang-raped and assaulted on a bus at night. She later died in hospital. Her intestines had to be removed because of severe injuries caused by an iron rod used during the rape. She also suffered brain injuries and cardiac arrest. In the wake of the attack, much of the country’s fury has been directed towards a police force seen as apathetic, corrupt and misogynist, and a political class that often seems uncaring. Senior police are regularly quoted in the Indian press as saying women who are raped are to blame for their attacks – for being out at night, for talking to men or for wearing jeans. The tragedy also sparked debate on the perceived lack of respect for women in Indian society. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said “all possible efforts” were being made to ensure the safety of women in India. Dr Singh said it was up to everyone to ensure that her death would not be in vain. “It would be a true homage to her memory if we are able to channel these emotions and energies into a constructive course of action,” he added.
Park Geun-hye, whose father ruled South Korea with an iron fist for 18 years, became the country’s first female president. Park, 60, had to overcome resentment towards her privileged background and accusations that her party was too close to the powerful chaebol conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy. While her gender was a frequent talking point among pundits, it did not appear to have been a major influence on voters. The legacy of her father, Park Chung-hee, continued to divide the country 33 years after his death. Older, conservative voters credit him with promoting rapid industrialisation and laying the foundations for the powerful economy of today. Others, though, have never forgotten his ruthless crackdowns against opponents, some of whom were tortured or executed, and blame him for delaying the arrival of democracy.
For the first time ever, three pharmaceutical companies are poised to test whether new drugs can work against a wide range of cancers independently of where they originated — breast, prostate, liver or lung. The drugs aim to restore the p53 gene that tells cells to die if their DNA is too badly damaged to be repaired. Cancer cells disable p53. Roche, Merck and Sanofi are the three pharma companies that will conduct the tests. If successful, these tests could lead to the development of drugs that could treat rare cancers like liposarcoma — a rare cancer of the fat cells — that pharma companies have ignored for years as the small number of patients made it financially unviable to develop drugs for them.
A gunman kills 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut in the US. Adam Laza, 20, had first shot his mother at home before driving to Sandy Hook Elementary School with three guns and carrying out his rampage. The guns, which included a Bushmaster military assault rifle, belonged to his mother and had been acquired legally under US gun laws. President Obama promised to use “whatever power (his) office holds” to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Amidst the public outcry against current gun laws, the National Rifle Association (NRA) – one of the most powerful lobby groups in the US – argued for armed guards in all schools. NRA chief Wayne LaPierre said, “The only guy that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” He called for a national database of the mentally ill and blamed violent video games and films, saying they portrayed murder as a “way of life”.
Singapore’s Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer resigns from his position as well as from the ruling People’s Action Party after admitting to an “improper relationship” with a staff member of the People’s Association.
Apple suffered its worst one-day share price fall in almost four years on fears it was losing market share to rivals and disappointment over the lack of a special dividend to shareholders. The maker of the iPhone and iPad saw its shares fall 6.4 percent, with America’s most valuable company losing almost US$35bn off its market value. It is now worth just under $507bn. Analysts expressed concerns that Apple risked losing ground to Nokia smartphones in China, while failing to keep pace with Google in the tablets market. Fears were triggered by an announcement that China Mobile, China’s biggest mobile operator, had agreed to carry the Lumia 920T, a device based on Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 software. Apple has agreements with China Telecom and China Unicom (Hong Kong) to sell iPhones but is yet to strike a deal with China Mobile in the world’s leading mobile-phone market.
Singapore experienced its first illegal strike in 26 years when 171 bus drivers from China working for SMRT refused to report for work. They were unhappy that their salaries were lower than Malaysian drivers working for the same company. Another complaint was about poor living conditions in their dormitories. In Singapore, workers in essential services such as public transport are required to give 14 days’ notice before they go on strike. Five of the drivers were charged and a further 29 received a stern warning from the police before having their work permits revoked and being repatriated to China. The first driver to be tried was sentenced to six weeks in jail.
Judges appointed by former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament and ruled his former prime minister eligible for the presidential runoff election – setting the stage for the military and remnants of the old regime to stay in power. The politically charged rulings dealt a heavy blow to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, with one senior member calling the decisions a “full-fledged coup”. The decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court effectively erased the tenuous progress from Egypt’s troubled transition in the past year, leaving the country with no parliament and concentrating power even more firmly in the hands of the generals who took over from Mubarak. Tens of thousands of protesters flooded Tahrir Square to protest a delay in the release of results in the presidential elections. Subsequently, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was declared the winner. But just hours before the vote, the ruling military council had issued an interim constitution granting itself broad power over the future government, all but eliminating the president’s authority. Their charter gives them control of all laws and the national budget, immunity from any oversight and the power to veto a declaration of war. Morsi subsequently revoked this interim constitution. Later, he issued an emergency decree granting himself broad powers above any court as the guardian of Egypt’s revolution, which triggered protests once again in Tahrir Square – this time against Morsi.
Singapore’s Parliament passes two laws to remove the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking and murder where the killing is not intentional. However, a high standard of cooperation from drug couriers will be expected before they qualify for a life sentence instead of the gallows. Drug couriers deemed to jave offered “substantive assistance” that leads to the disruption of drug trafficking activities will get the chance to escape the gallows, said Law Minister K. Shanmugam. The government stressed that the mandatory death penalty has played a big part in deterring drug trafficking and other serious crimes like kidnapping and the possession and use of firearms. Kidnapping and firearms offences both fell after the death penalty was prescribed as a punishment, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International hailed Singapore’s decision to ease mandatory death sentences for homicide and drug trafficking but urged the government to go further and totally abolish capital punishment. Singapore, which carries out executions by hanging, has unveiled legal reforms that would enable judges to impose life imprisonment on low-level drug couriers and people who commit murder with “no outright intention to kill”. Judges currently have no choice but to impose the death penalty on anyone convicted of murder or trafficking in illegal drugs above specific volumes.
US spy chief David Petraeus resigned abruptly in the wake of an extramarital affair. General Petraeus, a highly decorated general who led the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, retired from the military and took over as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2011. He was linked to Paula Broadwell, a 39-year old Harvard researcher who wrote a biography on him. Ms Broadwell, or those close to her, allegedly tried to gain access to Gen Petraeus’ personal email account and potentially classified information. On the same day, Lockheed Martin Corp, the world’s largest defence contractor, announced that its incoming CEO Christopher Kubasik had resigned after the company discovered an affair with a subordinate.
Green activists in Malaysia have lost a court battle to try and halt Australian miner Lynas Corp from firing up a controversial rare earth processing plant amid safety concerns. The Kuantan High Court gave Lynas the go-ahead to start importing ore from Western Australia. The Malaysian plant is aimed at breaking China’s dominance over the processing of rare earths, which are minerals used in products ranging from smartphones to hybrid cars. While rare earths are not inherently toxic, their by-products can be, unless disposed of properly.
This has been the year of the big media gaffe in the US. NBC News edited a 911 tape of Florida neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, accused of killing unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, in a way that implied race was a factor in the shooting. ABC News wrongly suggested a link between a mass shooting in Colorado and the influential political movement known as the Tea Party. And amid superstorm Sandy, CNN repeated a false rumour about flooding at the New York Stock Exchange.
A comprehensive package of measures to encourage Singaporeans to marry and have babies, by addressing housing, childcare and other needs, is expected to be announced in early 2013. At the National Day Rally speech earlier in the year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had outlined measures that were being studied, including giving couples with children priority for public housing flats, starting a Medisave account for each newborn with a small grant from the government to lessen the load of childhood medical expenses, and allowing fathers to take paternity leave.
The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Africa will see the fastest economic growth of any continent over the next five years. Many budding female African entrepreneurs feel that their continent is too often characterised as the recipient of aid that enables residents just to struggle by, and as a place that mistreats and marginalises its women. One example of a successful female African entrepreneur is Bethlehem Tilahun, 33, from Ethiopia, whose footwear company SoleRebels grossed US$2 million in sales in 2012. “I kept hearing over and over the phrase ‘poverty alleviation’,” said Ms Tilahun. “The media, preoccupied with a singular narrative about ‘Africa’ that missed the story of Africa — part of a larger spectrum of endless entities that have monopolised Africa’s image, our brand.”
Japan has invested more in South-east Asia than in China over the last two years and this looks set to continue as Sino-Japanese ties hit the rocks over a territorial spat in the South China Sea. Last year, Japan’s investments in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines alone reached US$13 billion, pipping for the first time its investments in China. Other reasons for the shift in investment are rising wages in China; the rapid rise of the middle class in South-east Asia, which makes it one of the world’s most tempting markets; a desire by Japan to spread its risks by diversifying from China; the China-ASEAN free trade area which allows Japanese firms to export goods made in ASEAN to China with little or no tariffs; and the fact that many ASEAN countries are actively wooing Japanese companies with perks. Among the recent investments are expansions of car production by Toyota and Nissan in Thailand; a shipyard opened by shipbuilder Tsuneishi on Cebu Island in the Philippines; and a plant opened by brewer Sapporo in Long An, Vietnam.
More help is now available for the families of problem gamblers in Singapore – a group often overlooked. The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) has launched a one-year pilot to provide legal and financial advice to affected family members. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) found that life with a gambling addict can be a living hell. Family members face not only being wiped out financially by the gambler’s debts, but also being ostracised and living in a state of persistent fear. As the gambler begs repeatedly for loans, his relatives will often shun not only him but also his immediate family members. IPS researcher Dr Mathew Mathews said that American research has found that each gambler’s addiction affects up to 10 people, but the number could be higher in Singapore as families here are closer-knit and many continue to give the gambler money to clear his debts out of guilt, fear and shame, especially given the face-conscious nature of Asian society.
Korean rapper Psy’s worldwide hit ‘Gangnam Style’ reaches Number 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, one of the few occasions in history when an Asian song has reached the top 10 in the US. The music video scores 805 million hits on Youtube by late November, an all-time record, overtaking a video featuring Canadian pop sensation Justin Bieber.
Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in prison for tax fraud connected to his Mediaset empire. The court also sentenced the media tycoon and 10 co-defendants to pay 10 million euros to Italian tax authorities. The tax scam helped to create secret overseas accounts and reduce profits to pay less taxes in Italy. The verdict came a week after Berlusconi denied at a separate trial that he hosted raunchy parties, had sex with a 17-year-old prostitute or abused his powers by pressuring police officers.
Nearly 870 million people, or one in eight, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012, according to the new UN hunger report. The report is jointly published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP). The vast majority of the hungry, 852 million, live in developing countries. The global number of hungry people declined by 132 million between 1990-92 and 2010-12, or from 18.6 percent to 12.5 percent of the world’s population, and from 23.2 percent to 14.9 percent in developing countries – putting the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target within reach if adequate, appropriate actions are taken. “In today’s world of unprecedented technical and economic opportunities, we find it entirely unacceptable that more than 100 million children under five are underweight, and therefore unable to realize their full human and socio-economic potential, and that childhood malnutrition is a cause of death for more than 2.5 million children every year,” say José Graziano da Silva, Kanayo F. Nwanze and Ertharin Cousin, respectively the Heads of FAO, IFAD and WFP.
Do not keep your employees on standby to respond to calls, email and text messages, especially during weekends and when they are on leave. That is the message that Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-jin had for bosses at an awards event for work-life balance. “I think we have very poor work habits,” said Mr Tan. “Is it healthy to work 24/7? Is doing work while on leave or vacation our desired work culture?” A survey by recruitment firm Robert Half found that 96 percent of employers here expect staff to be “on call” while out of office or on leave. Singapore is trying to encourage a better work-life balance as the country struggles with a shrinking birth rate which is aggravated by excessive demands at work. Some public agencies have implemented ‘Blue Sky Days’, one day a week when employees are encouraged to leave the office while there is still sunlight.
To cater to Singapore’s rapidly ageing population, the public medical insurance scheme Medishield will cover people up to age 90, up from 85. The lifetime claim limit will also go up from $200,000 to $300,000.
Former cycling hero Lance Armstrong was brutally exposed as a drug cheat when the United States Anti-doping Agency (Usada) stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles and released a damning 1,000-page dossier against him. Armstrong organised and enforced “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen”, according to Usada. Eleven former team-mates gave evidence against him, providing vivid recollections of how hotel rooms were transformed into makeshift blood-transfusion centres and how Armstrong’s former wife Kristin gave out cortisone pills to cyclists. His former right-hand man George Hincapie described how Armstrong used the blood-boosting hormone known as EPO, testosterone and illegal blood transfusions.
The eldest son of leading Singapore filmmaker Eric Khoo looks set to follow in his father’s footsteps and is off to a spirited start. Mr Edward Khoo’s first short film, Late Shift, had its world premiere to rousing applause at the 17th Busan International Film Festival, Asia’s biggest film festival, on Saturday. The 10-minute short is about an elderly taxi driver’s poignant encounter with a drunk passenger. Edward is only 18.
Ever since the Singapore government tightened the inflow of foreign workers (in response to public sentiment, many SMEs have faced worker shortages. 8 in 10 SMEs reported facing manpower shortages, and 3 in 10 said they were considering moving out of Singapore. DPM Teo Chee Hean warned that some Singaporeans could lose their jobs as SMEs relocate.
Senior NTUC executive Amy Cheong is sacked after she posted a racist
rant on Facebook about Malay weddings in the void decks of public housing flats in Singapore. She also faces potential criminal charges for inciting hatred between the races.
US ambassador Chris Stevens, is killed in a rocket attack on the US consulate in Libya. Three other Americans also died in the attack, which was reportedly provoked by an amateur film made by an American which demeans the Prophet Mohamed. The US embassy in Yemen was also set upon by 5,000 protesters and 15 were injured. More protests broke out in Afghanistan, Iraq, Indonesia, Egypt and Malaysia.
Thailand is building a US$1.5 billion highway from its capital Bangkok to its border with Myanmar in preparation for the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, an agreement that will allow the free movement of goods, skilled labour and capital between the nations of South-east Asia, a market of 600 million people.
45 Malaysian websites are expected to black out their content for one day in a protest against a new law that will make it more difficult for Web users to post critical comments about the government online. The Evidence Act holds owners of websites responsible for defamatory content that is published or re-published, whether it was written by them or not. The protest is modelled after a similar one in the US this year against the passing of a new anti-piracy law. Wikipedia went offline that day and Google blacked out its homepage logo. US lawmakers soon shelved plans for the new law.
Several initiatives are under way to bring arts, culture and heritage awareness to Singapore’s heartlands. These include a community museum in Taman Jurong where artworks from the national collection and a mural based on residents’ memories will be displayed; a Silver Arts festival with programmes aimed at seniors, such as pairing senior citizens with young writers who will tap the memories of the older folk; and more heritage trails that celebrate distinctive neighbourhoods with an interesting past, such as Jalan Besar. “Remembering our shared experiences and heritage anchors us as Singaporeans and strengthens our collective identity,” said Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Yaacob Ibrahim.
Six blocks of public housing flats and three precincts in Hougang constituency have been selected by the Singapore Government for the Home Improvement Programme and Neighbourhood Renewal Programme respectively. This is the first time the estate — held by the opposition Workers’ Party for 21 years — has been included in these programmes. Previous PAP leaders have warned that opposition areas would be placed last in the queue for upgrading programmes. Asked if the latest moves mark an end to such thinking, the PAP’s Desmond Choo said, “This very definitively shows that if the residents need it, the Government will answer the call for it and the residents will get it.”
Millions of farmers from India to Indonesia to the United States are struggling with severe drought. In India, the June-September monsoon has almost failed in half of India’s 624 districts. Cracked farmlands, wilting crops and worried farmers offering prayers in temples conjure up a picture of a nation desperate for rain. Meanwhile, the United States is experiencing its warmest year since record-keeping began in 1895 and a searing drought scorches corn and soyabean crops across the Midwest. Increasingly frequent reports of extreme weather events in recent years seem to validate what Dr Jay Lawrimore, chief of climate analysis at the National Climatic Data Center in the US, said in 2010: “The climate is changing. Extreme events are occurring with greater frequency, and in many cases with greater intensity. The excessive heat is consistent with our understanding of how our climate responds to increasing amounts of greenhouse gases.” The last few years have also seen the worst drought in decades in China and Argentina, blistering heatwaves in Russia and Europe, and devastating floods in North Korea, China and Queensland, Australia.
The Singapore government publishes an Issues Paper “Our Population, Our Future” (http://www.population.sg/), which explains the country’s demographic challenges and what the government aims to do about them. The paper lays out Singapore’s demographic challenges in the face of declining birth rates, a shrinking workforce, and an ageing population. As at December 2011, Singapore had 3.27 million Singapore citizens (SCs), and 0.54 million Permanent Residents (PRs). Together, they made up the resident population of 3.81 million. The paper spells out the future implications of a shrinking and ageing workforce – fewer working people to support every elderly person; a less vibrant, less innovative economy; and eventually, a hollowing out of the population as young people leave for more exciting cities.
Singapore also had a non-resident population of 1.46 million who are working, studying or living in Singapore on a non-permanent basis.
For the first time in ASEAN’s history, the regional grouping failed to issue a joint communique at the end of its summit. This comes after ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia disagreed on how to address territorial claims in the South China Sea. For days, the ministers were wrangling over the final statement for the summit. ASEAN had hoped to have a binding code of conduct to govern the way China and Southeast Asian nations settle their disputes. ASEAN members – Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia – all make rival claims on islands in the region, which are believed to be rich in oil and natural gas deposits and where tensions recently mounted. Talks floundered after China insisted the forum was not the appropriate place to discuss the issue. Cambodia, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), was unable to forge a consensus. Diplomats at the meeting said Cambodia resisted any steps that would embarrass Beijing, and some also accused Cambodia of being clearly biased towards China as the two countries have a special relationship that dates back decades. Diplomats expressed their disappointment at the outcome and their worries that it cast serious doubt on the effectiveness and solidarity of ASEAN.
Tensions over the disputed Paracel and Spratly island chains in the South China Sea rose after China set up a city in the Paracels. Even though the city, called Sansha, is only a tiny 13 square kilometres and has a population of just 1,000, the official Xinhua news agency claimed that Sansha’s jurisdiction also covers 2 million sq km of surrounding waters. The Chinese flag was raised and the national anthem played in the city. Vietnam – which lays claims on the Paracels and Spratlys – and the Philippines, which claims the Spratlys, both slammed China’s move as well as China’s plans to station troops in Sansha. Manila and Beijing have been involved in a dispute for months over Scarborough Shoal, a reef off the Philippine coast. Philippine President Benigno Aquino said his country would not back down and would get dozens of new aircraft and ships to defend the shoal. Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim part of the Spratlys, where Taiwan has announced plans to boost its firepower. Experts warned that if the claimant nations do not agree on a code of conduct to govern actions in the sea, armed conflict could easily break out.
The world’s trust in bankers and the banking system, already badly damaged by the 2008 Wall Street financial crisis, took another hit when Britain’s Barclays bank was found to have manipulated the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor), a series of interest rates set daily by a group of international banks in London across various currencies. The Libor is an integral part of the world financial system and has an impact on borrowing costs for many people and companies as they are used to price some US$550 trillion in loans, securities and derivatives. Barclays agreed to pay US$453 million to British and U.S. authorities to settle allegations that it manipulated Libor in order to help boost the bank’s trading profits. Banks frequently engage in trading of various assets such as bonds, whose prices are affected by interest rates. The scandal prompted the resignation of Barclays CEO Bob Diamond, condemnation from the British government amid a public outcry, and questions about the lack of oversight by the British government. But the deepening investigation by regulators in Britain, the United States, and other countries is expected to uncover problems well beyond Barclays and British banks. More than a dozen banks are being investigated for their roles in setting Libor, including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Deutsche Bank, HSBC Holdings Plc, UBS and Royal Bank of Scotland.
A wild boar believed to be from the Lower Peirce area wandered into Bishan Park and charged at a security guard and later, a five-year old boy. The boy was butted from behind and landed a metre away, but was not seriously hurt. The boar was put down with a dart gun. The incident fuelled a debate over whether the wild boar population in Singapore needs to be controlled, and what measures should be taken to do so – culling, sterilisation or a combination of the two. Another issue is that wild boar eat small trees, small animals and the seeds of trees, and may cause damage to the ecosystem. The forested Lower Peirce area is believed to be home to about 100 wild boars and their numbers may double by the end of 2012. The Nature Society has supported culling followed by contraception and sterilisation, while Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) has spoken out against culling.
An informal school offering classes on a range of skills from tote-bag making to photography to magazine production will be started in Singapore this year. Called trade school Singapore, the initiative was adopted by three young Singaporeans who say they want to help link people with skills to interested students. The courses are free of charge. Instead, students will “pay” by fulfilling something on the teachers’ “wish” lists, like a recipe or food. This concept of learning has its origins in New York. The website: Tradeschool.coop/singapore/class
China successfully launched its most ambitious space mission to date, putting three astronauts, including the country’s first woman, into orbit. The Shenzhou IX spacecraft blasted off from a base in the Gobi desert. Beijing is pursuing space exploration relentlessly, at a time when the pioneering countries, the US and Russia, are scaling back their space programmes. The mission carries not only the potential for technological breakthroughs for the country but also has strong social and political significance as China prepares for a major leadership transition. The Shenzhou IX mission will attempt manual docking manoeuvres with an orbiting space module, a first for the Chinese, who have hitherto only performed automated docking. Space docking, which involves two vessels coming together at 28,000 kmh without destroying each other, will smooth the way for China to build its own space station. Beijing wants it operational by 2020.
Seven in 10 people in Britain want more wind farms built across the countryside to meet the country’s energy needs – despite a high-profile political backlash which jeopardises their future. The Treasury is considering cuts of up to 25 per cent in subsidies for on-shore wind farms after intense lobbying from countryside campaigners and rural Conservative MPs. Critics claim that the turbines – many built in picturesque places – cause significant noise pollution and would be economically unviable without such large government handouts. But a ComRes poll for The Independent newspaper reveals surprisingly strong public support for wind farms: 68 per cent of the public believe that new wind farms are “an acceptable price to pay” for greener energy in the future. Younger people are more supportive than older, with almost 80 per cent of those aged between 18 and 44 backing wind farms, compared with 59 per cent of those aged 45 and over.
The Chief Justice of the Philippines, Renato Corona, was sacked after senators found him guilty of corruption. Corona, 63, earned 21.6 million pesos (US$499,000) in official salary and benefits from 2002 to 2011. However, the former chief justice admitted during his trial that he had more than US$4 million in bank accounts. Corona was appointed chief justice by former president Gloria Arroyo just before she stepped down, in a move that many saw as an attempt to shield herself from prosecution for corruption. President Benigno Aquino, who was elected in 2010, has made the pursuit of Mrs Arroyo the cornerstone of his anti-graft crusade.
Facebook launches its initial public offering (IPO) on the Nasdaq stock exchange, selling shares to the public for the first time and raising US$15 billion from investors.
US President Barack Obama expresses his support for gay marriage, becoming the first US president to do so. Following this, surveys find that opposition to gay marriage from the African-American and Hispanic communities in the US fell. Before Obama’s announcement, 34 percent of blacks opposed gay marriage. Afterward, 23 percent did. For the nation as a whole, the percentage who support marriage for same-sex couples rose to 41 percent from 39 percent.
A new six-lane highway opens in Malaysia’s southern tip. The new highway cuts travel time by half from Singapore to Iskandar Malaysia, the country’s proud new growth corridor which seeks to tap on synergies between Malaysia’s cheap land and labour, and Singapore’s expertise, to drive economic growth and create jobs. At 2,217 square kilometres, Iskandar is three times the size of Singapore and has attracted 34 billion ringgit of investments since its opening in 2006. Malls, educational institutions, theme parks, business parks and high-end homes have sprouted from what was once an endless tract of swamp and oil palm trees. Its most prominent theme park project is Legoland, scheduled to open in September 2012. It will be one of the world’s largest theme parks. Among the leading universities already at Iskandar are Newcastle, Southampton and Reading from Britain. Iskandar has already created 20,000 jobs and is set to double that in three years. Hopes are high that Iskandar will not end up like Malaysia’s past ambitious growth corridors like the administrative city Putrajaya and the multimedia super corridor Cyberjaya, which both turned into white elephants.
Europe is hit by a wave of political instability as leaders in Greece and France are voted out by citizens angry over austerity measures taken in response to the European debt crisis. Francois Hollande becomes the new French President after defeating Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr Hollande is a socialist who promises to get the government to spend in order to stimulate the economy, instead of merely pursuing austerity, which has been blamed for stifling economic activity and trapping several European countries in a vicious cycle of economic contraction, diminishing government revenue and deepening government debt. Greece went into a state of political paralysis as election results proved inconclusive and no party won a clear majority. The parties also initially refused to form a ruling coalition as they bickered over the right policies to get Greece out of the devastating financial mess it is in, forcing the country to call fresh elections. After the second round of elections, the conservative New Democracy party formed a coalition government with the centre-left party Pasok. The Syriza party, which is strongly against the austerity forced upon Greece by the European Union as a condition for its financial bailout, won nearly as many seats as New Democracy and will be the main opposition party. The ruling coalition has only a slim majority in parliament, and the world will be watching as it tries to resolve the financial mess while surviving politically. If it fails and Greece eventually fails to meet the conditions of the bailout package, it could be forced to leave the eurozone (the group of nations that share the common currency, the euro).
China introduces subsidies for energy-efficient vehicles and electrical appliances.
Studies have found that Singaporeans are the most prone to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in the world. Indeed, some psychologists and psychiatrists have labelled Singapore the “OCD Capital of the World”. 3 percent of Singaporeans suffer from OCD, compared to just 2.2 percent in the US. Mental health professionals believe that this phenomenon may be linked to the Singaporean preoccupation with high standards and rankings in work and school.
The Workers’ Party expels its Hougang Member of Parliament Yaw Shin Leong after he refuses to respond to rumours that he had been involved in at least one extramarital affair. WP chairperson Sylvia Lim reiterated that the party “believes strongly in transparency and accountability, and expects no less from our party members, especially our Members of Parliament. By continuing not to account to the party and the people, especially the residents of Hougang, he has broken the faith, trust and expectations of the party and the people”. She added that such behaviour “falls short of the standards we expect in terms of responsible behaviour”, especially of elected members.
A by-election is called in Singapore’s Hougang constituency after former MP Yaw Shin Leong is sacked by the Workers’ Party (WP) after his refusal to account for allegations of marital infidelity. The Workers’ Party’s Png Eng Huat wins the by-election against the PAP’s Desmond Choo with a vote share of 62.09 percent.
Over 25,000 demonstrators swamped Malaysia’s capital city Kuala Lumpur in one of the Southeast Asian nation’s biggest street rallies in the past decade. This rally was called the Bersih 3.0 rally, the third instalment in a series (“bersih” means clean in Malay.) Protesters massed near Merdeka Square, which police had sealed off with barbed wire and barricades. Some of the demonstrators breached the barriers and police began firing tear gas and chemical-laced water at them. Officially, the rally was aimed at pushing for electoral reform and cleaner elections, but Prime Minister Najib Razak alleged that organisers, including Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, had intended to overthrow the government in an uprising inspired by the one launched from Egypt’s Tahrir Square a year earlier which brought down former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Subsequently, the Malaysian authorities charge Anwar and two other opposition leaders with violating the newly-created Peaceful Assembly Act by inciting the protesters to riot.
Shortly before the Bersih 3.0 riots in Kuala Lumpur, the independent Merdeka Centre conducted a poll which found that almost half of Malaysian voters did not trust the country’s election system. 92 percent of respondents support cleaning up the electoral register before elections. Roughly half the respondents believe that the electoral register contains dubious voters including foreigners, voters with multiple identities or legitimate voters transferred to another constituency without their knowledge.
44 men are charged in Singapore with paying for sex with an underage prostitute. Among the defendants are former Pei Chun Public School principal, Lee Lip Hong; senior corporate executive and member of the famous Shaw cinema and property clan, Howard Shaw; senior banker Buergin Juerg; and ex-Jurong Junior College teacher Chua Ren Cheng.
Bo Xilai, the one-time rock star of Chinese politics, suffered a spectacular fall as he was suspended from the Communist Party and his wife was put under investigation in connection with the death of the British businessman Neil Heywood, an investigation which many believe to be politically motivated. Bo was the party boss in Chongqing and openly courted publicity as he made his ambitions plain. He wanted a seat on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, China’s most powerful political body. Bo was known for his suave and open demeanour which was seen as refreshing in a country where leaders are often rigid and emotionless in public. But his media-savvy personality coupled with his “princeling” status as the son of a hero of China’s revolution irritated some fellow politicians. “He’s very open, very confident, very charismatic and that’s not the way most Chinese leaders behave and that is not the way they feel comfortable with their peers behaving,” said Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University. Bo’s revival of “red” Maoist culture in Chongqing – including sending officials to work in the countryside and pushing workers to sing revolutionary songs – drew both accolades and concern. He also set about fighting graft when he came to power in Chongqing, in a crackdown that saw scores of officials detained and executed, their lurid secret lives exposed.
Professor Lim Chong Yah, one of Singapore’s leading economists, proposed a radical solution to the problem of rising income inequality that he dubbed Economic Restructuring II. His bold plan called for the wages of those earning less than $1,500 a month to be raised by 50 percent over three years, and the pay of those earning $15,000 and above to be frozen for three years. This proposal was driven by Prof Lim’s deep concern over the Gini coefficient, a major measure of income inequality, rising to 0.473 last year from 0.454 in 2001. He considers the level of 0.5 to be dangerous, and we are approaching that level (a Gini coefficient of 0 signals perfect equality, while 1 signals perfect inequality). Prof Lim presided over a similar restructuring exercise between 1979-1981, when workers’ wages were raised by government legislation in order to force Singapore companies to move up the value chain. Experts are divided over the success of that exercise: Singapore suffered a recession and soaring inflation in its immediate aftermath, but later recovered to enjoy strong economic growth for three decades. Government minister and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) chief Lim Swee Say expressed reservations over Prof Lim’s idea, saying that raising wages may not necessarily bring about a corresponding boost to productivity and may end up causing job losses and structural unemployment.
Shortly after Prof Lim’s proposal, the NTUC pushed for the National Wages Council to recommend that low-wage workers earning up to $1,000 monthly enjoy a minimum built-in increment of $50 in 2012. The suggestion, which is meant to offset inflation, was adopted by the council.
Myanmar embarks on democratic reforms after decades of military rule. In by-elections, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s long-repressed opposition party, the National League for Democracy, is swept into Parliament, although they still hold only a small minority of the seats. The military and its political allies continue to dominate Parliament, but the reforms are still a big step forward considering that Ms Suu Kyi had been under house arrest, and many of her party colleagues in detention, for many years before this. Australia announced an easing of sanctions including travel and financial bans on politicians and civilians from Myanmar, as well as a normalisation of trade with Myanmar. The US also relaxed sanctions to allow some humanitarian, religious and educational activities in the country but retained its tough sanctions on trade. The European Union will soon discuss suspending its economic sanctions, which may put pressure on the US to do likewise, for competitive business reasons.
The Ministerial Salary Review Committee appointed by the Singapore government recommended that the Prime Minister’s annual salary be reduced by 36 percent to $2.2 m, amd that of entry-level Cabinet ministers by 37 percent to $1.1 m. The committee further proposed to reduce the President’s remuneration by 51 percent to $1.5 m. These figures are inclusive of bonuses. The committee based its recommendations on an alteration of the private sector benchmarks against which ministerial pay has been determined since the 1990s in Singapore. Instead of benchmarking against the top eight earners in six professions (including lawyers, doctors and senior management in MNCs), the committee proposed to use the median income of the 1,000 highest-earning Singaporeans as a new point of reference and apply a 40 percent discount to signify the ethos and sacrifice that come with political service.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean defended the formula to peg political salaries to top earners in the private sector. While the motivation to serve people is highly prized by the PAP, “having a passion for public service is not in itself sufficient to run a country well”, said Mr Teo. Also important, he added, were qualities such as organisational and leadership capabilities, capacity to handle multiple responsibilities, ability to solve problems and take charge in a crisis, and the ability to hold their own with world leaders and further Singapore’s interests. The top 1000 earners in the country represented a pool of people with the competencies that Singapore needed to bring in as ministers for continued good government. On criticisms that Singapore ministers were officially paid much more than other world leaders, DPM Teo pointed out that many countries do not adopt a clean wage system like Singapore does, and therefore their leaders enjoy many perks and benefits, some of which are hidden. Hence their salaries may look a lot smaller than their actual total compensation.
Faced with an ageing population and an economy that has remained anaemic for over two decades, Japan introduced new policies to attract more foreigners to live and work in the country. Preferential tax rates were offered to foreign companies to set up Asian regional headquarters or research facilities in Tokyo. Japan will also make it easier for foreign academics, doctors and senior managers to take up permanent residence, by reducing the minimum residency requirement from ten years to five. Japan has always been known as a very tough place for foreigners to settle down and do business.
Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou won re-election with a vote share of 51.6% versus 45.6% for main rival Tsai Ing-wen. Ma is likely to try to continue to build on the growth in economic and other ties with mainland China that have been the main accomplishment of his first term and that helped win support from much of Taiwan business leaders such as billionaire Cher Wang, the chairman of mobile phone maker HTC. Many experts believe that voters turned to Ma in a search for stability at a time of international economic uncertainty, and because they didn’t favour any major change in Taiwan’s current relations with mainland China at this time. Ma advocates maintaining the status quo with China under the “1992 Consensus,” a tacit and ambiguous agreement reached 20 years ago between Beijing and Taipei under which both sides agreed on the principle of “one China” without agreeing on how it is to be defined or interpreted. The Consensus has been the basis for cross-strait dialogue that has led in recent years to the unprecedented warming of ties between Taiwan and China. Tsai, seeking to become Taiwan’s first female president, rejects the 1992 Consensus. She has called instead for a yet-undefined “Taiwan Consensus” that leads some in Beijing to suspect her of pushing a pro-independence agenda.
Fraudsters stole some $500,000 from the accounts of customers of DBS and POSB banks after “skimming” or illegally extracting ATM card details from customers at two ATMs in New Bugis Street. The fraudsters then cloned the cards and made unauthorised withdrawals from DBS ATMs in Malaysia.
British PM David Cameron has pledged to fight “crony capitalism” by giving shareholders the right to veto boardroom pay rises to try and put the brake on the excessive rise of executive salaries and bonuses (Note: this refers to the pay of top management in companies) even amid the recession. Mr Cameron opined that “the market for top people” was not working. He added: “We’ve got to deal with the merry-go-round where there’s too many cases of remuneration committee members sitting on each other’s boards, patting each other’s backs, and handing out each other’s pay rises. We need to redefine the word fair. We need to try to give people a sense that we have a vision at the end of this, of a fairer, better economy, a fairer, better society, where if you work hard and do the right thing you get rewarded.”
Singapore will aim to make more housing estates elder-friendly as the population ages. This is the work of the Ministerial Committee on Ageing, which has five subcommittees: Manpower Development, A City for All Ages, Home Care and Family Support, Active Ageing and Employability, Development of Health Care and Social Care Services. Many flats have been retrofitted to make them safer for the aged; the cost was borne by the Tote Board, a government-run organisation which possesses the exclusive right to operate horse racing and lotteries in Singapore. The elderly are also being encouraged to take part in exercise and healthy activities.
Only slightly more than three-quarters of Singaporean men aged 55 to 64 are still employed, while less than half the women this age are still working. Senior Minister of State Heng Chee How, who sits on the Ministerial Committee on Ageing, said, “What is reality? In 1965, lifespan was about 65 years. Today, half the Singaporeans who are 65 years old have a chance of living beyond the age of 85.” Furthermore, four in five people aged above 60, and three in four aged above 75, consider themselves healthy. Mr Heng said the Committee is trying to bring society’s perception of older people in line with the reality this group is living in today. “At which point do companies consider them to be no longer young and up-to-date? A person even reaching 40 years old, 50, 60?” He urged companies to offer more flexible arrangements – such as part-time, flexible hours or working from home – to allow older people to keep working.
A row in a Hong Kong subway train between mainland Chinese and local passengers was posted on Youtube and snowballed into an ugly exchange between the people of mainland China and Hong Kong. It all started when a Hong Kong man riding the subway chided a mainland family for letting their child snack in the carriage, which is not allowed. The subsequent quarrel was videotaped by onlookers and posted on the Internet, drawing comments from both sides of the Hong Kong border. Particularly scathing were the words of a Peking University professor, who labelled Hong Kongers “dogs trained by colonialists”, “worshippers of the West” and “bastards”.
After British whistle-blower Michael Woodford was sacked as the CEO of Olympus and revealed that the Japanese firm had covered up losses of US$1.7 b, he mounted a campaign to get his job back. But his effort went nowhere, with Japanese financial institutions preferring to stick with the remaining directors on the board, some of whom had been disgraced and were being sued by Olympus itself. Woodford was disgusted that despite the massive scandal, the major shareholders did not speak “one single word of criticism”. The incident highlights a darker aspect of Japanese corporate culture. Shareholder activism is rare in a society that shuns confrontation and places great emphasis on personal connections and relationships. Firms tend to have cosy ties with board members and cross-shareholdings are common, creating a network of interests that militates against rocking the boat. 26 lawyers are trying to change Japan’s closed corporate society as the scandal rocks confidence in the business governance standards of the world’s third-largest economy.
In a case with startling parallels to the Olympus scandal, Japan’s financial authorities froze operations at AIJ Investment Advisors, an investment firm, on suspicion that it had lost the bulk of the 210 billion yen (S$3.3 billion) in pension funds that it managed for corporate clients. Reports said that AIJ could have covered up the losses for years by cooking the books (fraudulently altering the company’s financial accounts), just like Olympus did. It was not clear whether the money had been lost through bad investments or siphoned out of the company. Thousands of Japanese workers had invested a substantial part of their retirement savings in AIJ – most of the money entrusted to them came from 120 corporate pension funds around Japan.
The Democrat Party of Indonesian PM Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was rocked by two corruption scandals. Firstly, its former treasurer Muhammed Nazaruddin, was arrested for allegedly pocketing US$3 million in kickbacks from the construction of the athletes’ village for the South-east Asia Games (SEA Games) held in Indonesia in 2011. Investigations by the anti-corruption agency also suggest that the party’s chairman Anas Urbaningrum was also linked to the scandal, together with four other party leaders.
In the most high profile corruption investigation involving civil servants in recent times, Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) commissioner Peter Lim and Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) director Ng Boon Gay have been suspended following allegations of “serious personal misconduct”. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in a statement yesterday that the two civil servants are currently assisting the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) in its investigations. MHA added that it could not comment on the details of the case, as investigations are ongoing.
South Korea wants to shake off its notoriety for long working hours. President Lee Myung Bak directed his staff to come up with measures to cut working hours, starting with the large conglomerates (known as chaebol in South Korea). Lee hopes shorter hours will improve lifestyle, create new jobs and boost consumption. Youth unemployment was 7.6 percent in 2011, double the overall unemployment rate. In 2010, South Koreans worked a average of 2,111 hours per person per year, the highest among the 34 members of the OECD. Long hours at work have also been blamed for the country’s low birth rate.
An Iranian nuclear scientist is assassinated while on his morning commute, the fourth to suffer this fate in the last two years. Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, an expert on a phase of uranium enrichment, perished on a Tehran street after an assassin in a passing motorcycle attached a magnetized explosive to the side of his Peugeot 405. Western intelligence sources told TIME magazine that these attacks were carried out by the Israeli secret service, Mossad. Israel is believed to be bent on stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and its leaders frequently make thinly veiled suggestions that it may not be able to restrain itself from launching military action on Iran. At the same time, the Americans and Europeans have been applying increasing pressure on Iran by imposing increasingly severe economic sanctions.
The Public Utilities Board (PUB) will spend $750 million over the next five years on 20 drainage projects, including deepening and widening canals in flood-prone areas such as Bukit Timah and Geylang. This was part of the recommendations of a panel of local and foreign experts. The panel also advised PUB to improve its drainage planning guidelines and flood warning system.
74 people were killed in rioting at a football match in Egypt between Al-Masry and Al-Ahly, one of the worst incidents of football violence ever witnessed in the world. Police were criticised for failing to stop the violence which led to a crush in a narrow exit at the stadium in Port Said, north of the capital, Cairo. A network of football fans known as Ultras vowed to exact revenge, accusing the police of intentionally letting rival fans attack them because they had been at the forefront of pro-democracy protests over the past year, first against former president Hosni Mubarak and now the military.
Liverpool footballer Luis Suarez was banned for eight matches for racially abusing Patrice Evra, a player from Manchester United. The Chelsea and England captain John Terry was around the same time accused of hurling a racist insult at Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand. The English Football Association stripped Terry of his captaincy of the English national team.
Syrian troops shelled rebel-held neighbourhoods in the city of Homs, a day after the UN General Assembly condemned human rights violations by the regime. Homs, a province in central Syria that stretches from the border with Lebanon in the west to the frontiers with Iraq and Jordan in the east, has been one of the key centres of the 11-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian rule. The rebels took control of small parts of the province including neighbourhoods in the city of Homs and the nearby town of Rastan. The UN General Assembly also overwhelmingly voted for a resolution that strongly condemns human rights violations by Assad’s government. According to the UN, more than 5,400 people have been killed in the 12 months since March 2011 in the regime’s bloody crackdown. Syria has been ruled by the Assad family for 40 years.
The Singapore government’s Budget 2012 is built on the theme “An Inclusive Society, A Stronger Singapore”. It rolled out a series of spending and relief measures for the vulnerable. This ranges from a wage subsidy to make older workers more employable, to an income tax relief for older workers to a doubling of healthcare spending over five years. Subsidies for nursing home care were increased for the lower and middle-income groups. The government also enhanced the student care fee assistance scheme to help more lower-income families with monthly household income up to S$3,500. Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that response to the Budget had been “quite good”, especially among young people. “Our young people are changing,” he said. While they are still interested in excelling academically and professionally, they are also “interested in others”. Mr Tharman added, “It’s not just the career that matters, but they want meaning in their lives and they take pride in being part of a society where others are looked after.” He defined an inclusive society as one where people desire to improve themselves so they can provide for their families, where workers take pride in their jobs no matter how humble, and where employers treat their staff fairly.
Singapore township development firm Surbana has won a contract to provide consultancy services for a massive public housing project in Penang. Surbana used to be called HDB Corp, a part of Singapore’s Housing and Development Board and was corporatised in 2003. It entered the Malaysian market soon after, and completed its first private housing project in Kedah in 2009. There is a large void in proper public housing policy in Malaysia. Surging property prices have made home ownership an elusive dream for a huge part of the country’s lower to middle-income population. Penang is run by the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), which wants to show that it can outdo the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in providing affordable housing for the people.
An attempt by the European Union to subject all airlines flying into EU countries to new regulations on carbon emissions, raised a storm of protest from other countries. The new law incorporates the aviation industry into Europe’s emissions trading scheme and requires airlines to pay for their greenhouse-gas emissions by obtaining special permits. Some of the countries are also considering banning their national airlines from participating in the emissions trading scheme at all. The Chinese government has already imposed such a ban. Airlines that do not comply will face fines from the EU beginning in April 2013; if they fail to pay, they could be denied permission to fly to the EU. Many countries and airlines argued that any regulations must be global, not regional in nature. However, EU representatives contended that the world has seen no progress in global climate regulations despite years and years of empty talk. Clearly, Europe felt it was imperative to force the issue.
Britain is torn over Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to give gays the right to marry. Since 2005, British gays have been entitled to civil partnerships which are effectively very similar to marriages: they can share ownership of a property, adopt children and receive tax breaks. But British gays have protested against prohibitions on church weddings and the use of religious readings and faith symbols in their ceremonies of union. After a public consultation, PM Cameron hopes gays will be allowed to marry as early as 2015. But he faces fierce opposition from the 20 bishops in the House of Lords. Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, said, “The honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the state and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way.”
When she was in high school, Lady Gaga was thrown into a trash can. This was revealed by the pop superstar who started the Born This Way Foundation, meant to empower kids and nurture a more congenial environment in and out of schools. One of its key aims is to address the problem of bullying, which Lady Gaga suffered repeatedly in her youth. “I was called really horrible, profane names very loudly in front of huge crowds of people, and my schoolwork suffered at one point,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to class. And I was a straight-A student, so there was a certain point in my high school years where I just couldn’t even focus on class because I was so embarrassed all the time. I was so ashamed of who I was.” Many experts are calling for more focus on bullying not only because it is linked to high rates of teen suicide, but also because it is an impediment to education.