2013

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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 2013

Marijuana (also known as cannabis and informally known as ‘pot’) will be sold legally for recreational use for the first time ever in the United States in 2014, in the state of Colorado. However, pot smoking can only be done in locations not accessible to the public. Marijuana cannot be consumed publicly or openly in Colorado. It remains illegal in some other states in the US.

Gunmen opened fire outside Manila International Airport, killing the mayor of a town in the Southern Philippines, his wife, 18-month old grandson and a male aide. Mayor Ukol Talumpa had survived two previous attempts on his life. The Philippines is infamous for a brutal brand of democracy where politicians – particularly at local and provincial levels – are willing to bribe, intimidate or kill to ensure they win. More than 60 people were killed in the May elections.

29 men were jailed in Singapore for having paid sex with a 17-year old girl whose services were advertised online. It is an offence under Singapore law to have paid sex with a girl below 18.

Singapore football star Hariss Harun clinches a lucrative contract with Malaysian state team Johor Darul Takzim. His salary is reported to be US$30,000.

The 159 member nations of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) managed to work out a draft deal in Bali, Indonesia, the organisation’s first multilateral agreement ever. A successful deal may add US$1 trillion to the world economy, according to supporters among business groups. “The WTO’s Bali agreement also represents the rejuvenation of the multilateral trading system that supports millions of American jobs and offers a forum for the robust enforcement of America’s trade rights,” said US President Barack Obama. The accord may help extend talks on the Doha Round of trade negotiations, which have dragged on for 12 years and stalled over agriculture, industrial tariffs and services. The Bali agreement was part of a once-every-two-years conference. In the Doha Round of talks, begun in 2001, negotiators are seeking major revisions to the international trading system, including lower tariffs. The deal reached in Bali lets India and other developing nations continue to subsidize their crops to bolster food security without having to worry about legal challenges, so long as the practice doesn’t distort international trade, according to a draft text.

Significant progress was made at talks in Singapore on the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional trade pact. The 12 nations involved in the TPP are Australia, the US, Canada, Chile, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Singapore. Together, the 12 nations account for nearly 40 percent of global economic output. The nations are also a massive market for Singapore businesses, with 790 million people. The TPP has been hailed as a cutting-edge, 21st-century trade pact that goes beyond removing tariffs to tackle broader environmental and intellectual property issues. If the trade pact can be finalised, it will open up many business and economic opportunities for all the member states, including Singapore.

A riot breaks out in Singapore’s Little India district and ten police officers are injured after a foreign worker from India is fatally run over by a private bus. Over 400 people participated in the riot, smashing the bus, overturning two police cars, burning five vehicles – and hurling missiles at civil defence personnel trying to extricate the accident victim’s body. This was the first case of street rioting in Singapore in three decades. As racist comments flared up online, government ministers urged calm and discouraged people from unnecessary speculation or framing the incident as a racially-motivated one. A Facebook group was created with the name ‘Shut Racism Up Sg‘, and quickly attracted many ‘likes’.

Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid activist, joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and the first President of South Africa to be elected by a truly democratic election, died peacefully and surrounded by his family members at his Johannesburg home. He was 95. His life, more than any other, has come to symbolise the struggle for racial equality and self-determination of the diverse peoples of South Africa and the African continent: beginning with his early childhood in the remote region of the Transkie, his gradual entry into politics as a young lawyer, the 27 years of imprisonment at the hands of white supremacists, and his triumphant return to freedom as a man who, in his own words, sought the middle ground between “white fears and black hopes” in one of the most segregated modern societies in the world.

China established an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) around itself, requiring foreign aircraft to notify China before they fly into this airspace. The ADIZ includes the airspace above the islands contested by China and Japan, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Tensions rose as the US sent two B-52 bombers, and Japan and South Korea sent passenger airliners through the ADIZ – all without informing China. Later US Vice-President Joe Biden visited China. With the Asia-Pacific region driving the global economy in the 21st century, he said China would have to play a larger role given its growing economic power. “This is why China will bear increasing responsibility to contribute positively to peace and security. This means taking steps to reduce the risk of accidental conflict and miscalculation.” He added that it was in China’s best interests to keep the peace because its economy was growing and it would have so much more to lose if a conflict broke out.

Ukraine’s opposition called for early elections after riot police brutally broke up a pro-Europe rally, leaving dozens injured in a crackdown on protests against President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to salvage a key European Union deal. Opposition parties also said they would form a “national resistance task force” and call a countrywide strike, as several hundred protesters took shelter in a nearby church following the pre-dawn swoop by baton-wielding police officers. Despite the crackdown, about 10,000 protesters rallied on two consecutive days, calling for the president’s resignation after he left an EU summit without signing a key political and free-trade deal. The agreement would have brought Ukraine closer to the EU and away from historical master Moscow, which put pressure on the ex-Soviet country – still reliant on Russia for energy and as an export market – to turn its back on the deal with Brussels.

The median monthly income of Singaporeans and permanent residents rose 6.5 percent to $3,705 in 2013, slightly slower than the 7.1 percent rise in 2012. However, inflation was also higher in 2012, so in real terms – after adjusting for inflation – workers’ incomes went up more in 2013. The 3.9 percent real wage growth outstripped the 2.5 percent growth in 2012, and was also the highest since the 2008 global finanial crisis.  Median income is the mid-point in the income distribution, so half of Singaporeans earn less than that sum and the other half earn more. Tighter controls on foreign manpower, including higher levies and more stringent quotas, brought about a tighter labour market and contributed to the rising wages of local workers.

Colombia’s biggest rebel group, Farc, has accepted a challenge from national football great Carlos Valderrama to play a match for peace. Valderrama, a former Colombia team captain also known for his golden Afro hairdo, has joined a state programme to support victims of the armed conflict. In an open letter, the left-wing rebels said they were happy to play matches that helped foster reconciliation. The first leg would be played in Cuba, where the Farc is holding peace talks. In their letter, published on the rebels’ negotiating team blog, the Farc admitted they were “fanatical about football” and suggested a second match in Colombia and a parallel women’s contest.

Singapore’s new national football coach Bernd Stange is using modern technology to measure players’ performances and churn out statistics to measure the gulf between Singapore and the world’s best. Top teams, he said, complete 600-700 passes in a game, but Singapore’s national team, nicknamed the Lions, only managed 276 passes in a recent defeat to China. While the Lions’ stamina statistics are respectable, their speed is lacking. Runs in excess of 24 km/h are counted as sprints. Real Madrid star Gareth Bale sprinted 791 m in a Champions League match in 2010. The English Premier League average is 324 m. But Singapore’s two best performers in their match against China only managed 214 m and 178 m. Speed of thought, too, needs to improve. Quick passing is the norm now and top European teams, on average, release the ball within 1.1 sec of receiving it but Singapore players take 2.4 sec. Singapore’s football team is ranked 155th in the world.

Anti-government protesters occupied Thailand’s Finance Ministry, broke into the Foreign Ministry and threatened to invade Government House in an escalating bid to overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the ruling Puea Thai party, which they deem to be controlled by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Gunshots were fired in eastern Bangkok where tens of thousands of “red shirt” government supporters had been rallying to oppose intensifying “yellow shirt” anti-government protests in the capital. Eventually, PM Yingluck dissolved Parliament and called a new election. The self-exiled Thaksin, whose sister is now PM, was deposed in a 2006 military coup.  Thailand has in recent years been racked by violence and unrest between supporters and opponents of the government on the streets. Dozens were killed in 2010.

Singapore’s Keppel Corporation has set up a research lab to develop new technologies to build oil rigs that can withstand ultra-deep water, big waves and freezing temperatures. The S$75 m facility will also find new environmentally-friendly ways to mine the seabed for minerals and to improve the productivity of welders and painters in the company’s shipyards. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean urged other companies to follow Keppel’s example and set up corporate labs with local research agencies. Keppel Corporation is the world’s No. 1 builder of offshore oil rigs, even though Singapore does not produce a drop of crude oil. It has made other investments in innovation, including setting up KOMtech (Keppel Offshore & Marine Technology Centre) to develop specialised capabilities and new oil rig designs.

Iran struck a historic deal with the United States and five other world powers , agreeing to a temporary freeze on its nuclear programme that signalled the start of a game-changing rapprochement which could ease the risk of a wider Middle East war. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani endorsed the agreement, which commits Iran to curbing its nuclear activities for six months in exchange for limited and gradual sanctions relief, including access to US$4.2 b from oil sales. The six-month period will give diplomats time to negotiate a more sweeping agreement. The package includes freezing Iran’s ability to enrich uranium at a maximum 5 per cent level, well below the threshold for weapons-grade material. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the deal a “historic mistake” and said that the international community is giving up too much to Iran, which he believes will retain the ability to produce a nuclear weapon and threaten its ancient enemy Israel.

Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools were set up almost 35 years ago in Singapore to nurture bicultural and bilingual students. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that these schools continue to play an important role, but they must produce students who are well-integrated into Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-religious society. There are 11 SAP schools and they teach only Chinese as a mother tongue; hence, they have few non-Chinese students. PM Lee added that SAP schools were set up in 1979 to produce students who are poised to seize opportunities in China, and today they help to maintain the values of the old Chinese schools adapted to a new age.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono lashed out at Australia after media reports that Australian intelligence had tapped the phones of Dr Yudhoyono, his wife and top officials — a disclosure that prompted Indonesia to recall its ambassador in Canberra. Dr Yudhoyono was particularly incensed at Australian PM Tony Abbott’s refusal to apologise. Said Mr Abbott, “Australia should not be expected to apologise for the steps we take to protect our country… any more than other governments should be expected to apologise for the similar steps that they have taken.” Ties between the two countries have become fragile after the Australian navy intercepted Indonesian asylum seekers in Indonesian waters, but failed to persuade Indonesia to take them all back. Mr Abbott was slammed by commentators, who said that he should have apologised the way US President Barack Obama did to Germany over similar allegations of wiretapping.

Singapore’s upcoming wave of mega projects is a golden opportunity to change how buildings are built here — especially when it comes to reducing the need for labour. Among these projects are the redevelopment of the Paya Lebar Airbase site when the facility moves to Changi East after 2030; the Southern Waterfront City, a district with commercial and housing complexes; and Project Jewel, an iconic lifestyle complex at Changi Airport. Building and Construction Authority (BCA) chief executive John Keung said that with the healthy revenues in a booming industry and a labour crunch due to tighter government controls on foreign labour, contractors and consultants are more willing to invest in equipment and training to boost productivity. Energy efficiency will be a key feature of the new buildings, which must also be designed to cope with rising sea levels that come with global warming. The BCA is studying the possible long-term effects of climate change on Singapore and what can be done to mitigate it. It is also studying measures other countries have adopted, such as 12 m-high sea walls in the Netherlands.

Many of the ills of the modern world — starvation, poverty, flooding, heat waves, droughts, war and disease — are likely to worsen as the world warms from man-made climate change, a leaked draft of an international scientific report forecasts. The report uses the word “exacerbate” repeatedly to describe warming’s effect on poverty, lack of water, disease and even the causes of war. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will issue a report in March 2014 on how global warming is already affecting the way people live and what will happen in the future, including a worldwide drop in income. A leaked copy of a draft of the summary of the report appeared online on a climate sceptic’s website.

Protests were held in more than 20 cities in the United States to protest at a skit on a late-night television show, in which a child’s suggestion that the country’s debt problem could be solved by “killing everyone in China” was amusingly endorsed as “interesting” by the host Jimmy Kimmel.

China will loosen its decades-long family planning population policy, allowing couples to have two children if one of them is an only child, according to a key decision issued by the Communist Party of China (CPC). China’s family planning policy was first introduced in the late 1970s to rein in the surging population by limiting most urban couples to one child and most rural couples to two children, if the first child born was a girl. However, there are now fears among many experts that China’s population could age rapidly even before it attains economic prosperity, or in other words, that China could “grow old before it grows rich”.

The activist Internet group Anonymous hacked into the websites of the Straits Times, Ang Mo Kio Town Council and PAP Community Foundation. After Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised to hunt down the perpetrators, his official website was hacked. “It’s great to be Singaporean today,” read a mocking headline next to the group’s trademark Guy Fawkes mask. Another message read: “ANONYMOUS SG WAS HERE BIATCH”, using a pejorative in online youth slang. President Tony Tan’s website too was hacked soon after. While the defaced section had been taken offline by early afternoon, screengrabs widely circulated on social media showed the image of a stern-looking elderly woman raising a middle finger. Its authenticity could not be independently verified. It was accompanied by the words “JIAK LIAO BEE!”, an insult in Hokkien, a southern Chinese dialect, referring to people who get paid for doing nothing. A person claiming to be from Anonymous had threatened to mount the attacks to protest recent licensing rules for news websites, which critics say are intended to muzzle freedom of expression on the Internet. The government denies this.

A Singaporean man was charged with hacking the Ang Mo Kio town council website and ordered remanded to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) for psychiatric evaluation for up to two weeks. James Raj Arokiasamy, 35, was charged under the Computer Misuse and Cybersecurity Act. He is accused of defacing a portion of the Ang Mo Kio town council website by adding the image of the Guy Fawkes Mask, displaying a statement addressed to Member of Parliament Ang Hin Kee and signing off with the name “The Messiah”. He is also suspected of carrying out hacking attacks on websites including that of City Harvest Church co-founder Sun Ho and the People’s Action Party Community Foundation.

The Philippines was lashed by Typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful typhoon ever to have made landfall. Its maximum sustained winds were 314 kmh, with gusts of up to 379 kmh.  The final death toll was over 3,000. The US rendered substantial assistance, sending an aircraft carrier, cargo planes, helicopters and troops to support relief efforts. Experts said that Washington’s relief efforts also help promote American interests in the Asia-Pacific. The humanitarian operations by its military are seen as a strategic tool, allowing the US to exert “soft power” through means usually tied to “hard power”. The Philippines is hit by an average of 20 typhoons or tropical storms each year.

To give four in ten Singaporeans the opportunity to attend university at home, the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) will grow its enrolment from 3,000 to more than 10,000 by 2020. Last year, the Government announced plans to increase university places so that 40 percent of each cohort can pursue a full-time degree here, up from the current 27 percent. SIT was set up in 2009 as Singapore’s fifth university. However Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “Improving tertiary education cannot just be about increasing university places. Other countries have found that having large proportions of students going to university does not necessarily guarantee happy outcomes. Take for example South Korea, where 70% of students attend university, but the Korean economy cannot generate jobs for all of them, especially jobs to match their training and their aspirations, so unemployment among university graduates is higher even than graduates of vocational high schools. Or take Denmark, a Scandinavian country, much admired and with much to learn from. 50% of each cohort attend university, but after they graduate, within a year more than a quarter of those who graduate are still unemployed.” He said Singapore’s universities must equip students with skills that are relevant in the future, while maintaining their rigour and standards.

Anger erupted in Germany following allegations that US intelligence might have tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, and swept through other parts of Europe. “(Dr Merkel) views such practices, if proven true, as completely unacceptable and condemns them unequivocally,” said a statement from the Chancellor’s spokesman. US President Barack Obama reportedly assured Dr Merkel that no such surveillance had taken place, but many Europeans remain sceptical. This week, France also demanded explanations from the US regarding a report  that it had swept up millions of French phone records, and summoned the American ambassador. Both episodes illustrate the diplomatic challenge for the US posed by the cache of documents released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

For large rooftop systems in Singapore, the cost of electricity from solar power is now on a par with ordinary electricity tariffs. Public agencies like the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and private firms like Sheng Siong are starting to use the solar panels on a large scale, with new installations announced this year.

A senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) official in Singapore has been charged with falsifying expense claims of almost $89,000 for wine and pineapple tarts. The popular pastry and wine were purportedly meant to be used as gifts during overseas trips made by MFA officials, but Lim Cheng Hoe, who was protocol chief, allegedly made claims for pineapple tarts and wine from 2008 to 2012 which he did not actually pay for or use during the trips.

The United Nations has agreed on a global framework to tackle the aviation industry’s carbon emissions, in an unprecedented show of unity. After years of discord, the 191 member states of the UN International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) reached a consensus. The UN agency has committed that from 2020, airlines will comply with a global market-based measure to cap the industry’s aviation emissions. Previously, the European Union had unilaterally imposed an emissions trading system whereby all airlines flying to Europe would be taxed according to the distance of the flight. This attracted the ire of many airlines and nations, as it gave airlines operating through hubs closer to Europe an unfair advantage. Aviation accounts for 2 percent of man-made greenhouse emissions. But with demand for air travel projected to soar in the coming decades, the industry is committed to the green movement. The International Air Transport Association (Iata) has pledged that from 2020, the industry will achieve growth without increasing its carbon emissions. By 2050, the target is for its carbon emissions to be half that of 2005’s. The industry intends to achieve this through continuing investment in fuel-efficient aircraft and switching from fossil fuels to biofuels, which cause less pollution.

Singapore may feel the impact of climate change sooner than expected, with a new detailed study suggesting that the city-state will hit tipping point by 2028. By that year, temperatures could rise such that even the coolest years would still be hotter than the hottest year now on record, say University of Hawaii researchers. Drawing data from 39 climate models, they calculated a date they called “climate departure” for each country — the date after which all future years were predicted to be warmer than any year in the historical record for that city. Kingston, Jamaica will be off-the-charts hot in just 10 years, Mexico City will hit tipping point in 2031, Cairo in 2036 and eventually the whole world in 2047.

The US government was forced to partially shut down on 1st Oct after the two houses of Congress failed to agree a budget by the end of the fiscal year. But what is more worrisome is what could happen in mid-October.  The federal government hit its constitutional debt limit of US$16.7 trillion and needs approval from both houses of Congress to borrow more money to keep the government running beyond mid-October. However, the House of Representatives, which is controlled by the opposition Republicans, has demanded certain terms in exchange for allowing a raising of the debt ceiling, including an elimination of funding for President Obama’s cherished healthcare reform plan, the Affordable Healthcare Act. The White House and the Senate, which are controlled by the Democrats, have refused to accede to these demands. In the meantime, the US government is rapidly running out of money and runs the risk of defaulting on its debt repayments by mid-October if political gridlock continues till then.

For many people it is the trip of a lifetime. But thousands have been left angry at being locked out of landmark US national parks due to the government shutdown. Hundreds who were lucky enough to already be staying in places like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon faced a deadline to leave, 48 hours after the shutdown went into force due to a budget standoff in Washington DC. Other world-famous tourist attractions shuttered until further notice include the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, and the Alcatraz prison island in San Francisco Bay.

Schools in Singapore will go beyond equipping students for examinations and prepare them for life, said Singapore’s Education Minister Heng Swee Keat as he spelt out new initiatives to make this happen. Mr Heng explained that the education system had to change course to help students adapt to a globalised world with what companies call a “VUCA” environment — volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. “To deal with the demands of a VUCA environment, good grades in school are not enough. In fact, they might not even be relevant,” said Mr Heng. To thrive in such a world, students ” need to have the confidence to deal with problems that have no clear-cut solutions,” he said. “And they need to be able to work effectively with others across races and nationalities.” Hence secondary schools will offer two distinct schemes by 2017:

  • An applied learning programme to help students grasp the relevance and value of their lessons and develop a love for learning. It will be similar to entrepreneurship and robotics programmes already being run at some schools.
  • The Learning for Life programme, which aims to get students to understand more about themselves and how they relate to others, through the arts, sports, outdoor adventures and volunteer work.

This shift in focus away from exams will be augmented by recently announced changes to PSLE grading and an expansion of the Direct School Admission system to take into account a student’s character and leadership skills.

Companies operating in Singapore will soon have to prove they tried to hire Singaporeans first before they are allowed to recruit foreign professionals. They will also have to pay foreigners more before the latter can receive an employment pass (EP) — $3,300 instead of the current $3,000. This increase is to keep it in line with increasing salaries, and probably to address a common complaint of Singaporean workers, that foreigners from lower-cost nations undercut them in the job market by asking for lower wages. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) made clear that older and more experienced foreign job applicants must earn even more than $3,300 to get an EP. To ensure that companies try to hire Singaporeans first before turning to foreigners, all companies with more than 25 employees must advertise professional, managerial and executive (PME) posts that pay less than $12,000, at a government-run jobs bank. These advertisements must run for at least 14 days before they can apply to the MOM for an EP.

The charismatic but divisive Chinese politician Bo Xilai has been sentenced to life in prison. Bo was found guilty of all charges against him including the abuse of power, embezzlement and bribery. While some see the sentence as proof of President Xi Jinping’s determination to fight corruption, critics allege that the prosecution of Bo was politically motivated. There have been widespread allegations that Bo colluded with former security czar and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang to dethrone President Xi. The Politburo Standing Committee is China’s highest political decision-making body. The Politburo is the second highest.

More people in Singapore are struggling to pay off their credit card bills, vindicating the government’s tough recent measures to curb such borrowing. As of July, there were 62,830 unsecured credit customers who had not made a minimum payment in two months — a striking 12.7 percent more than in.2012. Unsecured credit includes credit cards, overdrafts and personal loans that are not backed by collateral.

Inflation in Singapore crept up to 2 percent in August on the back of higher prices in housing, services and food. It was a tad higher than the 1.9 percent seen in July. Economists warned that the rise could continue this year as Cerificate of Entitlement (COE) prices for cars are rebounding. Most experts believe the 4 to 5 percent inflation rates last year are not likely to recur this year. But a few warned that inflation could breach the 4 percent mark next year due to domestic cost pressures. “The labour market is still tight and higher business costs are cascading into higher consumer inflation,” said DBS economist Irvin Seah.

The search for life on Mars has been dealt a setback after Nasa’s rover, Curiosity, failed to find any methane, a gas that is considered a possible calling card of microbes. While the absence of methane does not entirely preclude the possibility of present-day life on Mars — there are plenty of microbes, on Earth at least, that do not produce methane — it does return the idea to the realm of pure speculation.

Prisoners in Australia’s Northern Territory are being sent out to work at supermarkets, laundries anf mines under a controversial scheme which aims to provide a pool of low-wage workers while allowing inmates to improve their job prospects. Prisoners can earn about A$16 per hour. Criminal justice experts praised the scheme for helping prisoners gain the skills to improve their employability upon release, which would greatly lower the risk of recidivism. However, the scheme came under fire for promoting “slave labour” after some prisoners were sent to a remote salt mine to work for less than half the market rate for salt miners, which is A$35 per hour.

King Willem-Alexander delivered a stark message to the Dutch people: the welfare state of the 20th century is gone. In its place, a “participation society” is emerging, in which people must take responsibility for their own future and create their own social and financial safety nets, with less government help. He added that the welfare system is unsustainable. At the same time, the French public audit office warned that the government must limit growth in its welfare spending or risk a dangerous debt spiral that could threaten France’s social fabric. Though limited reforms have been introduced over the decades, the European elite have resisted challenging the welfare state as it is part of the social contract between Europe’s rulers and the ruled.

Singaporean Youtube singer Stephanie Koh has “the whole package” to do well in regional TV talent competition Scoot: K-pop Star Hunt 3, say the judges in the Singapore leg of the auditions.

Chemical weapons were used against hundreds of civilians in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, Syria. The US and its European and Middle Eastern allies pinned the blame on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces while Russia, Assad’s main arms supplier, questioned the allegations. After protracted diplomatic negotiations, Russia managed to broker a deal under which the US agreed to hold back on military intervention on condition that the Syrian government give up chemical weapons. French, US and British foreign  ministers called for the attacks to be referred to the International Criminal Court and will press for a UN resolution to rid Syria of chemical weapons. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the civil war since March 2011.

The Singapore-based Internet video company Viki will be acquired by Rakuten Inc. for a reported US$200 m. Rakuten is one of the world’s largest internet services companies. Viki is a global TV and video site that uniquely brings primetime TV shows, movies and music videos to new audiences and opens up entirely new markets for content providers. Viki’s community of viewers have crowdsourced subtitles in more than 160 languages and translated more than 400 million words to date.

The Singapore government will now provide subsidies to even middle-income families who seek treatment at private medical clinics. The Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS), which used to cover only those aged above 40 with a per capita household income of $1,500, will now be extended to family members of all ages, and the wage ceiling will be raised to $1,800. This means that a family of four with a household income of $7,200, which is about the national median household income, will qualify for subsidised medical and dental care at private clinics.

Singapore’s health ministry will extend the use of Medisave for outpatient treatment of five more chronic conditions. The five chronic conditions are osteoarthritis (degenerative joint diseases), benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlargement of the prostate gland), anxiety, Parkinson’s disease and nephritis/nephrosis (chronic kidney disease). This will help patients with these chronic conditions reduce their cash payment. Chronic conditions currently covered under Medisave include diabetes mellitus, hypertension, lipid disorders, stroke, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, major depression, schizophrenia, dementia and bipolar disorder.

Gareth Bale became the most expensive footballer ever when he signed for Spanish football giants Real Madrid for 100 million euros. The Welshman signed a six-year contract for a salary of 6 million euros a year.

Scientists based in Austria have grown the first mini-human brains in a laboratory, and say their success could lead to new levels of understanding about the way brains develop and what goes wrong in disorders like schizophrenia and autism. These researchers cultivated human stem cells into so-called “cerebral organoids” — or mini-brains — that consisted of several distinct brain regions like the cerebral cortex. It is the first time scientists have managed to replicate the development of brain tissue in three dimemsions. Some scientists believe that insights yielded by this breakthrough could help produce treatments for major developmental disorders of the brain.

New permanent residents in Singapore will no longer be able to buy a public housing flat immediately. They will have to wait three years, as part of the Housing Board’s new swathe of policy measures which also included the extension of the Special Housing Grant of up to $20,000 for four-room or smaller flats to households earning up to $6,500 a month. This is part of a major ongoing shift in government policy to help the middle class and not just the poor to own homes.

On the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not pay a visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine. But in a speech on the same day, he omitted the traditional expression of profound remorse for Japan’s wartime aggression and renunciation of war.

A survey by Japan’s influential Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that only 52 percent of Japanese see the Sino-Japanese War as a war of aggression perpetrated by Japan, compared with 99 percent of the Chinese. Said Asahi in an editorial, “This perception gap is very deep. In this age, we cannot talk about Japan’s future without including Asia. Let us ponder over why our neighbours continue to be angry with us.”

The leader of one of Mexico’s most violent and feared drug organizations, the Zetas, was captured in a city near the Texas border, an emphatic retort from the new government to questions over whether it would go after top organised crime leaders. The man, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, 40, was detained by Mexican marines. Mr. Treviño was ranked among the most ruthless crime bosses, wanted for murder, organized crime, and torture; he has been linked to the killing and disappearance of 265 migrants in northeastern Mexico, including 72 found dead in August 2010.

The Singapore Night Festival this year, which will run over two weekends (23-24 August and 30-31 August), will be the largest so far in scale and content. The festival grounds, traditionally covering the arts and heritage precinct in the Bras Basah and Bugis areas, will be more extensive, reaching from Plaza Singapura to Raffles City. New venues include Chijmes and Sculpture Square. There will be 89 arts and cultural programmes, up from 74 last year, including performances, installations, exhibitions and film screenings. More than 100 local performing groups and artists will take part, up from 43 last year.

Asian stock markets and currencies tumbled as exports slowed and current account deficits grew. Indonesian stocks fell 22 percent between May and August while the rupiah hit a four-year low against the US dollar. In India, the rupee hit an all-time low against the greenback and the Malaysian ringgit sagged to its weakest level in three years. The Thai economy entered a recession in August and the baht also slipped to a 13-month low. The four economies have seen growth sputter as China’s growth weakened and its demand for their exports faltered. This has led to current account deficits for all the four economies except Malaysia’s. A current account deficit means that they must borrow or run down reserves to finance their spending.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled a ‘new way forward’ for Singapore in his National Day Rally speech, a new balance between individuals community and the Government. After decades of what some have called “tough love”, Singapore will move decisively to shield citizens from the harsh effects of global change, an ageing society and rising inequality as those who are vulnerable can no longer make it through individual effort alone. The Government will widen safety nets to everyone, regardless of age, to help them cope with rising healthcare costs. It also aims to give every child the best shot at developing his potential to the maximum, while removing some of the stress in the education system. Among the highlights of the new policies are:

  • National health insurance scheme Medishield will now cover everyone for life, instead of up to age 90. It will also cover those with pre-existing health conditions. Subsidies for outpatient care, which now kick in only at age 40, will be raised and extended to all from poor families, regardless of age
  • The Special Housing Grant of $20,000 that is now for buyers of two- and three-room flats will be extended to middle-income buyers of four-room flats as well
  • The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) T-score (aggregate score) will be replaced with broader grade bands to reduce the stress on students and parents
  • All primary schools will have to set aside at least 40 places in the annual Primary 1 registration exercise with children with no links to the school
  • Singapore will continue to have top secondary schools, but more will be done to let children with special traits, such as resilience and drive, enter the best schools

Residents in Woodlands will be the first in Singapore to experience the community feel of an integrated building with housing, healthcare, hawker centres and other facilities all under one roof. Dubbed the nation’s first “vertical kampung” (village) by National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, this project will bring together the young and old to live, work and play. He said an integrated complex maximises land use and has been found to work in other countries such as Japan. “It is an experiment to create a modern urban kampung within a busy city — one that can pull people together and create a sense of community,” he added.

The death toll in Egypt from a crackdown on supporters of ousted president Mohamed Mursi rose above 500 by August 15. Members of Mr Mursi’s Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, torched government headquarters as violence spread across Egypt. The attack on the Brotherhood followed failed efforts by the US and EU to mediate the stand-off. It was the worst violence since the 2011 uprising which deposed former President Hosni Mubarak and helped to trigger the Arab Spring.

In a case that shocked the people of Singapore — a country famous for its clean and honest government and public service — a senior officer from the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) was charged for misappropriating S$1.76 million from the anti-graft agency between 2008 and 2012. Edwin Yeo Seow Hiong, 39, faces 21 charges of misappropriation and misuse of funds, criminal breach of trust and forgery. He allegedly used part of his ill-gotten gains to gamble at the Marina Bay Sands (MBS) casino.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition won a solid majority in the upper house of parliament in elections, gaining control of both chambers and a mandate to press ahead with difficult economic reforms. The win is an endorsement of the Liberal Democratic Party’s “Abenomics” program, which has helped spark a tentative economic recovery in Japan. “We’ve won the public’s support for decisive and stable politics so that we can pursue our economic policies, and we will make sure to live up to the expectations,” said Mr Abe. Japan has had seven prime ministers in seven years.

Work on the controversial new road that cuts through Bukit Brown Cemetery will start as early as the beginning of 2014 after the affected graves are exhumed. Construction of the road was first announced in 2011, sparking an intense debate between heritage and nature groups and the Government. Many of Singapore’s pioneers are buried in Bukit Brown. Among them are war hero Lim Bo Seng’s father, Lim Loh. The elder Lim was a very well-respected and successful businessman. In addition, 90 bird species have been spotted at Bukit Brown, which amount to 25 percent of all bird species in Singapore. 13 of the species at Bukit Brown are endangered.

A tiny crack in the ‘Great Firewall of China’ will allow some forbidden bytes to filter through, at the first university on mainland Chinese soil with a campus-wide uncensored Internet connection. The University of Macau, which is relocating to Guangdong in January 2014, will give its students and researchers unfettered Internet access. This includes sites banned in the rest of China, such as Facebook, Youtube and Bloomberg news. But those hoping that this move is a harbinger of greater liberalisation to come will likely be disappointed. Professor Huang Weiping of Shenzhen University said, “This is a gift for Macau under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework. But the Internet has too much of an impact on Chinese society. China will still want to censor online content for the sake of political stability.”

Seven people were shot by gunmen in four different places in Malaysia in three days, including the founder of Arab-Malaysian Banking Group, Hussain Ahmad Najadi, who was killed in Kuala Lumpur. The incidents have raised public alarm over the easy availability of firearms in the country despite strict gun laws. Some blame corruption in the police force for the rise in crime, while the government and police blame the repeal of laws allowing detention without trial.

Samantha Lo, the ‘Sticker Lady’ who was sentenced to community service for vandalism over her tongue-in-cheek graffiti on Singapore roads and stickers that she pasted on Singapore traffic lights, has been recruited by the Sentosa Leisure Group to blanket the tourist island with signs and billboards that feature amusing messages in Singlish like “No sunglasses at night, don’t act cool” and “Lepak Corner”. A spokesperson for the Sentosa Leisure Group said that Ms Lo’s designs and messages resonate well with both locals and tourists. “Her work is fun, witty, tongue-in-cheek yet relevant… and displays a visceral appreciation of the Singaporean way of life,” added the spokesperson.

Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee and former contractor with the US National Security Agency, leaked classified information about a US government programme to monitor telephone and Internet communications by people all over the world, including on Facebook and Google. He also divulged classified data about US government surveillance of computers in China. He fled to Hong Kong and then Russia to seek refuge from prosecution by the US government. The scandal widened and anti-American sentiment rose when he revealed that the US had bugged European Union offices and used telecoms infrastructure in Brazil to spy on governments in South America. Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua all offered asylum to Snowden.

The booming textile industry in Bangladesh is causing severe pollution as global clothing companies like H&M and JC Penney outsource manufacturing to firms in the country to take advantage of the low costs. Factories dump their wastewater into waterways, destroying fish stocks and poisoning rice paddies. A toxic stench has even caused students in nearby schools to faint. These textile mills and dyeing plants export clothing to Europe and the US. People can see what colours are in fashion by looking at the canals. Bangladesh has laws to protect the environment, but these are largely circumvented by the political and economic power of industry.

The world of athletics was shaken to the core when the fastest man of the year, American sprinter Tyson Gay, tested positive for an unnamed banned substance and top Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell tested positive for a prohibited stimulant. The rooms of Powell and his physical trainer were searched and drugs and muscle supplements seized. Gay ran the fastest time of 9.75 seconds in the 100 m this year. Of the current top six male sprinters in the world, four have been caught for doping. Only Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and Nesta Carter have an unblemished record.

Children in Singapore are to spend more time learning about money during home economics classes as Singapore grapples with rising costs and household debt. A new syllabus to be rolled out by the Education Ministry next year will place greater emphasis on teaching secondary school students how to manage their finances. Secondary school student Jaren Pang told the Straits Times that the extra focus on money management would be useful for some of his friends. “When they see something attractive, like game cards, they don’t think before buying. Shortly after, they will run out of money and ask if they can borrow from me and my friends.”

Competing rebel factions in Syria attacked one another with growing intensity, in a series of killings, kidnappings and beheadings which undermined the already struggling effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad. The situation has been further complicated by the involvement of foreign fighters and foreign governments like those of Russia and Iran, each with their own agendas and vested interests.

New York state lawmakers celebrate the introduction of Bengali-language ballots at a Board of Elections office in Queens. Bengali joins English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean as a New York balloting language.

The US Supreme Court handed a significant victory to gay rights advocates by recognising that married gay men and women are eligible for federal benefits. However, the court fell short of a landmark ruling endorsing a fundamental right for gay people to marry. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have legalised same-sex marriage, six of them in the past year.

Asians, the fastest-growing, highest-earning and best-educated race in the US, are almost as segregated from the nation’s white majority as they were two decades ago. A Brown University study said specific Asian ancestries — including two of the largest, Chinese and Indians —are as isolated from the white population as Hispanics. The study found that Asians generally live in neighbourhoods that are comparable — and in some ways “markedly better”— than those of whites. Median household income has risen 2.3 percent to US$70,815 for Asians since 2000 while white Americans have suffered a 1.1 percent drop. The national median is US$65,460. The number of Asians in the US surged 43.3 percent in the last decade, four times faster than white population growth, to more than 17 million. Asians now make up 5.4 percent of the population.

Britain, the home of Westminster democracy, faces a parliamentary crisis of confidence after a media sting operation filmed three peers from the House of Lords discussing cash payments in return for their lobbying efforts. Two of the men were suspended while the third resigned. When he was in opposition in 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron identified parliamentary lobbying as a major potential scandal. His prediction has now been borne out and his government now has to show it can stamp out the problem.

Singapore and Malaysia were blanketed in thick, choking haze as fires raged in Sumatra, Indonesia. The fires were believed to mostly have been started by farmers and plantation owners who traditionally favour the low-cost slash-and-burn technique of clearing land. The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) soared to a record high of 401 in Singapore, well above the threshold of 300 beyond which the pollution becomes hazardous. Tensions rose between Singapore and Indonesia as the former pressed the latter to take action. Indonesian minister Agung Laksono chided Singapore for behaving “like children”. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declined to respond to Laksono’s barb, saying that he hoped both sides would look for solutions rather than exchange harsh words. Subsequently Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologised to both Singapore and Malaysia.

It was revealed that the raging fires in Indonesia that caused the haze in Singapore and Malaysia were on peatland. Peat is organic material that is supposed to be always wet, but plantation companies drain the land to bring the water level down, causing the peat to become dry and highly flammable. Peatland fires also tend to smoulder and travel underground even after they have been put out, and can burst into flames again months later, defying firefighting efforts. However, experts said that the record haze this year could lead to change in the long run. The Indonesian government now seems more determined to crack down on the problem, quickly naming companies that may have been responsible. More advanced technology such as satellite imagery is becoming more widely used and makes it easier for errant companies to be identified.

Thousands took to the streets in Brazil as discontent over inflation and the economy mounted, fuelling dissatisfaction with President Dilma Rousseff. The president, whose approval rating slipped eight percentage points in June, was jeered at a packed football stadium while inaugurating the Confederations Cup. One of the protesters’ grievances was a 10-cent increase in bus fare.

Singapore’s dengue cases are set to surge to a record this year, prompting the government to break into homes that could be breeding grounds for mosquitoes that transmit the disease. Inspectors have broken into three homes suspected of housing mosquitoes since the start of the year, the National Environment Agency said. They cut the delay before forcing entry into locked premises to one week from two this month, it said. Dengue infections may rise to 23,000 this year, exceeding the record 14,000 in 2005, Leo Yee Sin, director of Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s communicable disease centre, said. Environment minister Vivian Balakrishnan warned that at the peak of the outbreak, new cases could exceed 1,000 a week. As of June, over 10,000 people had been infected.

About 580 people have already put down deposits for a suborbital space flight on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo. While these future space travelers each signed on to pay a total of US$200,000, Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson said the time is right for a temporary price hike to US$250,000 to account for inflation, but he hopes to reduce the price in future. SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers to suborbital space and back. When Virgin Galactic begins commercial operations, a carrier aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo will loft SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,500 meters). SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engines will kick on at this point, blasting the craft to a maximum altitude of 361,000 feet (110,000 m). Passengers will see the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth, and they’ll experience about five minutes of weightlessness, company officials say.

A Malaysian couple were sentenced to 24 years’ jail each after they were found guilty of starving their Cambodian maid to death. Mey Sichan had been working for Soh Chew Tong and his wife Chin Chui Ling since September 2011. She was found dead in a storeroom on the second floor of the shophouse on April 1, 2012. The evidence presented in court showed that Mey was denied food over a long period of time. “In totality, the deceased did not receive enough food and had sustained injuries that were inflicted over time which further aggravated her gastric ulcer that led to acute peritonitis and that had caused her death,” said the judge. According to the post-mortem report by the forensic pathologist, Mey, who was 148cm tall, weighed only 26.1kg at the time of her death.

News websites that provide regular reports on Singapore and have significant reach now need individual licences, in a bid by the government to align the regulatory frameworks of online and traditional news platforms. News sites must be individually licensed once they meet two criteria, namely if they report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore news and current affairs, and reach at least 50,000 unique Internet Protocol (IP) addresses from Singapore each month. The need to ensure consistency in the treatment of online news sites and traditional media outlets, said Minister of Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim, is driven by the fact that more Singaporeans now receive news online. However, the new policy was swiftly slammed by many in the online fraternity as a move to further restrict media freedom in Singapore. 1,500 people attended a protest at Speakers’ Corner against the new policy.

Robbie Rogers, who thought coming out as a gay man would spell the end of his football career, has signed for Major League Soccer side LA Galaxy. The former Leeds United midfielder, 26, will be the first active openly gay male athlete to compete in an American professional team sport.

26 lawsuits have been filed against Intuitive Surgical, a US company which produces robots that assist with surgery. All the lawsuits allege that the company was responsible for injuries during surgery, except for one case in which it was accused of causing the death of a patient. So far the trial involving the death of a patient has concluded, with the jury ruling that the company was not negligent in its training of a doctor involved in the fatal surgery. The other 25 cases are pending or ongoing.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has reclaimed the mantle of world’s richest man from Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim Helu. In Forbes magazine’s latest report, Mr Gates is estimated to have a net worth of US$70 billion while Mr Slim’s is estimated at US69.86 billion. In February, Gates joined Slim in Mexico to announce a philanthropic partnership aimed at improving agricultural research with the goal of reducing hunger. Gates is also cooperating through his charity foundation with the German government and private companies on sustainable food programmes in Africa.

A Singaporean start-up company is bringing cleaner and cheaper drinking water to Vietnam. De.Mem, a new company set up by Nanyang Technological University, launched a water treatment plant that can be operated by just one person in Duc Hoa, near Ho Chi Minh City. The plant, about the size of a four-bedroom apartment, can produce about one million litres of drinkable water a day. Building smaller plants closer to communities means less energy is needed to distribute the water compared to compared to a centralised network, which translates to lower costs. The plant’s technology and the ability to monitor it off-site could make it useful in remote areas of other developing countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia.

It was a massive bank heist — but a 21st-century version in which the criminals never wore ski masks, threatened a teller or set foot in a vault. Working with “surgical precision”, a global cyber crime ring stole US$45 m from two Middle Eastern banks by hacking into the computers of credit card processing firms and withdrawing money from ATMs in 27 countries, said US prosecutors. Seven of the eight men involved have been arrested.

The Singapore government is coming up with a strategy to tackle online gambling, which is highly addictive, easily accessible and gaining in popularity in the country. Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran highlighted “the greater access to the young and vulnerable” that online gambling offers. This is the first time the government is actively targeting online gambling, which has become even more pervasive because of smartphone technology. Online gambling sites raked in US$342.7 m from Singapore punters in 2012, compared with US$263 million in 2010.

A new study of French blue-chip companies indicates that hiring women increases the value of an organisation. Over a six-year period, companies with women making up at least one-third of management returned 30 percent more to their shareholders.

The French government has passed legislation to mandate a minimum of 40 percent female representation on corporate boards by 2017. Britain, on the other hand, is trying to nudge companies towards raising female board representation to 25 percent.

The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition retained power in the Malaysian General Election, but with a slimmer majority in the Federal Parliament. BN won 133 seats or 60 percent of the 222-seat Federal Parliament (down from 140 seats in 2008), compared with 89 seats or 40 percent for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition (up from 82 seats in 2008). However, PR leader Anwar Ibrahim rejected the results and alleged widespread electoral fraud. Prime Minister Najib Razak, on the other hand, expressed concern about the polarisation of the country along ethnic lines as the ethnic Chinese population had strongly supported the opposition. The BN, he said, would embark on a “national reconciliation process” to heal the racial and political divisions that have arisen in the wake of the elections.

Following the controversial results of the Malaysian elections, Malay-language newspapers slammed Chinese Malaysians for dividing Malaysia. Utusan Malaysia, which is owned by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the senior partner in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, ran the headline ‘Apa lagi Cina mahu?’ (What else do the Chinese want?) while its sister publication Kosmo! called the Chinese voters ‘two-faced’, accusing the Chinese of supporting government programmes and yet voting against the ruling coalition. Prime Minister Najib Razak attributed BN’s worst-ever election showing to a ‘Chinese tsunami’or a massive swing of Chinese votes to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad pinned BN’s poor showing on ‘ungrateful’ Chinese and ‘greedy’ Malay voters. Mohamed Nazri Aziz, MP for Padang Rengas, said the Chinese were influenced into thinking that if they voted for PR, it would spell the end of special rights for the Malays and other bumiputras. However, another former prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, was the lone voice from Umno cautioning against playing the race card. He demanded a stop to all attempts at racialising the polls by blaming a particular community for the BN’s poor showing. “This is unfair and unhelpful,” he said. Utusan Malaysia accused the Chinese-based opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) of starting the provocation, claiming that it had sowed hatred against the BN. The newspaper’s senior editor charged that DAP should be held responsible if chaos erupts, a statement that echoes past warnings of a possible repeat of the 1969 race riots.

In March, the Philippine Supreme Court ordered a three-month delay in the implementation of a new groundbreaking law that guarantees universal and free access to nearly all modern contraceptives for all citizens, including impoverished communities, through government health centres. The law also mandates reproductive health education in government schools and recognizes a woman’s right to post-abortion care as part of the right to reproductive healthcare. The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act was immediately challenged in court by Catholic groups after President Benigno Aquino III signed the measure into law in December 2012.

Major academic medical centres in the US are spending and recruiting heavily for research on “precision” or “personalised medicine”, a course of prevention and treatment based on the unique characteristics of each person’s genes. Centres such as Mount Sinai’s medical school are investing heavily on this in the belief that the medical establishment is moving towards the routine sequencing of every patient’s genome to facilitate the practice of precision medicine. If this vision is realised, it would be possible for doctors to assess with a high degree of probability which individuals have a higher risk of cancer, for instance, and take steps to prevent it. Critics, however, point out that medical science is still a long way from being able to derive useful information from routine sequencing, and argue that it is a waste of money.

Singapore’s tourism growth is expected to halve over the next ten years because of keen regional competition and Singapore’s tight labour market, said Second Minister for Home Affairs and Trade and Industry S. Iswaran. He expects tourism arrival growth of only 3-4 percent over the next decade, compared to a compound annual growth rate of 6.6 percent from 2002-2012. In 2012, Singapore welcomed 14.4 million visitors compared with 8.3 million in 2004. Much of the growth has been driven by major projects such as the Formula One race and the integrated resorts, but Mr Iswaran said that the growth model based on sheer quantitative growth is no longer viable. Rather, there is a general consensus within the industry that it needs to focus on quality growth, deriving more yield from each visitor. He urged the industry to create more content for visitors in the business and lifestyle sectors. Competition is rising in Asia from countries like Thailand, which plans to hold an F1 night street race by 2015, and Macau and South Korea, which have announced new integrated resorts.

After the new and lethal strain of bird flu known as H7N9 emerged in China, government officials responded with live updates on an official Twitter-like microblog. It is a starkly different approach from a decade ago, when Chinese officials initially silenced reporters as a deadly outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) killed dozens of people in the south. The contrast shows a new openness in China learnt from the Sars debacle, which devastated the government’s credibility. It also reflects the demands of a more prosperous and educated citizenry for information and the pressure exerted by social media on governments to be more transparent. As of April 15, there had been 63 confirmed cases of H7N9 in China and 14 deaths but there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission, only bird-to-human transmission. However in late April, the first case outside China (in Taiwan) was reported. The infected man had reportedly not come into any contact with birds.

Two explosions struck one of America’s top sporting events, killing at least three and wounding more than 100 as the Boston Marathon erupted in a maelstrom of blood, screams, smoke and panic. A number of runners who had just finished the marathon lost their legs, and bits of flesh were scattered and landed on people at the scene as casualties piled on top of one another. Police identified two brothers Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev as suspects. Both were immigrants from the troubled republic of Chechnya, which is controlled by Russia. Tamerlan, 26, was killed in a shootout with police while Dzokhar, 19, was arrested after an intense manhunt in Boston.

Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver who became Hugo Chavez’s protege, has narrowly won Venezuela’s presidential election, allowing him to continue the policies of his late predecessor. Maduro won 50.7 percent of the vote against 49.1 percent for rival Henrique Capriles. A little-known union activist before becoming a law-maker, Maduro will now lead the nation with the world’s biggest oil reserves for the next six years. Capriles, however, alleged electoral irregularities ranging from gunfire to the re-opening of polling centres after their official closure.

The son of Rick Warren, the influential religious leader who wrote the best-selling book ‘The Purpose Driven Life’, committed suicide. Matthew Warren, who was 27, shot himself in the head. His father said that Matthew had suffered from depression and mental illness since young. The tragedy fuelled debate in the US over the treatment of the mentally ill and the easy access that even they have to guns. Well-known evangelical figures in the US, apparently unaware that the Warrens had been struggling with such a devastating family problem, called for an end to the shame and secrecy that still surrounds mental illness. Firearms were used in more than half the 19,000 suicides in the US in 2010.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dies. Britain is polarised by her death as it was in her life. “Death parties” celebrating her demise spread from London to Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol and even Glasgow in Scotland. The words “Iron Lady? Rust in peace” were daubed on a public wall. Mrs Thatcher was fairly well-respected on the world stage, revived Britain’s ailing economy and helped to end the Cold War. However she became, and remains, a hate figure at home because in her zeal to reform the economy and close down uncompetitive industries, she left many mining towns in the North of Britain economically shattered. Even today, 20 years after she left office, some of these towns remain blighted by high unemployment and its concomitant social problems. Opposition-supporting areas bore the brunt of her most hated policies. Even in the prosperous South, some still despise her for the coarse materialistic culture she cultivated in Britain.

Singapore is campaigning to get its 154-year-old Botanic Gardens declared a UNESCO world heritage site. If selected by the United Nations cultural body, the lush and serene 74-hectare park on the edge of downtown Singapore will join the Royal Botanic Gardens in London and the Orto Botanico in Italy on the prestigious list. The Singapore gardens were founded in 1859 by the Agri-Horticultural Society while the island was under British colonial rule. The gardens became known for pioneering rubber tapping and orchid breeding techniques and evolved into a hugely popular attraction for Singaporeans and foreign tourists alike. It now sees around four million visitors a year in a city-state of 5.3 million people.

North Korea embarked on its latest round of intimidation and aggressive posturing, releasing a video showing its military firing at US targets, authorising nuclear attacks on the US, barring South Koreans from accessing the joint Kaesong industrial complex, threatening to restart its plutonium enrichment facility at Yongbyon and issuing a series of characteristically bellicose media statements. The US responded by deploying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and stealth fighters to the region.

Cyprus suffers a financial crisis as its banks teeter on the brink of collapse. The island nation sought a bailout from the European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and the European Commission – known collectively as the troika. The troika initially wished to impose on Cyprus the highly unpopular condition that savers in banks help to pay for the 10 billion euro bailout through a tax on all bank deposits. After heated protests from the Cypriot people, the troika agreed to a tax only on savings accounts of 100,000 euros and above. These savers would be hit by a massive 40 percent tax.

Some of the cyber attacks on US firms and infrastructure that came from China were “state sponsored”, said US President Barack Obama, while warning against “war rhetoric” on the issue. The US has fingered cyber attacks and cyber espionage as its top security threat.

The Ministry of Education in Singapore has moved to improve social mobility in the education system. It plans to open 15 government-run kindergartens in public housing estates. These kindergartens will use the latest research in early childhood education to develop the best teaching methods and practices. On top of that, the MOE will also launch literacy and numeracy programmes to help primary and secondary students who are weaker at English and mathematics. For English, students will receive extra coaching from specially trained teachers in small groups of about ten. Calling it a comprehensive “levelling-up programme”, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said, “This will help every Singaporean child, regardless of family background, start from a quality kindergarten, and then build a strong foundation in the 10 years of primary and secondary education.”

Japan’s All-Nippon Airways (ANA) grounds its 787 Dreamliner fleet until at least the end of May, with no end in sight to woes for Boeing’s much-vaunted next-generation plane. The Dreamliner had already been delayed for three years prior to delivery to its customers in 2012. Part of the reason was problems with the quality and compatibility of the aircraft’s parts as the manufacturing had been outsourced to many different countries.

The prices of new flats will become almost 30 percent cheaper to keep the Singapore dream of home ownership alive, announced National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan. The ambitious goal makes clear the Government’s commitment to “restoring and maintaining” the affordability of flats for first-time home buyers, he told Parliament. Hinting at a fundamental policy shift on public housing, Mr Khaw said that he wants new flat prices in non-mature estates at around “four years of salary” (median income), down from 5.5 years now. He had already broken with HDB convention in 2011, when he took over the job, by delinking the prices of new, subsidised flats from resale flat prices. Even though the resale market has risen 12.5 percent, prices of new flats have remained stable as the Government has increased subsidies.

Women earn less than men in similar roles as employees but the opposite is true when it comes to entrepreneurs, a worldwide study by Barclays has found. High-net-worth female entrepreneurs earn about 14 percent more than their male counterparts, but a high-net-worth female employee makes 21 percent less than her male counterpart. Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) executive director Corinna Lim notes, “It is possible that women earn less than their male counterparts because they may not be as assertive about negotiating salaries. Socialisation encourages men to be assertive, competitive and take risks, but not women. Women are still socialised to be submissive and accommodating and may not negotiate for higher salaries as aggressively as men might.”

The majority of undergraduates in Singapore do not want to date, a survey has found. Some 400 undergraduates at NUS, NTU, SMU and UniSIM were asked what was most important to them, and romance was right at the bottom of their list. Their top priorities were, in order of importance, getting good grades, earning money, finding a job, socialising, keeping fit and finding a life partner. Experts attribute this trend to the stress of the local education system, although psychology professor Dr Joyce Pang suggested that the longer life expectancy of Singaporeans could be lengthening each stage of a person’s life and therefore delaying the search for a serious relationship.

This year, work will begin on the Tyersall extension of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The 9.8 ha patch, about the size of 12 football fields and once part of the estate of the Sultan of Johor, has been abandoned for a century and its forest has regenerated itself. Overgrown with trees such as tembusu, albizia and banana, the area is evidence that “if you leave nature to get on with itself, in some cases, it can recover,” said the Botanic Gardens director Nigel Taylor. Even the Nipis Kulit tree, which was thought to have vanished from Singapore, was found in the forest. It will provide a rare chance to study forest regrowth, added Mr Taylor.

[Fun fact: Little Singapore has more biodiversity than the whole of North America.]

Young workers in their 20s — a group historically exploitable as cheap labour — are being exploited even more than before in the US as the recession bites and jobs have become scarce. Hundreds of applicants vie for unpaid or lowly-paid internships at which they are expected to be on call with iPhone in hand, tweeting for and representing their company at all hours. “The notion of the traditional entry-level job is disappearing,” said author Ross Perlin. Once a short-term commitment at most, internships have become an obligatory rite of passage that often drags on for years. After Katherine Myers, 27, graduated from college in 2008, she landed a position as a development coordinator at a cable channel in New York. “I was willing to put up with anything,” she said. “I never took a lunch, I came in early, I worked late.” Still, her experience was more pleasant than that of a friend who worked for a major film producer. “For a year, we never saw him. He’d get up at 5 am, be there till 1 am, fall asleep at work,” she said.

In 2005, Kuomintang (KMT) elder Lien Chan’s ice-breaking visit to Beijing helped ease tensions between China and Taiwan and ushered in the current warm cross-strait ties. This year, Mr Lien visited Beijing again in a highly significant visit that could change the tone of cross-strait ties and even break new ground in the coming years, say analysts. First, the timing, coming just after Xi Jinping took over the reins of the Chinese Communist Party from Hu Jintao, is an affirmation that Mr Xi will continue with the path of “peaceful development” fostered by Mr Hu and Mr Lien after their historic 2005 meeting. That meeting resurrected dialogue between Taiwan and China following their split at the end of the civil war in 1949. The meeting also saw both sides signing a peace treaty and an agreement that called for the pursuit of “happiness of the people on both sides”. Since 2008, the two sides have inked 18 agreements, allowed direct sea and air links, and signed a free trade agreement.

With international tourist arrivals predicted to reach nine million by 2020 — up from one million in 2012 — Myanmar is rushing to finalise a plan to tackle the problems caused by a tourism boom. Locals at the famed Inle Lake in Central Myanmar have been protesting against an alleged land grab for a hotel zone. There are also concerns that over-development will damage the environment around Inle Lake. Thanks to speculators excited by Myanmar’s opening up after decades of seclusion, land in downtown Yangon now costs as much as prime real estate in San Francisco and New York.

Turkish Airlines has changed the uniform of its stewardesses to one that is much more conservative. They will wear a headdress from the days of the Ottoman Empire and skirts that extend below the knee. The move has been controversial as critics charge that it is oppressive and regressive. The issue highlights the struggle for Turkey’s identity between the Islamists (fundamentalist Muslims) and the modernists. [Note: There is a difference between ‘Islamic’ and ‘Islamist’. The former refers to anything concerning the religion of Islam, while the latter refers to the fundamentalist, conservative form of Islam.]

Highlights of the Singapore government Budget 2013:

  • Aimed at raising productivity to attain quality growth while fostering an inclusive society
  • An unprecedented scheme which will see the government covering two-fifths of pay rises given over the next three years to Singaporeans earning $4,000 and less. This complements the schemes to encourage productivity enhancements by incentivizing employers to share some of the returns brought by enhanced productivity with their Singaporean workers.
  • Further curbs on foreign workers to press on with what Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam called the “painful but necessary” drive to improve productivity by reducing the overall reliance on manpower
  • Cash bonuses of up to $15,000 for companies which invest in productivity
  • Workfare income cap raised from S$1,700 to S$1,900; payouts raised by 25-50%. Will cost the government $650 m a year
  • Taxing the rich to help the poor: Higher property taxes for those living in high-end private property and higher taxes on luxury cars
  • More than $3b for pre-school sector over next five years to ensure that high-quality pre-schooling is available to all children regardless of social background
  • More support for disadvantaged students in the form of more student care centres, better learning support
  • an additional $40 m to subsidise mobility for the elderly
  • GST voucher: one-off payment, on top of regular payouts to lower and middle-income families. Cost: $680 m

The use of performance enhancing drugs is “widespread” among professional and amateur athletes in Australia, a government report which rocked the sports-mad country said. The report was the result of a one-year probe by Australia’s leading criminal intelligence organisation into the use of drugs, both performance enhancing and recreational, as well as the association of organised crime with the trade. “The findings are shocking and they will disgust Australian sports fans,” Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said. “(It) has found the use of substances, including peptides, hormones and illicit drugs, is widespread amongst professional athletes. “We are talking about multiple athletes across a number of codes. We’re talking about a number of teams. “The findings indicate the drugs are being facilitated by sports scientists, coaches, support staff as well as doctors and pharmacists.”

Singaporean businessman Dan Tan Seet Eng is fingered by Interpol and Italian police as a match-fixing mastermind who has been involved in fixing possibly hundreds of football matches in Europe. The accusation came after a 19-month investigation into 680 matches played worldwide that were considered suspicious by European law enforcement.  European police forces say that an underground network of Singaporeans sought to fix the outcome of football matches on at least three continents — and reap millions of dollars in profits from bets they placed on the outcomes. “The investigations around the world out of Africa, Central America and Europe are pointing primarily to match-fixers out of Singapore,” said Chris Eaton, the former head of security at FIFA. The Singapore police called up Tan for questioning in February, as well as six to nine of his associates.

In a bid to defy President Obama’s push for a ban on assault weapons, three gun enthusiasts in Austin, Texas printed part of an AR-15 assault rifle called the lower receiver using a 3-D printer, a high-tech fabrication device that can produce objects layer by layer in three dimensions, usually in plastic. Then, using standard metal components, including the chamber and barrel — the parts that must be strong enough to withstand the intense pressure of a bullet firing — they assembled working guns. “We now have 3-D printers that can manufacture firearms components in the basement,” said Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York. “It’s just a matter of time before a 3-D printer will produce a weapon capable of firing bullets.” To effectively outlaw weapons made with them, Mr. Israel wants to extend an existing law, set to expire this year, that makes weapons that are undetectable by security scanners — like a printed all-plastic gun — illegal.

The Singapore government released a White Paper spelling out its proposed population strategy for the coming decades. The paper contains a proposal to grow Singapore’s population from the current 5.2 million to a projected range of 6.5-6.9 million by 2030 in order to ensure, as Prime Minister Lee said, that “Singapore continues thriving”. This growth would be achieved through:

  • a $2 billion-a-year package of incentives for marriage and parenthood to grow the Singaporean core
  • sustaining a dynamic economy that produces good jobs for well- educated citizens and keeping the door open to the global talent who will be needed to sustain such a dynamic economy. By 2030, the government projects that two-thirds of the local workforce will be employed as professionals, managers, engineers and technicians (PMETs)
  • maintain a high-quality living environment for Singaporeans that avoids the strain of recent years

The Singapore government spelt out its plans to create space for the enlarged population by 2030 and sought to assuage concerns from its people about overcrowding and a deterioration in the quality of life. More land will be reclaimed, new towns built and golf courses redeveloped. Reclamation will chiefly be carried out around Tuas and Pulau Tekong. The expanded space for military training on Pulau Tekong will allow some current training areas on the mainland to be freed up. The rail network will also be doubled by 2030, and new commercial space released outside the city, in areas like Jurong, Woodlands, Paya Lebar and Seletar so that Singaporeans can live near their workplace. It is hoped that these measures will ease the rush-hour bottlenecks on public transport.

Worker’s Party candidate Lee Li Lian wins the Punggol East by-election, beating the People’s Action Party’s Dr Koh Poh Koon by a comfortable margin of 11 percent.

Islamist militants carry out a terror attack on a natural gas complex in Algeria, killing 37 hostages, including three Americans.

The UN Security Council ordered expanded sanctions against North Korea for a banned rocket launch, triggering a defiant pledge by Pyongyang to bolster its nuclear capabilities. The Security Council added North Korea’s state space agency, a bank, four trading companies and four individuals to the UN sanctions list and threatened “significant action” if the North stages a nuclear test. The resolution was passed unanimously by the 15-nation council, including North Korea’s only major ally, China. However, China resisted attempts by the US to introduce a new set of sanctions, resulting in only an expansion of the old list.

The Singapore government launched a wide-ranging package of policies aimed at raising the feeble fertility rate in Singapore from 1.2 to 1.4-1.5 children per woman. It includes:

  • one week of government-paid paternity leave per year. Fathers can also opt to take over one week of the mother’s 16-week maternity leave
  • Married couples with children below 16 will get priority for new, subsidised HDB flats
  • MediShield, the public health insurance programme, will cover congenital and neonatal conditions
  • Subsidies for fertility treatment at public hospitals upped from 50 percent to 75 percent of the cost, capped at $6,300

Air pollution levels in Beijing hit dangerous levels, with official readings of airborne particulates close to the highest mark on the measurement gauge. The monitors measure the level of PM2.5 particulates, which are tiny particulate matters considered the most harmful to health. An air-quality reading of 50 and below is considered good, and one between 301 and 500, hazardous. The government reported readings between 176 and 442 in early January. Air pollution is a major problem in China with its rapid industrialisation, reliance on coal power, explosive growth in car ownership and disregard for environmental laws.

A four-cornered fight emerges in the Punggol East by-election between Dr Koh Poh Koon of the PAP, Ms Lee Li Lian of the Worker’s Party, Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party and Desmond Lim of the Singapore Democratic Alliance. Ms Lee wins convincingly while Messrs Jeyaretnam and Lim lose their election deposits.

Singapore’s Members of Parliament elected the country’s first ever female Speaker of Parliament, Madam Halimah Yacob. Mdm Halimah is a veteran unionist who spent 33 years with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) before becoming an MP and then Minister of State for Social and Family Development. A law graduate from the National University of Singapore, Mdm Halimah is the youngest of five children of a watchman and a food-seller, and grew up in a one-room flat in Hindoo Road.

 

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