2014

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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 2014

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launches the Smart Nation Programme to help Singaporeans take full advantage of technology to lead meaningful and fulfilled lives. He said this cannot be done piecemeal, but must be approached in an integrated manner to create a platform where everyone can contribute. One example is the government’s plan to open up its maps and databases so that the public can share geospatial information – animal sightings, hazards for cyclists, even the best food, he said. Nine out of ten households in Singapore already have broadband Internet access. Part of the Smart Nation programme is to imbue students with tech skills as well as the Silicon Valley mindset of “fail fast, learn quickly” so that they can create the technology of the future. In the highly dynamic business environment of today, companies need ro continually innovate, test out new ideas and make quick adjustments if they do not work. While Singaporeans need to learn to accept failure, they should not cling on to an idea if it does not work; quick failures save money, time and emotional anguish.

A Singapore marine company has been barred from hiring foreign workers for two years because it discriminated against Singaporeans. The ban on Prime Gold International was imposed after it was found to have laid off 13 Singaporeans unfairly and replaced them with foreign workers. The company told the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) that the workers were asked to go because it was running at a loss and they had become redundant, and claimed that some workers had demonstrated poor performance and possessed inadequate qualifications. But MOM found these claims to be unjustified.

Two New York City policemen are shot dead execution-style in New York City by a lone gunman. A social media post by the African-American suspect indicated it may have been in retaliation for the recent controversial killings by police of unarmed black males Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

Sony Pictures’ computer systems in the US are hacked and many embarassing email messages leaked, including one in which a senior Sony executive called Angelina Jolie a “minimally talented spoiled brat”. Movie plots were also stolen and released, and company data destroyed. Many clues indicated that this was in retaliation for Sony Pictures making a comedy movie about a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. US government officials blamed North Korea for the attack and consulted China, South Korea, Japan and Russia for help in reining in North Korea, who denied the attack. US President Obama said he considered it an act of cyber-vandalism and not cyber-warfare, but said it was very expensive and the US took it very seriously.

Fighters from the Taleban attack an army-run school in Peshawar, Pakistan, killing 149 people – most of them schoolchildren. The pupils were the children of Pakistan army soldiers, on whom the Taleban was seeking revenge as the government had been fighting the Islamist extremist group.

The United Nations’ World Meteorological Organisation (WNO) reports that 14 out of 15 of the most sweltering years on record have been in the 21st century, adding urgency to the 190-nation talks in Lima, Peru on slowing climate change. The global average air temperature over land and the sea surface in 2014 was 0.57 deg C above the average of 14 deg C for 1961-1990. The WMO said that what was particularly alarming about 2014 was the high temperatures of vast areas of the ocean surface. Average sea surface temperatures hit record highs in 2014. The Lima talks are working on a globally binding deal to limit climate change, due to be agreed in Paris in 2015. Among the extreme weather events in 2014 were massive floods in Bangladesh, a super-typhoon in the Philippines (the second in two years) and record snowfall over 24 hours in the city of Buffalo in New York. More snow fell in 24 hours than normally falls in a whole year – and this happened before winter had even started.

Singapore-based GrabTaxi raised a whopping US$250 m in financing to boost its plan to dominate the on-demand taxi service industry in Southeast Asia. The capital injection from Japanese multinational Softbank is one of the largest amounts raised by any start-up in the region and is seen as a huge vote of confidence in the local tech industry. The company has raised US$340 m in the last 14 months. The GrabTaxi app is used by 60,000 taxi drivers in six Southeast Asian countries including Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand but competition is fierce. One of its rivals is Uber, the San Francisco-based start-up which raised US$1.2 b in June 2014 and has global ambitions.

A self-styled Islamic preacher from Iran holds 17 hostage at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney, Australia. After a tense 16-hour stand-off with police, a shootout ensued when a hostage tried to wrestle his shotgun from him. The hostage-taker Man Haron Monis and two hostages were killed.

Australian retail giants Target and Kmart have decided to stop selling the controversial crime-themed blockbuster video game Grand Theft Auto V over concerns it glamorises violence against women. Target, a popular department store chain, acted after a petition signed by over 40,000 people called it “sickening”. “Games like this are grooming yet another generation of boys to tolerate violence against women,” the petition said.

Singapore unveils bold plans to reclaim the city-state’s civic district from the car. The civic district around the Padang — encompassing cultural and historic landmarks like Victoria Theatre, the National Gallery and the Asian Civilisations Museum — will be pedestrianized and turned into a “walkable park”. “Our civic district is full of history, memories, monuments and beauties,” said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan. “Over the years, huge assets have been assembled there, but their full potential is not being realised.” To unleash this potential, traffic access to the area will be crimped, with roads like Empress Place paved over and Connaught Drive made accessible only to buses. One side of the historic Anderson Bridge will be converted into a footpath. The move is similar to those made by other cities such as San Francisco and Seoul to claw back road space. San Francisco did away with the Embarcadero Freeway after it was damaged by an earthquake in 1989. In its place, a wide boardwalk now fronts the bay, frequented by joggers, cyclists and those who want respite from the city.

While Sweden is struggling with an ageing population like most of Europe, the country’s canny social policies mean many of its older workers are choosing to keep going to the office. Sweden’s pension reform and generous parental leave have resulted in Europe’s highest employment rate – at 74.4 percent versus the EU average of 64.1 percent – meaning more working people pay taxes to fund the welfare state. Its employment rate for the 55-64 age group is 73.6 percent, dwarfing the EU average of 50.1 percent. Those who retire at age 69 will receive 30 percent bigger pensions than those who retire at 63. 72.5 percent of women are employed – also the highest in the EU – mainly due to the 480 days of childcare leave per child which the parents can share, and heavily subsidised day care. Many dads are “Latte Papas” – fathers who look after the children during the day, and no one criticises them for it.

Social workers in Singapore are seeing a growing number of vulnerable adults being abused by their own loved ones. Among these victims are the elderly, the disabled and the mentally ill. In 2015, Singapore will have a new law to better protect them. It will likely give powers to state representatives to intervene in cases where an individual is likely to be harmed. Social workers will be given powers to enter homes where abuse is suspected, investigate the matter and remove the victim where necessary. In a recent case, social workers pleaded with a family to let them in, and found an emaciated elderly man clad only in adult diapers lying on trash bags, delirious from a lack of food and water.

12-year old American inventor-entrepreneur Shubham Banerjee wins venture capital funding from Intel for his prototype of a low-cost Braille printer. He is young even by the standards of Silicon Valley, where many venture capitalists prefer to fund youth over experience. Young entrepreneurs usually have reached at least their mid-teens when they hit it big. Nick D’Aloisio, founder of online news aggregator Summly, was 17 when Yahoo bought his firm in 2013 for US$30 m.

The leaders of the world’s two largest economies cut a bilateral deal on carbon emissions-reduction. US President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping reached this agreement during Obama’s visit to Beijing. Under the deal, China pledged to cap its growing carbon emissions by 2030 while the US would cut its emissions by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2025. However, Obama’s Republican rivals said that they would resist the plan, which they said would undercut American industry, raise utility rates and cost jobs.

Singaporean water treatment company Hyflux officially opens the Magtaa desalination plant in Algeria, which is said to be the largest seawater reverse osmosis desalination plant on the African continent. The plant features the largest ultrafiltration pre-treatment facility in the world and has the capacity to desalinate 500,000 cu m of seawater a day. Construction of the Magtaa plant had not been smooth sailing. Work started in October 2008 and was expected to be completed in 2012, but Algeria was rocked by protests from 2010 to 2012. A fire also destroyed Hyflux’s warehouse at the project site in 2011.

A video of Vietnamese factory worker Pham Van Thoai begging, kneeling and crying after being overcharged for an iPhone 6 in Singapore goes viral, and prompts hundreds of Singaporeans to pledge S$15,500 on crowdfunding website Indiegogo to help Mr Thoai. In addition, Singaporean Gabriel Kang bought a brand-new iPhone 6 for S$1,538 and rushed to the airport to offer it to Mr Thoai before he returned to Vietnam. However, Mr Thoai did not accept these gifts as it was “not right”. He only accepted the S$400 that the shop was ordered by the Consumers Association of Singapore to compensate him, and S$550 gifted to him by a Singapore businessman to cover his remaining loss. The incident raised national awareness of consumer protection, with several MPs suggesting that the law could be strengthened to deal with errant retailers.

Propelled by surging shale output, the United States is fighting for supremacy in the global oil market even as a pullback in crude prices threatens to challenge the boom.  The US, which only a few years ago seemed to be in the midst of an inexorable decline in domestic petroleum production, may have already overtaken other petroleum giants. In terms of crude alone, the US pumped 8.8 million barrels a day in September 2014, still a distance from Russia’s 10.6 million barrels and Saudi Arabia’s 9.7 million, according to official sources. But when natural gas liquids are included, the US extracted 11.5 million barrels in August, essentially level with OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia. Regardless of whether it is at or near the top of the global petroleum pecking order, the US is rethinking its decades-old ban on oil exports in light of the boom as energy emerges as an increasingly important foundation of the US economy. Previously, the oil and gas trapped beneath shale rock in the US was thought to be inaccessible until the technique of hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) was created.

Facebook is gaining on Google in the US$140 b online advertising market. Google still has about a third of the market, but Facebook’s share has doubled over the past two years to nearly 8 percent. The world’s biggest online social network is well-placed to deliver ‘targeted’ ads that aim to be relevant, based on the browsing history of each user, in part by using the ‘Facebook login’ feature for many websites. Facebook now has an ‘Audience Network’ system that mines what it knows about users to target ads in other applications on smartphones and tablet computers.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned the Ebola epidemic is the “most severe acute health emergency in modern times” and the number of new cases is “rising exponentially”. Margaret Chan, the director-general, said the Ebola outbreak has shown “the world is ill-prepared to respond to any severe, sustained, and threatening public health emergency. I have never seen a health event threaten the very survival of societies and governments in already very poor countries,” she added. Her comments came after a nurse in Spain and another in the US tested positive for the virus after treating patients.

Serious concerns are raised over the Workers’ Party’s financial management of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), which is suffering from soaring arrears for service and conservancy charges (S & C) and an operating deficit. 29.4 percent of the households under the AHPETC’s jurisdiction are behind on their S & C payments, compared with 3 percent for the typical town council. The Workers’ Party emerged as the undisputed leading opposition party in Singapore and made substantial electoral gains in the 2011 General Election, including a win in Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC), the first time an opposition party had beaten the ruling People’s Action Party in a GRC.

Nigeria is declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organisation after successfully halting the spread of the disease using its National Ebola Response Centre to coordinate the national effort and highly disciplined contact tracing. All individuals with contact to Ebola patients were required to provide daily updates to the healthcare authorities using their cellphones.

Body anxiety is so widespread across the UK that 16 million Britons are depressed because of the way they look, figures suggest. The research comes from campaign group Be Real: Body Confidence for Everyone. The pressure of trying to achieve an unrealistic “ideal body” traps millions of people in the UK in an unhealthy cycle of depression, short-term dieting, cosmetic intervention and eating disorders according to the group. Polling of over 2,000 people carried out by Be Real suggests that 18 million people do not exercise because of body anxiety. One in four people say body image has held them back from a fulfilling relationship, and one in five have avoided going for a job for the same reason.

Singapore co-sponsors an anti-terrorist resolution approved by the UN Security Council. The resolution, which aims to stop the flow of foreign extremists to Iraq and Syria, requires nations to adopt laws criminalising nationals who join extremist groups like ISIS.

Companies regard Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam as the best prospects for expansion once the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) economic integration takes effect in 2015. The three nations have long been regarded as the most difficult markets to penetrate but firms hope the Asean Economic Community will open new opportunities. The Boston Consulting Group survey found 40 to 50 percent of the business and government leaders it polled saying conditions in Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam are challenging due to issues such as protectionism and limited infrastructure. But the three nations are also seen as having attractions to businesses such as growing numbers of affluent households and abundant natural resources.

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters throng the streets of Hong Kong to express fury at a Chinese government decision to limit voters’ choices in the 2017 election for the territory’s Chief Executive. When Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, China had agreed to rule the territory under a “one country, two systems” formula that accords Hong Kong a higher degree of autonomy and freedom than in the mainland, with universal suffrage set as an eventual goal. However, protesters reacted angrily when Beijing decreed that it would vet candidates wishing to run for Hong Kong’s leadership. Underlying the protesters’ anger are deep-seated worries over bread-and-butter issues of housing prices, inflation and social mobility. Fresh graduates in Hong Kong make about HK$17,500 a month while the price of a small 40-70 sq m apartment on Kowloon averages HK$7.2 m. Hong Kong is one of the world’s costliest and most unequal societies, with a Gini coefficient of 0.537. Even as cost of living climbs, wages are stagnating. Various studies found that more young Hong Kongers feel keenly that they are no longer able to move up the ladder.

The Singapore government has accepted the recommendations of the Tripartite Committee on Employability of Older Workers (Tricom) to adopt a promotional approach to encourage employers to extend workers’ employment past the age of 65 before legislation kicks in. The approach includes outreach and incentives. Currently the Retirement and Re-employment Act requires employers to keep workers on their payroll up to the age of 65. The government intends to eventually raise the mandatory re-employment age to 67. Employers say such a move would mean higher healthcare costs for them and have asked the government for some help with these costs.

The legendary Rockefeller business family in the US, whose past generations built a vast fortune on oil, is now abandoning fossil fuels. Its philanthropic organisation is joining the divestment movement that began a couple of years ago on college campuses. In recent years, 180 institutions – including philanthropies, religious groups, pension funds and local governments – have pledged to sell assets tied to fossil fuel companies and invest in cleaner alternatives,

The people of Scotland vote “No” to independence in a referendum by a margin of 55 percent to 45. First Minister Alex Salmond, who had run a vociferous, aggressive campaign for independence, resigned after the result. Despite the defeat of the pro-independence camp, British PM David Cameron promised Scotland new powers over tax, spending and welfare — as well as promising voters in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that they too will have a greater say in the way they are governed.

Twelve years after signing the regional haze pact, Indonesia’s Parliament gave its unanimous approval to ratify the pact, offering a glimmer of hope that more would be done to ensure fewer haze episodes for Singapore and other neighbouring countries. In doing so, Indonesia became the last of the 10 countries to ratify the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Signing an international treaty only expresses an intention to comply and a treaty becomes binding only when a country ratifies it. Many experts felt the move reflected Indonesia’s readiness to address the issue, but considerable challenges remain. Policies and enforcement efforts could be hindered by the layers of bureaucracy in the Indonesian government and further complicated by conflict between local communities and plantation owners, for instance.

Archaeologists around the world, who have long relied on the classic tools of their profession like the trowel and the plumb bob, are increasingly turning to drones (unmanned aircraft) to defend and explore endangered sites. Nowhere is this shift happening more quickly than in Peru, which has created a drone air force to map, monitor and safeguard the country’s ancient treasures such as its 4,000-year old pyramids. One such pyramid near Lima was demolished illegally last year as land prices soar amidst a booming economy.

The world’s top diplomats pledged to support Iraq in its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) militants as the urgency of the crisis grew. A third Western hostage, British aid worker David Haines, was beheaded by Isis in September, by which time the group had taken control of a quarter of Syria and 40 percent of Iraq. More than 40 countries committed to military and non-military actions as part of the coalition against Isis, said US officials. The US launched air strikes in September, together with Britain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Finland’s capital Helsinki has announced plans to transform its existing public transport network into a comprehensive, point-to-point mobility-on-demand system within the next ten years. City-wide, this would link together taxis, shared cars, ferries, trains, shared bikes, driverless cars, buses, trams and an on-demand minibus — all available via a smartphone app. In theory, the set-up would render car ownership essentially pointless. The younger generation in Europe want practical travel options as the continent’s economic malaise causes their incomes to fall, and they are increasingly seeing cars as a burden. Many Europeans also see such a system as bringing much-needed sustainable mobility to fight climate change.

The Singapore government is working with union leaders and security firms to draw up a wage ladder for security guards to boost their earnings. Once the wage ladder is ready, the government will make it a compulsory part of licensing conditions for security companies. The committee is reportedly looking to increase the basic pay of guards from $800 to $1,100. The move would raise guards’ salaries from $1,600 to more than $2,000 with overtime.

Residents in the city of Ferguson, Missouri riot after the police shooting of the 18-year old African-American Michael Brown. According to police, Brown was unarmed, but he physically assaulted an officer who questioned him on the street in relation to a robbery, and tried to grab the officer’s gun. Black people make up two-thirds of the residents of Ferguson, but only 7 percent of its police force.

In line with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s vision of a society which judges a person on his contributions and character rather his paper qualifications, the Singapore government has announced changes to close the gap in career prospects between graduates and non-graduates in the civil service. First, non-graduate teachers who perform well at their jobs can be placed on the graduate salary scale. Second, non-graduates who join the civil service under the management support scheme and perform well can get their first promotion after 2-4 years, down from the current 3-6. If they continue to do well, subsequent promotions will be faster. In addition, the Public Service Division is studying ways to merge their graduate and non-graduate schemes to give officers a chance to progress on the same career track.

Highlights of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech:

  • The Enhanced Lease Buyback Scheme, which allows HDB flat owners to sell part of their lease back to the HDB and therefore monetise their home while continuing to live in it, has been extended to owners of four-room flats. It will open up the asset monetisation option to more than half of all flat owners here.
  • the civil service will put more weight on job performance and relevant skills, instead of academic qualifications. It will also merge more graduate and non-graduate schemes to provide equal opportunities for those on the same career track. Non-graduates will also be promoted more quickly to 
what were once considered graduate-level jobs once they prove that they can do it.
  • To help Singaporeans achieve their potential, economic growth is not enough. A cultural change is needed to ensure the nation remains a place where everyone can feel proud of what they do and is respected for their contributions and character. PM Lee made this point as he announced the setting up of a tripartite committee to develop an integrated system of education, training and career progression for all Singaporeans. It will also promote industry support and social recognition for individuals to advance in their careers based on skills.
  • The Government will introduce a new scheme that will disburse annual payouts to needy elderly Singaporeans from the age of 65 to help them with living expenses. The scheme is one on which the minority of the population can fall back, said PM Lee. This group includes those who may not have accumulated enough Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings during their working lives and do not have an HDB flat or family support.
  • Central Provident Fund (CPF) members will have the option to withdraw part of their CPF savings in a lump sum when they need to, subject to limits. The amount that can be taken out cannot be excessive — up to 20 per cent of total monies, for example — and should be withdrawn only during retirement, added Mr Lee. “(A CPF member) must understand clearly the trade-off — if you take out a lump sum, that means you will have less left in the CPF and your monthly payments will be lower.”

Electric cars have been very slow to take off in Germany despite government moves to jump-start interest. As of June 2014, there were only four electric cars for every 10,000 petrol-powered cars on Germany’s roads, compared to ten in France. In August, the government introduced new draft legislation to allow electric cars to use  bus lanes, park free of charge and have reserved parking spaces close to recharging stations. However analysts say these green vehicles will not take off in Germany until the government provides tax breaks. A spokesperson for the ecologist opposition Green Party expressed her view that the government was not acting because German carmakers were not advanced enough in this technology, and it did not want to favour foreign carmakers such as Tesla and Renault.

The lack of universal access to pre-kindergarten (preschool) in the US has become a national issue. In this regard the country lags far behind Nordic countries where virtually all three and four year-olds attend preschool. Fewer than half of American children of the same age do. Preschool education has long been proven to improve life chances for disadvantaged children and is crucial to ensuring a level playing field for all.

The worst ever outbreak of the Ebola virus hits West Africa. The three countries worst affected are Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Over 1,000 people had died by August. The three countries went into lockdown, shutting down schools, government services and borders. An American doctor was infected. The World Health Organisation declared the outbreak an international health emergency.

Singapore could soon face a glut of lawyers, warned Law Minister K. Shanmugam. Over just four years, the total number of practising lawyers here leapt by nearly 25 percent to more than 4,400. Another 1,500 are expected to join them in the next three years. This is partly attributed to a sharp rise in the number of students going overseas to read law. Mr Shanmugam said the number of lawyers is expected to grow by 30 percent in the next three years, but “the market is not going to grow by 30 percent”. While Singapore is trying to grow its legal market through initiatives such as the Singapore International Commercial Court to handle dispute resolution, Mr Shanmugam suggested that students enter fields like banking, business, public service and even politics with their law degrees.

One WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) star is making history and knocking down gender barriers in stride. Becky Hammon, a 16-year WNBA veteran has signed on to be the first ever female assistant coach in the National Basketball Association (NBA), joining the reigning champions San Antonio Spurs for the 2014-15 season. “I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff,” said Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich in a statement. “Having observed her working with our team this past season, I’m confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs.”

War erupts between Israel and Gaza after the abduction and killing of three Israeli youth, which Israel blamed on the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Hamas increased rocket fire on Israel after this, triggering retaliatory airstrikes from Israel. As hostilities escalated, Israel launched a ground invasion in Gaza. As of 6th August, 1,875 people had been killed in Gaza, over 85 percent of which are civilians, according to a UN estimate. Three civilians and 64 soldiers had died on the Israeli side.

A new smartphone application that allows users to anonymously confess secrets is gaining popularity in Singapore, but users have quickly discovered that it also promotes cyber-bullying. The Secret app allows users to link their phone or Facebook contacts to it, which then circulates a feed of ‘secrets’ to and from their social circle. While some confessions are harmless and humorous, other users have seized on the anonymity afforded by the app to make callous remarks about others. Law professor Tan Cheng Han said that the recently passed Protection from Harassment Act applies, but other experts said it would be hard to track down the individual as Secret protects their anonymity tightly.

Super Typhoon Rammasun kills 62 in China and causes direct economic losses of US$6.25 b including damage to roads and infrastructure for power, water and telecommunications. Over 862,000 people had to be resettled.

The first genetically modified humans could be born in the UK as early as next year (2014) if Parliament approves new regulations permitting mitochondrial replacement therapy. This controversial technique allows a baby to be created using DNA from three people – a father providing the sperm, a mother the egg, and a donor the mitochondrial DNA to replace faulty mitochondrial DNA from the mother. Faulty mitochondrial DNA is linked to muscular dystrophy, blindness, diabetes and other medical conditions in children. Mitochondrial DNA only makes up 0.2 percent of a person’s genes and is entirely separate from the DNA that determines appearance and behaviour.

Joko Widodo, widely known by his nickname Jokowi, is declared the winner of the Indonesian presidential election, with 53.15 percent of the vote versus former general Prabowo Subianto’s 46.85 percent. Mr Joko advocates democratisation and sees the role of the president as listening to the people and carrying out their will. Mr Prabowo, however, is an authoritarian leader who believes that a high degree of democracy will weaken Indonesia. He was keen to restrict checks and balances against the president, and sees the role of the president as providing strong and decisive leadership, guiding the people to the right path.

Controversy erupts in Singapore after the National Library Board (NLB) decides to withdraw three books depicting alternative families and homosexual relationships from its children’s section and pulp them, after it had received complaints from some library users. Notable local writers such as Ovidia Yu, Felix Cheong and Gwee Li Sui withdrew from NLB-related events and event committees in protest. 400 people, mainly parents and their children, gathered at the National Library atrium for an event called ‘Let’s Read Together’ to make a ‘peaceful statement’ about how adults and children both enjoy reading. Copies of the banned books were made available there. Later, the NLB announced that it would not pulp the three books but place them in the adult section instead.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed as it was flying over Ukraine en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 people aboard died. Independent aviation experts have agreed a missile was the likely cause. US Ambassador Samantha Power told the UN Security Council that the missile was likely fired from a rebel-held area near the Russian border. Ukraine’s government, the pro-Russia rebels who oppose it and Russia all denied shooting down the passenger plane. Subsequently tensions rose between Russia and the West as the US and European Union slapped ever heavier economic sanctions on Russia.

Germany’s football team crush hosts Brazil 7-1 in the World Cup en route to winning their fourth title. This after Brazil spent US$11 billion to stage the world’s top football tournament, causing much unhappiness in a country where many public services from schools to hospitals are underfunded.

An emerging body of scientific studies suggests that many of the 162 million malnourished children under the age of five worldwide are suffering less from a lack of food than poor sanitation. As a result, children are exposed to a bacterial brew that often makes them ill, leaving them unable to attain a healthy body weight no matter how much they eat. This is evident in India, where a long economic boom has done little to reduce the vast number of children who are malnourished and stunted, leaving them with mental and physical deficiencies that will haunt them their entire lives.

Noor Deros, a Muslim religious leader in Singapore, asked his followers to wear white to the mosque in protest against the annual Pink Dot event at Hong Lim Park, which aims to promote acceptance of the gay lifestyle and gay rights in Singapore. Subsequently, Christian pastor Lawrence Khong too asked his supporters to join in the Wear White campaign. The government urged restraint from all sides and the Pink Dot event proceeded peacefully.

Facebook disclosed that it had tinkered with about 700,000 users’ news feed as part of a psychology experiment. The study found that showing people slightly happier messages in their feeds caused them to post happier updates, and sadder messages prompted sadder updates. The revelation ignited a torrent of outrage from people who found it unsettling that Facebook would play with unsuspecting users’ emotions. Because the study was conducted in partnership with academic researchers, it also appeared to violate rules protecting people from becoming test subjects without providing informed consent.

A Pew Research Centre survey published this year found Singapore to be the most religiously diverse out of 232 countries surveyed.

A survey of health provision in 11 advanced nations by the US-based Commonwealth Fund found Britain’s National Health Service to be at or close to the top in effectiveness (includes prevention of disease and management of chronic disease), efficiency (includes how low administrative costs are) and safety of care (rate of medical errors). The British system also had the second-lowest spending per head. However, it scored 10th out of 11 nations in terms of keeping the patient alive (avoidable mortality, infant mortality and life expectancy at age 60). On that score, the US was last. In fact the US system scores badly on everything except preventive care, and suffers from astronomical costs. The survey covered seven European states, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

A TECHNICIAN who made a “reckless” Facebook post falsely claiming that five full-time national servicemen had been killed in the Little India riot was fined $5,000. The day after the riot on Dec 8, 2013, Desmond Lum Mun Hui, 28, wrote: “Yesterday riot cause 3 spf and 2 cd dead.. all nsf.. haiz.. sg..” The terms “spf” and “cd” referred to the Singapore Police Force and Civil Defence. He admitted to transmitting the false message from his home. Under the Telecommunications Act, Lum could have been fined up to $10,000 or jailed for up to three years, or both.

Japan’s government and top carmakers, including Toyota, are joining forces to bet big that they can speed up the arrival of the fuel cell era: a still costly and complex technology that uses hydrogen as fuel and could virtually end the problem of automotive pollution. Toyota has unveiled its first mass-market fuel cell car, which is due to go on sale in March 2015. It is priced at 7 million yen (S$85,610).

The Singapore government announced major enhancements to the state health insurance scheme known as Medishield:

  • It will cover the policyholder for life instead of until age 90 and be renamed Medishield Life
  • Daily and annual caps will be raised
  • The lifetime claim limit will be removed
  • While the published premiums will go up, permanent subsidies for the lower and middle-income groups will ensure that most Singaporeans will pay only slightly more than before (less than $11 for low-income earners and $30 for high income earners)
  • A 1-percentage point rise in employer Medisave contributions will cover the increase in premiums for most households
  • The number of subsidised patients who, after insurance, have hospital bills of $3,000 or more a year will fall from 90 percent to 40 percent
  • All with pre-existing conditions to be covered, but pay 30 percent more premiums
  • The government will spend $4 b over the next five years on subsidies for Medishield Life

Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey wants to raise the country’s retirement age to 70, the highest in the world, to prevent an ageing population from draining state coffers. Mr Hockey is part of the Liberal-National coalition that won power in 2013 pledging to end what he called the nation’s “Age of Entitlement” and to repair a budget deficit forecast to reach almost A$50 billion this year. Australia is leading the charge for a group of advanced economies from Japan to Germany that are pushing up the retirement age to head off a time bomb caused by a growing army of pensioners and a declining pool of taxpayers. The ratio of working-age Australians to those over 65 is expected to decline to 3:1 by 2050 from 5:1 in 2010. Britain and Germany both plan to raise retirement age to 67 from 65. In the US, the eligible age to collect social security is rising to 67. Under Mr Hockey’s plan, Australians will have to work till 70 to draw their government retirement allowance. Critics said that the plan would worsen youth unemployment and cause hardship for older people who could not find a job.

In the last four years, Singapore’s Workforce Development Agency (WDA) has sent about 18,000 low-wage workers to boot camps to boost their self-esteem and coax them to upgrade their skills. Now the WDA is doubling the pace: it wants to conduct motivational classes for at least 20,000 workers in the next two years. These are for workers who earn $1,900 or less a month and are on the Workfare Income Supplement scheme. At the same time, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) U Care Centre presented awards to cleaners at an appreciation dinner. Awards were also presented to ten individuals who had been caring and appreciative towards cleaners. Said NTUC assistant secretary-general Zainal Sapari, “Let us strive to be better customers not just through our interactions with the cleaners, but also through being considerate users of our public spaces.”

US accident investigators concluded that the complex automation system on the Boeing 777 aircraft contributed to pilot confusion on the Asiana Airlines flight which crashed in 2013 in San Francisco. Boeing’s documentation on the plane “inadequately described” the automatic throttle system, which the pilots were relying on to keep the plane at a safe minimum speed, said the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), dealing a blow to the reputation of one of Boeing’s most trusted aircraft. Until the Asiana accident, which killed three passengers, the B-777 had never had a fatal crash since its introduction in 1995. While the auto-throttle almost always prevents a plane from going below the minimum speed for landing, the NTSB found that the pilots did not realise they had placed the system on “hold” and thought that it would automatically come out of its idle position. “I think the expectation of this pilot was that the auto-throttle was going to take care of him,” said NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt. “We have learnt that pilots must understand and command automation, and not become over-reliant on it,” said acting NTSB chairman Christoper Hart.

The Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil), launches a military offensive against the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government, leading to bitter fighting. Isis, whose vision is to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across the Iraqi-Syrian border, captured Mosul and Tikrit. The Sunnis and Shi’ites (also known as Shias) are two branches of Islam that have been in bitter conflict for centuries over who is the true inheritor of the mantle of Prophet Muhammad. The Shi’ites believe that Islam was transmitted through the household (family line) of the Prophet, while the Sunnis believe that it comes down through his followers who, they say, are his chosen people. This sectarian divide is also a major factor in current wars in other parts of the Middle East such as Syria and Lebanon.

The Singapore workforce ranks as the second most dissatisfied in the Asia Pacific, according to a poll by global recruitment firm Randstad. 54 percent of Singapore workers were found to be unhappy at work, just behind Japan, where 56 percent of workers feel that way. On the other end of the scale, India has the happiest workforce with 80 percent of workers polled saying they have a great job. Among Singapore workers, 75 percent see their job as a way to make a living and nothing more; and 80 percent would switch jobs if they could make more money elsewhere. The results clearly show that Singapore workers do not feel engaged at the workplace, said Erman Tan, president of the Singapore Human Resources Institute.

Under the direction of President Obama, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it was proposing a bold plan to reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions from all of America’s generating plants by 30 per cent within 15 years, compared to 2005 levels. It was hailed by green groups and instantly condemned by many in the business lobby. The second largest source of greenhouse gases on the planet, the United States has been a giant among laggards in the global effort to tackling warming starting with President George W Bush’s refusal to adhere to the 1997 Kyoto accord. And while President Obama came into office pledging a new course, his resolve seemed quickly to wither. Most significant was the collapse of Mr Obama’s emissions law in Congress in 2010, partly because of his focus at the time on healthcare. However, he is able to impose these new rules on his own. If they survive legal challenges and efforts by opponents to subvert them, they should be finalised next year (2015) and implemented in phases thereafter.

China is now copying not only bags and shoes, but also architectural and cultural landmarks of other countries in a phenomenon some are termimg ‘duplitecture’. In China, there is now an imitation Sphinx, White House, Mount Rushmore, Eiffel Tower and Michelangelo’s David. Some of these are being used as designs for upmarket condos to project an air of prestige. While some have decried the mimicry as forgery and a mindless worship of foreign culture, others defend it as a practical way to meet needs and wants in China.

The military stages a coup in Thailand and imposes martial law. This is the 12th coup in the country since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. On top of that, there have been seven attempted coups, giving Thailand the dubious accolade of being one of the most coup-prone nations in the world.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sues a local blogger for a posting seen as accusing him of corruption. Lawyer Davinder Singh had initially written to Roy Ngerng Yi Ling asking him to take down the original article as well as the links posted on his Facebook pages and to post an apology. Singh said the allegations by Ngerng in his May 15 blog post were “false and baseless”. “The article means and is understood to mean that Mr Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore and the chairman of GIC, is guilty of criminal misappropriation of the monies paid by Singaporeans to the CPF (Central Provident Fund),” Singh wrote in the letter. GIC is a sovereign wealth fund that manages more than $100 billion of the city-state’s foreign reserves. CPF is the state pension fund. Even though Ngerng agreed to remove the article and apologise, he went on to disseminate the article further – upon which PM Lee commenced the lawsuit.

The effects of human-induced climate change are being felt in every corner of the United States, scientists reported, with water growing scarcer in dry regions, torrential rains increasing in wet regions, heat waves becoming more common and more severe, wildfires growing worse, and forests dying under assault from heat-loving insects. Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the scientists declared in a major new report known as the National Climate Assessment. Alaska in particular is hard hit. Glaciers and frozen ground in that state are melting, storms are eating away at fragile coastlines no longer protected by winter sea ice, and entire communities are fleeing inland. The White House, which released the report, wants to maximize its impact to drum up a sense of urgency among Americans about climate change — and thus to build political support for a contentious new climate change regulation that President Obama plans to issue in June. Mr Obama gave interviews to local and national weather broadcasters on climate change and extreme weather. The goal was to help Americans connect the vast planetary problem of global warming caused by carbon emissions from cars and coal plants to the changing conditions in their own backyards. It was a strategic decision that senior White House staff members had been planning for months.

Singapore begins temperature screening of travellers at Changi Airport for travellers entering the country from countries affected by the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers). The worst hit as of May 2014 was Saudi Arabia, with 168 deaths. With a 30 percent fatality rate, Mers is considered a deadlier but less transmissible version of the Sars virus.

China deploys an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands, triggering a confrontation with Vietnam. Each country accused the other of aggressive behaviour by coast guard vessels, such as using water cannon and ramming the ships belonging to the other side. Anti-China riots broke out in Vietnam, with rioters looting hundreds of factories including those jointly run by China and Singapore, and even Korean, Malaysian and Taiwanese factories. Two Chinese workers were killed and more than a dozen seriously injured. China and Vietnam fought a border war in 1979, with China having forcibly taken the Paracel Islands from Vietnam five years earlier.

The Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, which is bitterly opposed to education for girls, kidnaps 200 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria. However, many schools in northern Nigeria remained defiant and continued with lessons. African leaders declared “total war” on Boko Haram at a summit in Paris, and Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan said the threat posed by the militant group was now an international problem. French president Francois Hollande added, “Boko Haram is a major threat for all of western Africa and now central Africa with proven links to AQIM [al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb] and other terrorist organisations. A comprehensive plan needs to be put in place from exchanging information to coordinating action and controlling borders.”

Malaysian police investigated a hardline Malay group known as Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) for sedition over its provocative statements about minorities. The Isma president was quoted on its website as saying the influx of Chinese migrants into Malaysia had been “a mistake” which must be corrected. “Who gave them the right of citizenship and wealth as a result of this trespass that they are protected until today?” he said. “This is all the doing of the British who had conspired with the Chinese to oppress and bully the Malays.” Malaysia’s political environment has become heated in recent years as the Malays and non-Malays become increasingly split in their political loyalties.

A man was charged in Singapore with organising a protest march without a permit. Jacob Lau Jian Rong, 23, was accused of organising the procession from City Hall MRT to support a movement – Million Mask March Singapore – opposed to new media rules by the Media Development Authority. The alleged offence involving 12 men took place on Nov 5, or Guy Fawkes Day, the anniversary of a plan in 1605 to blow up the British Parliament, involving a conspirator named Fawkes.

Workers providing a service are not the servants of their customers, said Singapore’s Labour Chief Lim Swee Say, as he called for a nation of better customers in his annual May Day message. Overly demanding customers would cause even more of a strain on the labour crunch, which is here to stay for years to come, he added. “As we strive to become a more advanced economy, we must also strive to be a nation of better customers and better people,” said Mr Lim, the secretary-general of the NTUC. “Instead of complaining that the service standard in Singapore is still not good enough, why don’t you ask yourself ‘Are the customers in Singapore good enough?’ ”

The Philippines and the United States agreed on a ten-year defence pact that would give the Americans a significant military presence in the Philippines and boost the Philippines’ defence posture. Defence Undersecretary Pio Batino had said the pact would give the US access to more bases, including Subic and a key naval supply base in Palawan province. It will also allow the US to “rotate” more troops, warships and planes for longer periods of time; and allow the Philippines to acquire new combat aircraft and warships more easily. This development comes amid the United States’ ‘pivot’ to Asia and China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

A senior judge in Singapore debunked the idea that maintenance was an “unalloyed right” of a woman. Justice Choo Han Teck’s comments came in the grounds of his decision to reject a woman’s S$120,000 lump-sum maintenance claim from her former spouse. She was a regional sales manager earning $215,900, slightly more than her husband and was financially independent of him. Justice Choo said a woman who is truly independent and equal in a marriage would not need patronising gestures of maintenance, which belie “deep chauvinistic thinking”. He noted the idea for women to seek maintenance evolved out of the 1961 Women’s Charter that was passed to protect women when many were housewives supported by their husbands. He suggested a wider Marriage Charter should in time replace the Women’s Charter, but stressed it was for Parliament to decide “when that moment might be”.

More than 100 listed German companies will be required to allocate 30 percent of seats on their non-executive boards to women, under planned new laws which were dismissed by critics as tokenism. Although Europe’s biggest economy has a female leader in Chancellor Angela Merkel, women are under-represented in business life. Among the 30 largest listed companies in Germany, women occupied about 22 percent supervisory board seats and around 6 percent of executive board seats at the end of last year.

The Philippines’ highest court upheld a controversial birth control law that supporters said would be a highly effective tool in fighting poverty and cutting the fertility rate. This was a stunning defeat for the country’s powerful Catholic Church. The Supreme Court ruled that the Reproductive Health Law was not unconstitutional. The law requires government health centres to hand out free condoms and birth control pills, and schools to teach sex education. Church leaders insist they have a right to influence the parliamentary and legal branches of government. Another example of the church’s enduring influence is that the Philippines is the only country where divorce remains illegal.

Singapore’s 15-year olds do not just excel in mathematics, science and reading. They are best in the world at solving problems too, according to a global ranking by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). Singapore’s teens chalked up the highest score of 562, beating students from 43 other economies including the US, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Taipei and Shanghai. Education expert Andreas Schleicher argued that the result proves those who criticise Singapore’s education system for encouraging rote learning at the expense of creativity wrong. “It shows that today’s 15-year olds in Singapore are quick learners, highly inquisitive, able to solve unstructured problems in unfamiliar contexts, and highly skilled in generating new insights by observing, exploring and interacting with complex situations,” he remarked.

Ice caps are melting, water supplies are under stress and heatwaves and heavy rain is intensifying – and the worst is yet to come, said a sombering report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The United Nations group, which includes hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists, added that climate change is already having sweeping effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans, where coral reefs are dying and slowly acidifying waters are killing off plant and animal life. This will worsen unless greenhouse gases are curbed.

In Singapore, a national climate change study has estimated that the mean sea level around the country could rise by up to 0.65 m, and temperatures could increase by up to 4.2 deg C by 2100. Dr Chris Gordon, director of the Centre for Climate Research Singapore, said a 3 deg C rise would affect heat stress and ecosystems here. Higher temperatures and reduced rainfall make fires – and haze – more likely. Dengue cases may also increase, as warmer temperatures shorten the virus’ incubation period in mosquitoes. Dr Gordon added that climate models show a very consistent signal of increasing heavy rainfall events in the region over the coming century, and a less consistent signal of more, and more intense, dry spells. Sea-level rise, he warned, combined with storm surge events, will increase the likelihood of coastal flooding. Most of Singapore lies within 15 m above sea level, and about a third is less than 5 m above the water.

Consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) opened a $250 m mega innovation centre in Singapore, the country’s largest private research facility. The opening of the centre in Biopolis “adds momentum to the building of a world-class consumer businesses industry in Singapore, ” said DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam. “I think few people are aware that Pampers and SK-II products are in some way designed and marketed from Singapore. We aspire for Singapore to be a hub for top consumer companies like P&G to grow their global brands.”

Air passengers in Germany faced delays, disruption and hundreds of flight cancellations across the country as ground staff, baggage handlers and maintenance workers walked out over pay. The strike affected airports across the country, including Frankfurt, Europe’s third-largest hub, and Munich.

The Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a historic pact to end one of Asia’s longest and deadliest insurgencies, though fears remain that splinter rebel groups may derail the fragile peace. The pact, which Malaysia helped broker, concludes 17 years of negotiations spanning five Philippine presidents and three Malaysian prime ministers. It aims to end a war that has torn the Muslim-majority region of Mindanao for more than 40 years and claimed over 150,000 lives. The pact gives the autonomous region its own police force, a regional parliament and power to levy taxes. The national government will retain control over defence.

Health officials in Guinea battled to contain West Africa’s first outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus as neighbouring Liberia reported its first suspected victims. At least 59 people died in Guinea’s southern forests by late March and there were six suspected cases in Liberia which, if confirmed, would mark the first spread of the highly contagious pathogen into another country. No treatment or vaccine is available for the Ebola virus, which kills between 25 and 90 percent of those who fall sick, depending on the virus strain.

A Labour Day protest organiser who had planned to put up a poster of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Speakers’ Corner for Singaporeans to deface has been warned against doing so. The police warned Gilbert Goh that the actions may constitute offences under the Penal Code and the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. Mr Goh, in a Facebook post, had criticised PM Lee for “siding with foreigners”. This was after Mr Lee had said that he was “appalled” to read about some netizens who had harassed organisers of a planned Philippine Independence Day celebration on Orchard Road. Mr Goh suggested that protesters spit, throw eggs, splash dog excrement and draw graffiti on the poster of the Prime Minister.

A bizarre battle is raging across Britain between lovers of the English language and local councils that are culling the humble apostrophe from street signs. The historic university city of Cambridge was one of those that made the change, which transforms King’s Road, for example, into Kings Road. Cambridge was forced to backtrack after punctuation protesters mounted a guerrilla campaign, going out at night and using black marker pens to fill in the missing apostrophes. The local councils culled the apostrophe apparently to help the work of emergency services. Earlier in the year, a teenager died of an asthma attack after an apostrophe error led to the ambulance going to the wrong address. A director of The Good Grammar Company, a Cambridge-based organisation providing training to companies, said the issue was not one of pedantry but upholding wider standards. “Why are we trying to improve literacy when in real life people say it doesn’t matter?” she said.

Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing goes missing with 239 people on board. After an international search-and-rescue effort involving the navies, air forces, satellites and/or radar systems of 26 countries including China, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, Britain and the United States over 16 days, the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak makes a grim statement that the flight ended in the middle of the Indian Ocean, far from any possible landing sites. Malaysia Airlines announced that it was “beyond all reasonable doubt that the plane was lost with no survivors”. These conclusions were drawn from satellite data provided by British company Inmarsat, who also performed, according to PM Najib, “a type of analysis never before used in an investigation of this sort”.

Singapore experiences its worst drought in almost 150 years. In February, the country experienced only 0.2 mm of rain – the lowest since 1869.

Ukraine mobilises its armed forces for war after Russia’s Parliament overwhelmingly approves a motion to send troops into Ukraine. The Crimea region of Ukraine, which has an ethnic Russian majority, had seen major unrest since the pro-Russia former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country following protests against him by Ukrainians who wanted to see their country shift towards closer ties with Europe and move away from their former master, Russia. Hence Russian President Vladimir Putin moved to send troops into Ukraine, purportedly to “protect” ethnic Russians in Crimea. The US government warned Russia that there would be “costs” if they did not withdraw their forces from Ukraine, including a boycott of the G-8 summit to be held in Sochi, Russia in June, economic sanctions against Russia or even kicking Russia out of the G-8. NATO member nations also condemned Russia for violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and NATO arranged a special meeting with Russia to resolve the issue.

A referendum in Crimea sees residents overwhelmingly voting to allow annexation of the territory by Russia. Russian troops force all Ukrainian troops out of the territory and fly the Russian flag over 189 military institutions in Crimea.

A small state like Singapore must have the wherewithal to defend itself against acts of invasion like the one that Ukraine has found itself subjected to, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Crimea, a peninsula in the south of Ukraine, was annexed by Russia in March 2014. PM Lee noted that Ukraine had entered into a treaty in 1994 in which Russia agreed to respect its borders in exchange for it giving up its nuclear arsenal. As a small country, Mr Lee said, “we believe that international laws have to be upheld and that countries should not be making unprovoked invasions of other countries. We believe that international treaties are sacrosanct.” But besides depending on the goodwill and good faith of others, he said, a small state like Singapore must ensure deterrence and defence with strong police, civil defence and armed forces.

Australia plans to crack down on cyber-bullying in an effort set to include the appointment of an e-safety commissioner with the power to force online giants such as Twitter and Facebook to swiftly remove messages that victimise children. This comes after 15-year old Chloe Fergusson took her own life after she was physically beaten and a video of the assault on Facebook received a torrent of “likes”. 21 percent of Australian teens aged 14 and 15 reported being cyber bullied.

A wide-ranging law against various forms of harassment, both online and in the real world, is to be tabled in Singapore’s Parliament in March. Among the acts that it addresses are cyber-bullying, verbal harassment, sexual harassment and stalking. The proposed law provides a range of civil remedies, from Protection Orders to force the harasser to desist from further acts; to ordering the offending party to publish alerts about falsehoods that he posted earlier; to allowing the victim to sue the harasser for damages. It also provides stiffer criminal remedies in the form of tougher penalties than those provided for under existing laws such as the Miscellaneous Offences Act which used to be applied to such antisocial acts. In a Microsoft survey in 2012, Singapore was found to have the world’s second highest prevalence of cyber-bullying among youths, behind only China.

Kellogg Co. says it will buy palm oil only from companies that don’t destroy tropical rainforests to produce the additive used in many processed foods. The cereal giant responded to a campaign by environmental groups that have long pressured the food industry to shun palm oil from plantations that displace rainforests in Southeast Asian nations, primarily Indonesia. The forests are home to endangered species such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger. Palm oil cultivation has wiped out more than 30,000 square miles of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia alone, say leaders of a campaign to reform the practice. More

Singapore’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, fell from 0.478 in 2012 to 0.463 in 2013. This measure ranges from zero to one, with higher values signalling higher inequality. 0.5 is regarded by many economists as a “dangerous” level. After government transfers and taxes, Singapore’s figure is 0.412 – the lowest since it was first calculated in 2000. This reflects a trend of greater government transfers. Since the 2011 General Election, the government has been handing out more grants and subsidies to the low and even middle income in the form of Medisave top-ups, utilities rebates and others. Median household income from work increased to $7,872, up 4 percent from 2012 or 1.6 percent in real terms (ie after accounting for inflation). Incomes rose for all except the top 10 percent, who saw a 5.2 percent fall in real terms. Economists said this was because top earners tend to have a higher variable component in their pay; bonuses fell in 2013 as a result of the weak economy in 2012, hurting their overall pay package more than for others. The bottom 10 percent did especially well in 2012, with a 2.4 percent real rise.

Facebook acquires popular mobile chat service WhatsApp for a reported US$16-19 b. With this move, Facebook will gain access to WhatsApp’s 450 million users, 70 percent of whom use the service every day. This offers Facebook rich opportunities for data mining and advertisement sales but also raises privacy concerns.

The first five years of marriage are proving a challenge for more Singapore couples – that is when partners stray, and a rising number of marriages break down. A study by Touch Family Services found that slightly more than half the 164 respondents had affairs within five years of marriage. The number of marriages that ended in divorce under five years rose from 272 in 1980 to 1,268 in 2012. In 1980, there were 22,444 marriages and 1,551 divorces. In 2012, there were 27,936 marriages and 6,893 divorces.

Thai farmers demanding to be paid under a rice-subsidy scheme staged a protest in Bangkok, adding pressure to the already beleaguered government of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Her brother, former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, had introduced a scheme to buy rice from farmers at a fixed price above market rates. This populist scheme distorted Thailand’s rice market and created a lot of excess supply, resulting in 20 million tonnes of surplus rice being stored in government warehouses. As Ms Yingluck dissolved Parliament under pressure from another faction of protesters known as the Red Shirts, she became only a caretaker PM and hence has no access to government funds to pay the farmers the US$4 b they are owed.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was forced to step down by the Constitutional Court, which found her guilty of abusing her power. The court ruled that Ms Shinawatra had acted with a hidden agenda when she transferred a senior civil servant to another position in 2011. Analysts called it a potentially dangerous escalation of a political crisis that had already gripped Thailand for most of the last eight years, pitting the royalist establishment and old money against the mainly rural supporters of the Shinawatra family.

The Singapore government registered its concerns over Indonesia’s decision to name a warship KRI Usman Harun, after the two Indonesian marine commandos who carried out the bombing of MacDonald House in Singapore in 1965 which killed three and injured 33. The attack was part of the Confrontation, a campaign of terrorism ordered by then-president Sukarno who was against the formation of Malaysia, which then included Singapore. Various Singaporean ministers criticised Indonesia’s naming of the warship as insensitive to bilateral ties and to the victims’ families, and for reopening old wounds. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa made a conciliatory statement but as his government refused to change its decision, Singapore rescinded invitations to about 100 Indonesian military officers to the Singapore Airshow.

Millions of commuters faced a second day of travel chaos due to a 48-hour strike by London Underground workers angry over ticket office closures and job cuts, with no sign of an end to the standoff between unions and rail bosses. Staff from the two main rail unions began the first of two planned 48-hour “tube” strikes in February, reducing the city’s vital Underground network used by three million people daily to a skeleton service. The strike has left many people unable to get to work while others joined long queues to squeeze onto crowded buses and overground trains, turned to river boat services, or resorted to running or cycling to work.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has said that a media report on funding being cut for top independent schools in Singapore is “inaccurate”. It clarified that six schools received additional funding while four schools had their funding trimmed following its review of funding for the independent schools. MOE said it regularly reviews the funding of schools to ensure that they are adequately funded and that the resources are well spent. MOE added that in recent years, it had received feedback on the burden of fundraising placed on parents, students and other stakeholders. It stressed that it is in this context that it has advised schools to moderate their fundraising activities and to take into consideration the cost of operating any additional facilities. MOE said it will continue to approve fundraising requests by schools based on the educational merits of each request, adding that this applies to all schools, including independent schools. MOE has also advised independent schools on the judicious use of air-conditioning. This is in line with the ministry’s goal to be ecologically sustainable and cost-effective in operating the schools.

Over the past 15 years, the proportion of South Koreans who think they should look after their parents has shrunk from 90 percent to 37 percent, according to a government survey. As a result of this change in values and miserly government welfare benefits, half of South Korea’s elderly are now poor, the highest rate in the industrialised world. In much of Asia, a powerful Confucian social contract has for centuries dictated that children care for their ageing parents. But that filial piety is weakening as younger generations migrate to cities and globalisation drives attitudinal changes. This change is particularly pronounced in South Korea as it has accumulated wealth so quickly and its society is notoriously cut-throat, with ruthless competition for the best test scores and more prestigious jobs.

Indonesian First Lady Ani Yudhoyono apologises to more than 310,000 Instagram followers after a particularly angry outburst at one follower. This person had questioned her timing in posting a photo of her grandson playing a toy piano while many Indonesians were fighting to keep their heads above water during severe flooding. “Why is the anger directed at me?” she wrote, saying people should ask what the wife of the Jakarta governor was doing. Mrs Yudhoyono entered the social media space around the same time her husband Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took to Twitter in April 2013. Some saw the First Lady’s frequent clashes with followers as a generational issue: many of those who criticise her are from the younger generation, but Mrs Yudhoyono, 61, is from an era when those in authority were rarely, if ever, questioned. Indonesian society also has a strong traditional respect for one’s elders.

Briton Anton Casey, who sparked a furore by calling public transport users in Singapore “poor people”, left Singapore for Perth because of threats made against his family. He apologised publicly for his remarks and offered to do community service to make amends. “I also hope the people of Singapore, my adopted home, will forgive me over time.” Mr Casey had posted a picture on Facebook of his son on a commuter train accompanied by the caption “Daddy where is your car & who are all these poor people?” In another post, his son was seen in a silver Porsche with the comment “Normal service can resume, once I have washed the stench of public transport off me.”

Violence and mayhem erupted yet again in Bangkok, continuing a pattern of political chaos that began when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by a military coup in 2006. “Yellow shirt” anti-government protesters took to the streets to force current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, to resign and make way for an unelected reformist “people’s council” which would supposedly root out the undue influence of Thaksin in Thai politics, as well as the deeply rooted patronage networks that he allegedly still controls in the country even though he is in self-imposed exile. “Red shirt” pro-government protesters also marched to counter the yellow shirts. Two grenade attacks killed one person and left more than 50 injured at an anti-government protest in Bangkok, while a pro-government leader was shot and wounded in the north-east.

 

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