2015 + earlier

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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.

2015

In the wake of the Paris terror attacks and a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, US presidential candidate Donald Trump proposes banning all Muslims from entering the country. He added that there was such hatred among Muslims around the world towards Americans that it was necessary to rebuff them en masse, until the problem was better understood. Despite the widespread condemnation that followed, he remains the most popular candidate among Republican Party supporters.

Parliamentarians from India’s right-wing government blocked an opposition member’s bill to decriminalise gay sex. Congress Party MP Shashi Tharoor sought to table a bill to amend Section 377 of the Indian penal code, which bans homosexual acts as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. But the move failed after the lower house of parliament, where PM Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds a majority, voted against it. Even though prosecutions for same-sex activity have been rare, the gay community says it faces significant discrimination as well as harassment from the police in socially-conservative India.

Indonesia punished more than 20 companies in an unprecedented move for starting deadly forest fires that killed 19 people and blanketed Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in choking haze. Three companies have been shut down permanently after having their licences revoked. Another 14 companies had their operations suspended and face closure if they do not meet government demands over fire prevention. “We need firmer law enforcement so that this catastrophe doesn’t repeat itself,” said environment ministry official Kemal Amas, “it’s been going on for 18 years but nobody has learned their lesson.” The Indonesian Forum for Environment commented that it was unheard of for the government to revoke licences, as many companies previously avoided facing trial.

Governments have signalled an end to the fossil fuel era, committing for the first time to a universal agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change. After 20 years of fraught meetings, including two weeks in Paris, negotiators from nearly 200 countries signed a legal agreement that set ambitious goals to limit temperature rises and to hold governments to account for reaching those targets. Government and business leaders said the agreement, which set a new goal to reach net zero emissions in the second half of the century, sent a powerful signal to global markets, hastening the transition away from fossil fuels and to a clean energy economy. The agreement was a victory for the United Nations, which spent four years overcoming political inertia and the deep divisions between rich and poor countries, to put together the ambitious deal. The agreement now known as the Paris Agreement for the first time commits rich countries, rising economies and some of the poorest countries to work together to curb emissions. Rich countries agreed to raise US$100 b a year by 2020 to help poor countries transform their economies. The overall agreement is legally binding, but some elements – including the pledges to curb emissions by individual countries and the climate finance elements – are not. Read more here.

In a historic transformation of the American military, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter says that the Pentagon will open all combat jobs to women. “There will be no exceptions,” Mr. Carter said at a news conference. He added, “They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.” The groundbreaking decision overturns a longstanding rule that had restricted women from combat roles, even though women have often found themselves in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 14 years. It is the latest in a long march of inclusive steps by the military, including racial integration in 1948 and the lifting of the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military in 2011. The decision this week will open about 220,000 military jobs to women. Read more here.

The leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries signed a landmark declaration that will formally establish the ASEAN Community on 31 Dec 2015. The ASEAN Community seeks to draw members of the 48-year old grouping closer together by integrating their economies, working together to improve the lives of their 625 million people, and ensuring that peace and stability are maintained in the region. To these ends, there are three pillars to the initiative: the ASEAN Economic Community, which envisions a common market plus measures to make businesses more competitive and allow freer movement of professionals between countries; the ASEAN Political-Security Community, which facilitates cooperation on tough challenges such as terrorism and territorial disputes; and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, which seeks to build an ASEAN identity through youth exchanges and other efforts. It is envisioned that the ASEAN Community will help preserve and strengthen the peace, stability and growth in Southeast Asia.

A New York medical centre has carried out the most complex and comprehensive face transplant to date, on a firefighter horribly disfigured in 2001. More than 100 doctors, nurses and medical staff took part in the 26-hour operation at NYU Langone Medical Centre. The recipient was Mr Patrick Hardison, 41. As a volunteer firefighter, he suffered extensive facial burns when the roof of a burning home collapsed on him. He lost his eyelids, ears, lips, most of his nose, hair and eyebrows. The surgery gave him a new face, scalp, ears, ear canals and selected portions of bone from the chin, cheeks and nose. He was also given new eyelids and muscles that control blinking, as he was previously unable to shut his eyes completely. The donor of the face was a 26-year old man who died in a road accident.

Singapore has set up a Skills Centre in New Delhi and is setting up a Centre of Excellence in Tourism and Hospitality in Udaipur, Rajasthan to train Indian youth, support Indian PM Narendra Modi’s Skill India campaign, and advance bilateral cooperation.

China Vanke, the biggest property developer by sales in the world’s most populous country, is developing robots to sweep floors and guard its properties in the face of a labour shortage and rising wage bills. You can already buy a robot waiter for 40,000 renminbi on Alibaba Group’s Taobao, China’s leading online marketplace. But Vanke is developing its own robots, mostly for janitorial, security and transportation services, which are more labour-intensive than its core business of land acquisition, project planning and construction. Vanke chairman Wang Shi estimated that at least 30 percent of the company’s jobs would be taken over by robots. Vanke is developing a driverless vehicle to shuttle people across its sprawling industrial estates. Eight robot chefs are already working in restaurants located on its developments, and the company plans to open a robot-managed hotel in the southern city of Shenzhen in 2017.

Manchester United pay a US$55 m transfer fee for 19-year old French football striker Anthony Martial, a fee that could rise to US$89.5 m if certain conditions, such as appearances for the French national team, are met.

Paris is devastated by a major terror attack by eight gunmen and suicide bombers who hit a concert hall, a major stadium, restaurants and bars almost simultaneously — leaving 129 dead and hundreds wounded. The attacks were described by President Francois Hollande as an “act or war” organised by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group. It is believed that the attacks were a retaliation against France’s participation in the US-led bombing of ISIS in Syria. Several of the attackers were French citizens. In response to the terror attacks, French warplanes carried out fresh strikes against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in northern Syria.

Myanmar’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) wins a landslide election victory. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party secured more than the two-thirds it needed to choose the president, ending decades of military-backed rule. A quarter of seats are automatically held by the military, meaning it remains hugely influential. Under the constitution, Ms Suu Kyi cannot become president herself. Despite this, the election was seen as the first openly contested poll in Myanmar – also known as Burma – in 25 years. In 1990, Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD also won a landslide victory at the polls, but the army refused to cede power to them, instead imprisoning many NLD members. Ms Suu Kyi herself was placed under house arrest for 15 years. Read more here.

The world’s shift towards lower-carbon energy is happening too slowly to keep global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels in the coming decades, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Low oil prices could make the problem worse by slowing the transition to cleaner and more efficient vehicles. Global energy use is set to grow by one-third over the next 25 years, as the energy consumption in emerging economies expands. The IEA said Asian countries like India and China could play a big role in determining how successfully the world combats climate change. China now seems to be on a path of slowing growth in its energy demand but India, where one in five people still lacks access to electricity, is entering an energy boom. While both countries will have high demand for nuclear and renewable energy, the report said, India could also become the largest source of new demand for oil and coal. Globally, however, the use of low-carbon fuels and technologies is on the rise, and the share of non-fossil fuels in the total mix is set to increase to 25 percent by 2040 from 19 percent now. The trend confirmed what the IEA called a “tantalising hint” that economic growth will no longer systematically translate into higher carbon emissions.

China and Singapore pledged to build an “All-Round Cooperative Partnership Progressing with the Times” on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the island republic to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations. Both nations signed agreements to launch talks for an upgrade of the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (CSFTA), and to start a new government-led project in south-western Chongqing city. Since the CSFTA came into effect in 2009, China has overtaken Malaysia to become Singapore’s largest trading partner. Trade volume between the two countries reached S$121.5 b in 2014, a 23-fold increase from S$5.2 b in 1990. Both sides also agreed to further develop the two existing flagship government-led projects – Suzhou Industrial Park and Tianjin Eco-city – as they voiced strong support for the latest one, the China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Initiative on Strategic Connectivity. Another six agreements on areas such as education cooperation, urban management and collaboration between the two Customs authorities were also inked. In addition, deeper collaboration is envisaged in areas such as transport, infocommunications, social governance, leadership training, science and innovation, culture, environmental and water protection, agriculture, food safety, customs, law enforcement and education.

The leaders of South Korea, China and Japan say they are willing to work together again to promote regional trade and security after setting aside historical animosities at their first summit talks for more than three years. South Korean president Park Geun-hye and Chinese and Japanese premiers Li Keqiang and Shinzo Abe discussed a wide range of topics, from free trade to the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. No substantive breakthrough had been expected, with the meeting seen more as a symbolic statement of intent by North-East Asia’s three largest economies, who all stand to reap significant diplomatic and economic gains from closer ties. “We shared the view that trilateral cooperation has been completely restored on the occasion of this summit,” they said in a lengthy joint statement after the meeting. The focus was on economic ties, with China especially keen to strengthen trade links as it tries to inject fresh momentum into its slowing economy. The three countries began holding annual summits in 2008, but the souring of Japan’s relations with its two neighbours over issues dating back to World War II triggered a lengthy hiatus after the last meeting in 2012. The joint statement stressed the importance of “facing up” to history. “We have agreed to look at history in a straightforward and future-oriented manner and properly handle sensitive issues, including historical ones,” Mr Li said.

Japan and South Korea have agreed to speed up talks to resolve a row about Korean women forced to work in Japanese brothels during World War Two. The issue of so-called “comfort women” has hampered ties in recent years. The announcement came after the first formal meeting in three years between Korean Prime Minister Park Geun-hye and Japan’s Shinzo Abe. Up to 200,000 women are estimated to have been sexually enslaved by Japan during WW2, many of them Korean. Japan has apologised in the past for the “pain and suffering” of the women, but South Korea wants a stronger apology and compensation for victims. Japan maintains that all issue were settled in a 1965 normalisation agreement, which saw Tokyo make a total payment of $1.1 billion in grants or loans to its former colony.

After reading about the plight of Ugandan acid victim Namale Allen, Singaporeans and Singapore residents raise $80,000 through several online donation drives so that she can come to Singapore for treatment. In 2014 a young man she did not know flung acid at the 27-year old, in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. The attack melted her facial features and blinded her. Unfortunately the surgery to restore her eyesight was unsuccessful.

After the Indonesian environment minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar repeatedly declined Singapore’s offers of assistance to fight the raging forest fires in her country, the Indonesian government had a change of heart and accepted help from Singapore, Malaysia, Russia, Australia and China. A Chinook helicopter from Singapore, which can scoop 5,000 litres of water, worked with a Bombardier water bomber from Malaysia, which can scoop 6,000 litres of water, to douse fires in Sumatra. An exceptionally strong El Nino brought a severe dry spell to Indonesia, and allowed fires believed to have been started by plantation companies to spread in rampant fashion. Choking haze caused the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) levels in Central Kalimantan to reach 1,995, well past the level of 350 considered to be hazardous. Singapore and Malaysia were also blanketed in unhealthy or hazardous levels of haze.

The car-sharing app company Uber’s global expansion is looking costlier and riskier than ever as the firm struggles with regulatory and competitive obstacles in major markets. The Uber Pop service has been banned in France, Germany, Italy and Spain – and the company is appealing against pending prohibitions in the Netherlands and Belgium – after taxi drivers in all these countries fought for their rights. Rio de Janeiro has also banned the service and proposed new regulations in London and Toronto could cripple its services in those cities. Uber has expanded extremely fast and is now in 60 countries after being founded in 2009. Company spokesmen stress that Uber is playing a long-term game and view individual regulatory setbacks as inevitable – and temporary – phenomena.

The stage was set for the world’s largest free trade area when negotiators for 12 countries struck a deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The 12 nations – the US, Japan, Chile, Singapore, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, Brunei, Vietnam, South Korea, Canada and Australia – collectively account for 40 percent of global GDP. As ministers hailed the breakthrough, they remained aware that a difficult ratification process lay ahead, particularly in the US, where polarising presidential election politics is increasingly coming into play. Senators from both sides have criticised the deal. Meanwhile, agriculture tariffs remain an issue for countries like Japan and Australia, and labour standard requirements a concern for Vietnam.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveils a new Cabinet line-up to build a team ready to take over soon after the next election. Describing leadership renewal as an “urgent task”, Mr Lee said he had given heavy responsibilities to the next generation of leaders and that they would be stretched and tested, and need to gel together as a team. Some key changes:

– the two DPMs to be Coordinating Ministers and not hold any specific ministerial responsibilities. Mr Teo Chee Hean will continue as Coordinating Minister for National Security while Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam will become Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies. They will also mentor younger ministers

– A third Coordinating Minister will be appointed – Mr Khaw Boon Wan will take care of Infrastructure while also becoming Transport Minister. PM Lee explained that more Coordinating Ministers were needed in a more complex policy environment to ensure tighter coordination across ministries and a tighter, whole-of-government approach to issues

– some ministries whose work has expanded will have two ministers to each handle a critical area. In education, political newcomers Ng Chee Meng, 47, and Ong Ye Kung, 45 will both be Acting Ministers – the former in charge of Schools and the latter, Higher Education and Skills. In the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Lim Hng Kiang will handle trade while S Iswaran will take care of industry

– Grace Fu becomes the first woman full minister to head a ministry. She takes charge of Culture, Community and Youth and remains the only female full minister

– Heng Swee Keat, widely seen as a front-runner to be the next PM, moves from Education to Finance. Chan Chun Sing, another tipped for the top job, remains as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and chief of the NTUC (in charge of industrial relations)

– Recently promoted Masagos Zulkifli becomes Minister of Environment and Water Resources

– Vivian Balakrishnan is the new Minister for Foreign Affairs

– Promising newcomers Chee Hong Tat and Koh Poh Koon become Ministers of State (junior ministers)

The Finnish government announces harsh austerity measures to revive the euro zone member’s economy after three years of recession, including cutting back holidays, reducing pensioners’ housing allowance and slashing employees’ overtime and Sunday pay. “The Finnish state has contracted debt at a rate of almost a million euros per hour for seven years, day and night, every day of the week. We cannot continue like this,” said PM Juha Sipila, describing Finland’s economic situation as “exceptionally serious”. 30,000 people demonstrated in Helsinki against the measures, with many saying the measures would hit the weakest earners hardest. Finland, once a top performer in the euro zone, has seen its economy crumble under the effects of its rapidly ageing population and declines in key sectors of its economy such as forestry and technology.

The amount of fish in the oceans has halved since 1970, in a plunge to the “brink of collapse” caused by over-fishing and other threats, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) conservation group said. Populations of some commercial fish stocks, such as a group including tuna, mackerel and bonito, had fallen by almost 75 percent, according to a study by the WWF and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Director-general of the ZSL Marco Lambertini said mismanagement was responsible. “There is a massive, massive decrease in species which are critical”, both for the ocean ecosystem and food security for billions of people, he said.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) wins a landslide victory in Singapore’s General Election, sweeping 83 of 89 seats and receiving 69.86 percent of votes nationwide, a gain of nearly 10 percent from the last election in 2011. It reclaimed Punggol East Single Member Constituency from the Workers’ Party. While the latter did hang on to Aljunied Group Representation Constituency — where it scored a landmark victory in 2011 — it did so by a very slim margin, taking a mere 50.95 percent of votes there. Analysts attributed the stunning victory for the PAP to several possible factors, including:

the mood of Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence

the passing of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew

strong efforts by the government to address people’s grievances over immigration, housing, transport, healthcare costs and other issues

worry from middle-ground voters that the ruling party could be dislodged from government as massive attendances at Opposition rallies and aggressive promotion of Opposition parties on social media suggested that anti-PAP sentiment was riding high

alleged accounting and governance lapses at the Workers’ Party-run town council

PAP MPs working harder on the ground to address residents’ local concerns

PM Lee Hsien Loong’s personal popularity, boosted by vigorous engagement with the people on social media

the winds of uncertainty in the external environment with economic and political problems besetting both regional neighbours and global powers

In an investigation involving guns and drugs, the US Justice Department obtained a court order demanding that Apple turn over text messages between suspects using iPhones. Apple’s response: Its iMessage system was encrypted and the company could not comply. Government officials had warned that this type of standoff was inevitable as technology companies embraced tougher encryption. The case, coming after several others in which similar requests were rebuffed, prompted some senior Justice Department and FBI officials to advocate taking Apple to court. The Justice Department was also engaged in a court dispute with another tech company, Microsoft. The company refused to comply with a warrant in December 2013 for emails from a drug trafficking suspect. Microsoft said federal officials would have to get an order from an Irish court, because the emails were stored on servers in Dublin. The conflicts with Apple and Microsoft reflect heightened corporate resistance, in the post-Edward J. Snowden era, by American technology companies intent on demonstrating that they are trying to protect customer information.

Highlights of National Day Rally Speech 2015 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong:

HOUSING

1. The income ceiling of buyers of Build-to-Order (BTO) flats (new subsidised HDB flats) will be raised from $10,000 to $12,000, and that for executive condominiums (these are HDB or public housing condos, something unique to Singapore) from $12,000 to $14,000. This means more Singaporeans at the higher end of households will be eligible for subsidised housing.

2. To make flats more affordable, the income ceiling for the existing Special Housing Grant (SHG) will be raised from $6,500 to $8,500. The maximum grant amount will also be doubled to $40,000.

With these changes, even those who earn below $1,000, but hold a stable job and contribute to CPF regularly will be able to afford a two-room flat, PM Lee said.

3. Parents and married children who want to live near each other will get more help under the new Proximity Housing Grant. Children who buy a resale flat with or near their parents, or those who buy one near their married children, will get the grant. It applies to every Singaporean household, whether first-time buyers or not.

4. A new scheme will be launched called the Fresh Start Housing Scheme. It is targeted at people who have sold their HDB flats and are now living in rental units. These families will get more affordable two-room flats, but they will come with shorter leases and restrictions on resale. To help this group resolve their problems, the Government will also provide “holistic” support for these families through counselling.

FAMILIES AND BABIES

5. The Baby Bonus scheme, which helps parents defray child-raising costs, will be extended to every child instead of just the first four children. The bonus amount will also be increased.

6. Newborns will get more grants in their Medisave amount so that it’s enough to cover the new MediShield Life premiums for the child till he or she reaches 21. Currently, each newborn receives a $3,000 grant deposited in two tranches.

7. Fathers will get more paternity leave. It will be increased to two weeks from the current one. The Government will pay for the extra week. This will be implemented on a voluntary basis for now, but with the public service launching it “straightaway”.

EDUCATION

8. The Singapore Institute of Technology, Singapore’s fifth university, will have a centralised campus in Punggol. It currently runs courses at satellite campuses in the five polytechnics. It will be next to a new creative industry cluster that JTC will build.

9. The Government will work with Muis to strengthen the teaching of secular subjects like mathematics and science in madrasahs, or Islamic religious schools.

LABOUR

10. The re-employment age will be raised from 65 to 67 . This will be implemented by 2017. Currently, firms are required by the Retirement and Re-employment Act to offer re-employment to eligible workers when they turn 62, up to the age of 65.

Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari has pledged to tackle and defeat the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, but endemic corruption and the falling price of oil are holding him back. Nigeria is heavily dependent on oil exports, but the price of crude oil has tumbled by more than 50 percent in the last few years. Boko Haram is most notorious worldwide for kidnapping 276 schoolgirls in 2014, who remain missing to this day. They have also killed 200 Nigerians since Mr Buhari came into power and carried out attacks in neighbouring Cameroon and Chad.

In a departure from past practice, the People’s Action Party has placed potential candidates on the ground long before the election, with many active for one to two years, said the PAP’s organising secretary Dr Ng Eng Hen. He said this would improve the political atmosphere in Singapore and allow residents time to assess them. This would avoid, he opined, the “lottery” that elections in other countries had become, where voters do not really know what they are choosing and candidates make many promises that they may not be able to fulfil. Dr Ng added that the prospect of having a contest in every constituency is a good one, as it gives voters nationwide the chance to signal to the government whether it has done a good job, and this “keeps our system and politics healthy and strong”. In past elections, the PAP’s dominance had seen them receive a walkover in many constituencies.

A study by Yale University found that a majority of voters in every single American state supported regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The study, said the authors, showed that there is no divide between Democrat-leaning (blue) states and Republican-leaning (red) states when it came to the issue of regulating carbon dioxide emissions.

Thirteen major US companies launched the American Business Act on Climate pledge together with the US government. The pledge asks the companies to set goals to make substantial progress toward reducing their impact on climate change. The companies include Apple, Coca-cola, Bank of America, UPS, General Motors and Google. The companies pledge to invest a combined US$140 b to reduce their environmental impact and generate more than 1,600 megawatts of new renewable energy.

A record 28,407 couples tied the knot in Singapore in 2014. This was 8.2 percent higher than the 26,254 marriages in 2013. The growing population is likely to have contributed to the growth in absolute numbers. When calculated as an average per 1,000 residents, the marriage rate was 6.8, the highest since 1999 when the rate was 7.8. Experts suggested that the improved ease of obtaining a public housing flat as well as the falling price of housing encouraged more couples to get hitched. The government has aggressively ramped up the building of new public housing flats and raised subsidies in the last four years.

For years, Karachi’s walls have been spattered with the bloodstains of murder victims and scrawled with hate graffiti as Pakistan’s biggest metropolis was swamped with a wave of religious, ethnic, political and criminal violence. Now, a group of artists are reclaiming the walls by painting them with cheerful designs aimed at bringing some happiness and pride back to the city. The scheme is being run by I Am Karachi, a charity working for the cultural, social and literary uplift of the city, backed by funds from the United States Agency for International Development. Among the images being painted are those of boys flying kites, donkey cart races and other images of rural life.

A political storm erupts in Malaysia after the highly respected American newspaper, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), reports that US$700 million from companies linked to Malaysian state-owned firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) had been transferred into the personal bank accounts of Prime Minister Najib Razak. Even prior to this shocking report, 1MDB had been a magnet for controversy as it had made a series of bad investments, lost a lot of money and ended up 42 billion ringgit in debt. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad had repeatedly denounced Najib and called on him to resign. Najib, however, stood firm, denied ever taking public funds for personal benefit, and commenced legal action against WSJ. After Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin criticised Najib in public and said he needed to provide an explanation, Najib sacked him as well as Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail, who was involved in the investigation into 1MDB.

At the age of 65, Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner comes out as a transgender woman with a new name — Caitlyn Jenner. While living as a man, Jenner was married thrice, and fathered six children. He played American football in college and later won the 1976 Olympic decathlon gold medal. As a woman, when she received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, she made an impassioned plea for transgender acceptance. “If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead — because the reality is, I can take it,” said Jenner, in an elegant, form-fitting white gown and with wavy, shoulder-length hair. “But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being true to who they are — they shouldn’t have to take it,” she said to robust applause from a theatre full of top US athletes.

After two years of difficult negotiations, the US and five other world powers struck a historic deal with Iran on its nuclear programme. It puts strict limits on the amount of nuclear fuel that Iran can keep in its stockpile for 15 years, reducing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium — which can be processed into bomb-grade fuel — by 98 percent. The deal also cuts down the number of centrifuges operating in Iran and provides for close monitoring for compliance. Taken together, the limits on fuel and centrifuges extend to one year the time necessary for Iran to make a single nuclear bomb if it should abandon the deal. Under the deal, Iran will get relief from the sanctions currently imposed on it. Analysts saw the move by President Obama as a calculated gamble that he could restructure the US’ deeply adversarial relationship with Iran by defusing the nuclear threat. “Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity have not: a comprehensive, long-term deal with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the accord as “a historic mistake”. “Iran will receive hundreds of billions of dollars with which it can fuel its terror machine and its expansion and aggression,” he said.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens are declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, joining over 1,000 other places of great historic and cultural value such as the Great Wall of China and the Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The 156-year old gardens were instrumental to the development of the rubber industry, as it was there that research leading to more efficient methods of rubber propagation and tapping was carried out by British botanist Henry Nicholas Ridley in the late 19th century.

Cuba becomes the first country to eliminate the transmission of HIV from mother to child. The World Health Organisation’s director-general Margaret Chan said it was “one of the greatest public health achievements possible” and an important step towards an AIDS-free generation. Over the past five years, Caribbean countries have had increased access to anti-retroviral drugs as part of a regional initiative to eliminate mother-to-child transmission. An estimated 1.4 million women living with HIV become pregnant each year. Untreated they have a 15-45 percent chance of transmitting the virus during pregnancy, labour or breastfeeding. The risk drops to just over 1 percent if the mother and baby are treated with anti-retrovirals.

Gay marriage is legalised throughout the US as the nation’s Supreme Court rules that the US Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to wed. However more conservative states rebelled against the ruling. In Texas, attorney-general Ken Paxton said that county clerks who object to gay marriage could refuse to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples. Paxton said that hundreds of public officials in Texas were seeking guidance on how to implement what he called a lawless and flawed decision by an “activist” court. The state’s attorney-general argued that while the Supreme Court justices had “fabricated” a new constitutional right, they did not diminish, overrule or call into question the First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion. Paxton asserted that county clerks, justices of the peace and judges retained religious freedoms and could not be forced by the government to conduct wedding ceremonies or marriage procedures over their religious objections.

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) took a crucial step forward with 50 countries, including Singapore, signing off on its charter, a move potentially reshaping Asia’s connectivity and China’s soft power. Singapore will contribute US$250 m towards the US$100 b capital of the China-led AIIB, touted as a rival to the Western-led multilateral development banks — the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank. China will be the largest shareholder of the AIIB with a 30.34 percent stake that will give it 26.06 percent voting rights and veto power over major decisions. Its contribution exceeds the combined total of the next four largest contributors: India (US$8.3 b), Russia (US$6.5 b), Germany (US$4.4 b) and South Korea (US$3.7 b).

In an ambitious plan to upgrade urban India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declares a plan to build 100 ‘smart’ cities. By his definition, these will be cities that have good power and water supply, good sanitation, an efficient transport system, strong communications system, affordable housing and environmental sustainability. Many of India’s cities suffer from a lack of sanitation, unreliable power supply and other infrastructural problems due to a lack of planning. “If we had recognised urbanisation as an opportunity 25 years ago, we could have been at par with the developed world today. But better late than never,” said Mr Modi. Pointing out that 40 percent of India lives in cities, Mr Modi asked, “How can they get better quality of life at a time when everyone is looking at India? We cannot leave our poor to their fate. It is our responsibility.” India needs better urban planning to compete with its fellow emerging giant, China, which is well ahead in this aspect of development.

Europe’s leaders agreed to settle 60,000 migrants from the Middle East and North Africa on a voluntary basis — after seven hours of sometimes heated disagreements at the EU summit in Brussels. A solution was finally announced over where to settle 40,000 Syrian and Eritrean refugees arriving in Greece and Italy, and a further 20,000 currently outside the EU. EU Council President Donald Tusk said the agreement was reached to ‘show solidarity with frontline countries’ dealing with the migrant crisis, but the deal will be voluntary and countries can opt out. Britain has done so. Migrant reception centres in Italy and Greece are completely overwhelmed even as the summer migrant crossing season is just beginning.

Every day, 36 people in Singapore are told that they have cancer, marking a worrying rise in the country’s top killer. Cancer cases have soared by about 17 percent since 2010. Associate Professor Chng Wee Joo, director of the National University Cancer Institute, said, “The trend remains a concern as it means we have not been making much headway in the prevention of cancers.” 13,416 people were diagnosed with cancer in 2014, compared with 11,431 in 2010. One of the biggest increases was in breast cancer, with colorectal cancer also on the rise. Experts estimate that four in ten cases of cancer may be preventable. That is if people adopt certain lifestyle habits, such as not smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight, sticking to a balanced diet with regular exercise, cutting back on alcohol and going for vaccinations.

Minority-race pupils, many of whom were Turkish and Moroccan, from two elementary schools in Amsterdam took part in a street protest against the increasing reluctance of white Dutch people to enrol their children in their schools, causing their student populations to become overwhelmingly made up of ethnic minorities. In the Netherlands, schools are officially classified as “white schools” and “black schools”, the latter being defined as schools where over 60 percent of students are from ethnic minorities — which are typically economically disadvantaged. A spokesperson for the schools said that when a school becomes “blacker”, it becomes very difficult to reverse the trend as parents like to send their children to schools where most students are of a similar culture. There are approximately 500 “black” schools in the Netherlands, and according to a Humanity in Action report, this system limits minority students’ ability to adapt to the “dominant” culture. It also threatens to create a perpetual class of children of lower-income, lower-educated parents repeating the cycle and joining their parents at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder.

The United States may find itself irrelevant in Asia if it continues to drag its feet on free trade and if its fails to find a way to accommodate the rise of China, said Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Washington. Mr Shanmugam had strong words on the US failure to make meaningful progress on the mega trade pact with Asia known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “Do you want to be part of the region or do you want to be out of the region? If you are out of the region, not playing a useful role, your only lever to shape the architecture, to influence events is the Seventh Fleet and that’s not the lever you want to use, or you can’t use it at every instance. Trade is strategy and you’re either in or you’re out… The world doesn’t wait, not even for the United States.” President Barack Obama’s trade agenda was severely hampered by opposition from within his own party.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed his commitment to alleviating China’s persistent rural poverty, weeks after four children in a poor countryside area appeared to have killed themselves. Despite the rapid economic growth of the last two decades, poverty remains an issue in China, especially in rural areas where a lack of jobs drives able-bodied adults to work elsewhere, leaving children and the elderly behind. The four children who died in the city of Bijie, in the poor southwestern province of Guizhou, were among the so-called “left-behind children”, of whom there are an estimated 60 million.

Ten Singaporeans — comprising seven 12-year old students, two teachers and an adventure guide — died in an earthquake on Mount Kinabalu in Sabah. They were on a school excursion. Amid controversy over the wisdom of sending such young children to a 4,095-metre tall mountain, Singaporeans came together to mourn the tragic loss of life. Thousands of Singaporeans and expatriates visited Tanjong Pagar Primary School to offer their condolences.

India and the US signed a fresh defence framework agreement that will guide the bilateral military relationship for the next 10 years, as the two countries look to expand defence cooperation and counter China’s growing influence in the region. The umbrella agreement will form the basis for all defence cooperation, ranging from joint military exercises and maritime security to joint production and development of weapons and equipment. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has previously made known his intention to turn India from the world’s largest importer of defence equipment into a global arms exporter, through joint production of military hardware and increasing technology transfer from other countries. The US has agreed to jointly produce mini unmanned aerial vehicles, aircraft missile modules and biological warfare protection gear with India.

Swiss bank UBS officially opened a new innovation centre in Singapore that focuses on developing financial technology (fintech) products for its wealth management clients. UBS’ wealth management arm has invested more than a billion Swiss francs in IT globally over the past year. Its new facility in Singapore will complement similar centres in Zurich and London. Mr Juerg Zeltner, president of UBS Wealth Management, said Singapore was chosen due to its well-developed tech ecosystem and the government’s “Smart Nation” initiative. Fin-tech represents the banking industry’s “largest opportunity” if well-utilised, he added. “Rather than being afraid of being one day disrupted (by fin-tech), it’s a better attitude to embrace the changes.”

The revolutionary Solar Impulse 2 aircraft took off for a six-day, six-night flight over the Pacific Ocean, the seventh and most ambitious leg of its quest to circumnavigate the globe powered only by the sun. Swiss pilot Andre Borschberg left the ground in Nanjing, China for Hawaii but was unfortunately forced to land in Japan due to bad weather. Solar Impulse 2 is powered by more than 17,000 solar cells built into its wings. It is the successor to the Solar Impulse, which notched up a 26-hour flight in 2010, proving its ability to store enough power in lithium batteries during the day to keep flying at night.

A 19-year old Singaporean who made plans to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and carry out attacks in his own country was detained under the Internal Security Act. M. Arifil Azim Putra Norja’i is the first known self-radicalised Singaporean to harbour the intention of carrying out violent attacks in Singapore. His detention comes amid growing concern globally that young people are being radicalised by ISIS — particularly over the Internet — to take up arms. Youths from countries all over the world, from Britain to Malaysia to Australia, have been radicalised. Over 20,000 foreign fighters have already joined the ongoing battle in Iraq and Syria. Five teenagers in Australia were arrested for a plot to detonate a bomb on Anzac Day, a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers, while Malaysia’s counter-terrorism chief warned that ISIS was trying to lure girls as young as 14 to become militant brides.

A shocking video of a mob beating and burning a teenage girl to death in a Guatemalan village goes viral and spurs a debate over vigilante justice in the Central American country. Local media reported that the girl was attacked for her alleged involvement in the killing of a taxi driver. Guatemalan authorities have pointed to vigilante justice as a persistent problem, particularly in rural areas. President Otto Perez Molina said it is a problem that results from a lack of police officers. Human rights groups blamed it on the weakness of the state’s institutions to guarantee safety and justice for the population, driving the people to take matters into their own hands. According to the UN, Guatemala is one of the world’s most violent nations. Almost every murder goes unsolved in the country.

16-year old Amos Yee, who was charged with sedition after posting a video intended to wound the religious feelings of Christians while insulting Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, was slapped by a 49 year-old man in public near the State Courts. The assailant Neo Gim Huah was sentenced to three weeks’ jail. In court, Neo said he had taken offence at Yee’s disrespectful comments towards former PM Lee and had wanted to teach him a lesson as an elder. In delivering his sentence, the judge expressed that a strong message had to be sent to the public that such vigilante justice must never be allowed to take root.

A large number of affluent men in China want to be “sugar daddies”, keeping younger women as mistresses or girlfriends, according to a matchmaking website. SeekingArrangement.com, a site that specialises in hooking up wealthier men and women with younger partners, said about 100,000 men on the mainland had joined its service in recent months. The US-based website launched its Chinese version in 2014. Media in China have dubbed the site a “broker for gold diggers” and suggested it would encourage young women to follow the example of Internet celebrity Guo Meimei, a 23-year old who enjoyed publicly flaunting her luxurious lifestyle which was later revealed to have been funded by a married businessman from Shenzhen.

Social work has become one of the hottest mid-career options in Singapore as the pay has been increased and career progression improved. More and more Singaporeans are seeking to make a mid-career switch to this field, which was once shunned by most. More than 669 people are fighting for 40 places in the professional conversion programme this year (2015). Under new salary guidelines, the starting pay for a social worker fresh out of university is $3,040 — close to the median of $3,200 for fresh graduates. The burgeoning interest comes at a time when Singapore’s need for social service manpower is growing.

About 700 people died when a fishing boat packed with migrants capsized off the coast of Libya in one of the Mediterranean’s worst disasters as thousands flee poverty and war to Europe. The Middle East and North Africa have been racked by political and religious violence in recent years. However, anti-immigrant sentiment has been on the rise in Europe, together with anti-immigrant political parties. European governments found themselves torn between this sentiment and the eruption of outrage over the humanitarian disaster which many felt they should have prevented. They also found themselves facing a dilemma: rescuing migrants would encourage even more to make the perilous trip in unseaworthy vessels provided by unscrupulous human smugglers.

Every day between February and May in Singapore could have a mean daily temperature of above 34.1 degC by 2070 if nothing is done to reduce carbon emissions, according to the Second National Climate Change Study, which was commissioned by the National Environment Agency and the UK’s highly respected Met Office Hadley Centre. Even if action is taken to mitigate emissions, the number of warm days – defined as days above 34.1 degC – between February and May will still spike from an average of 25 days to 108.

Islamist gunmen stormed a university in Kenya, shooting students and taking hostages. In all, 147 were killed and 79 injured. The Somalia-based militant group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility. According to witnesses, the gunmen singled out and executed non-Muslims. Al-Shabaab have often launched attacks inside Kenya ever since Kenyan forces entered Somalia to fight the militant group as part of an African Union effort to bring peace to the country.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, died at the age of 91. 415,000 people queued for up to 10 hours to pay their respects to him at Parliament House, while over 800,000 more did so at community tribute sites across the island. India and New Zealand both declared national days of mourning for him, and a host of world leaders attended his funeral, including former US President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

A global anti-tobacco conference urged countries to take steps to reduce the consumption of tobacco, which it said was a leading cause of disease and death worldwide. The World Conference on Tobacco added that tobacco products “pose an especially heavy burden on low and middle-income countries and should be de-normalised worldwide”. Organisers warned that tobacco causes one in six of all deaths from non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The conference also urged countries to properly implement the WHO framework convention on tobacco, which sets out guidelines such as punitive tax measures, bans on tobacco advertising and prominent health warnings on tobacco packaging.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s position comes under pressure as revelations emerge that state funds allocated to 1Malaysia Development (1MDB), a strategic development firm owned by the Malaysian government, might have been misappropriated. Established in 2009, 1MDB aims to promote foreign direct investment in Malaysia. In February, it was announced that 1MDB had accumulated debts totalling RM42 billion (S$15.7 billion), causing the bonds issued by the fund to be downgraded to junk status by ratings agencies. A report by news portal Sarawak Report claimed that Penang-based businessman Low Taek Jho, a close friend of Mr Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz, had allegedly siphoned US$700 million (S$966 million) in a petroleum deal involving 1MDB. The fact that Mr Najib is chairman of 1MDB has raised questions about his involvement in the project and whether he is complicit in the alleged misappropriation of funds from the company. The scandal came at a point when it was revealed that Malaysia’s external debt had tripled and stood at RM740 billion — about 54.5 percent of the country’s GDP. Mr Najib’s political problem is compounded by a recent New York Times article claiming that the Prime Minister’s family possesses vast wealth, much of which is kept overseas.

McDonald’s Corp said it would switch to chicken raised without human antibiotics. McDonald’s will phase out chicken raised without antibiotics that are important to human health over two years to allay concerns that use of the drugs in meat production has exacerbated the rise of deadly “superbugs” that resist treatment. McDonald’s is stepping up efforts to win back younger and wealthier diners wooed away by chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread Co, which boast antibiotic-free meats and other high-quality ingredients.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat rolls out a new road map for the Singapore education system that calls for a radical change in Singaporeans’ attitude towards learning. He expressed his desire that Singaporeans would see education as more than just chasing marks and aceing exams, a necessary mindset change as jobs will keep changing in future and people will need to master skills and learn for life. Parents would have to give up their obsession with grades; employers would have to hire based on skills, not degrees. Singapore’s education system, said Mr Heng, is at a crossroads, with two options. One is a path with narrow focus on grades and examinations, which could descend into a spiralling paper chase and expanding tuition industry. It leads to a dystopian future where stress levels climb, and “the system churns out students who excel in exams, but are ill-equipped to take on jobs of the future, nor find fulfilment in what they do.” Mr Heng warned that unemployment or under-employment would become pervasive, like in other countries. The other is a road no country has travelled, one which would require employers to look beyond paper qualifications when hiring or promoting, and educators to focus on the all-round development of students. The new education road map will entail three major shifts:

go beyond learning for grades to learning for mastery of skills

develop a lifelong learning habit among Singaporeans so they are equipped for changing economic realities

move from learning for work to learning for life, so that a student develops interests beyond work and a commitment to serve society

To make it all happen, the Government will introduce several key measures, including:

getting more students to do internships and expanding education and career counselling at all levels

offering workers more bite-sized modular courses and generous fee subsidies

An online documentary by a former celebrity journalist on China’s air pollution goes viral and triggers inconvenient questions for the environmental protection authorities and state media. Titled Under The Dome, the documentary produced and funded by Ms Chai Jing has won praise from even a government minister and has also prompted local governments into disputing the statistics she cited. China’s smog problem boiled over in 2013 with PM 2.5 levels 40 times that recommended by the World Health Organisation. Key causes are China’s dependence on coal-fired power plants, its heavily polluting industries such as steel mills, rising carbon emissions as the vehicle population balloons and lax implementation of environmental protection laws. Others say her film has shown up state broadcaster CCTV. “Neither the central nor local governments have made a documentary like Chai’s to tell people how serious the pollution in this country is,” stated a commentary in the China Daily newspaper.

South Korea’s Constitutional Court has struck down a controversial adultery law that for more than 60 years had criminalised extramarital sex and jailed violators for up to two years. The court ruled that the law aimed at protecting traditional family values was unconstitutional. “Even if adultery should be condemned as immoral, state power should not intervene in individuals’ private lives,” said presiding judge Park Han-Chul. Rapid modernisation has frequently clashed with traditionally conservative norms in South Korea. “Public conceptions of individuals’ rights in their sexual lives have undergone change,” added Justice Park.

Highlights of the Singapore Budget 2015, which Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said the Budget was focused on building Singapore’s future and strengthening social security:

Singaporeans 25 years old and above will receive an initial SkillsFuture Credit of $500 from 2016. The Government will provide further top-ups at regular intervals. These credits will not expire, but can only be used for education and training. Mr Tharman said this initiative would empower every Singaporean to learn and develop throughout their lives. “We must become a meritocracy of skills, not a hierarchy of grades earned early in life. A society where people keep learning and pushing their potential, and are valued for their contributions at each stage of life,” Mr Tharman added.

The Silver Support Scheme The bottom 20 per cent of Singaporeans aged 65 and above will get receive a supplement between $300 and $750 every quarter. The average recipient will get $600. Silver Support recipients who live in smaller flats will receive more.

Support for Innovation and Internationalisation There are three new measures to help local companies go global. This includes increasing the support level for SMEs with activities under IE Singapore’s grant schemes. The Double Tax Deduction for Internationalisation scheme will also be extended to cover salaries incurred for Singaporeans posted overseas. Thirdly, a new International Growth Scheme (IGS) will provide allow qualifying companies to enjoy a 10 per cent concessionary tax rate on their incremental income from qualifying activities.

The foreign domestic worker concessionary levy will be reduced from $120 per month to $60 per month. The concessionary levy will also be extended to households with children aged below 16, up from below 12 today. These changes will provide greater support for middle-income families who are taking care of their children and elderly parents.

The income ceiling for CPF contributions will be raised from $5,000 to $6,000 from 2016.The increase will benefit at least 544,000 CPF members.

CPF contribution rates for workers aged 50 to 55 will be restored to the same level as those for younger workers. The contribution rate for these workers will go up by 2 percentage points in 2016 — 1 percentage point from the employer, and 1 percentage point from the employee. For workers aged 55 to 60, the contribution rate will be increased by 1 percentage point from employers.

Enhancing Progressivity through Extra CPF Interest From 2016, an additional 1 per cent interest will be applied to the first $30,000 of CPF savings for those aged 55 and above to give greater benefit to those with lower CPF savings. This is on top of the existing 1 per cent extra interest on the first $60,000 of savings. Given the 4 per cent interest rate on Retirement Account balances, members with lower balances can earn 6 per cent interest.

GST Voucher – Seniors’ Bonus in 2015 Before the Silver Support Scheme comes into effect in 2016, senior citizens above 65 years old will receive a one-off Seniors’ Bonus. This will effectively double the GSTV – Cash that they usually receive. They will therefore get up to $600. Furthermore, those aged 65 and above and living in HDB flats will get an additional $300 this year. They will therefore get a total of $900.

To help lower-income households, about 1.4 million Singaporeans will get $50 more in GST Vouchers from this year. This means that eligible individuals will receive up to $300 in cash.

Personal Income Tax Rebate To help middle-income tax payers, there will be a one-off tax rebate of 50 per cent, capped at $1,000.

Waive Exam Fees for Singaporean Students Singaporeans in Government-funded schools sitting for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), and GCE N, 0, and A levels exams will not need to pay examination fees from 2015.

Enhance Affordable, Quality Child Care The Government has introduced a new Partner Operator (POP) scheme to complement the Anchor Operator scheme. Child care operators on the scheme will have to commit to keeping fees affordable, developing their teachers, and enhancing quality. In addition, the Government will help families pay for pre-school fees through a top-up to the Child Development Accounts (CDAs) of every Singaporean child aged six and below in 2015. The majority of children will receive $600. For a middle-income household, the top-up of $600 is sufficient to cover more than a month of child care costs after subsidies.

The Government will extend the Wage Credit Scheme for 2016 and 2017, to give employers more time to adjust to the tight labour market. Over the next two years, the Government will co-fund 20 per cent of wage increases given to Singaporean employees earning a gross monthly wage of $4,000 and below. This will apply to wage increases given in 2016 and 2017.

Corporate Income Tax (CIT) Rebate As firms continue to face cost pressures in this period of restructuring, the CIT rebate for YA 2016 and 2017 will be extended at the same rate of 30 per cent of tax payable, but up to a lower cap of $20,000 per YA.

Britain will become the first nation to legalise a “three-parent” in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) technique which doctors say can prevent some inherited incurable diseases but which critics fear will effectively lead to “designer babies”. Lawmakers in Parliament’s Upper House voted to allow the treatment, known as mitochondrial transfer, in which the babies will have DNA from a mother, a father and a female donor. It involves genetically modifying the embryo to remove faulty mitochondrial DNA, which can cause inherited conditions such as heart problems, brain disorders and muscular dystrophy.

PM Lee Hsien Loong urged Singaporeans not to overlook the importance of strong families and their role as the bedrock of Singapore society. The government is doing all it can to strengthen bonds in the immediate family unit as well as among the larger “national family”, he said. But the increasing social support from the state should not “supplant the role that families play”, he added. Among recent pro-family government policies are:

targeted housing grants to encourage three-generation families to stay close-knit and make it easier for young couples to live near their parents

incentives for couples to have more children, with support from the Marriage and Parenthood Package and more subsidies for childcare and pre-school

the Pioneer Generation Package for all those aged 16 and above in 1965

Silver Support Scheme for low-income elderly

Medishield Life medical insurance for all and for life

The policies taking better care of the elderly will lessen the burden on their families.

The Singapore government’s policies to encourage marriage and parenthood have had some early encouraging results. Marriages involving at least one citizen rose to a 17-year high of 24,000 in 2014, while more births lifted the total fertility rate (TFR) to 1.25 per woman, from 1.19 a year earlier.

HSBC bank is hit by scandal as allegations surface that it helped wealthy individuals, including drug lords and relatives of dictators, evade tax and hide their wealth through Swiss accounts. British PM David Cameron also came under pressure over his Conservative Party’s links to the bank, as it was revealed that three senior figures at HSBC had donated £875,000 to his party. Opposition Labour MPs accused the coalition government of failing to act on alleged wrongdoing.

Singapore’s Auditor-General has found “major lapses” in governance and compliance with the law in its audit of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), which is run by the opposition Workers’ Party. The five broad areas of weakness identified were lapses in management of sinking funds; lapses in governance of related-party transactions leading to conflicts of interest; lapses in management of arrears of service and conservancy charges; lapses in internal controls and procurement; and inadequacies in record management and accounting system.

US President Barack Obama asks Congress to approve the use of military force for the first time in his term, as the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) grows increasingly urgent. The request will not impose any geographical limitations on the use of force but will restrict the authority to three years. The call for war powers authorisation comes at a time when US intelligence officials are warning that foreign fighters are flocking to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS at an unprecedented rate. Some 20,000 are said to have done so, with 3,400 of them coming from Western nations and a handful from Singapore. ISIS beheaded two Japanese hostages and burned captured Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh to death. Lieutenant al-Kasaesbeh’s country is part of the US-led coalition against ISIS, and his F-16 fighter plane had been shot down over Syria.

The Singapore government has agreed to give Singaporeans more flexibility in the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the national retirement scheme. The CPF will allow Singaporeans to customise different levels of savings and payouts. Currently, all CPF members must keep a standard Minimum Sum of $155,000, which will be used to fund monthly payments to them when they reach their 60s. Under the revamped scheme, they will be given a choice between locking away a basic Minimum Sum of $80,500, a higher sum of $161,000 or an enhanced sum of $241,500 at age 55. The monthly payouts will therefore range from $650 to $1,900.

Nato defence ministers signed off on a network of command centres in eastern Europe to rapidly reinforce the region in the event of any threat from Russia, as well as a new regional headquarters and a bigger rapid reaction force. Nato will more than double the size of its rapid reaction force to 30,000 soldiers from 13,000. These measures are part of the alliance’s response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

Singapore artists’ works are becoming increasingly in demand. In the past, sales of their works would only pick up in the dying hours of Art Stage Singapore. But in 2015, collectors were snapping up artworks by the likes of Jane Lee and Suzann Victor on the opening night. Jane Lee’s mixed-media work sold for US$38,000. Visitor numbers reached a record high of 51,000, up from 45,700 in 2014. At Singapore Art Week, 24-year old Ruben Pang held his fifth solo exhibition. All 12 of his paintings, priced between $5,000 and $18,000, were snapped up on opening night. Mr Pang, a Lasalle College of the Arts graduate, paints using oil on aluminium, not canvas. He has held an exhibition in Italy and is planning a residency in Israel.

In his State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama urged lawmakers (also known as legislators, members of the legislative branch of government which in the US is known as Congress) to grant him fast-track authority to negotiate free trade deals with Asia and Europe. Mr Obama argued that the country would be ceding critical ground to China if it continued to dally on free trade. “Today, our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages. But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. This would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage,” said Mr Obama, alluding to China’s bid to sew up regional free trade pacts of its own. “Why should we let that happen? We should write those rules.”

In what has been described as Singapore’s worst ever case of sex offences against young boys, a 31-year-old Malaysian man was convicted of 12 counts of sexual offences against different boys aged 11 to 15, 10 of whom he penetrated sexually. Yap Weng Wah agreed to have 64 other charges of sexual offences taken into consideration for sentencing. The 76 counts involved 31 victims in total. One count related to procuring an obscene video from a boy. Yap was arrested in 2012 after a victim lodged a police report stating Yap had sexually penetrated him. The High Court heard that Yap would befriend the boys online before meeting up with them to commit the offences. He also had over 2,000 videos — including of his victims — on his laptop and phone.

Paris is seized by terror as two Islamist gunmen attack the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12, including eight journalists. Among them were some of France’s best-known cartoonists. The attack was prompted by cartoons making fun of the Prophet Muhammad. In a separate attack on a Jewish supermarket two days later, another gunman took hostages and killed four Jewish men. All three gunmen were killed by French security forces.

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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.

 

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.

2012

A statue of Adolf Hitler as a small boy praying on his knees is on display in the former Warsaw Ghetto in Poland, the place where so many Jews were killed by Hitler’s regime, and it is provoking mixed reactions. The work, HIM by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, is an installation which makes the Hitler statue visible only from a hole in a wooden gate. Viewers see only the back of the small figure praying in a courtyard. Some Jews have denounced the installation as an insult to the memory of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. But Mr Fabio Cavallucci, director of the Center for Centemporary Art which oversaw the installation, said, “There is no intention from the side of the artist or the centre to insult Jewish memory. It’s an artwork that tries to speak about the situation of hidden evil everywhere.” Poland’s chief rabbi Michael Schudrich did not oppose it, saying there could be educational value in it and that art can “force us to face the evil of the world”. Many visitors praised the work. “It had a big emotional impact on me. It’s provocative, but it’s not offensive,” said 30-year old lawyer Zofia Jablonska.

Singapore’s economy grew by a feeble 1.2 percent in 2012 as exports to the economically sluggish United States and financial crisis-hit Europe slowed sharply. The Singapore economy was also constrained by tighter government restrictions on the intake of foreign workers in its long-term drive to reduce reliance on foreigners and raise productivity. Many businesses are struggling to find enough workers, particularly in industries which Singaporeans shun, such as retail. The Singapore Business Federation (SBF), representing more than 18,000 firms, warned that the foreign worker policy could stifle economic growth, drive some businesses to the wall and others overseas.

China opened the world’s longest high-speed rail line that more than halved the time required to travel from the country’s capital Beijing in the north to Guangzhou, an economic hub in the south. The opening of the 2,298 km line cut travel time from more than 20 hours to eight.

Violent protests broke out in India after a 23-year old woman was brutally gang-raped and assaulted on a bus at night. She later died in hospital. Her intestines had to be removed because of severe injuries caused by an iron rod used during the rape. She also suffered brain injuries and cardiac arrest. In the wake of the attack, much of the country’s fury has been directed towards a police force seen as apathetic, corrupt and misogynist, and a political class that often seems uncaring. Senior police are regularly quoted in the Indian press as saying women who are raped are to blame for their attacks – for being out at night, for talking to men or for wearing jeans. The tragedy also sparked debate on the perceived lack of respect for women in Indian society. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said “all possible efforts” were being made to ensure the safety of women in India. Dr Singh said it was up to everyone to ensure that her death would not be in vain. “It would be a true homage to her memory if we are able to channel these emotions and energies into a constructive course of action,” he added.

Park Geun-hye, whose father ruled South Korea with an iron fist for 18 years, became the country’s first female president. Park, 60, had to overcome resentment towards her privileged background and accusations that her party was too close to the powerful chaebol conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy. While her gender was a frequent talking point among pundits, it did not appear to have been a major influence on voters. The legacy of her father, Park Chung-hee, continued to divide the country 33 years after his death. Older, conservative voters credit him with promoting rapid industrialisation and laying the foundations for the powerful economy of today. Others, though, have never forgotten his ruthless crackdowns against opponents, some of whom were tortured or executed, and blame him for delaying the arrival of democracy.

For the first time ever, three pharmaceutical companies are poised to test whether new drugs can work against a wide range of cancers independently of where they originated — breast, prostate, liver or lung. The drugs aim to restore the p53 gene that tells cells to die if their DNA is too badly damaged to be repaired. Cancer cells disable p53. Roche, Merck and Sanofi are the three pharma companies that will conduct the tests. If successful, these tests could lead to the development of drugs that could treat rare cancers like liposarcoma — a rare cancer of the fat cells — that pharma companies have ignored for years as the small number of patients made it financially unviable to develop drugs for them.

A gunman kills 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut in the US. Adam Laza, 20, had first shot his mother at home before driving to Sandy Hook Elementary School with three guns and carrying out his rampage. The guns, which included a Bushmaster military assault rifle, belonged to his mother and had been acquired legally under US gun laws. President Obama promised to use “whatever power (his) office holds” to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Amidst the public outcry against current gun laws, the National Rifle Association (NRA) – one of the most powerful lobby groups in the US – argued for armed guards in all schools. NRA chief Wayne LaPierre said, “The only guy that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” He called for a national database of the mentally ill and blamed violent video games and films, saying they portrayed murder as a “way of life”.

Singapore’s Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer resigns from his position as well as from the ruling People’s Action Party after admitting to an “improper relationship” with a staff member of the People’s Association.

Apple suffered its worst one-day share price fall in almost four years on fears it was losing market share to rivals and disappointment over the lack of a special dividend to shareholders. The maker of the iPhone and iPad saw its shares fall 6.4 percent, with America’s most valuable company losing almost US$35bn off its market value. It is now worth just under $507bn. Analysts expressed concerns that Apple risked losing ground to Nokia smartphones in China, while failing to keep pace with Google in the tablets market. Fears were triggered by an announcement that China Mobile, China’s biggest mobile operator, had agreed to carry the Lumia 920T, a device based on Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 software. Apple has agreements with China Telecom and China Unicom (Hong Kong) to sell iPhones but is yet to strike a deal with China Mobile in the world’s leading mobile-phone market.

Singapore experienced its first illegal strike in 26 years when 171 bus drivers from China working for SMRT refused to report for work. They were unhappy that their salaries were lower than Malaysian drivers working for the same company. Another complaint was about poor living conditions in their dormitories. In Singapore, workers in essential services such as public transport are required to give 14 days’ notice before they go on strike. Five of the drivers were charged and a further 29 received a stern warning from the police before having their work permits revoked and being repatriated to China. The first driver to be tried was sentenced to six weeks in jail.

Judges appointed by former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak  dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament and ruled his former prime minister eligible for the presidential runoff election setting the stage for the military and remnants of the old regime to stay in power. The politically charged rulings dealt a heavy blow to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, with one senior member calling the decisions a “full-fledged coup”. The decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court effectively erased the tenuous progress from Egypt’s troubled transition in the past year, leaving the country with no parliament and concentrating power even more firmly in the hands of the generals who took over from Mubarak. Tens of thousands of protesters flooded Tahrir Square to protest a delay in the release of results in the presidential elections. Subsequently, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was declared the winner. But just hours before the vote, the ruling military council had issued an interim constitution granting itself broad power over the future government, all but eliminating the president’s authority. Their charter gives them control of all laws and the national budget, immunity from any oversight and the power to veto a declaration of war. Morsi subsequently revoked this interim constitution. Later, he issued an emergency decree granting himself broad powers above any court as the guardian of Egypt’s revolution, which triggered protests once again in Tahrir Square  this time against Morsi.

Singapore’s Parliament passes two laws to remove the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking and murder where the killing is not intentional. However, a high standard of cooperation from drug couriers will be expected before they qualify for a life sentence instead of the gallows. Drug couriers deemed to jave offered “substantive assistance” that leads to the disruption of drug trafficking activities will get the chance to escape the gallows, said Law Minister K. Shanmugam. The government stressed that the mandatory death penalty has played a big part in deterring drug trafficking and other serious crimes like kidnapping and the possession and use of firearms. Kidnapping and firearms offences both fell after the death penalty was prescribed as a punishment, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International hailed Singapore’s decision to ease mandatory death sentences for homicide and drug trafficking but urged the government to go further and totally abolish capital punishment. Singapore, which carries out executions by hanging, has unveiled legal reforms that would enable judges to impose life imprisonment on low-level drug couriers and people who commit murder with “no outright intention to kill”. Judges currently have no choice but to impose the death penalty on anyone convicted of murder or trafficking in illegal drugs above specific volumes.

US spy chief David Petraeus resigned abruptly in the wake of an extramarital affair. General Petraeus, a highly decorated general who led the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, retired from the military and took over as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2011. He was linked to Paula Broadwell, a 39-year old Harvard researcher who wrote a biography on him. Ms Broadwell, or those close to her, allegedly tried to gain access to Gen Petraeus’ personal email account and potentially classified information. On the same day, Lockheed Martin Corp, the world’s largest defence contractor, announced that its incoming CEO Christopher Kubasik had resigned after the company discovered an affair with a subordinate.

Green activists in Malaysia have lost a court battle to try and halt Australian miner Lynas Corp from firing up a controversial rare earth processing plant amid safety concerns. The Kuantan High Court gave Lynas the go-ahead to start importing ore from Western Australia. The Malaysian plant is aimed at breaking China’s dominance over the processing of rare earths, which are minerals used in products ranging from smartphones to hybrid cars. While rare earths are not inherently toxic, their by-products can be, unless disposed of properly.

This has been the year of the big media gaffe in the US. NBC News edited a 911 tape of Florida neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, accused of killing unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, in a way that implied race was a factor in the shooting. ABC News wrongly suggested a link between a mass shooting in Colorado and the influential political movement known as the Tea Party. And amid superstorm Sandy, CNN repeated a false rumour about flooding at the New York Stock Exchange.

A comprehensive package of measures to encourage Singaporeans to marry and have babies, by addressing housing, childcare and other needs, is expected to be announced in early 2013. At the National Day Rally speech earlier in the year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had outlined measures that were being studied, including giving couples with children priority for public housing flats, starting a Medisave account for each newborn with a small grant from the government to lessen the load of childhood medical expenses, and allowing fathers to take paternity leave.

The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Africa will see the fastest economic growth of any continent over the next five years. Many budding female African entrepreneurs feel that their continent is too often characterised as the recipient of aid that enables residents just to struggle by, and as a place that mistreats and marginalises its women. One example of a successful female African entrepreneur is Bethlehem Tilahun, 33, from Ethiopia, whose footwear company SoleRebels grossed US$2 million in sales in 2012. “I kept hearing over and over the phrase ‘poverty alleviation’,” said Ms Tilahun. “The media, preoccupied with a singular narrative about ‘Africa’ that missed the story of Africa — part of a larger spectrum of endless entities that have monopolised Africa’s image, our brand.”

Japan has invested more in South-east Asia than in China over the last two years and this looks set to continue as Sino-Japanese ties hit the rocks over a territorial spat in the South China Sea. Last year, Japan’s investments in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines alone reached US$13 billion, pipping for the first time its investments in China. Other reasons for the shift in investment are rising wages in China; the rapid rise of the middle class in South-east Asia, which makes it one of the world’s most tempting markets; a desire by Japan to spread its risks by diversifying from China; the China-ASEAN free trade area which allows Japanese firms to export goods made in ASEAN to China with little or no tariffs; and the fact that many ASEAN countries are actively wooing Japanese companies with perks. Among the recent investments are expansions of car production by Toyota and Nissan in Thailand; a shipyard opened by shipbuilder Tsuneishi on Cebu Island in the Philippines; and a plant opened by brewer Sapporo in Long An, Vietnam.

More help is now available for the families of problem gamblers in Singapore – a group often overlooked. The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) has launched a one-year pilot to provide legal and financial advice to affected family members. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) found that life with a gambling addict can be a living hell. Family members face not only being wiped out financially by the gambler’s debts, but also being ostracised and living in a state of persistent fear. As the gambler begs repeatedly for loans, his relatives will often shun not only him but also his immediate family members. IPS researcher Dr Mathew Mathews said that American research has found that each gambler’s addiction affects up to 10 people, but the number could be higher in Singapore as families here are closer-knit and many continue to give the gambler money to clear his debts out of guilt, fear and shame, especially given the face-conscious nature of Asian society.

Korean rapper Psy’s worldwide hit ‘Gangnam Style’ reaches Number 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, one of the few occasions in history when an Asian song has reached the top 10 in the US. The music video scores 805 million hits on Youtube by late November, an all-time record, overtaking a video featuring Canadian pop sensation Justin Bieber.

Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in prison for tax fraud connected to his Mediaset empire. The court also sentenced the media tycoon and 10 co-defendants to pay 10 million euros to Italian tax authorities. The tax scam helped to create secret overseas accounts and reduce profits to pay less taxes in Italy. The verdict came a week after Berlusconi denied at a separate trial that he hosted raunchy parties, had sex with a 17-year-old prostitute or abused his powers by pressuring police officers.

Nearly 870 million people, or one in eight, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012, according to the new UN hunger report. The report is jointly published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP). The vast majority of the hungry, 852 million, live in developing countries. The global number of hungry people declined by 132 million between 1990-92 and 2010-12, or from 18.6 percent to 12.5 percent of the world’s population, and from 23.2 percent to 14.9 percent in developing countries – putting the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target within reach if adequate, appropriate actions are taken. “In today’s world of unprecedented technical and economic opportunities, we find it entirely unacceptable that more than 100 million children under five are underweight, and therefore unable to realize their full human and socio-economic potential, and that childhood malnutrition is a cause of death for more than 2.5 million children every year,” say José Graziano da Silva, Kanayo F. Nwanze and Ertharin Cousin, respectively the Heads of FAO, IFAD and WFP.

Do not keep your employees on standby to respond to calls, email and text messages, especially during weekends and when they are on leave. That is the message that Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-jin had for bosses at an awards event for work-life balance. “I think we have very poor work habits,” said Mr Tan. “Is it healthy to work 24/7? Is doing work while on leave or vacation our desired work culture?” A survey by recruitment firm Robert Half found that 96 percent of employers here expect staff to be “on call” while out of office or on leave. Singapore is trying to encourage a better work-life balance as the country struggles with a shrinking birth rate which is aggravated by excessive demands at work. Some public agencies have implemented ‘Blue Sky Days’, one day a week when employees are encouraged to leave the office while there is still sunlight.

To cater to Singapore’s rapidly ageing population, the public medical insurance scheme Medishield will cover people up to age 90, up from 85. The lifetime claim limit will also go up from $200,000 to $300,000.

Former cycling hero Lance Armstrong was brutally exposed as a drug cheat when the United States Anti-doping Agency (Usada) stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles and released a damning 1,000-page dossier against him. Armstrong organised and enforced “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen”, according to Usada. Eleven former team-mates gave evidence against him, providing vivid recollections of how hotel rooms were transformed into makeshift blood-transfusion centres and how Armstrong’s former wife Kristin gave out cortisone pills to cyclists. His former right-hand man George Hincapie described how Armstrong used the blood-boosting hormone known as EPO, testosterone and illegal blood transfusions.

The eldest son of leading Singapore filmmaker Eric Khoo looks set to follow in his father’s footsteps and is off to a spirited start. Mr Edward Khoo’s first short film, Late Shift, had its world premiere to rousing applause at the 17th Busan International Film Festival, Asia’s biggest film festival, on Saturday. The 10-minute short is about an elderly taxi driver’s poignant encounter with a drunk passenger. Edward is only 18.

Ever since the Singapore government tightened the inflow of foreign workers (in response to public sentiment, many SMEs have faced worker shortages. 8 in 10 SMEs reported facing manpower shortages, and 3 in 10 said they were considering moving out of Singapore. DPM Teo Chee Hean warned that some Singaporeans could lose their jobs as SMEs relocate.

Senior NTUC executive Amy Cheong is sacked after she posted a racist
rant on Facebook about Malay weddings in the void decks of public housing flats in Singapore. She also faces potential criminal charges for inciting hatred between the races.

US ambassador Chris Stevens, is killed in a rocket attack on the US consulate in Libya. Three other Americans also died in the attack, which was reportedly provoked by an amateur film made by an American which demeans the Prophet Mohamed. The US embassy in Yemen was also set upon by 5,000 protesters and 15 were injured. More protests broke out in Afghanistan, Iraq, Indonesia, Egypt and Malaysia.

Thailand is building a US$1.5 billion highway from its capital Bangkok to its border with Myanmar in preparation for the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, an agreement that will allow the free movement of goods, skilled labour and capital between the nations of South-east Asia, a market of 600 million people.

45 Malaysian websites are expected to black out their content for one day in a protest against a new law that will make it more difficult for Web users to post critical comments about the government online. The Evidence Act holds owners of websites responsible for defamatory content that is published or re-published, whether it was written by them or not. The protest is modelled after a similar one in the US this year against the passing of a new anti-piracy law. Wikipedia went offline that day and Google blacked out its homepage logo. US lawmakers soon shelved plans for the new law.

Several initiatives are under way to bring arts, culture and heritage awareness to Singapore’s heartlands. These include a community museum in Taman Jurong where artworks from the national collection and a mural based on residents’ memories will be displayed; a Silver Arts festival with programmes aimed at seniors, such as pairing senior citizens with young writers who will tap the memories of the older folk; and more heritage trails that celebrate distinctive neighbourhoods with an interesting past, such as Jalan Besar. “Remembering our shared experiences and heritage anchors us as Singaporeans and strengthens our collective identity,” said Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Yaacob Ibrahim.

Six blocks of public housing flats and three precincts in Hougang constituency have been selected by the Singapore Government for the Home Improvement Programme and Neighbourhood Renewal Programme respectively. This is the first time the estate — held by the opposition Workers’ Party for 21 years — has been included in these programmes. Previous PAP leaders have warned that opposition areas would be placed last in the queue for upgrading programmes. Asked if the latest moves mark an end to such thinking, the PAP’s Desmond Choo said, “This very definitively shows that if the residents need it, the Government will answer the call for it and the residents will get it.”

Millions of farmers from India to Indonesia to the United States are struggling with severe drought. In India, the June-September monsoon has almost failed in half of India’s 624 districts. Cracked farmlands, wilting crops and worried farmers offering prayers in temples conjure up a picture of a nation desperate for rain. Meanwhile, the United States is experiencing its warmest year since record-keeping began in 1895 and a searing drought scorches corn and soyabean crops across the Midwest. Increasingly frequent reports of extreme weather events in recent years seem to validate what Dr Jay Lawrimore, chief of climate analysis at the National Climatic Data Center in the US, said in 2010: “The climate is changing. Extreme events are occurring with greater frequency, and in many cases with greater intensity. The excessive heat is consistent with our understanding of how our climate responds to increasing amounts of greenhouse gases.” The last few years have also seen the worst drought in decades in China and Argentina, blistering heatwaves in Russia and Europe, and devastating floods in North Korea, China and Queensland, Australia.

The Singapore government publishes an Issues Paper “Our Population, Our Future” (http://www.population.sg/), which explains the country’s demographic challenges and what the government aims to do about them. The paper lays out Singapore’s demographic challenges in the face of declining birth rates, a shrinking workforce, and an ageing population. As at December 2011, Singapore had 3.27 million Singapore citizens (SCs), and 0.54 million Permanent Residents (PRs). Together, they made up the resident population of 3.81 million. The paper spells out the future implications of a shrinking and ageing workforce – fewer working people to support every elderly person; a less vibrant, less innovative economy; and eventually, a hollowing out of the population as young people leave for more exciting cities.

Singapore also had a non-resident population of 1.46 million who are working, studying or living in Singapore on a non-permanent basis.

For the first time in ASEAN’s history, the regional grouping failed to issue a joint communique at the end of its summit. This comes after ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia disagreed on how to address territorial claims in the South China Sea. For days, the ministers were wrangling over the final statement for the summit. ASEAN had hoped to have a binding code of conduct to govern the way China and Southeast Asian nations settle their disputes. ASEAN members – Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia – all make rival claims on islands in the region, which are believed to be rich in oil and natural gas deposits and where tensions recently mounted. Talks floundered after China insisted the forum was not the appropriate place to discuss the issue. Cambodia, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), was unable to forge a consensus. Diplomats at the meeting said Cambodia resisted any steps that would embarrass Beijing, and some also accused Cambodia of being clearly biased towards China as the two countries have a special relationship that dates back decades. Diplomats expressed their disappointment at the outcome and their worries that it cast serious doubt on the effectiveness and solidarity of ASEAN.

Tensions over the disputed Paracel and Spratly island chains in the South China Sea rose after China set up a city in the Paracels. Even though the city, called Sansha, is only a tiny 13 square kilometres and has a population of just 1,000, the official Xinhua news agency claimed that Sansha’s jurisdiction also covers 2 million sq km of surrounding waters. The Chinese flag was raised and the national anthem played in the city. Vietnam – which lays claims on the Paracels and Spratlys – and the Philippines, which claims the Spratlys, both slammed China’s move as well as China’s plans to station troops in Sansha. Manila and Beijing have been involved in a dispute for months over Scarborough Shoal, a reef off the Philippine coast. Philippine President Benigno Aquino said his country would not back down and would get dozens of new aircraft and ships to defend the shoal. Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim part of the Spratlys, where Taiwan has announced plans to boost its firepower. Experts warned that if the claimant nations do not agree on a code of conduct to govern actions in the sea, armed conflict could easily break out.

The world’s trust in bankers and the banking system, already badly damaged by the 2008 Wall Street financial crisis, took another hit when Britain’s Barclays bank was found to have manipulated the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor), a series of interest rates set daily by a group of international banks in London across various currencies. The Libor is an integral part of the world financial system and has an impact on borrowing costs for many people and companies as they are used to price some US$550 trillion in loans, securities and derivatives. Barclays agreed to pay US$453 million to British and U.S. authorities to settle allegations that it manipulated Libor in order to help boost the bank’s trading profits. Banks frequently engage in trading of various assets such as bonds, whose prices are affected by interest rates. The scandal prompted the resignation of Barclays CEO Bob Diamond, condemnation from the British government amid a public outcry, and questions about the lack of oversight by the British government. But the deepening investigation by regulators in Britain, the United States, and other countries is expected to uncover problems well beyond Barclays and British banks. More than a dozen banks are being investigated for their roles in setting Libor, including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Deutsche Bank, HSBC Holdings Plc, UBS and Royal Bank of Scotland.

A wild boar believed to be from the Lower Peirce area wandered into Bishan Park and charged at a security guard and later, a five-year old boy. The boy was butted from behind and landed a metre away, but was not seriously hurt. The boar was put down with a dart gun. The incident fuelled a debate over whether the wild boar population in Singapore needs to be controlled, and what measures should be taken to do so – culling, sterilisation or a combination of the two. Another issue is that wild boar eat small trees, small animals and the seeds of  trees, and may cause damage to the ecosystem. The forested Lower Peirce area is believed to be home to about 100 wild boars and their numbers may double by the end of 2012. The Nature Society has supported culling followed by contraception and sterilisation, while Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) has spoken out against culling.

An informal school offering classes on a range of skills from tote-bag making to photography to magazine production will be started in Singapore this year. Called trade school Singapore, the initiative was adopted by three young Singaporeans who say they want to help link people with skills to interested students. The courses are free of charge. Instead, students will “pay” by fulfilling something on the teachers’ “wish” lists, like a recipe or food. This concept of learning has its origins in New York. The website: Tradeschool.coop/singapore/class

China successfully launched its most ambitious space mission to date, putting three astronauts, including the country’s first woman, into orbit. The Shenzhou IX spacecraft blasted off from a base in the Gobi desert. Beijing is pursuing space exploration relentlessly, at a time when the pioneering countries, the US and Russia, are scaling back their space programmes. The mission carries not only the potential for technological breakthroughs for the country but also has strong social and political significance as China prepares for a major leadership transition. The Shenzhou IX mission will attempt manual docking manoeuvres with an orbiting space module, a first for the Chinese, who have hitherto only performed automated docking. Space docking, which involves two vessels coming together at 28,000 kmh without destroying each other, will smooth the way for China to build its own space station. Beijing wants it operational by 2020.

Seven in 10 people in Britain want more wind farms built across the countryside to meet the country’s energy needs – despite a high-profile political backlash which jeopardises their future. The Treasury is considering cuts of up to 25 per cent in subsidies for on-shore wind farms after intense lobbying from countryside campaigners and rural Conservative MPs. Critics claim that the turbines – many built in picturesque places – cause significant noise pollution and would be economically unviable without such large government handouts. But a ComRes poll for The Independent newspaper reveals surprisingly strong public support for wind farms: 68 per cent of the public believe that new wind farms are “an acceptable price to pay” for greener energy in the future. Younger people are more supportive than older, with almost 80 per cent of those aged between 18 and 44 backing wind farms, compared with 59 per cent of those aged 45 and over.

The Chief Justice of the Philippines, Renato Corona, was sacked after  senators found him guilty of corruption. Corona, 63, earned 21.6 million pesos (US$499,000) in official salary and benefits from 2002 to 2011. However, the former chief justice admitted during his trial that he had more than US$4 million in bank accounts. Corona was appointed chief justice by former president Gloria Arroyo just before she stepped down, in a move that many saw as an attempt to shield herself from prosecution for corruption. President Benigno Aquino, who was elected in 2010, has made the pursuit of Mrs Arroyo the cornerstone of his anti-graft crusade.

Facebook launches its initial public offering (IPO) on the Nasdaq stock exchange, selling shares to the public for the first time and raising US$15 billion from investors.

US President Barack Obama expresses his support for gay marriage, becoming the first US president to do so. Following this, surveys find that opposition to gay marriage from the African-American and Hispanic communities in the US fell. Before Obama’s announcement, 34 percent of blacks opposed gay marriage. Afterward, 23 percent did. For the nation as a whole, the percentage who support marriage for same-sex couples rose to 41 percent from 39 percent.

A new six-lane highway opens in Malaysia’s southern tip. The new highway cuts travel time by half from Singapore to Iskandar Malaysia, the country’s proud new growth corridor which seeks to tap on synergies between Malaysia’s cheap land and labour, and Singapore’s expertise, to drive economic growth and create jobs. At 2,217 square kilometres, Iskandar is three times the size of Singapore and has attracted 34 billion ringgit of investments since its opening in 2006. Malls, educational institutions, theme parks, business parks and high-end homes have sprouted from what was once an endless tract of swamp and oil palm trees. Its most prominent theme park project is Legoland, scheduled to open in September 2012. It will be one of the world’s largest theme parks. Among the leading universities already at Iskandar are Newcastle, Southampton and Reading from Britain. Iskandar has already created 20,000 jobs and is set to double that in three years. Hopes are high that Iskandar will not end up like Malaysia’s past ambitious growth corridors like the administrative city Putrajaya and the multimedia super corridor Cyberjaya, which both turned into white elephants.

Europe is hit by a wave of political instability as leaders in Greece and France are voted out by citizens angry over austerity measures taken in response to the European debt crisis. Francois Hollande becomes the new French President after defeating Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr Hollande is a socialist who promises to get the government to spend in order to stimulate the economy, instead of merely pursuing austerity, which has been blamed for stifling economic activity and trapping several European countries in a vicious cycle of economic contraction, diminishing government revenue and deepening government debt.  Greece went into a state of political paralysis as election results proved inconclusive and no party won a clear majority. The parties also initially refused to form a ruling coalition as they bickered over the right policies to get Greece out of the devastating financial mess it is in, forcing the country to call fresh elections. After the second round of elections, the conservative New Democracy party formed a coalition government with the centre-left party Pasok. The Syriza party, which is strongly against the austerity forced upon Greece by the European Union as a condition for its financial bailout, won nearly as many seats as New Democracy and will be the main opposition party. The ruling coalition has only a slim majority in parliament, and the world will be watching as it tries to resolve the financial mess while surviving politically. If it fails and Greece eventually fails to meet the conditions of the bailout package, it could be forced to leave the eurozone (the group of nations that share the common currency, the euro).

China introduces subsidies for energy-efficient vehicles and electrical appliances.

Studies have found that Singaporeans are the most prone to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in the world. Indeed, some psychologists and psychiatrists have labelled Singapore the “OCD Capital of the World”. 3 percent of Singaporeans suffer from OCD, compared to just 2.2 percent in the US. Mental health professionals believe that this phenomenon may be linked to the Singaporean preoccupation with high standards and rankings in work and school.

The Workers’ Party expels its Hougang Member of Parliament Yaw Shin Leong after he refuses to respond to rumours that he had been involved in at least one extramarital affair. WP chairperson Sylvia Lim reiterated that the party “believes strongly in transparency and accountability, and expects no less from our party members, especially our Members of Parliament. By continuing not to account to the party and the people, especially the residents of Hougang, he has broken the faith, trust and expectations of the party and the people”. She added that such behaviour “falls short of the standards we expect in terms of responsible behaviour”, especially of elected members.

A by-election is called in Singapore’s Hougang constituency after former MP Yaw Shin Leong is sacked by the Workers’ Party (WP) after his refusal to account for allegations of marital infidelity. The Workers’ Party’s Png Eng Huat wins the by-election against the PAP’s Desmond Choo with a vote share of 62.09 percent.

Over 25,000 demonstrators swamped Malaysia’s capital city Kuala Lumpur in one of the Southeast Asian nation’s biggest street rallies in the past decade. This rally was called the Bersih 3.0 rally, the third instalment in a series (“bersih” means clean in Malay.) Protesters massed near Merdeka Square, which police had sealed off with barbed wire and barricades. Some of the demonstrators breached the barriers and police began firing tear gas and chemical-laced water at them. Officially, the rally was aimed at pushing for electoral reform and cleaner elections, but Prime Minister Najib Razak alleged that organisers, including Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, had intended to overthrow the government in an uprising inspired by the one launched from Egypt’s Tahrir Square a year earlier which brought down former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Subsequently, the Malaysian authorities charge Anwar and two other opposition leaders with violating the newly-created Peaceful Assembly Act by inciting the protesters to riot.

Shortly before the Bersih 3.0 riots in Kuala Lumpur, the independent Merdeka Centre conducted a poll which found that almost half of Malaysian voters did not trust the country’s election system. 92 percent of respondents support cleaning up the electoral register before elections. Roughly half the respondents believe that the electoral register contains dubious voters including foreigners, voters with multiple identities or legitimate voters transferred to another constituency without their knowledge.

44 men are charged in Singapore with paying for sex with an underage prostitute. Among the defendants are former Pei Chun Public School principal, Lee Lip Hong; senior corporate executive and member of the famous Shaw cinema and property clan, Howard Shaw; senior banker Buergin Juerg; and ex-Jurong Junior College teacher Chua Ren Cheng.

Bo Xilai, the one-time rock star of Chinese politics, suffered a spectacular fall as he was suspended from the Communist Party and his wife was put under investigation in connection with the death of the British businessman Neil Heywood, an investigation which many believe to be politically motivated. Bo was the party boss in Chongqing and openly courted publicity as he made his ambitions plain. He wanted a seat on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, China’s most powerful political body. Bo was known for his suave and open demeanour which was seen as refreshing in a country where leaders are often rigid and emotionless in public. But his media-savvy personality coupled with his “princeling” status as the son of a hero of China’s revolution irritated some fellow politicians. “He’s very open, very confident, very charismatic and that’s not the way most Chinese leaders behave and that is not the way they feel comfortable with their peers behaving,” said Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University. Bo’s revival of “red” Maoist culture in Chongqing – including sending officials to work in the countryside and pushing workers to sing revolutionary songs – drew both accolades and concern. He also set about fighting graft when he came to power in Chongqing, in a crackdown that saw scores of officials detained and executed, their lurid secret lives exposed.

Professor Lim Chong Yah, one of Singapore’s leading economists, proposed a radical solution to the problem of rising income inequality that he dubbed Economic Restructuring II. His bold plan called for the wages of those earning less than $1,500 a month to be raised by 50 percent over three years, and the pay of those earning $15,000 and above to be frozen for three years. This proposal was driven by Prof Lim’s deep concern over the Gini coefficient, a major measure of income inequality, rising to 0.473 last year from 0.454 in 2001. He considers the level of 0.5 to be dangerous, and we are approaching that level (a Gini coefficient of 0 signals perfect equality, while 1 signals perfect inequality). Prof Lim presided over a similar restructuring exercise between 1979-1981, when workers’ wages were raised by government legislation in order to force Singapore companies to move up the value chain. Experts are divided over the success of that exercise: Singapore suffered a recession and soaring inflation in its immediate aftermath, but later recovered to enjoy strong economic growth for three decades. Government minister and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) chief Lim Swee Say expressed reservations over Prof Lim’s idea, saying that raising wages may not necessarily bring about a corresponding boost to productivity and may end up causing job losses and structural unemployment.

Shortly after Prof Lim’s proposal, the NTUC pushed for the National Wages Council to recommend that low-wage workers earning up to $1,000 monthly enjoy a minimum built-in increment of $50 in 2012. The suggestion, which is meant to offset inflation, was adopted by the council.

Myanmar embarks on democratic reforms after decades of military rule. In by-elections, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s long-repressed opposition party, the National League for Democracy,  is swept into Parliament, although they still hold only a small minority of the seats. The military and its political allies continue to dominate Parliament, but the reforms are still a big step forward considering that Ms Suu Kyi had been under house arrest, and many of her party colleagues in detention, for many years before this. Australia announced an easing of sanctions including travel and financial bans on politicians and civilians from Myanmar, as well as a normalisation of trade with Myanmar. The US also relaxed sanctions to allow some humanitarian, religious and educational activities in the country but retained its tough sanctions on trade. The European Union will soon discuss suspending its economic sanctions, which may put pressure on the US to do likewise, for competitive business reasons.

The Ministerial Salary Review Committee appointed by the Singapore government recommended that the Prime Minister’s annual salary be reduced by 36 percent to $2.2 m, amd that of entry-level Cabinet ministers by 37 percent to $1.1 m. The committee further proposed to reduce the President’s remuneration by 51 percent to $1.5 m. These figures are inclusive of bonuses. The committee based its recommendations on an alteration of the private sector benchmarks against which ministerial pay has been determined since the 1990s in Singapore. Instead of benchmarking against the top eight earners in six professions (including lawyers, doctors and senior management in MNCs), the committee proposed to use the median income of the 1,000 highest-earning Singaporeans as a new point of reference and apply a 40 percent discount to signify the ethos and sacrifice that come with political service.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean defended the formula to peg political salaries to top earners in the private sector. While the motivation to serve people is highly prized by the PAP, “having a passion for public service is not in itself sufficient to run a country well”, said Mr Teo. Also important, he added, were qualities such as organisational and leadership capabilities, capacity to handle multiple responsibilities, ability to solve problems and take charge in a crisis, and the ability to hold their own with world leaders and further Singapore’s interests. The top 1000 earners in the country represented a pool of people with the competencies that Singapore needed to bring in as ministers for continued good government. On criticisms that Singapore ministers were officially paid much more than other world leaders, DPM Teo pointed out that many countries do not adopt a clean wage system like Singapore does, and therefore their leaders enjoy many perks and benefits, some of which are hidden. Hence their salaries may look a lot smaller than their actual total compensation.

Faced with an ageing population and an economy that has remained anaemic for over two decades, Japan introduced new policies to attract more foreigners to live and work in the country. Preferential tax rates were offered to foreign companies to set up Asian regional headquarters or research facilities in Tokyo. Japan will also make it easier for foreign academics, doctors and senior managers to take up permanent residence, by reducing the minimum residency requirement from ten years to five. Japan has always been known as a very tough place for foreigners to settle down and do business.

Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou won re-election with a vote share of 51.6% versus 45.6% for main rival Tsai Ing-wen. Ma is likely to try to continue to build on the growth in economic and other ties with mainland China that have been the main accomplishment of his first term and that helped win support from much of Taiwan business leaders such as billionaire Cher Wang, the chairman of mobile phone maker HTC. Many experts believe that voters turned to Ma in a search for stability at a time of international economic uncertainty, and because they didn’t favour any major change in Taiwan’s current relations with mainland China at this time. Ma advocates maintaining the status quo with China under the “1992 Consensus,” a tacit and ambiguous agreement reached 20 years ago between Beijing and Taipei under which both sides agreed on the principle of “one China” without agreeing on how it is to be defined or interpreted. The Consensus has been the basis for cross-strait dialogue that has led in recent years to the unprecedented warming of ties between Taiwan and China. Tsai, seeking to become Taiwan’s first female president, rejects the 1992 Consensus. She has called instead for a yet-undefined “Taiwan Consensus” that leads some in Beijing to suspect her of pushing a pro-independence agenda.

Fraudsters stole some $500,000 from the accounts of customers of DBS and POSB banks after “skimming” or illegally extracting ATM card details from customers at two ATMs in New Bugis Street. The fraudsters then cloned the cards and made unauthorised withdrawals from DBS ATMs in Malaysia.

British PM David Cameron has pledged to fight “crony capitalism” by giving shareholders the right to veto boardroom pay rises to try and put the brake on the excessive rise of executive salaries and bonuses (Note: this refers to the pay of top management in companies) even amid the recession. Mr Cameron opined that “the market for top people” was not working. He added: “We’ve got to deal with the merry-go-round where there’s too many cases of remuneration committee members sitting on each other’s boards, patting each other’s backs, and handing out each other’s pay rises. We need to redefine the word fair. We need to try to give people a sense that we have a vision at the end of this, of a fairer, better economy, a fairer, better society, where if you work hard and do the right thing you get rewarded.”

Singapore will aim to make more housing estates elder-friendly as the population ages. This is the work of the Ministerial Committee on Ageing, which has five subcommittees: Manpower Development, A City for All Ages, Home Care and Family Support, Active Ageing and Employability, Development of Health Care and Social Care Services. Many flats have been retrofitted to make them safer for the aged; the cost was borne by the Tote Board, a government-run organisation which possesses the exclusive right to operate horse racing and lotteries in Singapore. The elderly are also being encouraged to take part in exercise and healthy activities.

Only slightly more than three-quarters of Singaporean men aged 55 to 64 are still employed, while less than half the women this age are still working. Senior Minister of State Heng Chee How, who sits on the Ministerial Committee on Ageing, said, “What is reality? In 1965, lifespan was about 65 years. Today, half the Singaporeans who are 65 years old have a chance of living beyond the age of 85.” Furthermore, four in five people aged above 60, and three in four aged above 75, consider themselves healthy. Mr Heng said the Committee is trying to bring society’s perception of older people in line with the reality this group is living in today. “At which point do companies consider them to be no longer young and up-to-date? A person even reaching 40 years old, 50, 60?” He urged companies to offer more flexible arrangements – such as part-time, flexible hours or working from home – to allow older people to keep working.

A row in a Hong Kong subway train between mainland Chinese and local passengers was posted on Youtube and snowballed into an ugly exchange between the people of mainland China and Hong Kong. It all started when a Hong Kong man riding the subway chided a mainland family for letting their child snack in the carriage, which is not allowed. The subsequent quarrel was videotaped by onlookers and posted on the Internet, drawing comments from both sides of the Hong Kong border. Particularly scathing were the words of a Peking University professor, who labelled Hong Kongers “dogs trained by colonialists”, “worshippers of the West” and “bastards”.

After British whistle-blower Michael Woodford was sacked as the CEO of Olympus and revealed that the Japanese firm had covered up losses of US$1.7 b, he mounted a campaign to get his job back. But his effort went nowhere, with Japanese financial institutions preferring to stick with the remaining directors on the board, some of whom had been disgraced and were being sued by Olympus itself. Woodford was disgusted that despite the massive scandal, the major shareholders did not speak “one single word of criticism”. The incident highlights a darker aspect of Japanese corporate culture. Shareholder activism is rare in a society that shuns confrontation and places great emphasis on personal connections and relationships. Firms tend to have cosy ties with board members and cross-shareholdings are common, creating a network of interests that militates against rocking the boat. 26 lawyers are trying to change Japan’s closed corporate society as the scandal rocks confidence in the business governance standards of the world’s third-largest economy.

In a case with startling parallels to the Olympus scandal, Japan’s financial authorities froze operations at AIJ Investment Advisors, an investment firm, on suspicion that it had lost the bulk of the 210 billion yen (S$3.3 billion) in pension funds that it managed for corporate clients. Reports said that AIJ could have covered up the losses for years by cooking the books (fraudulently altering the company’s financial accounts), just like Olympus did.  It was not clear whether the money had been lost through bad investments or siphoned out of the company. Thousands of Japanese workers had invested a substantial part of their retirement savings in AIJ – most of the money entrusted to them came from 120 corporate pension funds around Japan.

The Democrat Party of Indonesian PM Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was rocked by two corruption scandals. Firstly, its former treasurer Muhammed Nazaruddin, was arrested for allegedly pocketing US$3 million in kickbacks from the construction of the athletes’ village for the South-east Asia Games (SEA Games) held in Indonesia in 2011. Investigations by the anti-corruption agency also suggest that the party’s chairman Anas Urbaningrum was also linked to the scandal, together with four other party leaders.

In the most high profile corruption investigation involving civil servants in recent times, Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) commissioner Peter Lim and Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) director Ng Boon Gay have been suspended following allegations of “serious personal misconduct”. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in a statement yesterday that the two civil servants are currently assisting the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) in its investigations. MHA added that it could not comment on the details of the case, as investigations are ongoing.

South Korea wants to shake off its notoriety for long working hours. President Lee Myung Bak directed his staff to come up with measures to cut working hours, starting with the large conglomerates (known as chaebol in South Korea). Lee hopes shorter hours will improve lifestyle, create new jobs and boost consumption. Youth unemployment was 7.6 percent in 2011, double the overall unemployment rate. In 2010, South Koreans worked a average of 2,111 hours per person per year, the highest among the 34 members of the OECD. Long hours at work have also been blamed for the country’s low birth rate.

An Iranian nuclear scientist is assassinated while on his morning commute, the fourth to suffer this fate in the last two years. Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, an expert on a phase of uranium enrichment, perished on a Tehran street after an assassin in a passing motorcycle attached a magnetized explosive to the side of his Peugeot 405. Western intelligence sources told TIME magazine that these attacks were carried out by the Israeli secret service, Mossad. Israel is believed to be bent on stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and its leaders frequently make thinly veiled suggestions that it may not be able to restrain itself from launching military action on Iran. At the same time, the Americans and Europeans have been applying increasing pressure on Iran by imposing increasingly severe economic sanctions.

The Public Utilities Board (PUB) will spend $750 million over the next five years on 20 drainage projects, including deepening and widening canals in flood-prone areas such as Bukit Timah and Geylang. This was part of the recommendations of a panel of local and foreign experts. The panel also advised PUB to improve its drainage planning guidelines and flood warning system.

74 people were killed in rioting at a football match in Egypt between Al-Masry and Al-Ahly, one of the worst incidents of football violence ever witnessed in the world. Police were criticised for failing to stop the violence which led to a crush in a narrow exit at the stadium in Port Said, north of the capital, Cairo. A network of football fans known as Ultras vowed to exact revenge, accusing the police of intentionally letting rival fans attack them because they had been at the forefront of pro-democracy protests over the past year, first against former president Hosni Mubarak and now the military.

Liverpool footballer Luis Suarez was banned for eight matches for racially abusing Patrice Evra, a player from Manchester United. The Chelsea and England captain John Terry was around the same time accused of hurling a racist insult at Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand. The English Football Association stripped Terry of his captaincy of the English national team.

Syrian troops shelled rebel-held neighbourhoods in the city of Homs, a day after the UN General Assembly condemned human rights violations by the regime. Homs, a province in central Syria that stretches from the border with Lebanon in the west to the frontiers with Iraq and Jordan in the east, has been one of the key centres of the 11-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian rule. The rebels took control of small parts of the province including neighbourhoods in the city of Homs and the nearby town of Rastan. The UN General Assembly also overwhelmingly voted for a resolution that strongly condemns human rights violations by Assad’s government. According to the UN, more than 5,400 people have been killed in the 12 months since March 2011 in the regime’s bloody crackdown. Syria has been ruled by the Assad family for 40 years.

The Singapore government’s Budget 2012 is built on the theme “An Inclusive Society, A Stronger Singapore”. It rolled out a series of spending and relief measures for the vulnerable. This ranges from a wage subsidy to make older workers more employable, to an income tax relief for older workers to a doubling of healthcare spending over five years. Subsidies for nursing home care were increased for the lower and middle-income groups. The government also enhanced the student care fee assistance scheme to help more lower-income families with monthly household income up to S$3,500. Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that response to the Budget had been “quite good”, especially among young people. “Our young people are changing,” he said. While they are still interested in excelling academically and professionally, they are also “interested in others”. Mr Tharman added, “It’s not just the career that matters, but they want meaning in their lives and they take pride in being part of a society where others are looked after.” He defined an inclusive society as one where people desire to improve themselves so they can provide for their families, where workers take pride in their jobs no matter how humble, and where employers treat their staff fairly.

Singapore township development firm Surbana has won a contract to provide consultancy services for a massive public housing project in Penang. Surbana used to be called HDB Corp, a part of Singapore’s Housing and Development Board and was corporatised in 2003. It entered the Malaysian market soon after, and completed its first private housing project in Kedah in 2009. There is a large void in proper public housing policy in Malaysia. Surging property prices have made home ownership an elusive dream for a huge part of the country’s lower to middle-income population. Penang is run by the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), which wants to show that it can outdo the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in providing affordable housing for the people.

An attempt by the European Union to subject all airlines flying into EU countries to new regulations on carbon emissions, raised a storm of protest from other countries. The new law incorporates the aviation industry into Europe’s emissions trading scheme and requires airlines to pay for their greenhouse-gas emissions by obtaining special permits. Some of the countries are also considering banning their national airlines from participating in the emissions trading scheme at all. The Chinese government has already imposed such a ban. Airlines that do not comply will face fines from the EU beginning in April 2013; if they fail to pay, they could be denied permission to fly to the EU. Many countries and airlines argued that any regulations must be global, not regional in nature. However, EU representatives contended that the world has seen no progress in global climate regulations despite years and years of empty talk. Clearly, Europe felt it was imperative to force the issue.

Britain is torn over Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to give gays the right to marry. Since 2005, British gays have been entitled to civil partnerships which are effectively very similar to marriages: they can share ownership of a property, adopt children and receive tax breaks. But British gays have protested against prohibitions on church weddings and the use of religious readings and faith symbols in their ceremonies of union. After a public consultation, PM Cameron hopes gays will be allowed to marry as early as 2015. But he faces fierce opposition from the 20 bishops in the House of Lords. Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, said, “The honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the state and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way.”

When she was in high school, Lady Gaga was thrown into a trash can. This was revealed by the pop superstar who started the Born This Way Foundation, meant to empower kids and nurture a more congenial environment in and out of schools. One of its key aims is to address the problem of bullying, which Lady Gaga suffered repeatedly in her youth. “I was called really horrible, profane names very loudly in front of huge crowds of people, and my schoolwork suffered at one point,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to class. And I was a straight-A student, so there was a certain point in my high school years where I just couldn’t even focus on class because I was so embarrassed all the time. I was so ashamed of who I was.” Many experts are calling for more focus on bullying not only because it is linked to high rates of teen suicide, but also because it is an impediment to education.

2011

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

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

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

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

China is building up to five aircraft carriers, say analysts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple founder Steve Jobs dies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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