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Here’s a summary of some of the major events that have shaped our world and our little nation of Singapore in 2015 and earlier.
But please note: this is NOT meant as a substitute for your own regular reading of newspapers/ news websites. If you hope to excel in GP, you must stay connected with the world. Don’t just read about the world – take a personal interest in it. General Paper is a subject in which engagement and passion are particularly important.
The world in 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:
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”.
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.
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.