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Here’s a summary of some of the major events that have shaped our world and our little island-state of Singapore in 2017.
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 essential.
The world in 2017
For the first time, Majulah Singapura was played in a competition arena at the International Fencing Federation (FIE) Junior World Cup, as Singapore national foil fencer Amita Berthier stood atop the winner’s podium at the Havana Junior World Cup. The 17-year old defeated 19-year-old Canadian Naomi Moindrot Zilliox in the final. Berthier’s achievement in Cuba will likely see her closing out the year at a projected career high of world No. 5 in the world junior rankings. This is an all-time high for a Singaporean fencer — senior or junior — in any weapon. The up-and-coming fencer has had a standout season this year (2017), earlier winning bronze in the cadet women’s foil at the World Junior and Cadet Championships. More here
A Sydney-based “loyal agent of North Korea” has been charged with trying to sell missile parts and technology on the black market to raise money for Pyongyang in breach of international sanctions, Australian police said. The 59-year-old naturalised Australian citizen of Korean descent, named in local media as Chan Han-choi, was attempting to broker illicit deals that could have generated “tens of millions of dollars” for North Korea, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) said. Choi was involved in discussions to set up a ballistic missile production facility and the supply of missile construction plans in addition to components, software and the transfer of technical expertise from Pyongyang, police alleged. The alleged agent’s plans did not involve other governments or officials, police said. Authorities did not reveal which individuals or entities the man was allegedly trying to trade with. Read more
With applause inside and outside the courtroom at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Gen. Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander, was convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was sentenced to life in prison. It was the last major item of business for the tribunal in The Hague before it wound down, a full quarter-century after many of the crimes on its docket were committed. From 1992 to 1995, the tribunal found, Mr. Mladic, 75, was the chief military organizer of the campaign to drive Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs off their lands to cleave a new homogeneous statelet for Bosnian Serbs. The deadliest year of the campaign was 1992, when 45,000 people died, often in their homes, on the streets or in a string of concentration camps. Others perished in the siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, where snipers and shelling terrorized residents for more than three years, and in the mass executions of 8,000 Muslim men and boys after Mr. Mladic’s forces overran the United Nations-protected enclave of Srebrenica. More
Australians have voted overwhelmingly for same-sex marriage, paving the way for legislation by the end of this year (2017) and sparking rainbow celebrations, with people wearing wedding dresses and sequined suits, and declaring that “our love is real”. Australia will become the 26th nation to formalise the unions if the legislation is passed by Parliament, which is expected despite some vocal opposition within the government’s conservative right wing. Thousands of people in a Sydney park broke into a loud cheer, hugged and cried as Australia’s chief statistician revealed live on a big screen that 61.6 per cent of voters surveyed favoured marriage equality, with 38.4 per cent against. Australian Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe, who came out as gay three years ago, said the result was a huge relief. “It means that the way you feel for another person, whoever that may be, is equal,” he told reporters. The voluntary poll is non-binding, but Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull immediately said he would fulfil a pledge to introduce a Bill in Parliament with the aim of passing laws by Christmas. More
Singapore rail transport operator SMRT confirmed that maintenance records for the flood pump system at Bishan station had been falsified between December 2016 and June 2017, and spelled out further disciplinary action against at least 13 staff. “Disciplinary proceedings” will be taken against six members of its Building and Facilities Maintenance group – a manager, an engineering supervisor and four other crew members – linked to the falsification of the records, SMRT said in a statement announcing the completion of its internal investigation. Another seven managerial staff from this Maintenance group – including two executives at the vice-president level – have been suspended and will face a further inquiry for their “supervisory responsibility” in the lapses. On 7 October 2017, a heavy downpour had led to Bishan MRT station being flooded, and train services on the North-South Line being shut down for over 20 hours. On Oct 31, SMRT released the preliminary findings of its internal probe into the incident. The report claimed that the crew responsible for the maintenance of the pump system at Bishan MRT Station had signed off and submitted maintenance records for nearly a year without carrying out the works.
Indonesian lawmakers approved a presidential decree banning any civil organisations deemed to go against the country’s secular state ideology. The action puts into law a policy President Joko Widodo had set in a decree. The policy was aimed at containing hardline Islamist groups who have cast a shadow over the long-standing reputation for religious tolerance in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. In late 2016 and early this year (2017), groups such as Hizb-ut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which call for Islamic law to be imposed in Indonesia, led mass street rallies attacking Jakarta’s governor, a Christian, whom they accused of insulting Islam. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who lost an election to get a new term, was jailed one month later after being convicted of blasphemy in a court ruling widely criticised in Indonesia and overseas as unjust. Pancasila or ‘five principles’ is Indonesia’s state ideology, which includes belief in god, the unity of the country, social justice and democracy, and which enshrines religious diversity in an officially secular system. More
The U.S. government released thousands of documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The papers were posted online by the National Archives in compliance with a 1992 law requiring their release after 25 years. After a chaotic last-minute review in which intelligence agencies lobbied against full disclosure, the White House said it would take more time to process and release thousands more documents that were also supposed to be made public. It set a deadline of late April for the release of those documents. Citing security concerns, President Donald Trump held back some of the documents pending a review, citing national security, law enforcement and foreign affairs concerns. The decision to postpone the release of some documents will invariably lead to suspicions that the government is still protecting secrets about the case. Administration officials said there was no cover-up, just an effort to avoid compromising national security, law enforcement or intelligence gathering methods. More
The push for a more gracious society should take on greater urgency in order for Singapore to thrive in the decades ahead, said former head of the civil service Lim Siong Guan. Calling on Singaporeans to play their part, Mr Lim also said the government could facilitate the endeavour by considering if their policies reinforce or detract from the goal. Physical infrastructure such as common spaces in Housing and Development Board estates can help promote graciousness, as can public servants who are “more thinking of the people they are serving”. “If, as a people, we become oriented that way, I believe it will have this effect on the way government policies are delivered, in the way that people are just looking out for each other,” he told an audience at an Institute of Policy Studies-Nathan lecture. A gracious society can ward against the “social degradation and national decay” that British soldier and scholar John Bagot Glubb found to afflict nations once they reached high levels of affluence, said Mr Lim. More
In the wake of reports by The New York Times and New Yorker that top Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed women over the course of his career, more than three dozen women accuse him of sexual misconduct. Among them are actresses Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Asia Argento. More
Lifting 30 million Chinese out of poverty in the next three years will be a difficult task, but the government will “go all out” to make sure it achieves the target, a key official in charge of China’s poverty alleviation drive said. The final push will see officials work more closely across ministries and with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), with a particular focus on areas with entrenched poverty such as Tibet and Xinjiang. With the 19th Party Congress a week away, the clock is ticking for President Xi Jinping’s goal of achieving a moderately prosperous society by 2020 – ahead of the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – with eradicating poverty a “baseline” task. China has lifted more people out of extreme poverty than any other country in history. Between 1981 and 2010, it pulled 680 million people out of misery. The extreme poverty rate tumbled from 84 percent in 1980 to 10 percent in 2013. More
Halimah Yacob becomes President of Singapore after a controversial election process in which the presidency was first reserved for ethnic Malays, and thereafter all other aspiring candidates were deemed to not be eligible or qualified to run in the election. The Singapore government argued that it was necessary to reserve the election for Malays as Singapore had not had a Malay president in 47 years and cited a study by the Institute of Policy Studies that found that race is a significant factor in how Singaporeans vote. The government further contended that the Reserved Election was important to preserving multiracialism and racial harmony. Critics, however, alleged that the move was intended to thwart the candidacy of Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP MP turned government critic who had narrowly lost to the establishment candidate Dr Tony Tan in the previous election in 2011. Many also opined that the legislative changes enacted by the ruling PAP to reserve presidential elections for an ethnic group if it had not held the presidency for five consecutive terms, ran counter to the cardinal principle of meritocracy in Singapore. Two applicants for the 2017 election were deemed ineligible because they did not declare themselves to be Malay. Another three — Halimah Yacob, Farid Khan and Mohamed Salleh Marican — were deemed to be Malay even though Mdm Halimah and Mr Salleh are both partly of Indian ancestry, and Mr Khan is of Pakistani descent. In the end, Mr Khan and Mr Salleh — both prominent businessmen each running businesses with a total of over $200 m in shareholders’ equity — were both deemed not qualified to run as they failed to meet the recently stiffened requirement, for private sector candidates, of having managed a company with at least $500 m in shareholders’ equity (an amount that had been raised fivefold). Even though Mdm Halimah had no such financial experience, she was deemed qualified as the financial requirements did not apply to public sector candidates, who would be considered suitable if they had held senior positions such as Speaker of Parliament (Mdm Halimah’s former position), Chief Justice or Minister.
White supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, clashed with counter-protesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in the US. A member of a white supremacist group drove a car into the counter-protesters, killing a 32-year old woman and injuring 19 others. US President Donald Trump came under fire from members of both major political parties after he failed to unequivocally condemn the racist groups. He initially condemned hatred and bigotry, but faced criticism for saying it came “from many sides”. Thereafter he issued a more forceful statement which eased the controversy, but subsequently at another press conference, he reverted to his original position and tried to paint a moral equivalence between the two sides — saying that some of the counter-proteters were also “very violent” and that there were some “fine people” amongst the white supremacists. Trump’s comments left him increasingly isolated. He faced criticism even within his own party. Several major corporate CEOs, such as Merck & Co’s Kenneth Frazier, quit his two business councils, forcing him to disband them, and world leaders such as British PM Theresa May publicly took issue with Trump’s position. More
A ransomware cyberattack hits businesses, port operators and government systems around the world, with thousands of companies struggling to retake control of their networks. The cyberattack began in Ukraine, infecting computer systems and demanding US$300 in cryptocurrency to unlock their systems. Among the major companies hit were shipping giant AP Moller-Maersk A/S, French bank BNP Paribas and British advertising firm WPP Plc. A terminal operated by Maersk near Mumbai, India was unable to load or unload shipments. Read more
The feud within Singapore’s pre-eminent Lee family erupts into the public domain when Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, brother and sister of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, accuse him on Facebook of abusing his power in order to go against the wishes of their late father, Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, to demolish the family home at 38 Oxley Road after his death. Hsien Yang and Wei Ling further accuse their brother of seeking to preserve the house in order to fulfil his dynastic ambitions, including political ambitions for his son Li Hongyi — a claim Hsien Loong decries as “absurd”. In addition, they charge that Hsien Loong’s wife Ho Ching has also abused her position by interfering in government affairs even though she holds no official position in the government. Hsien Yang also announces that he will leave Singapore and claims that he has been forced to do so by his brother, whom he feels to be “omnipresent”. On his part, Hsien Loong questions the validity of his father’s final will which asked for the house to be demolished, alleging that it was made under suspicious circumstances and under the influence of Hsien Yang’s wife Lee Suet Fern, an interested party.
Donald Trump announces that he will withdraw the US from the Paris climate change agreement. The decision was condemned immediately by environmental campaigners and by the president’s political opponents who said it heralded the death of America’s position as a global leader. However, Mr Trump held out the hope of a compromise saying he would immediately start a process to develop a fairer deal that would protect American workers. During a belligerent White House address, the US president said he wanted to reassert American sovereignty. “We don’t want other countries and other leaders laughing at us anymore,” he said, adding that the current deal could cost the US as many as 2.7 million jobs by 2025. It means the US stands alongside only Syria and Nicaragua as nations who are not part of the deal. Environmental campaigners said the American absence will make it considerably harder for the remaining 190 or so countries to reach their agreed goals, given that the US is responsible for about 15 percent of global emissions of carbon and had promised US$3 billion to help other nations. More
With digital technology being a key driver of growth for Singapore, schools and hospitals can pave the way to use virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality technologies as learning tools. More can also be done to tap such immersive media across various industries to improve processes, reduce costs and enhance outcomes, with possibilities to apply them in the retail, architecture, construction and defence sectors. Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim raised these points at the Infocomm Media Business Exchange conference. The use of VR as a teaching tool for the Social Studies syllabus has been piloted in five primary schools. About 400 pupils in Primary 4 and 5 learnt about the early settlers of Singapore and how they contributed to the early designs of buildings, by viewing landmarks such as the Geylang Serai Market through VR. They also “explored” farmers’ use of high-tech machines and creative cultivation methods. Dr Yaacob said plans are also in the works to use VR in clinical training at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. “Traditional clinical training is resource-intensive and costly, and might not be able to replicate scenarios realistically. This collaboration will develop immersive simulations for basic surgical skills and complex airway management, which is critical in life-threatening emergencies,” he said. More
A suicide bombing at Manchester Arena at the end of a concert by US popstar Ariana Grande killed 22, left dozens injured and 59 in hospital. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack which was carried out by 22-year old British-born Salman Abedi. The terrorist strike was the worst in the history of Manchester and northern England, and the worst in Britain since 2005, when 52 people died, along with four attackers, in coordinated assault on London’s transit system. Security experts suggested that the use of a suicide bomb in Manchester displayed a level of sophistication that implied collaborators — and the possibility that other bombs had been fabricated at the same time — triggering a frantic search by British police and multiple arrests.
The Manchester suicide bomber used taxpayer-funded student loans and benefits to bankroll the terror plot, police believe. Salman Abedi is understood to have received thousands of pounds in state funding in the run up to the atrocity at the Ariana Grande concert even while he was overseas receiving bomb-making training. Police are investigating Abedi’s finances, including how he paid for frequent trips to Libya where he is thought to have been taught to make bombs at a jihadist training camp. More
A Singapore central bank-backed fintech firm, CCRManager, launched what it says is the first digital platform for the distribution of international trade financing, transactions now handled mainly by phone and email. CCRManager, which received a grant from the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s Financial Sector Development Fund, is supported by 16 financial institutions, including Bank of China, DBS Bank, Standard Chartered Bank, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Spain’s BBVA and the commercial insurance arm of Swiss Re. “We believe that in year one, we will have approximately 30 institutions signing up. Our end goal is about 400 institutions by year five,” Tan Kah Chye, CCRManager’s chairman, said at the launch of the platform. The firm aims to hit US$10 billion in transaction volume in the first year and is targeting US$250 billion in the fifth year. CCRManager charges a transaction fee on every successful deal.
US President Donald Trump fires FBI director James Comey, a law enforcement official with a noted reputation for independence and a track record of taking on powerful figures from both major political parties. Comey had been carrying out an investigation into alleged collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and the government of Russia. analysis
Outgoing Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was found guilty of blasphemy by a District Court and sentenced to two years in jail. The court also ordered for the sentence to be carried out immediately even though the politician had indicated his wish to appeal the court’s decision. Basuki was brought to Cipinang prison in East Jakarta shortly after the hearing. The defence team noted that the punishment meted out by the court was heavier than the two years’ probation state prosecutors had recommended earlier. The court case against Basuki involves a speech to constituents last September, when he was heard referring to a verse in the Quran while telling them that they should not be misled by opponents urging Muslims to reject a non-Muslim leader. Basuki is a Christian, and an ethnic Chinese. More
Emmanuel Macron is elected French president with a business-friendly vision of European integration, defeating Marine Le Pen, a far-right nationalist who threatened to take France out of the European Union. The centrist’s emphatic victory, which also smashed the dominance of France’s mainstream parties, brings huge relief to European allies who had feared another populist upheaval to follow Britain’s vote to quit the EU and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president. With virtually all votes counted, Macron had topped 66 percent against just under 34 percent for Le Pen – a gap wider than the 20 or so percentage points that pre-election surveys had suggested. Even so, it was a record performance for the National Front, a party whose anti-immigrant policies once made it a pariah, and underlined the scale of the divisions that Macron must try to heal. More
The campaign of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron came under a “massive and coordinated” attack by hackers who were later linked by a number of cybersecurity research firms to the Russian-affiliated group blamed for attacking the Democratic party shortly before the US election. Tens of thousands of internal emails and other documents were released online overnight as the midnight deadline to halt campaigning in the French election passed. According to the head of Macron’s digital team, Mounir Mahjoubi, “five entire mailboxes” were “stolen”, with many of the accounts being personal Gmail mailboxes. New York’s Flashpoint and Tokyo-based Trend Micro have shared intelligence that suggests that the hacking group known variously as Advanced Persistent Threat 28, Fancy Bear and Pawn Storm was responsible. The group has been linked with the GRU, the Russian military intelligence directorate. Some analysts believe that Russia had an interest in seeing Macron’s opponent, Marine Le Pen, win as she is in favour of pulling France out of the European Union. A weaker EU would mean a weaker NATO, which in turn would reduce the ability of the organisations to act as a political and military check, respectively, on Russia. Despite the attacks, Macron won the election. More info Analysis
Eleven young children were among at least 58 killed in an apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria that was followed by the bombing of a hospital where the victims were being treated. The Syrian regime was accused of being behind the attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which left residents writhing in agony in the streets. Hours after the poison gas canisters were first dropped, a clinic in the town was bombed by aircraft, bringing rubble and chaos down on some of the survivors and the doctors struggling to treat them. In response, US President Donald Trump ordered a military strike on a Syrian government airbase. US warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the airbase that was home to the warplanes that carried out the chemical attacks, US officials said. Trump said, “There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council. Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically.” Trump’s decision marked a dramatic shift in his position on whether the US should take military action against the Syrian President’s regime – which Trump opposed during his campaign for president – and came after the president was visibly and publicly moved by the images of the latest chemical weapons attack. Read more here and here.
The Metro Iloilo Water District (MIWD), in charge of water in Iloilo City in the Philippines, thanked the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for its assistance. Iloilo City is one of the top five cities in the country. USAID provided technical and legal advisory services to help the MIWD to forge an agreement with a private company for a water distribution project which encompassed the rehabilitation and expansion of lines, pipe laying projects and reduction of water loss. USAID also advised on the climate impact to the water of Iloilo. The US continues to provide aid to the Philippines despite the sometimes tense bilateral relationship since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte came to power and the country’s perceived tilt towards China in its foreign policy ever since. More here.
The bachelor’s degree – long a ticket to middle-class comfort – is losing its lustre in the US job market. Wages for college graduates across many majors have fallen since the 2007-2009 recession, according to an unpublished analysis by Georgetown University using Census Bureau figures. Young job-seekers appear to be the biggest losers. What you study matters for your salary, the data shows. Chemical and computer engineering majors have held down some of the best earnings of at least US$60,000 (S$84,000) a year for entry-level positions since the recession, while business and science graduates’ pay cheques have fallen. A biology major at the start of his career earned US$31,000 annually on average in 2015, down US$4,000 from five years earlier. The outlook for experienced graduates aged 35 to 54 is brighter, with wages generally stable since the crisis. The economic premium of a bachelor’s degree flattened after the recession, according to a 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by economist Robert Valletta at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Among the factors at play are advances in technology and automation, which are not only taking away US manufacturing jobs, but also having an impact on white-collar workers, Dr Valletta found. Legal clerks and researchers are increasingly finding their jobs supplanted by computers, for example. More here.
Highlights of the Singapore Budget 2017:
* Water prices will be raised by 30 per cent in two phases, starting from July. However, enhanced GST Voucher – U-Save Rebates will help offset the cost for households, so that 75 per cent of all HDB households will see an average increase of less than $12 in their monthly water expenses, and one- and two-room HDB households will on average have no increase in their water expenses.
* A carbon tax will be implemented from 2019, on power stations and other large direct emitters. The Government is looking at a tax rate of between $10 and $20 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions.
* A personal Income tax rebate of 20 per cent of tax payable, capped at $500, for income earned in 2016.
* The CPF Housing Grant will be raised from $30,000 to $50,000 for couples who buy four-room or smaller resale flats, and from $30,000 to $40,000 for couples who get five-room or bigger resale flats.
* The Global Innovation Alliance programme is part of a slew of other measures to prepare Singapore workers for the changing economic landscape. The Government will commit up to $600 million to set up a new fund that aims to help Singapore-based companies increase their presence on the global market.
* $2.4 billion set aside over the next four years to implement the strategies laid out by the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE)
* Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat noted that Singapore’s spending needs are increasing, and the Government must continue to spend judiciously, emphasise value-for-money and drive innovation in delivery. To that end, he applied a permanent 2 per cent cut to the Budget caps of all ministries and organs of state from 2017 onwards
The Syrian regime has executed up to 13,000 people in secret mass hangings carried out in the basement of a military prison near Damascus, according to Amnesty International. A new report by the human rights group alleges that President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces carried out “a calculated campaign of mass hangings and extermination” at Saydnaya, a military prison outside the capital. “Saydnaya Military Prison is where the Syria state quietly slaughters its own people,” the report reads. “The victims are overwhelmingly ordinary civilians who are thought to oppose the government.” The Amnesty report also describes how prisoners at Saydnaya are subjected to “maximal physical and psychological suffering” before their executions, including rape and severe beatings. Read more
Singapore fiction continues to make headway on international bookshelves this year (2017), with a new slew of titles by home-grown authors set to go into the world. Local authors such as Balli Kaur Jaswal and Ovidia Yu will have new books brought out by major foreign publishers, with Jaswal also scoring a film deal for her novel, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. Elsewhere, novels by literary veterans such as Suchen Christine Lim are making their way to not just established markets such as Britain and the United States, but also vast new ones such as India and countries as distant as Macedonia. Jaswal, 33, sold the film rights to Erotic Stories, the first of her twobook deal with publishing giant HarperCollins, to director Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free Productions, and Film4. Singapore publishers already have a strong track record of exporting educational titles overseas, while local poetry has also made a name for itself abroad. But global demand for Singapore fiction seems to have hit its stride in recent years, with titles such as Sonny Liew’s graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, garnering international acclaim in 2016. Read more
A federal appeals court unanimously refused to reinstate US President Donald Trump’s ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, issuing a sharp rebuke in a ruling likely destined for the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump was defiant, tweeting 26 minutes later, “SEE YOU IN COURT. THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!” The ruling from a three-judge panel concluded roundly that the government failed to make its case that a temporary freeze on the ban should be lifted, and called into question presidential power to limit immigration in the way Trump did. Joe Scarborough of MSNBC reported that the White House was working on a new executive order with more specific language. The judges rebuffed the contention that the states of Washington and Minnesota had no right to sue in the matter – and rejected the argument that courts have no authority to review an executive branch decision on immigration policy. With his Jan. 27 executive order, Trump was making good on campaign promises to stop Muslims from entering the country to defuse the threat of Islamist terrorism by halting the flow of those who he said might be secretly planning attacks. It was an act of a young and aggressive administration that wants to minimize America’s engagement with the world, roiling global politics in the process. Read more