Channel NewsAsiahttp://www.channelnewsasia.comChannel NewsAsia Singapore was established in March 1999 by MediaCorp, and is an English language Asian TV News channel. Positioned to Understand Asia, it reports on global developments with Asian perspectives. Channel NewsAsia brings viewers not only the latest news but also the stories behind the headlines. NewsAsiahttp://www.channelnewsasia.com129137en-usMalaysian firm adds Islamic certification to cryptocurrency, 20 Feb 2018 15:23:52 +0800SYDNEY: Malaysia-based firm HelloGold has received a sharia-compliant certification for its gold-backed cryptocurrency and plans to launch its online gold platform in Thailand later this year, the company said.

Its cryptocurrency product, dubbed GOLDX, was launched at the end of last year and has now received certification from Amanie Advisors, a Malaysia-based Islamic finance consultancy, said chief marketing officer Manuel Ho.


Unlike other cryptocurrencies, GOLDX involves the issuance of a token backed by physical gold stored in a Singapore vault, and transactions must be completed within a defined time period, Ho said.

This means the issuance process and audited assets can address transparency, certainty and immediacy of transactions - important principles in Islamic financial contracts.

The move highlights how fintechs, companies that use new technology to revamp banking services, are extending their influence to Islamic finance markets spanning the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Over the past year, the firm has rolled out a mobile app in Malaysia that is based on blockchain, the system that first emerged to facilitate digital currencies such as bitcoin.

That mobile app, which allows users to buy and sell physical investment grade gold, was also certified by Amanie Advisors.

HelloGold plans to expand its gold platform into Thailand in coming months, while potentially adding a third market by the end of the year, said Ho.

The firm is also exploring other unspecified assets for its blockchain technology, which involves a shared electronic ledger that allows parties to track transaction information through a secure network.

US Secret Service denies reports of scuffle with Chinese security over 'nuclear football' PacificTue, 20 Feb 2018 15:21:46 +0800WASHINGTON: The United States Secret Service on Tuesday (Feb 20) denied reports of a scuffle between its agents and a Chinese security official during United States President Donald Trump's visit to China last November.

"Fact check: Reports about Secret Service agents tackling a host nation official during the president's trip to China in Nov 2017 are false," the Secret Service tweeted.

Trump makes an official visit in Beijing, China

News organisation Axios reported on Monday that a Secret Service agent and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly "skirmished" with Chinese security officials over the nuclear football - a briefcase containing emergency nuclear weapon codes.

Citing five sources "familiar with the events", the report said that the incident happened on Nov 9 last year when Mr Trump and his team visited Beijing's Great Hall of the People.

According to the sources, Chinese security officials blocked a US military aide who was carrying the nuclear football from entering the hall. 

Kelly was informed of the incident, rushed over and told the US officials to keep walking - a Chinese security official then grabbed Kelly, Kelly shoved the man's hand off him, and then a US Secret Service agent grabbed the Chinese security official and tackled him to the ground.

US officials told about the incident were asked to keep quiet about it, the Axios report said.

It added that it was told "at no point" did the Chinese have the nuclear football in their possession, "or even touch the briefcase".

“An individual, not part of the official delegation, attempted to prevent one of our protectees from entering a room," Axios subsequently reported the Secret Service as saying in a statement. "A US Secret Service agent quickly intervened and a short scuffle ensued. The individual complied with the agent’s directions and no further action was necessary."

"At no time did anyone involved fall to the ground. The event continued without incident.”

Turkey orders detention of 170 soldiers for links to coup plotters - Anadolu, 20 Feb 2018 15:15:12 +0800ISTANBUL: Turkish authorities issued detention warrants for 170 people suspected of links to the network accused of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016, the state-run Anadolu news agency said on Tuesday.

Those targeted in the operation, which was centred in Istanbul and spread across 37 other provinces, included retired, suspended and serving soldiers, Anadolu said, adding 22 of them were detained on Tuesday morning.

The suspects are believed to have contacted imams of the network via payphones and landlines, the news agency said. The arrests are part of Turkey's far-reaching crackdown against the network of U.S.-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara holds responsible for the failed putsch.

Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, has denied involvement and condemned the coup.

In the 19 months since the coup attempt - when rogue soldiers commandeered tanks and warplanes to attack parliament, killing more than 240 people - Turkey has jailed more than 50,000 under a state of emergency. It has also sacked or suspended 150,000 people from their jobs in the military, public and private sectors.

The government dismisses rights groups' concerns about the crackdown, saying only such a purge could neutralise the threat represented by Gulen's network, which it says infiltrated institutions such as the judiciary, army and schools.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by David Dolan)

Malaysian court jails, fines artist for clown caricature of PM Najib PacificTue, 20 Feb 2018 15:08:36 +0800KUALA LUMPUR: A Malaysian artist and prominent opposition activist was jailed for a month on Tuesday (Feb 20) for publishing a caricature of Prime Minister Najib Razak looking like a clown.

Malaysia recently announced plans to amend a law to stamp out fake news, the latest step to broaden enforcement powers and penalties against online posts or content deemed detrimental to public order and security.

Malaysian artist Feza

Artist Fahmi Reza was found guilty under a communications law for spreading online content deemed "obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person".

Fahmi was also fined RM30,000 (US$7,700). His lawyer, Syahredzan Johan, said the judge did not give any grounds for the ruling.

"We are appealing the decision," Syahredzan said, adding that they will post an RM10,000 bond to release Fahmi from custody pending the appeal.

Fahmi faces a second similar charge in a separate court.

Fahmi was among anti-government and opposition leaders and activists rounded up after protests against Najib over his handling of a multi-billion dollar scandal tied to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

The government blocked several websites and news portals carrying reports critical of 1MDB and Najib, despite a longstanding government pledge not to censor the Internet.

Najib, who faced a leadership challenge following the 1MDB scandal, is preparing to call general elections that must be held by August. The fund and Najib denied all wrongdoing.

1MDB has been the subject of money-laundering investigations in countries including the United States, Switzerland and Singapore.

In civil lawsuits, the US Justice Department has alleged that about US$4.5 billion was misappropriated from 1MDB.

China angered by theft of Terracotta Warrior's thumb, 20 Feb 2018 15:06:12 +0800BEIJING: The theft of a thumb of an ancient Terracotta Warrior statue on display in the US incited a wave of criticism on Chinese social media Tuesday (Feb 20), following China's calls to "severely punish" the thief.

Michael Rohana, 24, has been arrested over the theft during an after hours "ugly sweater party" just before Christmas at the Franklin Institute in Pennsylvania where 10 of the figures are on display.

The 8,000-strong Terracotta Army is one of China's most important archeological discoveries(Photo:AFP)

According to an arrest affidavit filed by an FBI agent, Rohana snuck into the closed exhibit and snapped a selfie with the warrior, worth US$4.5 million.

Rohana then appeared to break off the statue's left thumb and pocket it before leaving the event with friends.

The museum noticed its disappearance weeks later on Jan 8. The FBI agent tracked Rohana back to his home in Bear, Delaware, where the young man admitted to having stashed the thumb in a desk drawer.

He was arrested for theft of a major artwork from a museum, concealment of a major stolen artwork, and the interstate transportation of stolen property, but released on a US$15,000 bail, according to court documents seen by AFP.

Built around 209 BC to stand guard over the tomb of the first emperor, the 8,000-strong Terracotta Army is one of China's most important archaeological discoveries, and considered a symbol of ancient Chinese artistic and military sophistication.

A major tourist attraction in Xian, capital of the northern province of Shaanxi, it has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1987.

"We call on the US side to severely punish the person who committed such a damaging act of vandalism and theft of humanity's cultural heritage," the director of the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relic Exchange Centre told the Beijing Youth Daily Sunday.

Two experts would be sent to the US to help with repairs, the director said, adding that they had begun the process of claiming compensation for damages.

News of the damage sparked strong criticism on Chinese social media, with many comments nationalistic in tone.

"Whoever agreed to use our ancestor's funerary objects to curry favour with foreigners should be the one 'severely punished' first," wrote one user.

"If they don't understand that our statue is precious why would we lend it to the US in the first place?" another asked.

But a few were more circumspect in their disapproval, recalling China's destruction of its own heritage.

"Who will be held responsible for all the cultural relics destroyed in the Cultural Revolution?" a user wrote, referring to the tumultuous period in the 1960s and 1970s when countless artifacts were defaced or destroyed as China tried to rid itself of the influence of traditional culture.

Japan company to build world's tallest wooden skyscraper PacificTue, 20 Feb 2018 15:01:31 +0800SINGAPORE: Japanese company Sumitomo Forestry plans to build the world's tallest wooden skyscraper to mark its 350th anniversary in 2041. 

Called the W350, the 350-metre-tall tower will be made up of 10 per cent steel, said the company in a news release. The rest will comprise 185,000 cubic metres of timber.

Sumitomo Forestry

The "braced tube structure" will have diagonal steel vibration-control braces to "prevent deformation of the building due to lateral forces such as earthquakes and wind", according to the news release. 

The 70-storey building may house offices, shops and hotels, as well as about 8,000 homes. There will also be balconies and greenery on every level. 

"The interior structure is made of a pure wood, producing a calm space that exudes the warmth and gentleness of wood," said Sumitomo. 

Sumitomo Forestry (1)

Construction of the W350 is expected to cost 600 billion yen (S$7.4 billion) - almost double that of a conventional high-rise building.

Sumitomo said the aim of the W350 - designed in collaboration with Nikken Sekkei - is to "create environmentally friendly and timber-utilising cities that become forests through increased use of wooden architecture". 

"The devastation of domestic forests due to insufficient maintenance is becoming a problem. Increased timber demand will promote replanting and contribute to the revitalisation of forestry," the company added. 

Uber CEO sees commercialisation of flying taxis in 5-10 years, 20 Feb 2018 14:50:10 +0800TOKYO: Uber Technologies Inc Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi said on Tuesday he can see commercialisation of the Uber Air flying taxi service happening within five to 10 years.

The U.S. ride-hailing app maker has said it expects flying vehicles to eventually become an affordable method of mass transportation.

Dara Khosrowshahi, Chief Executive Officer of Uber Technologies, attends the World Economic Forum (

Khosrowshahi was speaking at an investor forum in Tokyo on his first visit to Asia as Uber CEO.

Ride-hailing firms such as Uber see populous Japan as a potentially lucrative market and are pressing regulators to ease stringent rules governing the taxi industry.

(Reporting by Sam NusseyEditing by Christopher Cushing)

One hour of TV daily increases even active people's risk of more than 9 cancers: Research, 20 Feb 2018 14:28:53 +0800SINGAPORE: Reducing your risk of cancer may be as simple as swapping Netflix for some household chores, said a US expert.

Charles E Matthews, an epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), shared that people needed more physical activity than they thought at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Texas. 

TV watching

But more importantly, they needed to sit less, he said.

The latest physical activity guidelines for Americans, published in 2008, recommend "avoiding inactivity", plus up to five hours of moderate activity a week, and up to two-and-a-half hours a week of vigorous activity. 

Keeping to the recommended activity duration - up to seven-and-a-half hours a week - reduced mortality risk by 20 per cent in a recent cohort study. 

But according to Matthews, eliminating the risk "requires much more activity than we currently recommend".

According to him, just one hour of TV a day puts even the most active of people at a higher risk of not just breast and colon cancer, but also nine other cancers, including lung, and head or neck.

Even those who spend their evenings and weekends exercising need to minimise their sitting time if they want to avoid sedentary-related health issues, said Matthews. 

"Most people are sedentary 60 per cent of the day. But that still leaves you four, five, six hours a day to be active," he said. 

"Clearly, you get the most benefit by doing moderate or vigorous activity for an hour, but there are many ways you can get up to a higher level. This is where moderate activity like a brisk walk or things around the house come in. Anything that is not sitting is good," he said.

The research also explored, for the first time, the upper limit to exercise, that is, at what point do the health benefits plateau, despite the number of hours spent on exercise? The answer was 25 hours a week, or about three and a half hours a day. 

To step up the benefits, people would have to keep active for 75 hours a week, around the amount of time marathon runners spend on training. 

Abdomen fat helps to repair disfigured cancer patients after surgery, 20 Feb 2018 14:28:16 +0800SINGAPORE: A pioneering treatment is being used in the UK to repair the post-surgical disfigurement caused by removing cancerous tumours in the head or neck.  

The technique involves injecting fat taken from the abdomen into the disfigured areas - similar to the fat transfer that surgeons use to reconstruct breast tissue after a mastectomy.


Fat is used as it is rich in stem cells. They can transform into skin cells to replace the damaged ones and plump up the skin, reported a Daily Mail article on Feb 17. 

The process begins with a local anaesthetic administered to the abdomen or thigh. About 120ml of fat is then extracted with a syringe. Water and blood are separated from the extract before the purified fat is injected into the neck or face. 

Head and neck cancers can be caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), heavy drinking and smoking. Of the top 10 cancers affecting Singaporeans, head and neck cancers rank ninth in men, according to the National Cancer Centre Singapore, which did not include them in the top-10 list for women. 

While the incidence is not high in Singapore, the after-treatment effects for head and neck cancers - including tumours in the throat, lip, tongue and nasal cavity - can be debilitating. The surgery and radiotherapy used to treat the cancers can leave the face hollowed and scarred.

"We are seeing a significant number of younger patients with head and neck cancer, and they are acutely aware of how they look following treatment,’ said Luke Cascarini, an oral and maxillofacial head and neck consultant at Guy’s and St Thomas’s National Health Service Trust in London.

The fat jabs are being carried out by William Townley, a plastics and reconstructive surgeon at the trust, who has treated around 50 patients, according to the Daily Mail article.

"We are replacing missing tissue taken away as part of the cancer and aiming to give more body back to the face and jaw," said Townley.

Refiner goes belly-up after big payouts to Carlyle Group, 20 Feb 2018 14:15:44 +0800NEW YORK: Throughout 2016 and 2017, a rail terminal built to accept crude oil for the largest East Coast refinery often sat idle, with few trains showing up to unload.

Although little oil flowed, plenty of money did.

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the Philadelphia Energy Solutions petroleum refinery in Philadelph

Under a deal Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) signed in 2015, the refiner paid minimum quarterly payments of US$30 million to terminal owner North Yard Logistics LP - even if little crude arrived. Much of that cash, in turn, flowed to the investors that own both PES and North Yard, led by the Carlyle Group, a global private equity firm with US$178 billion in assets.

The deal in effect guaranteed lucrative payouts to Carlyle regardless of whether the refinery benefited from the arrangement. When oil market conditions made the rail shipments unprofitable later that year, the refinery took heavy losses while its investors continued to collect large distributions for two more years.

The rail contract exemplifies the financial demands Carlyle imposed on PES in the years leading up to the refiner’s bankruptcy in January. The Carlyle-led consortium collected at least US$594 million in cash distributions from PES before it collapsed, according to a Reuters review of bankruptcy filings. Carlyle paid US$175 million in 2012 for its two-thirds stake in the refiner.

More than half the distributions to the Carlyle-led investors were financed by loans against PES assets that the refiner now can't pay back, the filings show. The rest came from the refiner's operating budget and payments PES made under the terminal deal to North Yard, a firm with no offices or employees that PES spun off in 2015.

PES has blamed its bankruptcy on environmental regulations that require all U.S. refiners to cover the costs of blending corn-based ethanol into the nation’s gasoline. But the ill-fated train terminal deal and other large payouts to investors played key roles in the refiner's collapse, according to filings and five current or former PES employees who were involved in the refinery's decision-making. The employees spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The investor payouts, along with a slump in refining economics, left PES unable to cover its obligations under the decade-old U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard or the loans it took to finance the distributions to Carlyle, the filings show.

PES had US$600 million in debt and US$43 million in cash on hand when it filed bankruptcy last month. It now hopes to restructure and continue operations, which employ about 1,100 people.

Carlyle Group spokesman Christopher Ullman declined to comment on whether the distributions or the rail-terminal deal contributed to the refiner's bankruptcy. PES spokeswoman Cherice Corley defended the payments to Carlyle and said the biofuels regulations played a "significant" role its collapse.

"We feel our capital structure was appropriate, and any suggestion that it was the cause of our restructuring is completely ignoring the significant effect of the flawed Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)," Corley said.

Other refiners and Pennsylvania officials have also blamed biofuels regulation for the South Philadelphia refinery’s failure, triggering renewed debate about the program on Capitol Hill.

Refiners without the necessary blending facilities, such as PES, are required to purchase regulatory credits, known as RINs, from firms that do such blending. The cost of compliance for PES rose from US$13 million in 2012 to US$218 million in 2017 as prices increased for the credits, which are traded in an open market.

The refiner, however, failed to pay a large portion of that obligation. In addition to its conventional debt, PES still owes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulatory credits worth about US$350 million, an amount tied to the fuel it produced over the past two years, according to filings. The firm stopped buying RINs last year - and instead sold them to other refiners for what likely amounted to tens of millions of dollars, Reuters reported in November.

The corn and ethanol lobby has pushed back on the argument that biofuels regulation sunk PES, pointing out that other refiners governed by the same law are raking in their highest profits in years. The refinery’s failure had more to do with the hefty profits it paid to Carlyle as its cash reserves dwindled and its debt soared, said Brooke Coleman, head of the Advanced Biofuels Council.

"The Carlyle Group looks more like a corporate raider than a savior in this deal," Coleman said.

Carlyle would not lose any of its gains on the PES investment under the refiner’s proposed restructuring plan, which has the support of almost all creditors, according to filings. PES also asks the bankruptcy court to entirely absolve its US$350 million obligation to the EPA.

EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman declined to comment on the delinquent PES credit obligations, citing the bankruptcy proceedings.


Carlyle bought its stake in PES as many other East Coast refineries were closing down because of weak margins. The previous owner, Sunoco - now Energy Transfer Partners - contributed the refinery’s assets and became a non-controlling partner.

The US$175 million Carlyle paid was its only investment in PES, filings show, and the firm soon recouped its acquisition costs through a loan against the refinery.

At the direction of its investor-controlled board, PES borrowed US$550 million in March 2013 and paid US$200 million of that to investors, according to bankruptcy filings.

PES then spent US$100 million building the rail terminal that year and US$30 million in 2014 to double its capacity. At the time, U.S. oil production was skyrocketing as improved drilling technology unlocked new reserves in places such as North Dakota. Carlyle saw an opportunity to tap this cheaper supply and wean PES off costly imports.

The plan worked well at first, in 2013 and 2014, and PES posted earnings of about US$500 million for the two years combined.

In January 2015, PES spun off the terminal, creating North Yard as a separate firm. PES then signed a ten-year agreement with North Yard to pay US$1.95 for each barrel unloaded and agreed to a minimum quarterly volume of 170,000 bpd, guaranteeing the US$30 million quarterly payments to North Yard. For any barrel PES unloaded above the threshold, the refinery paid North Yard 51 cents.

The system was designed to reward PES for success, but had no contingency plan to protect the refiner against the failure that would quickly follow the deal. The rail terminal has averaged just 58,000 bpd since the contract was signed, according to figures provided to Reuters by energy intelligence service Genscape, because Carlyle and PES could no longer access crude at prices low enough to make the rail shipments profitable.

That left PES paying millions of dollars to Carlyle, through North Yard, for oil shipments it never received.


Carlyle’s purchase of PES and the rail terminal investment were bets that U.S. oil would remain cheap relative to imports. A glut of domestic production had caused U.S. crude to sell at a deep discount to imported barrels, with the gap averaging about US$8.60 between 2012 and 2015.

But by late 2015, an oil price rebound slashed the domestic discount to less than US$3 a barrel – not enough to cover the cost of a long rail journey.

PES nonetheless continued to pay North Yard a total of US$298 million between 2015 until August 2017, filings show. The Carlyle-led investor group received US$151 million, in eight distributions, of the total paid to North Yard.

In November of that year, PES took on more debt to finance more payouts to investors, borrowing a total of US$160 million in two loans against the rail terminal and delivering the proceeds its Carlyle-led backers, filings show.

Corley, the PES spokeswoman said terminal investment more than paid for itself during its more profitable period. But for last two years, PES said in filings, the refinery remained largely cut off from the cheap crude it needed to survive.

"Perversely, it became cheaper to transport crude oil from North Dakota to points in Western Europe than it was to transport the same crude oil to Philadelphia," the firm said.

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot)

Liverpool's Salah credits manager Klopp for goal rush, 20 Feb 2018 14:10:36 +0800REUTERS: Liverpool's top scorer Mohamed Salah has credited manager Juergen Klopp's tactics for his prolific form, saying a change in his playing position has helped him score more goals.

Salah has netted 30 goals in 36 matches across all competitions in his debut season at Liverpool, and is the league's second highest goalscorer with 22 goals to his name, one fewer than Tottenham Hotspur forward Harry Kane.

Champions League Round of 16 First Leg - FC Porto vs Liverpool

"With the boss here, I play a little bit closer to the goal, more so than at any other club or more than any of my other coaches have asked me to," Salah told Liverpool's official matchday programme.

"So I am always in front of the goal to give me the opportunity to score. The manager is always telling me to stay close to the goal in training.

"I don't want to say too much because we still have a long way to go in the season and I don't want to give too much away. But yes, it's something we have worked on in the training sessions."

The 25-year-old's exploits have led Liverpool to third in the league standings and almost guaranteed of a spot in the Champions League quarter-finals after a 5-0 victory over Porto in the first leg of their last-16 tie.

The Egyptian has also taken the second highest number of shots in the league with 103 and is eager to be more clinical.

"You cannot score 10 goals from 10 balls - that's impossible and I know that I have missed many chances too this season. But I am trying to improve," Salah added.

"I am always trying to see my weaknesses and then work on them and I am always trying to score in different ways.

"The coaches help me so much to do that and I also work hard alone after the training sessions."

Liverpool host West Ham United in the league on Saturday.

(Reporting by Aditi Prakash in Bengaluru; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)

Relax and invest, Saudi prince tells investors after corruption crackdown, 20 Feb 2018 14:10:31 +0800RIYADH/DUBAI: Three months after Saudi Arabia detained scores of people in a crackdown on corruption, its rulers are trying to reassure investors that the kingdom remains open for business.

Foreign and local investors have long complained about corruption, and confronting it is an important part of reforms unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to transform the country and reduce the economy's reliance on oil exports.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the meeting of Islamic Military Counter Terror

Yet some business leaders were unsettled by the swoop on top princes, businessmen and government officials in November because of the secrecy around the crackdown and their suspicions that it was at least partly politically motivated.

"This is not a recommendation for why you should invest in Saudi Arabia," said a Western businessman with extensive contacts in the kingdom. "This whole thing has become one big ball of contradictions."

Saudi authorities are loathe to say they mishandled the anti-corruption campaign.

But top officials, including Prince Mohammed, met senior local businessmen last month to reassure them that the crackdown was mostly over and that it was safe to do business, according to five Saudi and Western sources who spoke with people who attended the meetings. Most detainees have now been released.

In front of global political and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss town of Davos last month, Saudi officials highlighted the positives of the detentions, dismissing worries about the way the crackdown was conducted but conceding that it might have been sold slightly differently.

"It's true we could make mistakes here and mistakes there. Saudi Arabia is not a perfect country. Saudi Arabia is like any other country. But the ... road to success is always under construction and the whole momentum of Saudi Arabia is going towards that end," Minister of Commerce and Investment Majid bin Abdullah al-Qasabi told a Davos session.

Government spokesmen in Riyadh did not respond to requests for comment, but Attorney General Saud al-Mojeb has described the sweep as "an independent judicial process" and "part of an overhaul to ensure transparency, openness and good governance".

The message delivered in the January meetings underscores a difficult balancing act for Prince Mohammed and his team as they try to reform the country.

They must deliver change, and one way to do that is by tackling corruption in Saudi Arabia's opaque business world. But the judicial system is underdeveloped and the crackdown contrasted sharply with Western-style due process.

That means each attempt at reform in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom risks exposing other shortcomings.

The government has said that financial settlements made with the detainees in exchange for their freedom have raised more than US$100 billion, mostly in the form of land, stakes in businesses and other illiquid assets rather than cash.

That should help raise tens of billions of dollars for huge development plans, such as a US$500-billion economic zone in the northwestern desert.

But only a handful of specific allegations against those detained have been revealed. Details of the financial settlements are also being kept secret, and Reuters has been unable to verify the government's gross estimate.

Authorities say that not naming detainees protected people's reputations, and settling cases out of court avoided protracted legal battles that would have distracted from other priorities.

Yet the secrecy of the crackdown - during which detainees were held inside the same opulent hotel where days earlier investors had rubbed elbows at an international business conference - could undermine transparency promises.


The January meetings between Saudi officials and the local business community were in multiple locations including the capital Riyadh and Jeddah, according to the sources, who declined to be named because the conversations were private.

The primary message was that another wave of mass detentions is not on the cards, the sources said, a relief to businessmen who worried that authorities might now take the same approach to the next echelon of the Saudi business world.

"They were told the anti-corruption campaign is done: continue with your business as normal and invest in the economy," said one of the sources, a senior banker.

Another message was that the Saudi authorities define corruption relatively narrowly. While they want to improve Saudi business practices, the officials told business leaders, they will not try to change that culture so radically that normal business ties are damaged, the sources said.

That was a relief to many businessmen in a country where personal relationships often help determine transactions between companies, and where gifts of cash or land are sometimes deemed necessary to get things done.

At one of the meetings, officials told attendees that the government understood business payments to third parties were sometimes required, said one of the sources.

Businessmen and economists in contact with the government do not expect a firesale of seized assets to raise money. That should minimise pressure on the Saudi real estate and stock markets, they said.

Instead, cash is likely to trickle slowly into government coffers, and authorities are not expected to interfere hugely in most of the companies in which they have obtained stakes, said an economist briefed on the government's plans.

The meetings with the crown prince have calmed the nerves of some attendees, the sources said, but others remain worried that they could be detained at any time and that instability has become the new norm.

"The whole business community is traumatised," said one of the sources, a Saudi businessman.

The government has demonstrated it is willing to move quickly and ruthlessly to seize the assets of people it believes have acted wrongly.

One banker who spoke to Saudi officials and attendees at one of the meetings said some of those released from detention had been told they may be asked to help fund certain projects.

"There's an understanding that the government might at some point tap those released on the shoulder and say, 'Hi, we're building an infrastructure project and need some funding: Please contribute'," the banker said.

(Graphic: Saudi royal family arrests,

(Additional reporting by Simon Robinson, Davide Barbuscia and Reem Shamseddine; Editing by Andrew Torchia, Simon Robinson and Timothy Heritage)

Malaysia to hold talks with Thailand, consider human rights in Uighur issue PacificTue, 20 Feb 2018 14:08:54 +0800KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi says the country will hold further talks with Thailand on the future of 11 Uighurs who escaped detention in Songkhla province and are now wanted for extradition by China.

"We are liasing with officials from Thailand, where some of them were held, and we will take action that won't offend any country and the decision God willing will be the best decision"

zahid hamidi 5 june 2011

"We will have further talks that will touch on diplomatic and security issues between the countries involved and we will take into account the feelings of humanitarian groups and also human rights (groups) from this country, Southeast Asia, and globally."

The 11 ethnic Uighur from China were among 20 that escaped from Thailand last year by digging through their cell walls with broken tiles.

Malaysia is investigating if they were involved in any terror activities as China put in an official request to extradite the members of the ethnic, Muslim minority.

Earlier this month, the United States expressed concerns over Malaysia's possible deportation of the Uighur, while Human Rights Watch called on Malaysia to ensure the detained Uighur are not forcibly deported to China as they face "credible threats of imprisonment and torture".

NBA player JJ Redick apologises for racial slur in Chinese New Year video PacificTue, 20 Feb 2018 14:08:37 +0800SINGAPORE: NBA basketball player JJ Redick apologised in a tweet on Monday (Feb 19) over a video in which he appeared to use a racial slur to address fans in China.

"To all our NBA fans in China and everyone celebrating the Chinese New Year, I want to sincerely apologise to anyone I may have offended," the Philadelphia 76ers star said.

JJ Redick screengrab

"After a recent 76ers game, I was asked by the NBA and Tencent to record a video wishing our NBA fans in China a happy new year. I was glad to do it. I was intending to say 'NBA Chinese fans' but it sounded weird in my mind so I changed it mid-sentence to 'NBA fans in China'. It came out the wrong way," he continued.

In the online video compilation of NBA players sending seasonal greetings to fans celebrating Chinese New Year, Redick appears to refer to fans in China using a pejorative racial term.

The video was made by the Chinese media company Tencent and a reworked version of the video without Redick was released.

However in Monday's tweet he was adamant that he had not intended to use the racial slur.

"At the time we recorded it, no one in the room - not Tencent, not the 76ers PR team and certainly not myself - heard the word that I purported to say," he said.

"Had I known it sounded anything like that, I would have been mortified and recorded the greeting over again. That is not a word in my vocabulary but I now understand how it sounds on the video," he said. Chinese basketball player Jeremy Lin on Monday tweeted in defence of Redick.

Saying that he had spoken to Redick on the phone, the Brooklyn Nets player said he believed Redick.

"I truly believe he didn't say a racial slur and that he has a great deal of respect towards Chinese people," he said. 

"Being Chinese is so important to me and I will do everything I can to work with the NBA to help continue to teach fans about the depth and beauty of Chinese culture and the importance of China to basketball culture." had responded to the controversy on Twitter in an earlier tweet, in which he blamed a verbal slip for his use of the word.

"Just saw a video that is being circulated of me wishing a happy new year to NBA fans in China," Redick wrote.

"Clearly I was tongue tied, as the word I purportedly said is not in my vocabulary. I'm disappointed that anyone would think I would use that word.

"I love and respect our friends in China."

Redick joined the 76ers this season, the latest stop on a career that has included previous spells with the Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers.

Avoiding wardrobe malfunction a priority for Turkish pair, 20 Feb 2018 14:00:34 +0800GANGNEUNG, South Korea: A pair of Turkish ice dancers on Tuesday said they take care to ensure their relatively conservative costumes are firmly in place when they compete but maintained it was not due to any pressure from their government.

Skating a day after French ice dancer Gabriella Papadakis suffered a wardrobe malfunction in her Olympic short dance programme that left her briefly exposed, the Turkish team said avoiding a similar fate is their priority.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics

"The most important part for Alisa when she designs it is keeping it safe," Alper Ucar told Reuters following his free dance routine with partner Alisa Agafonova at the Gangneung Ice Arena on Tuesday.

Ukrainian-born Agafonova, who represented the Eastern European nation until 2010, said: "I am doing what I like and what you see is what I decided that I like."

Wearing costumes that evoked ancient Egypt, they are among the most covered-up of any of the performers but the duo said it was their own choice.

Ucar said the Turkish Olympic committee did not give them any specific directions on their costumes.

"Turkey is a country where one side is Europe and the other side is the Middle East," he said.

"We are a multicultural country and our traditional designs for our costumes are generally very liked by the crowd. We are a democratic country, so there is no pressure. They are always supporting us and that's why we are here."

(Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)

South Korea to announce joint military drill plan with US before April, 20 Feb 2018 13:55:34 +0800SEOUL: South Korea and the United States will announce plans before April for a postponed joint military drill, South Korea's defence minister said on Tuesday.

Seoul and Washington had agreed to postpone the regular joint military exercise until after the Winter Olympics and Paralympics being hosted in South Korea, which end on March 18.

A South Korea marine eats local vegetables during a jungle survival exercise as part of the "C

After the decision to delay the joint exercise, North Korea agreed to hold the first official talks with South Korea in more than two years and send athletes to the Winter Games, easing a standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programmes.

Asked when the two countries will hold the postponed drill, Song Young-moo told parliament he and his U.S. counterpart, Jim Mattis, would make an announcement between March 18 and the start of April.

"The exercise was postponed according to the spirit of the Olympics," Song said. "We have agreed to uphold the basis until after the Paralympics...and not to confirm nor deny anything regarding what we would do after that until we announce it".

Song added inter-Korean talks had not come about as a direct result of the postponed drill.

Pyongyang has warned it would not sit idle if the United States and South Korea push ahead with the postponed military exercises.

North Korea denounces the drills as preparations to invade it, and it has at times conducted missile tests or taken other aggressive action in response.

The South Korean and U.S. militaries usually hold military exercises called Key Resolve and Foal Eagle in March and April, which can involve as many as 17,000 U.S. troops and more than 300,000 South Koreans.

South Korea's Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon said talks to stage the postponed military drill were moving forward.

"I'm aware negotiations are moving towards a direction where the drills will be held," Cho said in a separate parliamentary session on Tuesday, without elaborating.

A restart of the joint drill is an "act of ruthlessly trampling even a small sprout of peace that has been now seen on the Korean peninsula", the North's official KCNA news agency said in a commentary on Monday.

"It is a provocative act of chilling the active efforts of the DPRK and enthusiasm of the international community to defuse tension and create a peaceful environment".

North Korea's official name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Tensions on the Korean peninsula have eased since last year resulting in inter-Korean talks and the North sending a high-level delegation led by Kim Yo Jong, the sister of leader Kim Jong Un, and athletes to the Winter Olympics.

South Korea has also floated the idea of co-hosting the 2021 Asian Winter Games with North Korea, and a North Korean official said on Tuesday this may be possible, reported the South's Yonhap news agency.

North Korea may make the North's Masikryong ski resort available for the Games, said Chang Ung, the North's representative on the International Olympic Committee.

The host city for the 2021 event has not yet been decided.

Speaking to a Yonhap reporter at an airport in Beijing, the Chinese capital, Chang said it would be easier for the two sides to co-host the 2021 Asian Winter Games because there is less competition to host them, compared to the Olympics.

As to how that could come about, Chang declined to say, according to Yonhap. He was on his way back to North Korea after observing the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

(Reporting by Christine Kim and Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez)

GST on imported digital services: 5 things to know, 20 Feb 2018 13:48:20 +0800SINGAPORE: Come Jan 1, 2020, a goods and services tax (GST) will be imposed on imported digital services, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced in his Budget 2018 speech on Monday (Feb 19). This, he explained, is to ensure that imported and local services are “accorded the same treatment”.

With the advent of technology and the digital economy, it has become increasingly common for services consumed in Singapore to be obtained from overseas suppliers that do not have a presence here, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) explained further in a separate media release.

grab app

So what does this latest announcement mean? What will be the impact on consumers and service providers? We shed light on some of these questions.

Q: Which businesses will be impacted by this announcement?

The GST on digital services targets two categories of services: Business-to-business (B2B) types such as marketing, accounting, IT and management, as well as business-to-consumers (B2C) ones such as video and music streaming, apps, listing fees on electronic marketplaces, software and online subscription fees.

Q: What is overseas vendor registration?

The overseas vendor registration is required for B2C imported services, which means service providers and electronic marketplace operators such as app stores will need to be registered with the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS).

Specifically, those required to register are vendors whose annual turnover exceeds S$1 million and the sale of digital services to consumers in Singapore exceeds S$100,000.

Q: How will this tax impact B2C digital service providers?

According to Mr Adrian Lee, research director at Gartner, these providers will face increased operational costs for compliance with the new tax regime. They will need to ramp up to handle GST reconciliation with IRAS once they cross the S$100,000 threshold, he explained.

“Coupled with the proposed increase in GST to 9 per cent across all businesses from 2021, this hits the digital service providers domiciled both in and outside of Singapore with additional margin pressures as they strive to remain profitable,” Mr Lee said.  

“Needless to say, this will dampen the growth of digital services in Singapore but should not constrain it, as consumers progressively digitise their services.”

He did note that it was a “positive sign” that the Government is giving these digital businesses early notice before implementing the tax.

About 1,000 companies offering B2B digital services, as well as 100 firms in the B2C space, are expected to be affected by the new tax, Channel NewsAsia understands.

Netflix and Google declined to comment for this story.

Q: How will this tax impact consumers?

It’s hard to tell, given that it will be a company's prerogative to decide how much of the tax it wants to apportion to consumers.

Ms Gan Hwee Leng, tax partner at KPMG Singapore, pointed out that the implementation of GST for imported services aligns Singapore’s GST framework with those of other countries, and puts local and overseas service providers on a level playing field.

“(However, this) translates to higher cost for local consumers,” she said.

Mr Lee said that in Gartner’s research findings, 59 per cent of Singaporeans have reported purchasing a product or service online, and B2C apps such as Grab, Uber and Spotify occupy the top 10 spots with the most monthly active users.

When implemented, Singaporeans may choose to lower their spending on taxable digital services that may be difficult to replace such as ride-hailing apps like Uber, or switch to services that are not taxed, the research director predicted.  

“I do not think consumers will stop buying online. They will simply choose to spend more prudently,” Mr Lee said.

Q: When will more details on GST for digital services be revealed?

The finance ministry said IRAS will release draft e-tax guides by the end of this month.  

BoE's Carney says Bitcoin has "pretty much failed" as currency, 20 Feb 2018 13:35:14 +0800LONDON: Bitcoin has failed as a currency measured by standard benchmarks, and is neither a store of value nor a useful way to buy things, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said on Monday.

"It has pretty much failed thus far on ... the traditional aspects of money. It is not a store of value because it is all over the map. Nobody uses it as a medium of exchange," Carney told students at London's Regent's University.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney speaks during the central bank's quarterly inflation repo

But the crypto-currency's underlying technology may still prove useful as a way to verify financial transactions in a decentralised way, he added in response to a question.

The central bank governor also said that, to make Britain's departure from the European Union in March 2019 as smooth as possible, British regulators intended to give financial institutions "the benefit of the doubt, beyond the last minute".

Sterling's movements were largely driven by financial speculation over Brexit, and he said British and European officials were working hard to secure a transitional deal before the end of March.

"Everyone is very focused on that. It obviously won't be a hard, legally binding agreement. But I can tell you that if 28 leaders agree to something that has legal text associated with it, which will be part of the separation agreement, that should be good enough," he said.

Carney made the comments in a question and answer session after giving a speech on leadership, in which he stressed the importance of humility and empathy and said financiers should not be motivated purely by profit.

(Reporting by David Milliken; Editing by Catherine Evans and John Stonestreet)

NuStar, other energy partnerships simplify business models to spur growth, 20 Feb 2018 13:10:37 +0800HOUSTON: Some publicly-traded U.S. energy pipeline and oil-storage partnerships are restructuring into simpler business models to help attract new investors and spur growth.

Rising oil and gas production has spawned billions of dollars of new transport, gathering and storage projects. But the companies most responsible for these projects can allocate up to 50 percent of their income to the general partner, leaving less for other holders or to invest in new projects.

FILE PHOTO: A pumping station owned by Tallgrass Energy is pictured in Guernsey

Historically, these firms have passed most of their income along to holders and sold equity or debt to finance new projects or acquisitions. But in the last year, what they have had to offer investors has jumped. MPLX Energy Logistics LP, for instance, paid a 9.7 percent annualized distribution last quarter to its holders, up from 7.9 percent a year earlier, according to figures from investment firm East Daley Capital Advisors.

"The higher cash yield makes the economics of these projects a little tougher," said Kendrick Rhea, an analyst at East Daley Capital. He estimates the cost of equity has risen nearly a third for some companies in the last year.

NuStar Energy and ArchRock in recent weeks said they would cut income distributions to the general partners and combine units, shifting away from the general and limited partners structures common among energy pipeline and storage firms. Competitor TallGrass Energy in early February said it was considering a similar change.

"Removing a layer of complexity makes a lot more investible," said James Mick, a portfolio manager for Tortoise, which invests in energy master limited partnerships (MLPs). Private equity firms have been successfully acquiring pipeline operators in the shale patch because of their lower cost of capital. They are proving strong rivals to MLPs for these deals because of their willingness to use more debt financing.

Nustar, Archrock and TallGrass did not respond to requests for comment.

An early move away from partnership models came in 2014 when Kinder Morgan Inc, then the largest publicly traded pipeline partnership, folded three units into a single company to address investor concerns about its growth and financial structure.

Mick estimates that up to 75 percent of the MLPs Tortoise covers will have eliminated incentive distribution rights within the next two years to free up cash for growth. As of last year, about 51 percent had eliminated their payouts, called Incentive Distribution Rights (IDRs), compared with 4 percent in 2007, he said.

Another factor in the restructurings are institutional investors seeking stronger governance and more independent boards. In some cases, about 80 percent of a limited partner's board will be comprised of individuals appointed by the general partner, investors said.

"In the real world, I don't see how directors can be truly independent and represent the best interests of the limited partners if they can be fired by the general partner," said Kevin McCarthy, chief executive officer at investment firm Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors.

Restructuring the partnerships to resemble corporations could draw renewed interest from investors, helping the firms raise new cash.

"Our view is that governance has to change if the sector is going to move to the next level and attract the attention of long-only institutional investors," McCarthy added.

Although mature MLPs are revamping their structures, newer firms that go public are expected to continue using mechanisms such as IDRs to encourage growth. Hess Corp and BP Plc last year both launched MLPs that included incentive distribution payments to partners.

"It is unlikely they will go away for new issuance and partnership structures moving forward. They are simply too lucrative if executed correctly," said Ethan Bellamy, a senior research analyst with R.W. Baird & Co.

(Reporting by Liz Hampton; Editing by Gary McWilliams and Tom Brown)

Olympics: Virtue, Moir win second ice dance gold with world record, 20 Feb 2018 13:05:36 +0800GANGNEUNG, South Korea: Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir claimed their second Olympic gold medal with a brilliant free dance on Tuesday (Feb 20), edging to the top of the podium by less than a point and breaking the world record into the bargain.

Skating last to Moulin Rouge, the pair embraced and grinned on the ice after their dynamic performance that had the audience roaring.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics

They won with a total score of 206.07, eclipsing the world record that had been set just moments before by French pair Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who finished on 205.28.

"We don't know what the future holds quite yet but it definitely feels like we're getting close to the end of our career," Moir told OBS, the official Olympics broadcaster.

The pair had previously said this would be their last Olympics and hinted that retirement from competition - this time for good - might be on the cards soon.

"We're just proud of our accomplishments at these Games. The goal was to win two golds but it's a really intense competition," Moir added.

"We have such respect especially for Gabriella and Guillaume. We're pretty happy with how things turned out, that's for sure."

The Canadian pair, who won gold in Vancouver eight years ago, have dominated the event since they returned to competition after retiring following a silver at the Sochi Games four years ago. They also have a team silver from Sochi and gold at Pyeongchang, won last week.

They made a comeback late in 2016 and powered to a number of world records with only one defeat along the way.

That loss - in the Grand Prix Final in Japan last December - was to Papadakis and Cizeron, and prompted the fiercely-competitive Canadians to return home and tweak their programme in response.

Papadakis and Cizeron struggled in their short programme on Monday after the top of Papadakis's costume came loose, and were 1.74 points behind the Canadians entering Tuesday's free dance.

The pair's ethereal free dance had the audience at the Gangneung Ice Arena clapping and set a new world record for both the free skate - they scored 123.35 and topped the Canadians - and the total score.


Virtue and Moir broke that record fewer than 15 minutes later, when they scored 122.40 in the free programme.

"We are really proud of what we did today," Cizeron said. "We did the best we could on the ice and it was a very emotional moment and we're really proud of that silver medal."

Papadakis said Tuesday's performance had made their Olympic debut special.

"Today we did something we never thought we could do. We've never skated that way before," she told a news conference.

"To do that in our first Olympics is really something that we're proud of."

Earlier, when asked if she had taken special steps to avoid any more costume problems, she laughed and told reporters, "Yeah, we made sure."

American siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, known as the "Shib Sibs", won bronze after entering the free dance in fourth. They finished on 192.59.

"I am so proud of what we accomplished," Maia told reporters.

"To have four skates on Olympic ice that we can be extremely proud of and to come away with two Olympic medals for Team USA and ourselves and everyone that has supported us, it's almost indescribable."

Alex said the experience fulfilled their dreams.

"It was amazing to finally have that Olympic moment because four years ago in Sochi we left with a lot of experience, but still yearning to have that really special moment on Olympic ice that we've grown up watching."

Australia's deputy PM loses support of state branch amid sex scandal PacificTue, 20 Feb 2018 13:05:30 +0800SYDNEY: A state branch of the Australian National Party has pulled its support for Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce because of his extramarital affair, its leader said on Tuesday, opening a new rift in the ruling coalition.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who introduced a ban on sexual relationships between ministers and their staff on Thursday, said Joyce had shown a "shocking error of judgment" by conducting an affair with his former press secretary, who is now pregnant.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce arrives during House of Representatives Question Tim

Joyce, the National Party's federal leader, has refused to resign, maintaining he has the support of his party.

But the Western Australian branch of the party disagreed.

"I have today contacted Barnaby Joyce to inform him he no longer has the support of the Parliamentary National Party of Western Australia as the Leader of the Federal National Party," Western Australia state leader Mia Davies said in a statement.

"Mr Joyce's actions have caused pain for his family but it is the ongoing damage Mr Joyce is causing the Nationals' organisation that is of greatest concern to me."

As the National Party leader, Joyce is automatically deputy prime minister under the conventions of a century-old coalition between his rural party and the conservative Liberals.

The move adds fuel to a political storm which has held newspaper front pages for weeks. Joyce, who rose to global attention by deporting two undeclared dogs owned by actor Johnny Depp in 2015, has campaigned as a Catholic with traditional family values.

Still, none of the 16 National Party members of Australia's 150-seat federal parliament is from Western Australia so a loss of support from a state branch with no federal parliamentary presence would not destabilise a government despite its majority of only one seat.

"I find it surprising that a federal issue has so much momentum in the west when people in the east in the National Party have, in the majority, a different view and ... vastly more skin in the game," the Sydney Morning Herald quoted Joyce as saying.

Two-thirds of Australian voters want Joyce to resign over the affair, according to The Australian newspaper's Newspoll, and there is concern that disapproval could lead to fewer votes in state-based elections.

Veteran West Australian political analyst David Black said it was unusual for the state branch to withdraw support for a federal leader.

"It's not easy to find a precedent for this sort of thing, but then again it's not easy to find a precedent for what Barnaby did, in taking on the prime minister," said Black who has analysed politics since the 1970s.

"He didn't just refuse to resign but came out swinging."

The National Party's Western Australian branch is under pressure following a poor performance in the 2017 state election. The mineral-rich state is scheduled to go to the polls again in 2021.

"The Nationals' brand across regional Western Australia has suffered as a result of Mr Joyce's actions and he has become a distraction at both federal and state level," the state leader, Davies, said.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)

GST hike not the only option considered for raising revenue: Indranee, 20 Feb 2018 12:46:47 +0800SINGAPORE: The increase in goods and services tax (GST) was not the only option considered for raising revenue, but it is the most sustainable source of income over the long-term, said Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law Indranee Rajah.

“There are a few other things we have explored as well … But GST is the one that will give you, over the long term, a sustained revenue of sufficient amount that will take care of our expenditure needs, for healthcare, infrastructure, security and education,” Ms Indranee said on Tuesday (Feb 20) on 938NOW’s Talkback call-in programme.

Indranee on KOM(Photo:Mediacorp)

Calling the changes that Singapore faces “unprecedented”, Ms Indranee highlighted the country’s greying demographic, saying that “the number of people who are getting older, in the next five to 15 years, is not something that Singapore has seen before”.

“So, the need to spend more is going to jump. And that is the reason why we have to look at the GST. Because what you really want is long-term sustainable revenue. Cutting expenditure will help, and that is something we must do and have done. But in and of itself, it will not take care of the increased expenditure that we will need,” she added.

Ms Indranee acknowledged the impact of the GST on low-income groups, but she also explained to a caller why it was not feasible to exempt some basic goods and services from the tax.

“Let's just take rice, for example. Rice is eaten by not only the low income, but also the high income. So if let's say we exempt rice, then you're also exempting the high income from paying GST on rice. And then, do you say you'll have GST only on white rice and not on brown rice? How about organic rice? So, firstly, it's going to be very difficult to administer. But if you say you'll exempt all rice, actually, given that the higher income are the ones who can afford to buy more, they are likely to benefit more,” she said.

Another listener asked if the government would consider bringing back the estate duty - or taxes collected on wealth inherited after an individual’s death - which was abolished in February 2008.

“As Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam explained in Parliament (at that time), it's the middle income who are more affected by it. The ones who are wealthier are able to do their estate and tax planning and figure out how to get round the worst of it,” Ms Indranee said.

Ms Indranee added that the government also decided against having a wealth tax, because it wants Singapore to be a place for wealth management.

“That creates employment in the financial industry. So, it's a balance. We have decided against having the wealth tax, and I don't think we'll be changing that, at least not at this stage,” she said.

A luxury tax was another form of wealth tax that the finance ministry had considered, but eventually decided not to adopt, partly because it would not have brought in enough revenue.

“There are only so many handbags you can buy, only so many watches you can buy, only so many people who can afford those. So, you wouldn't be able to get the kind of revenue that you do need to support healthcare, infrastructure, security, education,” she said.

“The second thing is that it's also going to impact the retailers here, retailing those luxury goods … We decided at the end of the day, it's not going to bring in a huge amount of revenue that would do what we needed to do, and that's the reason why we have not put it in,” she added.

When asked why the government decided to give out the SG Bonus, considering the projected increased expenditures in the near term, Ms Indranee said that it was because of the government’s commitment to share part of the surplus from this financial year’s Budget.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced during his Budget speech on Monday that all Singaporeans aged 21 and above this year will get a one-off SG Bonus of up to S$300 each.

This comes after Singapore’s revised Budget position for FY2017 showed a surplus of S$9.61 billion, helped by exceptional contributions from Statutory Boards and higher-than-expected Stamp Duty.

The SG Bonus will cost the government S$700 million. 

“The surplus was more than expected, about S$9.6 billion in total … We've set aside S$5 billion for infrastructure, and put that into the Rail Fund. Another S$2 billion, we've set aside for ElderShield ... Then, we’ve got extra, we must share. We must share it with Singaporeans, and that's part of our commitment as the government,” Ms Indranee said.

South Korean Olympic skaters face backlash for shaming teammate, 20 Feb 2018 12:28:29 +0800GANGNEUNG, South Korea: South Korean speed skaters faced an angry backlash Tuesday (Feb 20) after shaming a teammate in a live interview, prompting calls for their expulsion from the Olympic team.

Kim Bo-reum and her team finished seventh in the 500m team pursuit Monday, failing to qualify for the semi-finals at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

South Korean speed skaters

On live TV Kim blamed teammate Noh Seon-yeong, who fell a long way behind during the race.

"We were skating well," Kim said. Then she sniggered and added: "But the last skater (Noh) couldn't keep up and we had a disappointing score."

Park Ji-woo, also in the team, added: "It wasn't that we didn't think this would happen with Sun-yeong... "

Television footage showed Noh bursting into tears after the race, but Kim and Park ignored her.

Angry South Koreans started a petition demanding that Kim and Park be expelled from the national team. More than 222,000 people had signed up as of Tuesday morning.

"It is a clear national disgrace that such people with a personality problem are representing a country in the Olympics," read the petition posted on the official website of South Korea's presidential office.

"We are petitioning that Kim Bo-reum and Park Ji-woo forfeit their rights as national athletes and be banned from international competitions including the Olympics."

Kim closed down her instagram account hours after facing a flood of negative comments from outraged fans. Her sponsor, sportswear manufacturer NEPA, reportedly said it will not be renewing her contract when it expires at the end of the month.

The Korea Sports and Olympics Committee declined to comment on calls for the expulsion the two skaters.

Japan's Sony to form alliance to build taxi-hailing system, 20 Feb 2018 12:25:11 +0800TOKYO: Sony Corp said on Tuesday it would become the latest blue-chip firm to jockey for position in Japan's taxi and ride-hailing market, with plans for a joint venture to develop an artificial intelligence-based hailing system.

Japan is seen as a potentially lucrative ride-hailing market, with regulators under pressure to ease stringent rules.

Currently, non-professional drivers are barred from offering taxi services on safety grounds, and ride-hailing companies are limited to services that "match" users to existing taxi fleets via mobile platforms.

Sony plans to build the AI-based hailing platform with Daiwa Motor Transportation and five other domestic taxi firms.

This month, SoftBank Group Corp and China's Didi Chuxing said they would roll out a venture in Japan this year to provide matching services.

Toyota Motor Corp has said it will take a stake in taxi-hailing service JapanTaxi, set up by Japan's largest taxi firm, Nihon Kotsu.

Uber's new chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, is in Tokyo meeting regulators on his first visit to the region in post.

(Reporting by Minami Funakoshi and Sam Nussey in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Susan Mathew in Bengaluru; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Stephen Coates)

Afghanistan's ArtLords daub walls with messages of defiance, hope, 20 Feb 2018 12:05:10 +0800KABUL: Activists in Afghanistan are speaking out against corruption and spreading messages of peace and social justice with murals, many painted on concrete blast walls that have risen to ward off militant bombs.

The activists call themselves the ArtLords, as opposed to the warlords and druglords who have brought so much strife and misery to Afghanistan, and say their art is a tool for social change.

"We're painting against corruption, we're painting against the injustices that are happening in society, for women's rights," said the group's co-founder, Omaid Sharifi.

"We're encouraging people to come and join us, let's raise our voices against all this nonsense."

Blast walls have gone up along Kabul's streets over the years, against a tide of violence as Taliban and other militants battle the government and U.S.-led forces, nearly 17 years after Afghanistan's latest phase of war began.

Some city streets have been turned into concrete canyons, the walls shielding embassies, military camps, government offices and the homes of the rich.

On many of these grey slabs, the ArtLords have their say.

Watchful eyes peer from a wall protecting the headquarters of the main security agency.

"I can't go to school because of your corruption. I can see you," is the message on a mural of a girl on blast walls near the interior ministry.

Another mural, of a black SUV with its windows tinted, takes a dig at the powerful and privileged.

"What are you carrying, that your windows are black?" reads the message. "You don't have a license plate and don't stop for searches."

A painting of a shoeshine boy says: "Don't set off an explosion here, innocent people get killed."

Other murals extol the city's street-sweeper "heroes", encourage anti-polio efforts, and call for women's rights.

Sharifi says he always gets permission for his work, though it can be a struggle. The group gets commissions from Afghan and international groups for "awareness raising and advocacy" and sells smaller artworks.

Recently, on a cold, grey morning, the ArtLords were at the American University of Afghanistan, working on a mural on the tightly guarded campus to highlight resilience against violence.

A 2016 militant attack on the university killed 16 people and shattered its image as an island of liberalism and learning.

Students came to help paint a picture of a young man and woman picking up their books, with a phoenix rising and the words: "I am back because education prevails".

"Kabul has been surrounded with blast walls which infuriate people but this art has a message of hope," said student Faisal Imran, who took his turn with a brush.

(Reporting by Robert Birsel)

Japanese 'baby factory' man wins custody of 13 kids born to Thai surrogates PacificTue, 20 Feb 2018 11:59:54 +0800BANGKOK: A Bangkok court on Tuesday (Feb 20) granted a Japanese man "sole parent" rights to 13 children he fathered through Thai surrogate mothers, a ruling that paves the way for him to take custody of the group.

Mitsutoki Shigeta caused a "baby factory" scandal in 2014 after Thai police said DNA samples linked him to nine infants found in a Bangkok apartment, plus at least four other babies born by surrogates.

Kong Suriyamontol, the Thai lawyer for Japanese national Mitsutoki Shigeta, speaks to the press(Photo:AFP)

The murky case threw the spotlight on Thailand's then unregulated rent-a-womb industry, and helped push authorities to bar foreigners from paying for Thai surrogates in 2015.

Shigeta, the son of a Japanese tycoon, left the country in the wake of the scandal but later sued Thailand's Ministry of Social Development and Human Security for custody of the children.

"For the happiness and opportunities which the 13 children will receive from their biological father, who does not have a history of bad behaviour, the court rules that all 13 born from surrogacy to be legal children of the plaintiff," Bangkok's Central Juvenile Court said in a statement.

Shigeta, who did not attend the trial in person, was deemed the "sole parent" of the children after the Thai surrogates had signed away their rights, the court said.

As he comes from a wealthy family, he has ample money and has prepared nurses and nannies to care for the children in Japan, the ruling stated.

Shigeta's lawyer said he would contact the Social Welfare Ministry, who has taken care of the children since the scandal broke in 2014, about the next steps in transferring them from state custody.

Shigeta hired the Thai surrogates before the kingdom banned the lucrative trade in 2015, following a string of scandals and custody tussles.

Surrogacy agencies quickly migrated to neighbouring Cambodia, who followed suit and barred the industry in 2016.

In recent months there have been signs the industry has shifted to Laos, an opaque communist country with no restrictions on surrogacy.

Some surrogacy agencies are now offering services to carry out the embryo transfer in Laos and then provide pregnancy care for the surrogate in Thailand, a wealthier country with vastly superior medical facilities.

Samsung Elec to slash OLED panel production as iPhone X demand disappoints: Nikkei, 20 Feb 2018 11:50:26 +0800TOKYO: Samsung Electronics Co will slash output of its organic light-emitting diode (OLED) panels in response to its customer Apple Inc's decision to cut production of iPhone X amid weak demand, the Nikkei reported on Tuesday.

Samsung Display, the panel-making unit of Samsung Electronics, now plans to make OLED panels for 20 million or fewer iPhones at the South Chungcheong plant in the January-March quarter, significantly lower than its initial goal of supplying panels for 45 million to 50 million iPhones, the Nikkei reported.

FILE PHOTO: An iPhone X is seen on a large video screen in the new Apple Visitor Center in Cupertino

Samsung Electronics stock fell as much as 2.3 percent in morning trade, while shares of Japanese OLED component makers, such as Hodogaya Chemical Co and Hirata Corp, also declined.

Samsung Display has yet to set a production target for the April-June period, but a further cutback is possible, the Nikkei reported, without citing sources.

A spokesman for Samsung Display declined to comment.

Apple will halve its iPhone X production target for the first three months of the year to around 20 million units, the Nikkei reported last month, adding to growing concerns about weak sales of the US$999 phone.

The iPhone X was the first phone to get a major design overhaul since the launch of the iPhone 6 in 2015, and many expected it to lead to blockbuster sales.

(Reporting by Minami Funakoshi in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Ju-Min Park in Seoul; Editing by Amrutha Gayathri)

Exclusive: GM offers US$2.2 billion debt for equity swap in return for Seoul's support - sources, 20 Feb 2018 11:45:39 +0800SEOUL: General Motors has offered to convert debt of around US$2.2 billion owed by its ailing South Korean operation into equity in exchange for financial support and tax benefits from Seoul, four sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.

The restructuring proposal comes after the Detroit automaker announced last week that it would shut its plant in the city of Gunsan, southwest of Seoul, by May and decide the future of the remaining three plants in the country within weeks.

The main gate to GM Korea's Gunsan factory is seen in Gunsan

The debt for equity swap would allow GM's business in South Korea to continue operating. It was not immediately clear how the deal would affect the interest of the state-run Korea Development Bank, which owns 17 percent of GM Korea.

(Additional reporting by Cynthia Kim; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Philip McClellan)

GM plans to produce two new models in South Korea: South Korea lawmaker, 20 Feb 2018 11:40:46 +0800SEOUL: General Motors Co plans to produce two new models in South Korea, a local lawmaker quoted GM executive Barry Engle as saying at a meeting with South Korean members of parliament.

Engle, president of GM International, did not elaborate on whether GM's plan for the two new car models were dependent on government support for the automaker, said Kim Sung-tae who attended the meeting.

GM Korea's labour union leaders deliver a letter to Hong Young-pyo in Seoul

GM announced last week it will shutter a plant in the city of Gunsan, in South Korea's southwest, by May and decide within weeks on the fate of the remaining three plants in the country.

(Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin; Writing by Christine Kim; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

Former cyclone Gita hits New Zealand; emergency declared in southern city PacificTue, 20 Feb 2018 11:40:38 +0800WELLINGTON: New Zealand's national carrier on Tuesday cancelled all flights in and out of the capital, Wellington, and the southern city of Christchurch declared a state of emergency as the remnants of tropical cyclone Gita pummelled the country.

Even before the storm hit in full force, heavy rains in the centre of New Zealand brought floods in Christchurch, prompting a warning from Mayor Lianne Dalziel.

"The full impact of the storm will be felt overnight and tomorrow morning," she said, urging residents of low-lying areas to evacuate. "We are expecting homes to be flooded."

Air New Zealand said all flights to the capital would be grounded from 2.45 p.m. (0145 GMT) as weather authorities issued warnings of severe weather and heavy rain and gusts of up to 150 kph (93 mph).

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said troops had fanned out to areas likely to be the hardest hit and the national Civil Defence office in Wellington was on standby to help.

"My message still to people is please look out for your local warnings and expect disruption to travel and please just be careful," she told reporters at parliament.

Cyclone Gita hit the Pacific island nations of Fiji and Tonga last week, packing winds up to 275 kph (171 mph). Fiji escaped major damage but Tonga suffered widespread destruction and flooding. Earlier, the storm had caused extensive damage in Samoa and American Samoa.

The cyclone had since been downgraded to a storm, but forecasters said it was still likely to wreak havoc on Tuesday evening as it traversed the centre of New Zealand.

Parts of the country are still reeling from a huge storm that prompted authorities to declare states of emergency at the beginning of February.

More than 40 schools and preschools shut in the upper South Island, while mayors urged people to stay home.

Transport authorities shut a stretch of highway along the east coast of the South Island and the Department of Conservation was closing seaside hiking tracks and campsites along the West Coast and ushering tourists away from low-lying areas, media said.

(Reporting by Charlotte GreenfieldEditing by Clarence Fernandez)