May 25, 2017

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Sharanya Pillai

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Someone using the Uber app while a taxi passes by

by Sharanya Pillai

PRIVATE-HIRE cars are now the rage on Singapore’s roads. Thanks to the likes of Uber and Grab, the number of chauffeur-driven private cars in Singapore is at an all-time high of over 40,000, The Straits Times reported yesterday (May 24). This is a 70-fold increase from 2013, when the ride-hailing disruptors first entered the scene. 

The taxi industry is facing stiff competition, given that the number of private-hire cars is now 1.5 times the number of taxis. The bulk of the increase comes from passenger cars that are converted into commercial ones via Grab and Uber. We look at the ways anyone can ride a car now:

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1. Economy and luxury cars

Ride-hailing apps Grab and Uber offer private rides on different price levels. Uber comes with the choice of UberX, regular economy cars, or UberExec, which offers models such as the Audi A3 and BMW 3-Series.

Similarly, GrabCar has two price ranges: Economy and Premium. For an extra $2, you can also hire a GrabFamily car, that comes with a booster seat for a child.

Both companies also offer SUVs that can seat up to six people.

2. Pool for a lower price

Sharing a ride isn’t just in vogue for late-night TV hosts, but also for budget-conscious customers. Uber rolled out the ride-sharing service UberPool last June, which matches passengers travelling along the same route, for a cheaper fare. Last year, one in every three UberX rides was pooled.

Not to be outdone by its rival, Grab launched a similar service, GrabShare, in December. One difference is that Grab only allows for two bookings to be pooled – minimising interruptions to the journey.

3. Get social with strangers

Grab’s social carpooling service GrabHitch lets customers share the ride with drivers heading to the same destination. Unlike the other services, GrabHitch is marketed as a “social” platform to meet new people, where customers are encouraged to take the front seat and talk to the drivers – not really for those who might prefer a quiet ride.

Another carpooling startup, RYDE, also markets itself as a social platform. Like GrabHitch, RYDE customers can choose their drivers, and the fee is determined based on distance. Prices are generally cheaper than regular taxis.

4. Getting the best deal

With the expanding number of choices, it can become difficult to determine which might be the most affordable or value-for-money option. British startup Karhoo was poised to help with that, by offering a ride-booking app that compares prices across all the competitors – but its Singapore office abruptly halted operations last year. For now, it seems like math skills and reading online reviews might be the best way for the budget-conscious.

With all the excitement over the disruption, it may seem like ride-hailing apps are the new royalty on the roads, it doesn’t seem like the traditional taxis are going away anytime soon. In its bid to take over SMRT’s taxi business, Grab faces obstacles in the form of concerns over the jobs of taxi drivers.

The ride-hailing apps may also need to rejig their business models to ensure stability, according to experts interviewed by The Straits Times. While Uber and Grab have tried to “out-discount” each other, offering promotions into the long-term is unsustainable, the experts said. Notably, Uber has been bleeding money at an alarming rate – which raises the question of whether the private car model is truly a profitable model.

But for now, as the incumbents and disruptors compete to dominate the roads, it looks like consumers can continue to benefit from the sweet deals arising.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Sharanya Pillai

IN THE aftermath of Changi Airport Group’s (CAG) response to the fire at Terminal 2 (T2), the report card is mixed.

There was some praise for CAG’s response. Aviation experts approved of the move to shut down the entire terminal, even though the the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) said that the fire, which was in a room storing air-conditioning equipment, was “small”. While some have pinpointed the airport’s open design as a contributing factor to the spread of the smoke, another expert conceded that the “benefits of an open design outweigh the fire problems”.

Meanwhile, the SCDF was lauded by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for dealing with two other fires on the same day, in Punggol Field and a Woodlands condominium.

So far, so good. CAG, however, is still battling flames over its communications strategy, with some people noting that passengers could have been notified earlier, and the transfer of passengers from T2 to T3 managed better. CAG has acknowledged the delay, but a few questions also remain, such as how exactly the fire started and whether it could have been prevented.

As more details trickle in, we look at some key numbers about the incident.

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30 minutes was how long it took for an evacuation to be ordered by the chief of the Airport Emergency Service after the fire was detected.

15,000 is the estimated number of people, including airport staff, evacuated from T2.

40 is the number of T2 flights affected.

1,000 is the estimated number of people stranded on the tarmac, and

4 hours is how long they were stuck there before being transferred to T3.

1 hour was how long the SCDF took to put out the fire.

1 hour lapsed between the detection of the fire and CAG posting social media updates on Facebook and Twitter about the situation.

Another hour later, CAG announced on social media that T2 flights will be moved to T3.

7 is the number of people provided with medical assistance. Three were taken to Changi General Hospital for smoke inhalation, while four were treated at the airport clinic.

3 is the number of units damaged in T2. Restaurants Chutney Mary and Nando’s on the third floor suffered water damage from the sprinklers while an office on the fifth floor was flooded.

8 hours 50 mins was approximately how long T2 was shut down for.

Some 24 hours after the scare, the world’s best airport is up and running again, with the exception of the damaged eateries. CAG said that it is continuing investigations with the authorities.

 

 

Featured image by Wikimedia user Terence Ong CC BY-SA 3.0.

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by Sharanya Pillai

THE country’s youngest public university hopes that age will be no limit for learning how to create social impact.

The Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), which became the sixth autonomous university here yesterday (Mar 8), wants to weave in social sciences into fields beyond the humanities, such as business and engineering, while also catering to older students.

SUSS was formerly a private institution, the Singapore Institute of Management University,  and also known as the go-to place for a part-time degree. The university currently offers 60 part-time courses to about 13,200 students.

And even as it increases its intake of full-time students from 580 to 1,000 over the next few years, SUSS hopes to keep catering to adult learners, through collaborations with the SkillsFuture Singapore Agency to develop more applied degrees.

According to Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, SUSS will differentiate itself by adopting a social focus, The Straits Times reported. All full-time students will be required to take on social projects and advocate for a cause – although specifics have yet to be released.

With more goods in the marketplace, will potential undergraduates have to confront the tyranny of choice? We look at how the six institutions are setting themselves apart:

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1. More niche courses on offer

National University of Singapore (NUS): The country’s oldest university, NUS, offers over 50 full-time degrees, including exclusive courses such as dentistry and music. It also offers graduate medicine at Duke-NUS Medical School, and a liberal arts education at Yale-NUS College. Last year, NUS launched a new data science and analytics degree, amid the growing popularity of computing courses.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU): Offering over 50 full-time degrees as well, NTU last year rolled out a new integrated programme allowing business and accountancy students to earn both an honours degree and a Masters in Financial Engineering, among other engineering and biomedical degrees. It also offers a specialised degree in sport science and management.

Singapore Management University (SMU): The university has seven undergraduate programmes, in accountancy, business management, law, economics, information systems and social science, as well as a new SUTD-SMU dual degree programme in technology and management. Last year it launched two new majors: entrepreneurship, and politics, law and economics (PLE), for those pursuing degrees in business management and social science respectively.

Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD): Established in 2009, SUTD offers four undergraduate programmes: architecture and sustainable design, engineering product development, engineering systems and design, and information systems technology and design. This year, it announced a new 4.5 year integrated Bachelor and Master Programme in Technology Entrepreneurship under the SUTD Technology Entrepreneurship Programme (STEP).

Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT): The university has over 40 degree programmes across five specialisations: engineering, chemical engineering and food technology, infocomm technology, health and social science, and design and specialised business. Last year, it introduced seven new applied degrees, such as those in telematics and food technology.

SUSS: The newly-minted autonomous university currently offers full-time programmes in fields including law, early childhood education and supply chain management. Under the SUSS-Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) programme, non-graduate SAF staff can also enrol in a SUSS degree with a minor in military studies. The SAF also has existing partnerships with SMU and NTU.

 

2. Zhng your education: Special programmes

NUS: The University Scholars Programme and University Town College Programme promote interdisciplinary and residential learning. The NUS Overseas College (NOC) gives entrepreneurial students exposure to start-up ecosystems abroad.

NTU: Like its NUS counterpart, the NTU-University Scholars Programme is based on an interdisciplinary curriculum. The Renaissance Engineering Programme encompasses business, engineering and the liberal arts, while the CN Yang Scholars Programme delves into mathematics, science and engineering.

SMU: The SMU LifeLessons programme emphasises on a “values-based” system providing students community service, internship and student exchange opportunities.

SUTD: The SUTD-MIT International Design Centre conducts programmes such as Design Odyssey and Design Innovation @ Singapore to encourage students to innovate.

SIT: Value-added programmes on engineering software, as well as foreign cultures and languages, are provided to students free of charge.

SUSS: Service-learning is mandatory for full-time undergraduates, who will have to work on a project over at least two years with a community partner. There is also a compulsory overseas exposure programme – in the form of a study mission, service-learning project, summer school programme or work attachment.

 

3. Upgrade U: Focus on lifelong learning

NUS: The School of Continuing and Lifelong Education (SCALE), the newest faculty of NUS, offers Bachelor of Technology programmes and certified courses for working adults. In its most recent initiative, the university is also offering some free modules for alumni.

NTU: The Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) offers short courses in fields including accountancy, education and engineering, as well as a two-week summer programme teaching soft skills and communication.

SMU: The newly-established SMU Academy offers modules that can lead up towards obtaining graduate degrees, diplomas or certificates from the university. Each module can be completed in three sessions.

SUTD: The Lifelong Initiative for Education (LIFE) provides SUTD graduates $500 to enrol in further education courses, such as in cyber security, design innovation and advanced manufacturing.

SIT: The SITLEARN Professional Development provides further upgrading courses in fields including allied health, hospitality and engineering.

SUSS: Lifelong learning is front and centre of SUSS’ rebranding, and something that will set the university apart from the others, said Minister Ong. Among its initiatives are an Overseas Study Mission that comes with a SkillsFuture study award, as well as Continuing Education and Training courses fields such as construction and financial services.

At first glance, the six universities may seem similar in the range of courses offered – it takes some research to fully appreciate the differences in curriculum and course structure. Going inter-disciplinary definitely seems to be the trend now, with more universities offering uncommon combinations of disciplines. NTU, which has long been known for its strength in engineering, has jazzed up degrees in materials engineering with second majors including food science and medical biology. Meanwhile, SMU has added a smart city management major to its Information Systems programme, which marries information technology (IT) with business, social and environmental issues. It also carries the same buzzwords as the G’s Smart Nation initiative.

While moving forward with the new and shiny, the universities also seem mindful of their evolving role – as not just a place to earn a degree, but also an institution of higher learning for alumni and adults. We are already seeing more 50 to 60-year-olds pursuing diplomas. Perhaps more will embark on degree programmes in the coming years.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Alex.ch. CC BY 2.0

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by Sharanya Pillai

AFTER the 2001 General Elections (GE), there was the “Super Seven”, or what The Straits Times then described as “the circle of high-fliers fast-tracked into high political office”.

They were then fresh faces: Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Mr Cedric Foo, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, Mr Raymond Lim, Mr Ng Eng Hen, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam and the late Dr Balaji Sadasivan. Today, we know them as past and present flagbearers of the G. Except for Mr Foo, who did not hold political office after 2005, and Mr Lim, who left the fray in 2015.

Now, over a decade later, there are seven again.

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This time, the MSM has settled on a broader catchphrase: the 4G, or fourth generation of leaders, who were elected in the 2011 and 2015 GEs. Among the newly-minted ministers are Messrs Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat, Desmond Lee, Ng Chee Meng, Ong Ye Kung, Tan Chuan-Jin and Lawrence Wong.

But the 4G batch extends well beyond the superstar shortlist. A count by The Middle Ground found that over a third of all political office-holders – including Ministers of State, parliamentary secretaries and mayors – are new kids on the block.


As represented in red above, the 4G makes up about 34 per cent of current appointees – a sure sign of rapid renewal, as compared to 2004, when Mr Lee Hsien Loong took over as Prime Minister (PM).

In our analysis, we considered those elected in 2001 and 2006 to be of the “3G” batch, while those elected in the 1980s and 90s are of the “2G” cohort. And of course, who else could be of the “1G” category other than the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who was Minister Mentor from 2004 to 2011.

The 4G leaders are certainly making their presence felt, especially with PM Lee’s May Day announcement: the Council for Skills, Innovation and Productivity (CSIP) is getting a new name and new blood. The rebranded Future Economy Council (FEC) comes with Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat taking the reins from Deputy PM Tharman, as well as the addition of Second Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and departure of Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say. Both Mr Heng and Mr Wong were elected in 2011.

It is also interesting to note that the key members of the FEC mirror those of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), set up in 2016. Confusingly similar acronyms aside, both committees are almost exclusively made up of 3G and 4G members, with the exception of 2G stalwart and Minister for Trade and Industry S Iswaran.

Other 4G members climbing up the ranks include Dr Janil Puthucheary, Dr Koh Poh Koon and Mr Chee Hong Tat, who will be promoted to senior ministers in their current ministries. The promotion will now give them access to Cabinet meetings and perhaps open new pathways for their rise.

With the ascent of the 4G, it’ll be interesting to watch how the 3G batch progresses as well. Female representation has been wanting in Cabinet, but 3G Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo snagged a promotion to join Ms Grace Fu in serving as a full minister. Mrs Teo will be shadowing 2G minister Lim Swee Say.

PM Lee has made no secret of his plans for leadership renewal. The 4G batch provides a diverse pool age-wise, with a median age of 45 – the youngest being Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Health Amrin Amin, 39. Pundits are already shortlisting the likes of Mr Chan, Mr Ong and Mr Heng to be the next PM.

But if the Super Seven has taught us anything, it’s that not everyone chosen can stand the heat. It remains to be seen who stays and who leaves the kitchen.

 

Featured image by William Cho from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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by Sharanya Pillai

WHEN it comes to building their love nest, it seems like young Singaporean couples prefer the tried and tested – even if it is more expensive.

Last year, one in five first-time HDB buyers opted for resale flats over new Build-To-Order (BTO) flats, The Straits Times reported yesterday (May 3).  This is nearly twice the number of buyers who did so in 2012.

Thus far, HDB has reserved 95 per cent of BTO flats for first-time buyers. Heavily subsidised, these flats are often considered the most financially prudent option for first timers, especially since they come with a fresh 99-year lease, experts told The Middle Ground.

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But a desire for familiarity and a shorter waiting time are driving more young Singaporeans to the resale market, noted OrangeTee’s head of research and consultancy Wong Xian Yang.

This trend is set to continue, with stable prices in the resale market and more subsidies from the G, Mr Wong added. This year’s Budget, for instance, raised the CPF Housing Grant for resale flats for first timer couples, allowing them to enjoy up to $110,000 in total subsidies. Meanwhile, the supply of potential resale flats in 2016 was also 80 per cent more than the previous year.

“Since 2013, HDB resale prices have come down by about 10 per cent. People are more confident that the prices [have] stabilised and should not correct further. And so with more grants, many feel that resale prices are at affordable levels at the market rate,” he said.

Seems straightforward enough – why spend three years waiting for a BTO, when you might be able to move into a furnished flat with less hassle and more subsidies?

But there are more trade-offs to mull over. If you want to know what’s in this for you, here are the key factors to consider:

1. Do you want a ‘forever’ home or a stepping stone?

BTO flats come with 99-year leases, meaning that the flat can last a lifetime. But that hasn’t stopped young couples from paying more for resale flats with shorter leases, even at the risk of outliving their homes.

This trend prompted Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong to warn against assuming that all old flats will be covered by Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers) – which allows owners to move to a new home with a fresh 99-year lease, along with monetary benefits.

Those who purchase old resale flats may also face difficulties trying to sell it off in future, reckons ERA Senior Division Director Alex Lim. “The demand pool for these flats among the next group of potential buyers is smaller, because younger buyers are already eliminated. So that is something to bear in mind,” he said.

OrangeTee’s Mr Wong agreed that the move has its risks: “Some couples may speculate that the value of an old flat will keep going up. But of course, there are always uncertainties.”

Ultimately, it depends on buyers’ long-term plans for the flat – whether they see it as more of a place to settle in for a few generations, as an investment to earn good returns on, or just to live in it before moving into more high-end property.

2. Postcode envy: Are some locations better than others?

Photo By Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
Units at the Pinnacle@Duxton became eligible for resale last year
Source: Photo by Shaun Danker

If location is a priority, the resale market offers more options than others. This is probably one of the biggest draws for young couples, who often want to live near good schools, and sometimes even upmarket locations, said PropNex Key Executive Officer Lim Yong Hock.

Units at the Pinnacle@Duxton, which just became eligible for resale last year, is especially popular among couples with higher income.

For the majority of young families that are “just starting out in life”, living close to their parents is a key consideration, Mr Lim added. Filial piety aside, first-timers are also drawn by a $20,000 Proximity Housing Grant (PHG) for buying a resale flat near their parents. The scheme, implemented in 2015, could be another “pull factor” towards the resale market, he said.

But the locations of new BTO projects may bring back some first-timers, Mr Wong noted. While earlier projects were in far-flung, newer estates like Punggol, the latest batch of BTO flats are in mature estates, like Kallang, Bedok and the Bidadari development in Toa Payoh. With more of these developments, demand trends could change again.

ERA’s Mr Lim sees more young clients attracted to BTO flats because of lifestyle factors: “The millennials go for BTOs because the flats are new and the community is new. Everyone is of the same age group. They’re looking for something brand new and affordable, and that’s the ultimate appeal of BTOs.”

3. Money over matter

Ultimately, for those starting out in life, finances are front and centre. While BTOs are generally the cheaper option, due to zero Cash Over Valuation, resale flats are becoming just as affordable thanks to the latest slew of G grants.

Effective from Feb 2017, the cap for CPF housing grants for resale flats was raised from $30,000 to $50,000 for first-time families buying four-room or smaller flats, and to $40,000 for those buying flats with five rooms or more. Other existing incentives include the Additional Housing Grant, which provides up to $40,000, and the $20,000 PHG. With these perks, the price gap between BTO and resale flats has narrowed.

But this is not necessarily the case in popular mature estates, like Bishan, Queenstown and Clementi. Resale prices there remain steep, such as those in Clementi, which have crossed the million-dollar mark. While it is easy to be swayed by news reports of price trends, Mr Wong advises young Singaporeans to do their homework and monitor the data for themselves closely.

A 2015 survey by the MND, for instance found that Singaporeans tend to overestimate the price of BTO flats. “The younger generation of buyers is very tech-savvy, so they can easily check out the HDB website to know the latest prices, and avoid these mistakes,” he said.

Meanwhile, PropNex’ Mr Lim thinks that families on a tight budget would generally be better off opting for a BTO instead. “My advice for any young couple would still be go back to the affordability. You may find a very good location, but at the end of the day, you have to slog your life away to pay the instalments.”

“Is it necessary? In life, there are also other important things, like making sure you can start your family.”

 

Featured image by Flickr user Erwin SooCC BY 2.0.

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by Sharanya Pillai

AND now there are two. Five years ago, Singapore celebrated having a full female minister in Ms Grace Fu, who took the helm at the Prime Minister’s Office, and earned her own portfolio at the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth in 2015. Now, she has more female company in the Cabinet.

Yesterday (27 Apr), the Prime Minister announced that the Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo will be promoted to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Never have there been so many female office-holders in the G. Among the eight appointees are Ms Indranee Rajah, the Senior Minister of State at the finance and law ministries, and Dr Amy Khor, who is Senior Minister of State for health, and environment and water resources. Nearly a fifth of Parliament now consists of women. Now don’t forget to include Mdm Halimah Yacob, who is currently the Speaker of Parliament.

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In getting promoted, Mrs Teo and Ms Fu have broken the glass ceiling further for women in local politics. But there were others before them. We look back on four female politicians who were widely expected to become full ministers – one of whom reached the position, only to be defeated later.

1. Dr Seet Ai Mee: Much ado over hand-washing

In 1991, Dr Seet blazed her way into Cabinet when appointed Singapore’s first female Acting Minister for Community Development. Then 48, she had been one of only four female MPs.

A month later, she made another ‘first’ – but this time, was the first Cabinet member to lose her seat.

Her narrow defeat – by 1.4 per cent of votes – is often associated with a public gaffe. While campaigning in a wet market in 1988, Dr Seet washed her hands after shaking the hands of some stall owners. In a 2009 interview with Petir, Dr Seet said that she was simply washing off pork grease, in case she shook hands with Muslim residents later. But the imagery stuck, and dominated headlines when it was brought up again in 1991.

After the setback, Dr Seet joined the hospice movement.

 

2. Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon: Mentoring the young

Image from Mrs Yu-Foo’s Facebook account.

Like Dr Seet, Mrs Yu-Foo was one of a handful of female MPs in the 1980s. She entered politics in 1984, and with two other female PAP candidates, ended the 14-year absence of female politicians in the Parliament.

Mrs Yu-Foo went on to become the longest-serving woman MP, staying in the game for 27 years. In 2001, she became the first female mayor in the country. Three years later, she was promoted to Minister of State in the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

However, in 2011, Mrs Yu-Foo, then 61, called it a day for her political career. That same year, she told The Straits Times in an interview that one of her proteges, Ms Sim Ann, may be of ministerial material.

 

3. Dr Aline Wong: Return to academia

Elected alongside Mrs Yu-Foo in 1984, Hong Kong-born university lecturer Dr Wong similarly made her mark in local politics. In 1990, Dr Wong was appointed Minister of State for Health and Education. She was later promoted to Senior Minister of State in 1995.

But in 2001, aged 59, Dr Wong left the political fray to go back to academia. In 2015, she made headlines for becoming the first female chancellor in Singapore, after being appointed by the Singapore University of Social Sciences (then called the Singapore Institute of Management University).

 

4. Mrs Lim Hwee Hua: Defeat in watershed election

Image by Oh Jaehyuk from Wikimedia Commons.

Twenty years after the political defeat of Dr Seet, it seemed like history repeated itself in some ways. Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, Singapore’s first female full minister, lost her seat in the landmark 2011 General Elections.

Appointed Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009, Mrs Lim had served as an MP for 15 years. In 2002, she was the first female Deputy Speaker of Parliament. Two years later, she became Minister of State for Finance and Transport, and in 2008 was promoted to Senior Minister of State.

But alongside then Foreign Minister George Yeo, Mrs Lim was blindsided by Aljunied voters’ support for the opposition. At 52, she decided to step down from politics.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Mrs Lim then mused: “[It] won’t be too long before another female full Cabinet minister is appointed.”

Seems like she was right.

 

Featured image by Teddy Sipaseuth from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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