May 26, 2017

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by Marcus Tan

“MENTAL” illness, for want of a more accurate and less derogatory adjective that allows us to better conceptualise the nature of these conditions, is as old as mankind.

For much of human history, psychiatric conditions were often considered to have supernatural or paranormal origins. Those afflicted were thought to be under the influence of black magic or possessed by evil spirits. Many treatments before the 17th century were based on occult practices that often led to their recipients in a worse off state. As early as the 8th century, the first psychiatric treatment facilities were set up. However, these institutions served more the purpose of containment or confinement. They offered little more than space to contain persons’ behaviours. Treatment, if any, was empirical by large and seldom based on robust medical evidence.

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Psychiatry, as a discipline in medicine, was proposed in 1808 by Professor Johann Christian Riel, a German physician. The word psychiatry itself derives from the two greek words psyche, meaning soul or mind, and iatros, meaning physician. From then, systematic effort, utilising scientific methods was undertaken to study disorders of human behaviour. This pivotal move heralded the development of modern psychiatry. More humane therapies and focus on public education soon followed.

Despite so, there remains much more to be achieved.

Misconceptions about psychiatric conditions and their treatments continue to abound. These range from notions that people with these conditions are “crazy”, “odd”, “bad” or “weak minded” to them never getting well. Despite advancements in treatment, psychotropic medications and even psychotherapy continue to be very much maligned. Medications do not alter personality or rob a person of his / her identity. Apart from a small handful of situations, one cannot be compelled to receive treatment. Psychotherapy is more than “just talk”. Conversation is but an avenue through which rapport is built so treatment can be effected.


What is Psychiatry?

Psychiatry is one of the most, if not the most, misunderstood fields in Medicine. There are few disciplines that have attracted as much controversy.

Misinformation and the consequent misunderstandings about Psychiatry have resulted in the stigmatisation of its receivers of care, the care providers and its practice. More importantly, this stigma has led to apprehension towards help seeking and delay in treatment. Unnecessary, avoidable prolongation of personal physical and emotional distress aside, the individual’s social and occupational functioning are not spared too. With compromised coping abilities, the person can find him/herself overwhelmed by his/her circumstances. These circumstances can be predisposing, precipitating or perpetuating factors that contribute to the origin(s) of illness, which is often multifactorial.

With the world moving at an ever-accelerating pace, most of us already struggle to keep up and can ill afford “down time”. The individual with lesser than usual functional capacity to cope can find him/herself stranded and lost. Unhealthy compensatory or self-help behaviours e.g. harmful addictions or recreational drug use can occur. These behaviours, while offering short term escape, certainly do not help improve the situation in the longer term. A sense of loss of control ensues and ultimately worsens the distress experienced.

Despite emphasis on early help seeking, it is not uncommon in day-to-day clinical practice to have persons come forth to seek help only after long periods of being ill. By this time, it is not unusual for the individual to find that his/her work, relationships, and life have suffered appreciably. These individuals let on that they perceive themselves as “weak minded” and feel shame or even become guilt-ridden in their help seeking. It should not have to be so.

Being distressed is not a sign of weakness. As it has been aptly put, distress occurs only when one has been too strong for too long a time. Only when one has put in his/her best effort, can he/her become exhausted.

Occasional media reporting that sensationalises public displays of behavioural aberrations or suggests an association between criminal or offensive acts and psychiatric conditions do not help. While it is convenient to attribute these behaviours or acts to psychiatric conditions, in reality, these are more related to poorly controlled or untreated symptoms, which arise out of delay in seeking treatment, if there indeed is a presence of an illness in these cases. Ironically, it is not the condition, but the lack of treatment that has led to the outcome. Suffice to say, this misinformation that leads to wrongful association must stop.

Modern Psychiatry

With the advent of technological advances in the 20th  and 21st centuries, physicians have been able to achieve a clearer understanding of the disease process behind some psychiatric conditions and the complex interactions between an individual’s environment and innate factors that result in symptom production. These advances, which include higher resolution brain scans and functional imaging, have also aided the development of medical therapies, while far from ideal, that are safer, more targeted and effective.

At present, it is agreed that a combination of medical, psychological and social therapies are indicated for the treatment of most psychiatric conditions to achieve the best outcomes.

Hence, how do we define modern psychiatry?

Psychiatry is the branch of medicine which is concerned with the understanding, assessment, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disorders of emotions, behaviour, perceptions and thinking. These disorders predominantly present with behavioural symptoms that occur due to a complex interaction of biological, psychological and social factors. It should not be construed simply as a disease of the mind and/or brain. Treatment is tailored and focused on the person, at times the significant others, within the context of their environment.

We hope that through the course of this series, we can help provide insight into the work healthcare workers do for psychiatric conditions, how assessment is carried out and common psychiatric conditions and their treatments. It is hoped that this information will help bring about better understanding of Psychiatry and promote prompt help seeking. Perhaps you will find out too that psychiatric conditions are not so different from other medical conditions managed by our colleagues in other disciplines.

 

Dr Marcus Tan is a psychiatrist with 18 years of experience in clinical practice in both public and private healthcare. Together with his partners, he runs Singapore’s longest standing community private psychiatric clinic in the heartlands. He also volunteers with the Singapore Armed Forces and serves as a medical assessor on the Medical Board of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. He believes strongly in mental health literacy and sees it as key to improving awareness and decreasing stigma towards psychiatric conditions and persons with them. 

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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“WHEN they call the roll in the Senate, the Senators do not know whether to answer ‘Present’ or ‘Not Guilty.” A humorous but depressing statement by Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th American president, describing the high and disappointing levels of corruption present in the American Senate.

Politicians are holders of public office. In a democracy, politicians are elected into the Government to represent the people and make legislative or executive decisions for the welfare of the country. Taking this into consideration, it is only normal to expect politicians to be individuals worthy of respect for their capabilities, moral compass and sincerity in serving the country.

However, despite the expectations placed on these politicians, corruption remains a persistent problem around the world. Unfortunately, according to Transparency International, no country achieved a score close to perfect in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2016.

In fact, over two-thirds of the 176 countries and territories in this year’s index fall below the midpoint of Transparency International’s scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). The global average score is a paltry 43, indicating endemic corruption in a country’s public sector.

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Despite the dismal global situation, Singapore was ranked the top 7th country in the world in terms of the Corruption Perceptions Index. The relatively higher ranking Singapore enjoys compared to the rest of the world could be attributed to the G’s zealous commitment to remain a corruption-free society through the institutionalisation of anti-corruption tools such as the Prevention of Corruption Act and Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

Albeit increased efforts to curb corruption amongst the higher echelons of public sector leadership such as President Xi Jin Ping’s anti-corruption campaign in the People’s Republic of China, we still observe a handful of high profile corruption cases. As politicians are often put in the spotlight and placed on the pedestal, their mistakes become glaringly obvious and intolerable to the public. Often times, their mistakes can potentially threaten their entire political career.

Here are some of the politicians around the world who have gotten into serious trouble due to corruption, bribery, and abuse of power.
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1. Seoul, South Korea – President Park Geun-hye arrested on Friday (Mar 31)

Image from Wikimedia Commons. 

Park Geun-hye, former President of South Korea who was in office since 2013 was impeached on 10 March. South Korea’s top court has ruled to end Ms Park’s presidency over a corruption scandal. This is the first time a South Korean President has been expelled before the end of his or her term.

The 65-year-old former President was accused to have conspired with a friend and former presidential aide Choi Soon-sil to have asked for a 77.4 billion won (SGD$96.3 million) donation from 16 major businesses, including Samsung, to support her policy initiatives via two foundations. The companies, when investigated, claimed that they could not refuse as they feared business disadvantages in the form of government tax investigations. Her friend Choi Soon-sil was also accused of accepting bribes from the heir of Samsung group Lee Jae-Young.

She was arrested on Friday (Mar 31) on charges relating to abuse of power and bribery.

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2. Buenos Aires, Argentina – Fourth case against former Argentine President 

Image from Wikimedia Commons. 

Former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was indicted on Dec 27 last year in a corruption case. Federal judge Julian Ercolini approved the charges of illicit association and fraudulent administration. Ms Cristina denied them and defended that she was a victim of persecution. In May, she was indicted for manipulating currency exchanges, that allegedly caused economic damage to the government.

In recent news, she again defended herself from corruption allegations, claiming that she was a victim of “judicial persecution” and a media “witch hunt”. This is the fourth case to reach Cristina since she left office in December two years ago. Euronews reported: The charges relate to allegations of illegal enrichment using a family real estate company called Los Sauces, located in the southern Santa Cruz province. The judge has been given 10 days to either put Ms Cristina on trial or dismiss the case.

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3. Washington D.C, U.S.A – Michael Flynn resigns within one month as National Security Adviser

Image by Flickr user Jim Mattis.

Retired United States (US) Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn resigned on February 13 this year as National Security Adviser when it came to light that he provided wrong information to Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his conversations with Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.

A week before President Trump’s inauguration, he said that he had given “incomplete information” about a phone call with the ambassador pertaining American sanctions against Russia. Initially, he denied that he had any meaningful conversation with him and Vice President Mike Pence mentioned this in a TV interview. The White House then received a warning from the Justice Department that Mr Michael was not honest about his phone calls with the ambassador.

In his resignation letter, the former National Security Adviser said: “Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador, I have sincerely apologized to the president and the vice president, and they have accepted my apology.”

In the latest news, the retired lieutenant general requested for immunity to testify on the alleged Russian election meddling, according to his lawyer Robert Kelner. The lawyer said that his client “has a story to tell”, but needs to guard against “unfair prosecution”. President trump has shown his support for Michael Flynn’s request.
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4. Paris, France – French Presidential Candidate’s wife, Penelope Fillon, charged for embezzlement of public funds

Image by Agence France-Presse photographer Eric Feferberg.

On 28 March, French presidential candidate Francois Fillon’s wife, Penelope Fillon, was charged with being paid the best part of €1 million for doing nothing as parliamentary assistant to her husband and his successor as MP between 1986 and 2013.  Penelope also faces separate charges of concealed misuse of funds for being paid €100,000 by a literary magazine owned by her husband’s wealthy friend.

Penelope Fillon, a British-born, was extremely public averse until she was embroiled in the political scandal involving the misappropriation of public funds, which is also dubbed as ‘PenelopeGate’.  The entire ‘PenlopeGate’ scandal has effectively poisoned her husband’s political career, causing Francois Fillon, previously a front-runner of the presidential elections, to sink in polls. He is now trailing in third place behind Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

Despite being involved in the messy political scandal, Francois Fillon has not broken under pressure and insists on running to become France’s next president. Additionally, there are concerns that tensions might arise if Francois Fillon becomes the president as he will enjoy total immunity from prosecutions while the country’s potential First Lady might undergo further questioning and stand trial during his tenure.
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Featured image from TMG file.
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UBER is putting the brakes on its pilot program for driverless cars after this crash on a Tempe, Arizona roadway.

Police say the accident happened Saturday when a driver failed to yield to the Uber vehicle while making a turn. The force of the collision sent the driverless SUV rolling onto its side.

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Two safety drivers were in the front seats of the Uber vehicle, which was in self-driving mode.

There were no serious injuries. But the investigation prompted Uber to ground its ongoing experiment with autonomous vehicles in Arizona, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

Uber launched the pilot program last year, saying driverless cars “require human intervention in many conditions, including bad weather”. It also said the new technology had the potential to reduce the number of traffic accidents in the country.

Saturday’s incident is not the first time a self-driving car has crashed.

Last year, a Florida driver operating a Tesla Model S in autopilot mode was killed in a collision with a truck. And a Google self-driving vehicle in California smashed into a bus while trying to navigate around it.

The latest crash coming just days after Uber’s former president Jeff Jones quit less than seven months into the job, the latest in a string of high-level departures. -REUTERS

 

Featured image from Wikipedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0

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by The Middle Ground

FAKE news doesn’t just spread misinformation and hate – it costs companies money too.

It is predicted that out of $80 billion of digital ad spending in 2017, over $16 billion will be eaten up by problematic content – the placing of advertisements next to unsavoury material, for instance, could hurt instead of help a company’s brand image.

A recent Times of London investigation revealed that YouTube channels promoting hate speech were earning tens of thousands of dollars thanks to ads placed by Google. Volkswagen ads, for instance, were shown on the channel of Wagdi Ghoneim – an extremist who has been banned from entering Britain for promoting terrorism.

As hundreds of companies in the UK pull their ads from Google, the company has been forced to announce new measures that will allow advertisers to avoid displaying their messages next to hate speech and fake news.

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Google’s move demonstrates that ad networks (and tech companies which profit off ads) can no longer be cavalier about where they place clients’ messages, or about the kind of content they allow on their networks. After criticism that it was not doing enough to prevent the spread of fake news, Facebook rolled out a fact-checking alert four days ago (Mar 22), notifying readers if the facts of an article are disputed by reputable sources.

Back home, fake news is causing consternation among local policy-makers and politicians. During the Committee of Supply debates on March 6, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, noted that there is a need to “harmonise legislature for the technological and online space”. He emphasised the G’s position that when online content is “directly targeting Singaporeans”, there is a need to ensure that it is “in line with our community values, including the need to uphold racial and religious harmony”.

Amendments to both the Film and Broadcasting Acts are due to be announced soon. Dr Yaacob indicated that more will be revealed, after consultation with the business community and the public.

This is a whole-of-government concern: In response to the Court of Appeal’s ruling against the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) in which Mindef was found to not qualify as a “person” under Section 15 of the Protection Online Harassment Act, the Ministry of Law issued a statement condemning the “scourge of false information.”

“Everyone, including the Government, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published and have the true facts brought to public attention,” said a MinLaw spokesman. “The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore’s institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information.”

In light of the controversy surrounding the spread of fake news, we take a closer look at what countries and tech companies are doing in response to this phenomenon.

 

1. Berlin, Germany – Facebook to potentially face “fake news fines” of up to €50 million (SG$75.5 million)

Image from Wikipedia Commons

Mr Heiko Maas, the German justice minister, has proposed new regulations to crack down on social media companies like Facebook and Twitter for publishing fake news. Social media companies may be fined up to €50 million (SG$75.5 million) if they fail to remove flagged posts.

Social media companies will have to delete offending material within one week. This doesn’t just include fake news, but also illegal content such as hate speech or racist language. Companies will also have to run 24-hour helplines for concerned users.

The proposals are more extensive than previous suggestions to impose €500,000 (SG$755,000) fines on the companies. This is part of a Bill that will be put to the German Parliament in an effort to combat malicious activity and disinformation campaigns online.

The German federal elections are due to be held in September this year. The proposed Bill aims to address fears that online hoaxes could influence the election outcome in favour of populist right-wing parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

 

2. Beijing, China – The “Great Firewall” blocks out non-mainstream news; fake or otherwise

Image from Flickr

In November last year, Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-affiliated tabloid The Global Times weighed in on the fake news debate, saying that the controversy only strengthened the Chinese government’s case for controlling the internet.

In an editorial titled “Western Media’s Crusade Against Facebook”, the Global Times asked pointedly: “So long as the mainstream media is free and open, online rumours would do no harm in the big picture – isn’t that the consistent argument from the West?” It argued that, in trying to curb rumours and fake news, the West was being hypocritical in its push for free speech.

The CCP has long used the “Great Firewall” to limit Chinese citizens’ access to information. Social media sites Facebook and Twitter are blocked in the country, and Google withdrew its services in 2010, protesting the Chinese government’s onerous regulatory demands.

Fake news, however, is not the only thing that is censored. Politically-sensitive content, like references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, is also blocked. Many have criticised the CCP for its authoritarian habits, including artist and civil activist Ai Wei Wei, who has condemned the government for using “brute power to control information”

 

3. Brussels, Belgium – EU has 11-person task force to combat Russian disinformation

Image from Wikipedia Commons

In light of on-going political developments in the European Union (EU) – the French, German and Dutch elections, it is unsurprising that EU leaders are taking action to combat the rise of fake news and anti-EU propaganda aiming to stir up anti-establishment sentiments.

To this end, the EU has a task-force that tackles the problem of fake news in Europe – the East Stratcom. East Stratcom, an 11- person team consisting of diplomats, bureaucrats and former journalists, serves as Europe’s front line against fake news. It was created by EU to combat “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”. In the 16 months since its inception, it has discredited 2,500 stories (many with links to Russia). But it’s facing an uphill task given the volume of fake news.

Apart from the team in Brussels, similar groups to tackle fake news were formed in countries such as Finland and the Czech Republic. Countries are also enhancing online security to address potential hacking attacks and European media outlets are improving fact-checking mechanisms to prevent false reporting.

On top of taking action, EU and its members are also pressurising social media companies such as Facebook to take a stronger position against fake news or face action from Brussels as a consequence.

 

4. California, United States – Facebook partners with fact-checkers to tag “disputed” articles

Image from Flickr

In response to allegations that the phenomenon of Facebook becoming a platform where ‘fake news’ proliferate is in its business interest, Mr Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, asserted that Facebook is also a victim of ‘fake news’ but it is extremely difficult for the site to clamp down on ‘fake news’ as “it’s not always clear what is fake and what isn’t”.

Still, Facebook has taken action to combat ‘fake news’ by rolling out its third-party fact-checking tool which informs users of “disputed content”. The site is partnering with five independent fact-checkers: ABC News, Associated Press, FactCheck.org, Politifact and Snopes.

When a story published is proven to be false, users attempting to share the disputed story will see a red alert stating that the article has been disputed by the relevant independent fact-checkers. Users who clicked on that warning will be greeted with more information about the disputed content.

Even when users choose to ignore the warning and publish the story, there will be another pop-up reiterating that the accuracy of the story has been disputed. When the user clicks “Post anyway”, other users who view the shared story on their timelines will be able to see that the story has been disputed.

On top of independent fact-checkers, the site will pass a story to third parties to fact-check if sufficient numbers of users report a story as fake.

However, the new tool was only made available to a limited number of users. This is unsurprising as Facebook is known to test pilot features on a small group of users before applying them across the entire site.

 

5. California, United States – Google deploys “anti-fake news army”

Image from Pixabay

Google is employing a team of 10,000 content-monitor contractors to examine “fake news” articles, in the hopes of restricting the spread of questionable content.

The Google contractors are not new hires – they are known as quality raters, and have long been assessing search results for accuracy. However, Google is now asking them to qualitatively examine search requests and to rate the results that follow. Content that is “offensive-upsetting”, as Google terms it, will be highlighted. It also aims to identify information that is “demonstrably inaccurate”.

“Offensive-upsetting” content includes material that “promotes hate or violence against a group of people based on criteria including (but not limited to) race or ethnicity, nationality or citizenship.” This may include racial slurs, child abuse, and instructional information on terrorist attacks.

Such content will not be directly removed, or changed. But it will be used to improve underlying search algorithms, so future searches will be more accurate and factual.

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Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin GillCC BY-SA 2.0

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A VIDEO emerged of Westminster Bridge on Wednesday (March 22) showing the moment a car was driven into pedestrians earlier in the day in the worst attack in London since 2005.

Five people were killed and about 40 injured after a car ploughed into pedestrians and a suspected Islamist-inspired attacker stabbed a policeman close to Britain’s parliament.

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The dead, in what police called a “marauding terrorist attack,” included the assailant and the policeman he stabbed. The other three victims were among those hit by the car as it sped across Westminster Bridge before crashing into railings just outside parliament.

It was the deadliest attack in London since four British Islamists killed 52 commuters and themselves in suicide bombings on the city’s transport system in July 2005, in London’s worst peacetime attack.

-Reuters/BBC

 

Featured image is a screen grab from Youtube

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by Jason Tan

THE first quarter of 2017 is nearly behind us and the global economy seems to have also put its travails behind itself. The world economic outlook is indeed brightening and the world is set for a rosier rest-of-2017.

World trade flows, after a sluggish recovery since the financial crisis of 2008, are increasing steadily; the falls in commodity prices are also likely to be over, putting an end to fears that the world economy may be in deflation mode. Manufacturing in various large economies stands at multi-period highs, driven by rising exports.

This economic upswing on a global level is primarily supported by an accelerating American economy. The United States (US) has certainly taken its time to get back to its feet after the debilitating sub-prime mortgage crisis and its aftermath. The US Federal Reserve’s recent hiking of the Fed Funds Rate – the policy rate which is used as a reference for interest rates worldwide – by 0.25 percentage points in March reflects burgeoning confidence in the US economy.

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The American acceleration is ably supported by a nascent revival in the other large, advanced economies, namely, the Eurozone and Japan. China – a source of global uncertainty in 2015 and 2016 – has also embarked on a path of lower but more stable and high quality growth. This has had the effect of injecting impetus into the global economy through trade and investment flows.

East Asia, including Asean countries, has benefited from the export turnaround and will enjoy greater economic gains in the year ahead. Export-oriented economies such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam will be outsized winners from the resurgence of the G3 bloc and the consequent boost to global trade flows. Even Indonesia and the Philippines will stand to gain from the increased demand for raw materials and other commodities.

This will come as a relief for economies in general as we put behind us the unsettling episodes of the recent past such as the oil price collapse in late-2014, the Chinese stock market crash in mid-2015 and subsequent fears about dwindling foreign reserves as capital outflows fled from China, Brexit and the election of Mr Donald Trump to the presidency in the US.

However, there remain salient risks which could upset the applecart.

First, US President Trump’s fiscal policies remain largely unknown. He has mooted a trifecta of deregulation, corporate tax cuts and large-scale infrastructure development as the cornerstone of his fiscal plans. Yet this fiscal stimulus could cause an accelerating US economy into overheat and force the Fed to adopt a tighter monetary policy stance.

Second, US-China relations remain clouded by Mr Trump’s rhetoric of China being a currency manipulator and unfair trade partner. Any unilateral trade sanctions imposed by the US on China will have knock-on effects in Asia, given the interconnectedness in the region. Furthermore, it will darken the already dimming mood for globalisation and free trade – which Asia is so dependent on.

Third, North Korea is the most pertinent geopolitical risk that could derail the rosy economic outlook. The recent death of Mr Kim Jong Nam, brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, ostensibly at the hands of North Korean agents, brought the spotlight onto an increasingly unstable regime in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Any implosion in the Korean peninsula will definitely lead to financial market turmoil and currency fluctuations in the region.

The bottomline: The world will likely be a better place in 2017 as the global economy re-awakens on the back of strength from G3 and China. Rising world trade stemming from increasing global demand will feed into economic upswings in export-oriented economies in East Asia and Asean. However, some risks loom large. In particular, political spillovers from the Trump Administration in the US could lead to economic detriments as will a regime implosion in the DPRK.

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Jason Tan is an economist at Centennial Asia Advisors, focusing on macroeconomic and geopolitical developments in developing Asia. He delves into social, political and economic issues facing Singapore on the side.

 

Featured image from Pixabay. 

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TECH, tapping, theft. It seems that progress has given humans more ways to steal information and more ways to screw up and leak information online, like the SAF did this week. Here are some of the incidents that occurred across the world this past week that stand as a testament to the need for better cyber security, whether it be from leaks within or threats without.

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.1. Washington, United States – WikiLeaks publishes trove of CIA documents

Image by user:Duffman from Wikimedia Commons

On Mar 7, WikiLeaks released a data trove of secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents, revealing the agency’s hacking operations and spying capabilities. Codenamed “Vault 7”, the release involved 8,761 classified documents. Most security experts agree that the information appears legitimate, but does not reveal any groundbreaking secrets.

If the leak is accurate, it means the CIA has the ability to hack into a variety of internet-enabled platforms – your phone, smart TV, computer, and router. In fact, it seems that the CIA can even read encrypted messages sent on otherwise secure apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. The CIA does this by exploiting iOS and Android vulnerabilities to hack into a user’s phone, allowing them to see what’s on screen, listen to the user typing or dictating words, and capture the original data before it is encrypted.

However, the documents only represent three years of alleged data. It is possible that technology companies have updated their firmware and other data protection measures to deal with these vulnerabilities. It is also possible that the CIA has developed new hacking tools beyond those described in the Vault 7 leaks.
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2. Taipei, Taiwan – University graduate arrested on charges of spying for China

Image from Pixabay

Last week, Taiwanese authorities arrested Chinese national Zhou Hongxu, a graduate of Taipei’s prestigious National Chengchi University (NCCU). Zhou has been accused of attempting to organise a spy ring inside the Taiwan government – he allegedly tried to recruit a foreign service officer by offering him a free trip to Japan in exchange for classified information. Prosecutors believe that Mr Zhou was instructed by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office to enrol at NCCU where he could make friends and develop a spy ring.

Beijing, meanwhile, has protested the detention. Mr Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for China’s Mainland Affairs Office, dismissed the allegation as “pure fabrication intended to stir up trouble.” Criticising the Taiwanese authorities, Mr Ma said the arrest has come at a time when Taiwanese independence forces have been hyping up a “serious infiltration by Chinese spies in Taiwan.”

Citing an anonymous government official, the Taipei Times reported that there are an estimated 5,000 individuals harvesting classified information in Taiwan for Beijing. Chinese nationals who go to Taiwan for business or to study may sometimes be of use to China’s intelligence apparatus.
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3. Washington D.C, United States of America – Accusations and allegations 

Image by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos from Wikimedia Commons

President of the US, Donald Trump accused former president Barack Obama of wiretapping him. Mr Trump tweeted early in March that Mr Obama wiretapped him towards the end of his presidential campaign but had no evidence to support. However, a spokesman for Mr Obama said that it was “simply false.”

Mr Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News analyst while on the Fox & Friends programme said that, instead of asking US agencies to spy on Mr Trump, Mr Obama obtained transcripts of Trump’s conversations from Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the equivalent of the US National Security Agency (NSA).

The Secret Intelligence Service commonly known as MI6 has denied the charge of eavesdropping on Donald Trump pre- and post-US presidential election. The charge was made on Tuesday by Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano. A British official who is familiar with government policy and security operations described the charges to be “totally untrue and quite frankly absurd.” The US has since apologised to the UK for the statement and promised not to repeat such unfounded claims again.
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4. Ottawa, Canada – Sex-toy manufacturer pays C$4m (S$4.23m) to American users due to privacy concerns

Image from Pixabay 

Canadian sex-toy maker Standard Innovation has agreed to a collective payout up to a total of C$4m (S$4.23m) for users in the US, after it was accused of tracking data on the intimate habits of thousands of its customers. A class-action lawsuit was filed last year by American customers who alleged the company violated their privacy rights.

Users took issue with an app – called We-Connect, which connected to the company’s We-Vibe vibrator. The data collected was sent back to the company, including details on temperatures, settings, and usage. Standard Innovation claimed the data was for market-research purposes, but some users felt violated, due to the personal nature of the information. They also voiced concerns that the data could be linked to the email address they provided to the company.

The company has since claimed that there has been no breach of our customers’ personal information or data. Under the settlement agreement, those who used the We-Connect app will be paid up to C$10,000 (S$10,563) each. Customers who bought the toy, but did not activate the accompanying app, will receive up to US$199 (S$280) each.

 

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
A corridor at the campus of NUS Yale.

by Ong Lip Hua

UNIVERSITY admissions season looms again, and as a university admissions professional with over a decade of work experience (in NUS and SIT), I get plied with questions from would-be students and their parents.

What I’ve come to realise is that the questions that potential students ask are usually off the mark. Perhaps it has to do with the media’s fascination with rankings (which reflect research, not teaching quality), graduate pay, and employment numbers.

While these may form a part of the answer to the question “why should I choose this university”, most of us go to the university to pave the way for a future career and the career prospects of a graduate are not sufficiently represented by these metrics.

A successful career is sustained more through a university’s “after sales” service, which most applicants are not aware of. This “after sales” service is performed by several offices in the university that often go overlooked.

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Here’s what else you might want to ask about at the next admissions talk:

The Placement Office: This is the department that organises career fairs, gives you job advice, and teaches you how to write your resume. They are known by many other names. How strong is the University’s Placement Office? Which sector do they have hiring partners in? What type and amount of assistance does the Placement Office provide?

Internship programmes: The Faculty Office or Placement Office typically handles internship placements. There is only so much you can learn about the working world and an industry from the safe confines of a lecture hall or tutorial room. Before we graduate, we need to be “inserted” into the industry network. An early foray into the environment where you’ll be spending the next 40 years of your life can pay off more than an impressive Grade Point Average.

Internships get you into the network and industry lingo so you can better know what and why is that thing on page 1905 of the reference source number AI76. Great internships put you in the same office as industry leaders and key personalities: distinguish yourself there and you’ll have the makings of a priceless industry network.

The Alumni Office: Getting our first job is only the first step in what we hope will be a long career. Good pay prospects and employment ratios are good to have, but the more important question is: where do I go from there?

Strong Alumni Offices are also good after-sales service centers. They provide you with the network to get into higher level positions, make business connections for you to start or expand your businesses, and can give you access to ideas, funds and links for your project or research break-through.

How active or strong are the university’s Alumni Offices? What events or activities are held? How committed is the alumni community? What are this office’s beliefs and objectives?

One more question: What is your student profile? This is a question especially for universities abroad, or for locally-awarded degrees from overseas institutions. This tells you who you get to network with while you are in school. If you can’t get a straight answer, spend some time roaming the campus talking to, or observing current students.

At some point in life, co-operation becomes much more valuable than competition. The friends and frenemies you have made during your school years can translate into doors that are open or shut to you later in life.

These “after sales” functions of universities will become increasingly important as the world churns out even more graduates, as work/jobs become more transnational, as technology, mergers and acquisitions reduce number of jobs and increase competition.

So at your next university admissions talk or open house, don’t just ask about cut-off points, or why this course is better than another. Ask questions that span 40 years into your future, because that’s probably what you are getting an education for.

Ong Lip Hua was in University Admissions for a decade and being passionate about the career of students he admits, decided to pursue a career in HR Recruitment. He was a minor partner in a recruitment firm before going in-house. He is still crazy about providing education and career advice.

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

Featured image by Shawn Danker.

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earth by Kevin Gill

by The Middle Ground

MAR 8 marked International Women’s Day, a day to commemorate the women’s rights movement. The campaign theme for this year is #BeBoldForChange: Call on the masses or call on yourself to help forge a better working world – a more gender inclusive world.

While there were many activities to celebrate women around the world, it is without a doubt that women still face sexism and discrimination in their daily lives. Here are five different events that happened in the past week that will explain why it is imperative to continue fighting for equal rights.

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1. Luxembourg City, Luxembourg – “Women must earn less than men”

Image by Leonardo1982, from Pixabay 

On Mar 3, the European Parliament decided to launch a hate speech investigation on Polish member of European Parliament (MEP) Janusz Korwin-Mikke, for making misogynistic remarks in his capacity as MEP.

Mr Korwin-Mikke, founder of Polish far-right party Coalition for the Renewal of the Republic — Freedom and Hope, incited outrage when he argued that “women must earn less than men because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent” during a European Parliament debate on the gender pay gap.

Mr Korwin-Mikke’s views were immediately rebutted by fellow MEP, Spaniard Iratxe Garcia Perez. In a speech bristling with indignation, Ms Perez stated “I know it hurts and worries you that today women can sit in this house and represent European citizens with the same rights as you. I am here to defend all European women from men like you.”

Rule 11 of the European Parliament’s Rules of Procedure states that “members’ conduct shall be (characterised) by mutual respect” and “members shall not resort to defamatory, racist or xenophobic language or (behaviour) in parliamentary debates.” If found in contravention of this rule, Mr Korwin-Mikke may be subject to a fine and/or temporarily suspended from Parliament.
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2. California, United States – Former Uber employee speaks up about toxic work culture
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Someone using the Uber app while a taxi passes by
Image from TMG File 
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Susan Fowler, a former site reliability engineer for Uber, revealed the culture of sexual harassment and misogyny that pervaded her former company in a blog post dated Feb 19. She documented her problems with the company – one experience involved reporting a manager who was propositioning her to HR, who refused to fire the guilty manager because he was a “high performer”, and instead advised her to transfer out of her team.
When I joined Uber, the (department) I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another (engineering department), this number had dropped down to less than 6%. Women were transferring out of the organisation, and those who couldn’t transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organisational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organisation.
Uber is facing increasing corporate and employee backlash over its “hustle-oriented” and unpleasant workplace culture. After Fowler’s viral blog post, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick sent a company-wide memo asserting that the company would be investigating the claims made, with Holder and Tammy Albarran of law firm Covington & Burling leading the investigation.
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3. Britain – Emma Watson can’t be a feminist? 
Screenshot from Twitter user JuliaHB1
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Emma Watson’s photo in a white ropy top that exposed most of her breasts got a British radio presenter and commentator questioning Emma’s feminist beliefs. The commentator, Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted a photo of Watson’s vanity photoshoot picture on Mar 1.
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This tweet quickly received backlash and eventually got to Emma’s attention. She was “stunned by the vitriol she’s received”. In an interview with Reuters, the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador said, “They were saying that I couldn’t be a feminist and have boobs.” Julia continued to defend her tweet by saying that Watson “complains that women are sexualised and then sexualises herself in her own work. Hypocrisy.” Another celebrity, Gloria Steinem, when asked for comments, told TMZ that “Feminists can wear anything they f****** want.”
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Emma was shocked that people are still unclear what feminism mean and said that “Feminism is about giving women choice…it’s about equality. It’s not — I really don’t know what my t*ts have to do with it.”
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4. Manhattan, New York City, USA – New resident opposite famous Wall Street bull 
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Image from Facebook page All Women Are Beautiful
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On the eve of International Women’s Day (March 7), a 50-inch bronze statue of a little girl was installed opposite Wall Street’s famous charging bull. This statue was sculpted by artiste Kristen Visbal of Delaware and installed by State Street Global Advisors.
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Fortune reported that the newly added statue was a representation of State Street Global Advisors’ new commitment to gender parity in corporate boardrooms. The firm also announced that it would pressure 3,500 companies worth $30 trillion in market cap to aim for gender parity on their boards.

However, this much-received attention and praised statue, according to Huffington Post’s Emily Peck “is just a super-sophisticated bit of feminist marketing.” In her article titled: Why the ‘Fearless Girl’ Statue Is Kinda Bull, she goes on to explain about the firm’s failure to mention that the company does not have many women employees and that only three women are on the Board of Directors. “If the goal is gender equality, State Street’s women stats are terrible. They reveal the sculpture and the call to action as a mostly empty seduction.”
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5. Washington D.C, U. S. A – How the GOP “celebrated” IWD

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, from Pixabay

On IWD, some members of the Republican Party of the United States, nicknamed the Grand Old Party (GOP), pushed for legislation that wanted to defund Planned Parenthood; America’s most trusted health care provider of reproductive health care which provides high quality and affordable medical care.

A press conference was held in D.C to address changes that the Republicans were proposing to the Affordable Care Act. House Speaker, Paul Ryan said that defunding Planned Parenthood “… is what we’ve been dreaming about doing.” The new bill will end funding to Planned Parenthood and “sends money to community centers,” he said. This new bill will affect poor and low-income Americans the most.

This happened on the same day that Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau announced a a $650 million initiative to fund sex education and reproductive health services worldwide.

Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin GillCC BY-SA 2.0

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Someone using the Uber app while a taxi passes by

by Oo Gin Lee

TAXI companies need to understand why users like me who spend about $500-$600 a month on cabs and rides are choosing Uber over taxis. Unless I am in a hurry, I will actually call for an Uber even if I am standing at a cab stand filled with empty cabs.

The biggest problem with cabs are the cab drivers. Many, though not all, are jaded and have bad attitudes. The crux of the problem is that these drivers do not see themselves as service providers which is why they come up with shenanigans like the “changing shift” excuse. Often, “changing shift” is a cover for them to choose the passengers that fits their plans – financially or otherwise. I don’t use Grab either because Grab drivers have the ability to choose passengers – passenger destinations are shown to Grab drivers before they make the pickup.

Uber drivers, on the other hand, do not get to choose their passengers. They only know where their passengers are going after they have picked up the passenger and started the journey.

The Uber system also means that passengers are always able to get a Uber confirmation within seconds, because the booking system does not need to wait for the drivers to make a decision about the rider’s destination. From my experience, when I get a booking with Comfort cab app, the cab arrives in under five minutes. Uber casts the radius wider, so sometimes I have to wait 10 to 15 minutes before the ride arrives. Many Uber drivers are also inexperienced, adding to the late minutes.

Despite this, I still choose Uber because you always get a booking confirmation the fastest (even if it means you still have to wait another 10-15 mins for the car to arrive). The beauty of booking apps is that you can see where the car is and how long more it will take before it reaches you, so you can maximise your time by doing other stuff while waiting for the ride to arrive.

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The second biggest problem with the taxi business is that the taxi companies act like landlords. Their revenue comes from car rental, which leads to the creation of the two-shift system, where the fairest time to change shift is between 3-5pm. This leads to a shortage of taxis during peak hours, the weakness of the system that private ride companies like Uber and Grab have exploited to the fullest. Ride companies on the other hand, earn by making 10-30 per cent cut of the cost of ride. The difference in the business model explains why you can always get Uber during peak hours. Uber incentivises its drivers to get onto the road during peak hours while taxi drivers are busy putting up their change shift signs and making mental calculations whether the next destination is en route to their handover location.

The third problem is that cabs cost more. Though this isn’t the main reason for me to choose Uber over cabs, I am confident that it is one of the main reasons that even aunties and uncles are choosing to book a ride through Uber and Grab.

So the recent news that the cab companies now want to introduce surge pricing befuddles me. This will drive up revenue for the cab drivers but it won’t solve the three problems why cabs are losing out to Uber. In fact, it will only make it worse. The potential for a more expensive ride does nothing to weed out bad service, and simply makes bad experiences even more unpalatable to customers.

The other problems still remain – customers trying to avoid bad drivers, and cab companies are acting like landlords and not as service providers. And like before, they think they can solve the problem by increasing the “potential revenue” for their drivers, just like when they increased flag-down rates, and introduced new surcharges.

Perhaps in the old days when we didn’t have a choice but to take cabs, this tactic may have worked well enough. But in an age where everybody can be a Uber or Grab driver, or call a car on demand, and at a time when we are hearing stories of cab drivers returning their taxis in droves, this latest initiative to add surge pricing, without first addressing other problems, is surely a recipe for disaster.

 

Oo Gin Lee was a tech journalist for over 15 years before he left The Straits Times in mid-2015 to start his own PR agency that focuses on consumer tech.

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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