March 24, 2017

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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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The first of two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors is launched during a successful intercept test. The test, conducted by Missile Defense Agency (MDA), Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) Operational Test Agency, Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, and U.S. Pacific Command, in conjunction with U.S. Army soldiers from the Alpha Battery, 2nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, U.S. Navy sailors aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG-73), and U.S. Air Force airmen from the 613th Air and Operations Center resulted in the intercept of one medium-range ballistic missile target by THAAD, and one medium-range ballistic missile target by Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). The test, designated Flight Test Operational-01 (FTO-01), stressed the ability of the Aegis BMD and THAAD weapon systems to function in a layered defense architecture and defeat a raid of two near-simultaneous ballistic missile targets

by Daniel Yap

THE KL-Pyongyang row over the murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam is getting out of hand with 11 Malaysians trapped in North Korea, but it’s just one part of the worsening diplomatic situation in East Asia. The fallout started with a few missiles falling out of the sky into the sea off the coast of Japan on Monday morning (Mar 6).

On Tuesday morning (Mar 7), North Korean state media announced that the four missiles, three of which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone about 350km from shore, were drills for a plan to strike directly at US bases in Japan, where the US has stationed about 54,000 troops.

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Japan upgrades its alert level to the maximum and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe gets on the phone with US President Donald Trump. Mr Abe says that the North Korean threat “has entered a new stage”.

At about the same time on Tuesday morning, the row between China (North Korea’s biggest ally) and South Korea took a new turn as South Korea announced that it would consider making an official complaint to the World Trade Organisation over what it sees as China violating their free trade deal.

China has in recent months tried to exert pressure on South Korea by banning the streaming of K-pop performances, stopping K-pop stars from performing in China, causing the shutdown of 23 supermarkets run by South Korean Lotte Group, and ordering tour agencies to stop selling trips to South Korea. Why is China doing this? THAAD.

THAAD is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile system developed by Lockheed Martin that South Korea and the US agreed to deploy in South Korea in July 2016. Remember China’s state-run Global Times newspaper that had harsh words for Singapore during the Terrex incident? It said that South Korea was “tying itself to the US chariot and turning into an arrogant pawn of Washington in the latter’s military containment against China.”

But why would China get upset about a purely defensive system like THAAD? Isn’t it reasonable for South Korea to defend itself, especially with North Korea going big on missiles?

China is trying to project military power across the region as part of its One Belt One Road framework. China is upset because THAAD is a projection of US power into the region and because the system will take away some of China’s offensive edge should war break out, including over the disputed South China Sea waters and islands, of which – hello – Malaysia is also a claimant. What a tangled web.

So now there are 11 Malaysians held de facto hostage in North Korea, which had fired missiles at Japan, triggering heightened tensions and paved the way for stronger US involvement in the region, which is upsetting China especially because…

We’re back to THAAD. Deployment for the system was previously announced to be completed in mid or late-2017. About 24 hours after the North Korean missiles splash down off the Japanese coast, the US Pacific Command announced that it had begun deploying THAAD overnight in South Korea, and that the system would be operational as early as April.

Quite a lot of people are going to get hot under the collar in the days and weeks to come. Expect nationalistic chest-thumping, threats, diplomatic shenanigans, strained trade, harsh words and escalations from the nations involved. And thank God war isn’t on the cards… yet.

Featured imagine from Wikimedia Commons. (CC0 1.0)

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by The Middle Ground

HOW time flies – it feels as if 2017 just started, yet we’re already done with February! The start of March also marks an important Christian tradition, the observance of Lent.

During Lent, Christians commit to greater spiritual devotion to God and abstain from luxuries (such as avoiding profligate spending). Most adherents, notably the Roman Catholics, also observe Lent by giving up the consumption of meat. The period of Lent traditionally lasts forty days. It begins on Ash Wednesday (Mar 1) and includes the holy week that immediately precedes Easter (Apr 16).

The holy week comprises Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Palm Sunday is widely observed in Singapore where Catholics receive new palm leaves blessed by the priest to bring home. Similarly, on Maundy Thursday, churches are crowded for Maundy Thursday service and the ritual feet washing ceremony, where the priest or Archbishop will wash the feet of some of the parishioners. This particular rite was only limited to men and boys until Pope Francis issued a new rule that women should be able to participate as well.

While the purpose of Lent – to draw oneself closer to God through religious penance and resisting the temptations of the flesh – is shared by many Christian denominations, the means through which Lent is observed differ greatly.

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1. Manilla, Philippines – Dedicated devotees carry heavy crosses, self-flagellate

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Some Catholic devotees in the Philippines mark the last week of Lent by whipping themselves in public or carrying heavy crosses barefoot through the streets of Manilla. A small fraction even engages in gory displays of crucifixion, nailing themselves to wooden crosses. This practice is known in the region as pamagparaya (self-flagellation) and is meant for the adherent to experience a fraction of the suffering that Christ went through.

Devotees often go through pamagparaya to petition for good health, either for themselves or an ailing relative. Some devotees also put themselves through pain as penance for their sins, as an act of religious cleansing.

The Catholic Church has criticised this tradition, claiming that it goes against Catholic teachings that the body is sacred. Other religious critics have further expressed discomfort that particular villages and communities have taken advantage of the public spectacle to attract tourists, monetising this practice.

 

2. Moscow, Russia – Two per cent of Russians intend to fully abide by dietary restrictions throughout Lent

Image by falco, from Pixabay
Image by falco, from Pixabay

Russia is home to the Russian Orthodox Church, and nearly half the Russian population identifies as Christian (various denominations, including Protestant, Catholic, and Russian Orthodox). A poll conducted by the Levada Center reported that two per cent of the Russian population, or three million Russians, intend to fully observe the strict Lenten dietary restrictions from Mar 1 to Apr 16.

According to the Russian Orthodox Church, the strict observance of Lent requires giving up all animal food – meat, eggs, fish, seafood and all dairy products. On the first and last day of Lent, complete fasting is recommended. On the second day, only bread and water are allowed. Throughout this period, believers should refrain from alcohol, with the exception of a little wine on weekends, smoking, sex, swearing, and bad thoughts.

Also reported by the Levada Center: 18 per cent of those polled said they intend to observe Lent partially, for instance by giving up meat. 30 per cent of respondents are prepared to reduce their alcohol consumption during Lent, and 15 per cent will restrict their sex lives.

 

3. Antigua, Guatemala – A grand religious procession to mark the end of Lent

Image by , on Flickr
Image by Arian Zwegers, on Flickr

The Christian faith in Guatemala has its roots in the Spanish conquistadors who spread their faith after invading the territory in the early 1500s. Today, Antiguans mark the end of Lent in distinctive local fashion, by arranging elaborate religious processions which last from dawn to dusk.

During this period, Antigua is well-known for the dozens of large floats which are paraded through the city streets by hundreds of men clad in purple robes. These floats are called “andas”, and either features a statue of Jesus with a cross or a Saint. Andas featuring the Virgin Mary are carried by women dressed in black, and are a rare sight. Before the procession winds its way through the city, the streets are lined with colourful “alfombras” (carpets) that are made from coloured sawdust, grass, fruits, vegetables, flowers and other materials.

 

4. Mompox, Colombia – A night in the cemetery 

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

At around 6pm on Holy Wednesday, Mompox residents dress in their finest clothing and gather in the town cemetery to commence a ceremony known as the Serenade to the Deceased – a fusion of Catholic traditions with magic and paganism.

Residents light candles to illuminate the cemetery and stay there overnight, sitting in front of graves of deceased loved ones. They place flowers on the graves and serenade the dead. This lasts till the early hours of the morning, when funeral music is played to bring an end to the ceremony.

 

5. Washington, United States – St. Patrick’s Day to coincide with Lent period
 .
Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

This year, St. Patrick’s Day – a celebratory holiday where corned beef and cabbage is traditionally eaten – falls on a Friday (Mar 17), clashing with the commonly-held Lenten rule of requiring Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays.

St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday once every seven years, and this coincidence has not gone unnoticed by some American bishops. Many had already issued dispensations for Catholics in their dioceses allowing them to eat meat on St. Patrick’s Day. However, they also advised Catholics to do an additional act of charity or penance in exchange for eating meat.

 

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

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A CABBY who lied about being attacked by his Norwegian passenger was sentenced to 19 weeks jail yesterday.

Here’s what his victim, Mr Arne Corneliussen, said about the case: “In the greater scheme of things, he is going through what I went through as well. But I still lost my job, I lost money to him and I also spent a lot on legal fees, so I can’t say I feel like justice was done. He has yet to reach out to me to offer compensation of any sort.”

Cabby Chan Chuan Heng had pinned the blame on Mr Corneliussen, who was jailed 10 weeks and had to pay him $30,000. Later, Mr Corneliussen was re-tried and fined $2,000 for causing hurt. The former DHL director had already served more than half his 10-week sentence.

Mr Corneliussen has a point. How is he going to get his money back? Sue the cabby?

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What was also interesting is how this was missed out earlier in the investigations. According to ST, Chan also deliberately did not submit the in-car camera footage that would have captured the sound of his earlier altercation with Mr Corneliussen, and would have cast the entire incident in a different light.

We move from Singapore and Norway to Singapore and China now…

Nothing was said about the retention of Terrexes in Hong Kong when Singapore’s high-powered team went to Beijing to meet their counterparts for the delayed meeting of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation. Instead Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean emphasised the need to be “forward-looking”. So we don’t know if the Terrexes were discussed or not, although Mr Teo did make clear that Singapore was sticking to its One China policy and that biltateral relations were deep and broad enough to weather disturbances.

Much was made of the composition of his team members, younger ministers whom he brought along to build ties with their generational counterparts in China. In the old fold were Ministers Lim Hng Kiang and Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. Cabinet ministers in the young set were Ms Grace Fu, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Lawrence Wong, Mr Ng Chee Meng and Mr Ong Ye Kung. The second liners or junior ministers were Dr Amy Khor (although she can be considered as part of the old fold), Mrs Josephine Teo, Ms Sim Ann and Dr Koh Poh Koon.

Perhaps, he should have brought along a young non-Chinese as well, to make the point that Singapore is multi-racial society that won’t dance to the Chinese tune, now as well as in the future.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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earth by Kevin Gill

THINK that murder mysteries and assassinations are confined to the pages of an Agatha Christie novel? Think again, as fact is stranger than fiction. From alleged Kremlin death plot and attempt on the Libyan Prime Minister’s life to North Korean agents attempting to recover Kim Jong Nam’s body by sneaking into the Kuala Lumpur morgue, this week’s news is thick with blood and political intrigue.

 

1. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Attempted break-in at morgue holding Kim Jong Nam’s body

16797980_723868174448307_4024058953073933122_o
Image from Facebook user Johan Manus.

On Tuesday (Feb 21), merely days after Kim Jong Nam was assassinated by two mysterious women, Malaysian police detected an attempt to break into the morgue where Mr Kim’s body was being kept. Police presence at the morgue has been stepped up. Police chief Khalid Abu Bakar claimed that authorities knew the identity of the break-in suspects, but refused to go into detail as to whether they were North Korean.  He said, “We know who they are. No need to tell you (the press).”

The break-ins, however, have intensified speculation that North Korea is behind the assassination. North Korea has repeatedly tried to foil Malaysian attempts to investigate the murder, calling for the immediate release of the two “innocent women” who were arrested in connection with Kim’s death. The isolated nation has refused to even acknowledge that the dead man was Kim Jong Nam, and has accused Malaysia of conducting a politically-motivated investigation to gain favour with the United States and South Korea.

North Korea-Malaysia relations have soured in light of this diplomatic spat. On February 20, the North Korean ambassador was summoned by the Malaysian government, while the Malaysian ambassador to North Korea was also recalled. This story is still developing.

 

2. Moscow, Russia – Kremlin has denied allegations of Montenegro assassination plot

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Montenegrin Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic accused Russia on Sunday (Feb 19) of involvement in an alleged conspiracy to assassinate the Montenegrin prime minister, Milo Dukanovic, in October last year. Russia has strenuously denied any such claims.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in response: “These (are) absurd accusations … We do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, including Montenegro.”

These allegations come as Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, criticised NATO for being a “Cold War institution”. Russia has pointed to the expansion of NATO membership as a key reason why relations have soured with the West and even annexed the former Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014 in response to the toppling of Russia’s ally and then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

The planned Montenegro coup, scheduled for Oct 16 last year and foiled only hours before its execution, was a blatant attempt by Serbian and Russian nationalists to deny the pro-NATO and pro-EU Montenegrin Prime Minister from retaining power.

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3. Tripoli, Libya – Libyan PM survived attack on convoy

Image from Facebook user ALGERIA PRESS SERVICE.
Image from Facebook user ALGERIA PRESS SERVICE.

On Monday (Feb 20), a convoy carrying the Prime Minister of Libya, Fayez al-Sarraj, fell under gunfire as it was passing through the Abu Salim district of Tripoli, the capital. Also among the convoy were Supreme State Council head, Abdel Rahman al Swehli, as well as the commander of Presidential Guard, Najmi al Nakou. They were travelling in armour-plated cars and were unharmed.

However, statements regarding casualties do not tally. The Times of Islamabad reported on February 20 that Mohamed Salem, a spokesman for the Supreme State Council, said two guards were wounded. At the same time, Ashraf al Thulthi, a spokesperson for Mr Fayez’s administration, was reported as saying that “there were no injuries”.

The assassination attempt was a sign of how fragile Mr Fayez’s reign is. Libya has been existing in political turmoil since 2011, with the armed uprising against and death of its dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Subsequently, the Libyan government developed into two rival divisions, one with its seat of power in Tobruk and the other, in Tripoli. In late 2015, the United Nation backed an agreement to form a Government of National Accord, with Mr Fayez at its helm.

Investigations into the identity and backer of the assailants are ongoing.

 

4. Mugla, Turkey – 47 people accused of plotting to kill President Erdogan have gone on trial

Image from Facebook user Movie Box Office Colection & Celebrity News
Image from Facebook user Movie Box Office Colection & Celebrity News.

In Mugla, a province of Turkey, the trial of 47 assassin-suspects has begun on Monday (Feb 20) in the Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s conference hall. These 47 have been accused of targeting the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

That night, a section of the Turkish military took to the streets of several major cities with tanks and air bombardments in a coordinated attack. The president was staying in a hotel at the port town of Marmaris then. Fifteen minutes after he left the premises, the hotel was bombed. Meanwhile, loyalist soldiers, police forces and thousands of ordinary citizens resisted the coup after news spread via social media. After a few hours, the government was able to declare victory.  However, at least 248 people died and around 2,200 were wounded.

According to the Turkish government, the mastermind of the coup attempt was Mr Fethullah Gulen, a businessman and influential Turkish preacher on self-imposed exile in the United States (US) since 1999. Mr Gulen has denied any involvement and remained in the US.

Al Jazeera reported that the chief prosecutor of the trial, Mr Necip Topuz, has described the case as “historically important” since it is the only coup-related case where the president is the plaintiff. The trial is expected to last through the year.

 

5. Manila, Philippines – Duterte accused of ordering journalist Jun Pala’s death

Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A former police officer from Davao City in the Philippines has accused President Rodrigo Duterte as the mastermind behind the killing of a journalist, Jun Pala. Mr Duterte, who was then the chief executive of Davao City, allegedly founded the “Davao Death Squad” in 1988 and ordered the killing of criminals and troublesome political enemies.

On September 6, 2003, Mr Pala was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle while walking home from work. Mr Duterte denied involvement in the killing, but he also claimed to know who was behind Mr Pala’s death. Mr Pala had clashed with Duterte on many occasions – one of which involved Mr Duterte’s positive relationship with the New People’s Army (a communist insurgency), while Mr Pala was reportedly part of the Alsa Masa, an anti-communist group accused of human rights abuses in the 1980s.

As president, Mr Duterte has endorsed the killing of corrupt journalists and stands accused of waging a bloody war against drug gangs and peddlers in the Philippines.

 

Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin Gill. (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

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BUT first, today is Budget Day. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will announce the national budget and measures to tackle the current economic slowdown and its attendant problems. Stay tuned to The Middle Ground as we report on and react to the announcement in the late afternoon.

Malaysia is looking for four North Korean men in connection with the assassination of Mr Kim Jong Nam. Rhi Ji Hyon, 33; Hong Song Hac; 34, O Jong Gil, 55; and Ri Jae Nam, 57 left for Jakarta after the attack last Monday (Feb 13) and Malaysian paper The Star reports that they are back in North Korea via the UAE and Russia.

Four others remain in custody – two women (Vietnamese and Indonesian), a Malaysian man, and a North Korean man. The whereabouts of three other men, one North Korean and two other unidentified men, are unknown.

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A larger proportion of each local university cohort can now be admitted through the discretionary admissions scheme. The shift away from a grades-only approach means that 15 per cent of each cohort, up from 10 per cent, can rely on interviews, essays, aptitude tests and portfolios to secure a place instead.

The G has also targeted that by 2020, 40 per cent of all students each year will attend local university.

Hiker Steward Lee, 27, is still missing in spite of a 70-man search of forested and nature reserve areas yesterday. The search team, comprising police, park rangers and volunteers who had responded to Mr Lee’s elder sister Lee Yunqin’s appeal on Facebook, spent four hours on the search.

Mr Lee was last seen at 2pm on Friday at Block 407 Fajar Road. He was wearing a plain black short-sleeved T-shirt and blue jeans with slippers and glasses.

If you have information on the missing hiker, please call the Police hotline (1800-255-0000) or make a report at www.police.gov.sg/iwitness.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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GROWING ambiguity of the global environment highlights not only Singapore’s vulnerability, but also the need for policies to adapt quickly to changes, to guarantee safety and prosperity.

On the geopolitical and military fronts: While the administration of President Donald Trump has not made active reference to the Asia-Pacific region or the engagement of the country in the region, Singapore’s defence minister Ng Eng Hen – at the sidelines of a security conference in Germany – met with new United States defence secretary James Mattis. They reaffirmed the “excellent and longstanding” bilateral ties between the two countries, and Dr Ng added that this first meeting gave assurance of stability and progress, with the hope that they had “moved things towards a much more predictable and stable environment that we all hope for.”

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On the economic front: Finance minister Heng Swee Keat will deliver his budget address tomorrow afternoon, and following mixed reviews of the report and recommendations proffered by the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), even more strategies are expected: to help displaced workers, to support small and medium enterprises through a high-cost environment, and to focus on macroeconomic changes. Mr Heng must also navigate around the growing predilection for protectionism and the threats of disruption to older industries, both of which leave Singapore vulnerable to lower economic growth rates as well as higher competition rates.

In other news, on another form of vulnerability: Malays in Singapore are three times more likely than the Chinese and two times more likely than the Indians to suffer from kidney failure, and over the past 10 years the kidney failure rate among Malays has increased by 50 per cent. Doctors and medical researchers have attributed these trends to the higher incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure, the levels of exercise and smoking, and delayed diagnosis too. Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob said health and wellness programmes are in place: “We need to focus more on the young, rather than waiting until [the] illness strikes.”

Overall, every two days in Singapore nine lose the use of their kidneys, and based on the number of patients on dialysis per million people, the country is ranked third in the world.

And finally, the Children’s Cancer Foundation (CCF) celebrated its 25th anniversary yesterday, and to complement its counselling endeavours and the projects to raise awareness of cancer in Singapore, the organisation is looking to help vulnerable beneficiaries through two new programmes – during the treatment period and beyond – to provide psychosocial support and nutritional care. CCF will be working with the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital on these new programmes.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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ONE legend of Valentine’s Day says that Valentine was a Christian priest who lived around 300 AD in Rome. Marriage for young men was outlawed by the Roman Emperor Claudius II, who thought single men unencumbered by a wife and family would make better soldiers. Thinking the edict unjust, Valentine defied the emperor to continue secretly performing marriages for young couples. He was found out and executed in the end.

Leaving aside the question of how true the story is, it seems that opposition have always played a part in the Valentine’s Day narrative; not necessarily out of romance. For the people of these countries, they had cause to protest in the name of some other love:

 

1. Islamabad, Pakistan – court banned Valentine’s Day celebration

Pakistan

Image from Facebook user Sam Mugabe.

Pakistani florists and restauranteurs aren’t too happy. The Islamabad High Court banned all celebrations of Valentine’s Day in government offices and public spaces, with immediate effect. For the first time, flowers and heart-shaped balloons could not be sold on the streets of Islamabad. This came in response to a private petition arguing that Valentine’s Day was un-Islamic, as it promoted immorality, nudity and indecency under the guise of spreading love.

While conservative Pakistanis cheered the court order, younger and more liberal residents voiced their dissatisfaction at what they perceived as state interference in a non-issue. Many Pakistanis managed to circumvent this law, by celebrating the occasion in groups or holding private parties indoors.

At least one person was happy with the ban. USA Today reported that Ms Mehak Haque, 23, a communications student in Lahore, found Valentine’s Day to be “a dreadful day for all the single people out there… There is unwarranted pressure on those who don’t have a Valentine date or aren’t seeing anyone.”

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2. Surabaya, Indonesia – students protested against Valentine’s Day

Indonesia

Image from Facebook user Surabaya Kita.

“Say No to Valentine!”

Students from one Muslim school in the city of Surabaya held a protest against Valentine’s Day on Monday (Feb 13). Protestors ranged from 13 to 15-year olds and included many girls wearing the hijab, or headscarf. They denounced Valentine’s Day as a Western occasion that encourages casual sex; something incompatible with Indonesian values.

Such sentiment is not new. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, has often seen Islamic clerics and religious leaders deride Valentine’s Day as a celebration of sexual immorality. In 2015, Indonesia’s Islamic clerical body even threatened to issue a fatwa, or a ruling under the Islamic law, against the sale of condoms, following reports they were sold together with chocolate to mark Valentine’s Day.

Despite these objections, many in Indonesia still enjoy the occasion, particularly in major cities such as Jakarta where cards and chocolates are widely available.

 

3. Mecca, Saudi Arabia – no longer so disapproving of Valentine’s Day

Saudi arabia

Image from Facebook user Sujit Pal.

While some Islamic countries are tightening regulations for Valentine’s Day, Saudi Arabia has done just the opposite. It kept to its efforts for reform under the leadership of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Salman, aimed at making Saudi Arabia more open to the world. This year for instance, flower shops throughout the Arab city, Jeddah, were selling custom-made Valentine boxes, including balloons and flowers, starting at 550 Saudi riyals (around SGD$209).

This is in stark contrast to previous years when religious police patrolled flower shops and confiscated  offending red roses they found. In 2012, more than 140 people were arrested for celebrating the event. This year however, celebrations were possible after the cabinet banned the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice from pursuing, questioning, requesting identification from or arresting suspects in April last year.

However, some florists in the kingdom still chose to avoid participating in the holiday to prevent controversy. “We have experienced problems in the past and I am not willing to go through the same dilemma again,” an anonymous florist in the city of Riyadh told Arab News.

 

4. New York, USA – charity drive named after a banned Valentine’s Day custom

Sofitel

Image by Facebook user Sofitel New York.

Here’s a Valentine’s Day nugget: New York Trend, a weekly news publication of New York city and Long Island, reported on 7 Feb that New York’s luxury hotel, Sofitel New York, was holding a charity drive named “Une Loterie d’Amour”, which translated to A Love Lottery. Like the legend of Valentine the priest, the hotel seemed to be making good out of a bad case. Because the charity drive, which lasted from Feb 1 till Feb 14, actually shared the same name as an old, outlawed French Valentine’s Day custom.

Hotel guests who donated to The Bowery Mission – which provided for poor and homeless New Yorkers – got to pick one of the red valentine envelopes hung from the window display at the hotel’s Gaby Brasserie Francaise restaurant. The envelopes were differentiated based on the currency denomination of the donation – USD$10, USD$25, USD$50, USD$100, USD$250 and USD$500. Prizes written inside ranged from one complimentary cocktail, a dinner or dessert for two, to a two-night Sofitel Los Angeles stay at Beverly Hills.

The historical “Une Loterie d’Amour” however, was not so loving. Singles of both sexes and all ages would enter houses opposite each other in the middle of February and shout through the windows for their desired partner. Unfortunately, should the female partner not come up to the man’s standards, the match was called off for him to continue with his search. Vengeful women left high and dry would gather before a ceremonial bonfire to hurl vulgarities at as well as burn the belongings of the men who did the rejecting. Behaviour got so bad during the Love Lottery that the authorities felt the whole custom had to be stopped.

Though Sofitel New York’s “Une Loterie d’Amour” shared faint echoes of the banned tradition, such as approaching a window and picking a prize, it is not confirmed if it drew inspiration from the past. More likely,  thankfulness, rather than hurt feelings, rounded off the modern “Une Loterie d’Amour”.

 

5. Paris, France – say no to love locks

love lock

Image by Facebook user Briony Wemyss.

Inscribed your name and your lover’s on a padlock, clip it to the railing of a bridge and throw the key into the river. This is the love lock – 21st century’s grand gesture of romantic love.

But there are those who thought walls of love locks on monuments unsightly and structurally hazardous to boot. In June 2014, part of Paris’s iconic bridge, the Pont des Arts, collapsed due to the sheer weight of the locks.

Two Parisian residents, Lisa Anselmo and Lisa Taylor Huff, had observed how the trend got out of hand from 2008 and decided to launch a “No Love Locks” campaign in January 2014. For four years running, it declared Valentine’s Day a “No Love Locks Day”.

Its 2014 petition, which called for a ban of love locks in France gathered more than 11,000 signatures. Though no formal ban was instituted, the city cleared all 45 tonnes of padlocks from the Pont des Arts in June 2015. Later in the same year, transparent panels replaced the mesh wires to discourage love locks from being clipped to the grilles.

The campaign continued because the problem has not been isolated to Pont des Arts. The organisers counted at least “10 bridges… the entire quay along the Seine, and several landmarks including the Eiffel Tower” affected by love locks. They were convinced that “only a ban will begin to make a permanent change in Paris, and save their historic landmarks”.

 

Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin Gill. (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

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Black clock showing 8.30.

A GRAINY picture of an alleged Kim Jong Nam assassin has emerged. She sports a top that says “LOL” and was caught on camera at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2.

Malaysian authorities say that they have arrested a 28-year-old woman with a Vietnamese passport over the assassination of North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, and are still looking for four men and one woman. It is unclear if the woman arrested is the one on the camera footage.

Then North Korean officials tried to block the autopsy of the late Mr Kim. They wanted to claim the body to be repatriated to North Korea but Malaysia would have none of it, although they did not say whether they would send the body to Mr Kim’s family, who are in Macau.

Fatal accidents have fallen in 2016 in all categories except those involving the elderly, says the annual Road Traffic Situation report. Accidents involving elderly pedestrians shot up by 19.6 per cent, and elderly pedestrian fatalities were up by 21.7 per cent, with 16 of the 28 deaths happening while they were jaywalking.

Speeding violations fell by 7.8 per cent to 172,192 last year and speed-related accidents fell 10.4 per cent to 1,081. But the Traffic Police want to do more: New Average Speed Cameras that track a vehicle’s speed over a stretch of up to 5km will be deployed on Singapore’s roads to “shape” driver behaviour.

PM Lee Hsien Loong has weighed in on the Syonan Gallery naming spat, saying that “we cannot erase our history or bury the past” and that the gallery was a “reminder of a traumatic period in our history and the suffering our pioneers experienced when Singapore lost its freedom and even its name.”

Signs in front of the building have been modified to show the full name of the exhibit, which is Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies.

Does the name ruffle feathers? Sure it does. That’s the point, isn’t it? To be constantly reminded and constantly uncomfortable with a dark spot in our past so that we take pains to avoid it in the future. Does it honour or commemorate the Japanese Occupation? Hardly.

Perhaps critics of the gallery name should go to hell, by which we mean another in-your-face exhibit – at Haw Par Villa. That exhibit, though also “offensively” named is certainly not a tribute to hell, but a warning against reckless behaviour and a pointer to good living. Don’t believe? Just ask your grandmother.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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Black clock showing 8.30.

NORTH Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s half-brother has been assassinated at the budget terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport, apparently by North Korean agents. Mr Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of former leader Kim Jong Il, was estranged from the reclusive leader and spent much of his time outside the hermit kingdom. He had spoken out against his brother’s regime.

Reports vary. South Korean TV Chosun said that the elder Mr Kim had been attacked by two women with poisoned needles. ST’s online version said that a woman covered his face with a cloth laced with some liquid. And Today reported that he had been splashed in the face with a liquid. By the time he got to the airport clinic, he had a headache and felt dizzy. He then experienced a seizure and died on the way to the hospital. Police are searching for the killers.

The high-profile killing comes as North Korea is embroiled in an international incident for its latest ballistic missile test. Pyongyang rejected criticism by the United Nations, saying that the test was part of its development of self-defence capabilities.

Over here in Singapore, it is Total Defence Day and to mark the occasion, air raid sirens island-wide will sound at 6:20pm in memory of the fall of Singapore 75 years ago.

Some upbeat news about airports is that tourist numbers in 2016 are a new record for Singapore. Tourist arrivals grew by 7.7 per cent to 16.4 million and tourist spending rose 13.9 per cent to $24.8 billion, according to Singapore Tourism Board’s initial estimates.

Indonesian arrivals pipped Chinese visitors, although the Chinese spent more. Accommodation, food and beverage and shopping spending grew the most, while entertainment, sightseeing and gaming spending shrank by 16 per cent in the first nine months of 2016.

With tourism and manufacturing on a rise, is the economy expected to perform better in 2017?

We know for sure, though, that none of these tourist dollars will be going to the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market after July 10. The iconic landmark – Singapore’s last free hawking zone – will be shut down to make way for high-rise residential developments.

The market had already been halved in 2011 to build an MRT station, and hawkers will likewise be left out in the cold this time, with no alternative arrangements made for them to ply their trade.

What else is cold? This morning’s temperatures hit as low as 22.6 degrees celsius in the eastern part of Singapore, in keeping with an earlier National Environment Agency forecast of a possible 22-degree low. Temperature in the central area was about 23 degrees celsius.

Twenty-two Singaporeans who won’t mind the cold are the athletes going to represent our country at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan. The games start on Sunday and Singapore will compete in short-track speed skating, figure skating and ice hockey.

What we want to know is how we can watch the action! Will it be on TV?

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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