April 29, 2017

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by Suhaile Md

The White Helmets have had largely positive press coverage in international media. But there are some controversial allegations about the volunteer group, mostly from supporters of the Syrian regime.  On April 5, we spoke to founder Mr James Le Mesurier about it. This is part two of two. Read part one here.
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IT’S difficult to doubt the agenda of a group of volunteers who risk their lives to pull babies out of broken buildings.

However last year (Sep 21) when the Associated Press (AP) asked Syria’s President Assad, if he would support the White Helmets’ Nobel Peace Prize nomination, he said: “It is not about the White Helmets, whether they are credible or not, because some organisations are politicised, but they use different humanitarian masks and umbrellas just to implement certain agenda… What did they achieve in Syria? And how un-politicised is the Nobel Prize? That’s the other question.”

Not an unreasonable question given that foreign powers have taken sides in the Syrian conflict. Russia and Iran back President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), Saudi Arabia, and Turkey back the rebel groups. And the White Helmets are funded by the latter group.

Last year (Sep 28), the British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said that the UK had donated £32m (S$56m) since 2012. Earlier in April 27, a US State Department press briefing revealed that the US government donated US$23m (S$32m)  to the organisation. By the end of last year, list of donor governments include Germany (7m euros), Canada (C$4.5m), and the Netherlands (8.5m euros) as well.

White helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

Donations by itself do not prove a nefarious agenda. Yet skeptics say that foreign governments don’t just give millions away altruistically either.

Mr James Le Mesurier, founder of the White Helmets and a former British diplomat, disagreed: “There’s a huge difference between funding which is conditional, and funding which is unconditional… Yes we get money (from the above countries)… but it has never been a secret.”

“For accountability and transparency reasons we have to publish it on the website, we have auditors to confirm where the money has gone.”

He added: “If it was a covert programme, we are doing a really really shit job at it.”

If it was a covert programme, we are doing a really really shit job at it.

The White Helmets have an annual budget of “US$30m to $32m,” with about “75 per cent from governments, and 25 per cent coming from private donations”. Private donations range from a few dollars worth to seven-figure sums.

This year, US$15m was raised “from organisations that are not western governments”. Regardless of the source, “we do not accept them if there’s any political conditionality” like wearing a certain logo, or making certain comments on media, said Mr Mesurier.

Still, the early White Helmet teams were trained in Turkey by ARK, a for-profit international contracting firm funded by Friends of Syria, “a coalition of about 35 different countries who provide support to those that are in opposition to the Assad Government,” said Mr Mesurier. He worked as a consultant there.

Surely, that reasonably raises questions of foreign agenda? Possibly regime change, or the overthrowing of President Assad, as it’s widely viewed?

The White Helmets do not have a regime change agenda, how exactly does rescuing somebody from a building result in the toppling of Assad in Damascus?

He replied: “What you need to connect, if you’re going to make this point, is means to ends… what ARK was doing, was funding media activists, giving them cameras, it’s good governance development, it was civil society development… the White Helmets were one of eight programmes.

“The White Helmets do not have a regime change agenda, how exactly does rescuing somebody from a building result in the toppling of Assad in Damascus?”

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Not agents of the CIA, or Mossad, or MI6…

Mr Mesurier said he’s been called an operative of foreign spy agencies like America’s CIA, Israel’s Mossad, and UK’s MI6, among others.

None of which are true. The idea of a rescue force came about when he was working in the private for-profit ARK. His job there “involved meeting mayors, local politicians, media activists, and designing and delivering training courses in peace and stabilisation activities”.

After the bombings started, it was in one of those meetings that local leaders said they needed to find ways to protect themselves. That’s when the idea to train rescue teams hit.

In 2013, a local leader in a village in Northern Aleppo sent Mr Mesurier’s 25 volunteers to train in Turkey. That’s where they were first issued with the protective helmets. It was white, because it’s “$5 cheaper than the other colours”.

White helmet volunteers training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

Volunteers were lay people, teachers, bakers, blacksmiths, tailors and so on. Word spread and other communities in rebel held areas started approaching ARK. The growth and spread of the White Helmets was not the clandestine efforts of a spy. It was the simple need for a first-response rescue group.

In August 2014, the various teams came together, adopted their charter, pledge of neutrality, and voted in a leader, Mr Raed Saleh. The organisation was formalised then. Mr Saleh runs the show now, not Mr Mesurier.

Mr Mesurier left ARK around that time to set up Mayday Rescue, a non-profit organisation registered in the Netherlands, “because he didn’t feel right doing it (training White Helmet teams) on a for profit basis”.

Mayday Rescue supports the White Helmets with training and mentorship. While it has no management function, funding does go through Mayday Rescue. According to its website, the annual report and financial statements for 2016 will be published online this coming June.

Amongst other expenses, the money goes to the equipment purchases, training costs, and the “very very meagre” monthly stipend of US$150 each volunteer gets. Those who were maimed in service, as well as families of those who lost their lives, are also supported with a stipend. The White Helmets set up the Herofund in 2014 to help with public fundraising.
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Neutrality not respected

The White Helmets, he repeated throughout the interview, are neutral. They save everyone regardless of background.

The Syrian government is not convinced. It does not allow the White Helmets into regime controlled areas. Even when the White Helmets had six fire fighting teams near the vicinity of the forest fires in Latakia earlier this year, the Syrian government declined their offer to help, said Mr Mesurier.

Maybe it has something to do with online clips of some volunteers who have been very outspoken in their comments about the regime? Those are very few and far between and do not represent the view of the organisation, he said.

White helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

Also, it’s a war zone. The volunteers are lay persons who used to be housewives, teachers, bakers, and so on before the war. Their volunteerism exposes them to “tremendous stress”, they take “tremendous risks” to their lives. Mr Mesurier did not say so, but it’s understood: When you spend your days picking up bodies due to regime bombs, it’s only natural to be angry at the regime.

To the date of the interview (Apr 5), 171 volunteers have died and 488 were permanently maimed. There are currently 3,100 volunteers.

171 volunteers have died and 488 were permanently maimed. There are currently 3,100 volunteers.

When asked if he thinks the volunteers are targetted, Mr Mesurier said with finality, “absolutely”. Their centres have been bombed before. And the regime airstrikes infamously engage in “double-tap” attacks where a bombed site is struck again shortly after its first round – to get at the people who run in to help victims.

Interestingly, the volunteers are able to move freely in opposition held areas of Syria in spite of it being an “archipelago of local warlords” and “local arms organisations”. Although yes, in some parts, like ISIS controlled areas, the White Helmets are not allowed to use their GoPro head cameras when they go about their work.

Nonetheless, they can clear checkpoints “from top to bottom”, which is “fairly unusual”, said Mr Mesurier. He doubts any other organisation is able to do that. In fact, this also shows that the White Helmets are not western spies or agents. They would not have such freedom of movement otherwise.

It’s probably because of the “trust that people have of the White Helmets,” he added. Furthermore, the services the White Helmets provide to local communities have not been successfully replicated by local armed groups.

“Some local warlords have tried to set up their own rescue teams… but the values that makes people want to join an extremist organisation are almost the opposite of the values that make somebody want to be a White Helmet”.
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So are the White Helmets western stooges or not?

Skeptics would charge that the graphic videos and images are used in the propaganda war to make the President Assad’s regime look bad. This garners support for regime change, exactly what the western governments funding the White Helmets want.

To that, Mr Mesurier replied that the White Helmets just want the bombings to stop, not remove Assad or change regimes. Showing images “is not regime change”, it’s about “making truth accessible”, to show that people are suffering.

Mr Salah Skaff, 25, reacts carrying the body of his daughter Amira Skaff, 1.5 year old, after an airstrike on the rebel held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria April 7, 2017. – REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

It’s hard to argue with that. Given the volunteers’ lives lost and thousands of online videos that capture the harrowing circumstances the volunteers face, it’s hard to believe the white helmets work hard just to make the regime look bad.

It would be far safer and easier to spread fake news instead. (Read more here.)

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Mr James Le Mesurier was awarded the Order of the British Empire last year for his work with the White Helmets. In the past, he served as a British Army Officer from 1989 to 2000. Later he had a diplomatic stint for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. After which, he moved on to various roles in the private sector risk management companies. This information is publicly available on his LinkedIn profile.

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Featured image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

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White Helmets on the job. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

by Suhaile Md

The White Helmets have had largely positive press coverage in international media. But there are some controversial allegations about the volunteer group, mostly from supporters of the Syrian regime. We spoke to founder Mr James Le Mesurier about it it. This is part one of two.

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YOU may have seen the videos from civil war-torn Syria: Volunteers braving bombs, their white helmet-clad heads bobbing about, looking for survivors, pulling bodies out of building rubble. The Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets as they are popularly known, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. But last month (Mar 20), Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said: “White Helmets are Al-Qaeda members and that’s proven on the net.”

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Unsurprisingly, the White Helmets disagreed. And it’s not the only accusation hurled at them, said Mr James Le Mesurier, founder of the organisation, in an interview with TMG on April 5. The organisation has also been accused of faking rescue missions for propaganda purposes, and acting in the interests of western powers like the United States (US), and the United Kingdom (UK), by pushing for regime change in Syria. Read our other story on that here.

 

Mr James Le Mesurier, one of the founders of the White Helmets.

“We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets”, said Mr Mesurier at the sidelines of the Milipol Asia-Pacific Exhibition. The 45-year old former British diplomat and army officer gave a presentation on community resilience at the security exhibition.
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Accusations and rebuttals

Some of the harshest accusations have been debunked by watchdogs.

One particular viral video of a speech claimed that the White Helmets use actors to make fake rescue videos. The speech was by Ms Eva Bartlett at an event organised by the Syrian Mission to the United Nations (UN). Ms Bartlett, a Canadian, describes herself as “an independent writer and rights activist”.

Said Mr Mesurier: “She (Eva) is a founding member… of the Syrian Solidarity Movement, which is a pro-Assad government forum… how can she be an independent investigative journalist? The two are dichotomous.”

Her claims were, however, rubbished by UK’s Channel 4 news and Snopes. The video was posted on Dec 13 last year on Facebook page In The Now. The page is run by Russia Today (RT), a state-backed news site but Channel 4 notes that In The Now is “not branded as such”. Russia is a staunch ally of President Assad. The video garnered 4.3m views, over 53,000 reactions (comments and likes), and nearly 114,000 shares.

More recently, Pulitzer prize-winning website, PolitiFact, debunked the claim that the White Helmets orchestrated the hoax chemical attack on April 4 this year, in Idlib, Syria, to draw the US into bombing the Syrian regime.

We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets

It’s not possible to keep up with every claim made online. Detractors usually just pull together low resolution pictures of White Helmet volunteers and place it along those of gun-toting fighters, without dates or context, to imply they are the same people. That’s held up as “proof” that it’s a terrorist organisation.

But how often, asked Mr Mesurier, can someone differentiate one bearded man from another in a low grain picture? “You’re kind of like how do you respond to that?” It’s far easier to slap a few pictures together and sow doubt online than it is to track down facts and ascertain truth.

Yes, a few members of the White Helmets used to be former fighters, but they gave up their guns and now save lives. People change, he added. Just because they did not clear their social media history of pictures and slogans from the time when they took up arms does not mean they are still fighting.

And not just anybody can join the White Helmets. If the locals don’t trust the volunteers, they wouldn’t be able to get anything done. Which is why members are vetted by the local communities. So a “bad guy… wouldn’t be accepted as a member of the team”, said Mr Mesurier. There are currently 3,100 volunteers in 107 teams across Syria.
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White Helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

But what about the damning video, from May 6, 2015? White Helmet volunteers were caught on tape running in to clear a body seconds after a gunman executed a man. It turns out that the deceased was tried and sentenced to death in a local Sharia court, said Mr Mesurier. When his father found out about the time of execution, he called the White Helmets to help him conduct a proper burial. Besides, the gunman was clad in a balaclava, not a white helmet. Accusing the White Helmets of this act would be akin to accusing Joseph of Arimathea of crucifying Jesus.

The White Helmets are an unarmed, neutral group, interested in saving lives, insisted Mr Mesurier. By its own records, since March 2013 when the first team was formed, it has saved over 87,500 people. Anyone “dug out of building rubble, and put on a stretcher” plus a few other criteria is considered a life saved, he said.
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If it’s so good, why are there detractors in the first place?

Short answer: war and politics.

In 2011, the “Arab Spring” political protests against the ruling governments across parts of the Middle East spread to Syria as well. By 2012, the protests against President Assad in Syria soon devolved into a full-blown civil war. Over time, global and regional powers took sides. Iran and Russia support the Syrian regime led by President Assad. The US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey support the rebels.

The White Helmets was started by Mr Mesurier when he was working for ARK, a for-profit international contracting firm based in Turkey. ARK was funded by Friends of Syria, “a coalition of about 35 different countries who provide support to those that are in opposition to the Assad Government,” said Mr Mesurier. The White Helmets are no longer under ARK but its donors include the US and UK, among others. But he insists there is no nefarious agenda. (Read more here: So what if we’re funded by western governments?)

The misinformation, said Mr Mesurier, comes mostly from Sputnik News and RT news. These are Russian state-backed news media. He believes the Russian government encourages it. To that end, he showed a tweet by the Russian Embassy in UK shortly after a documentary on the White Helmets won the Oscar for best documentary short feature.

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Said Mr Mesurier: “Every time there’s a video of White Helmets rescuing women, children, old people, from buildings bombed by (Syrian) government aircraft… that undermines what Assad says of it being a simple choice between him, as the good guy, and ISIS as the bad guys.”

But the work of the White Helmets has shown that there are many Syrians who don’t want either President Assad or the extremists.  “And that is a threat to him… how to deal with it? Accuse a volunteer rescue organisation of being affiliated with Al-Qaeda.”
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The mechanics of fake news

Mr Mesurier found a broad pattern to how fake news is spread. There are three phases.

First, it usually starts with blog posts by a “supposedly independent journalist of some variety… who typically claims to be new media, anti-mainstream media”. Such posts make their way into social media echo chambers.

Anybody who tries to be critical about the assertions in the post will face resistance from the writer’s supporters whose line of argument is usually: “You are taken in by mainstream media, you are blind, you don’t see what’s really going on in the world.”

So with the blog and some social media reaction, the next phase kicks in. “State-sponsored media” like RT or Sputnik news will invite said blogger on its channel where he or she is then “introduced as an independent investigative journalist”.

This is followed by “a series of leading questions that has them (Russia and Syria) define their story”. This narrative then enters a far larger audience. “What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles.”

What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles

The final phase is when national leaders make reference to sources like Sputnik news and RT. When members of the public look into the claims, there seems to be proof because so many people are talking about it online. No matter that the origins of the claims are based on shoddy reporting in a blog. Little can be done about such sites, “they’re not accountable (to a board or editors)… they cannot be sued”, said Mr Mesurier.

Furthermore, the effort it takes to disprove these allegations “is disproportionately greater than the amount of effort that it takes” to make it.

It takes only a few minutes to plaster together a couple of low resolution images from the web to make it seem as if a volunteer is actually a fighter in disguise. But to debunk it, both the volunteer and the fighter whose images were used need to be tracked down. In one such actual case, it was found that the fighter and volunteer were from two different cities altogether.

The White Helmets do not have a dedicated team addressing allegations. At the end of the day, said Mr Mesurier, the focus is on rescuing people, not debunking myths.

“We believe the record of the White Helmets speaks for itself.”

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Featured image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

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by Bertha Henson

SO THE G is thinking about what to do about “fake” news. I am flustered. How heavy a hand will it take? What happened to the “light touch” approach? I can hear people screaming about why I am supporting fake news. I’m not. I don’t think the word “fake” and “news” even go together.

Do we have a big fake news problem here? How big is the problem? Some anti-establishment people will say news in the Mainstream Media (MSM) is all fake, because it’s calculated to make the G look good in the headlines and in the telling of the story. The thing is, even if the stories are complimentary, they aren’t based on false information and you would have to trust that the MSM has all the information it needs to make a judgement call.

I think governments around the world like to look good. They get angry at being caught out on a lie, failed promises and botched programmes. Every government would like its media to be its propaganda machine. The test is whether the people will regard the media as such and ditch it altogether as untrustworthy. Woe is the government which puts such a tight rein on the media that even its most important messages cannot reach its intended audience.

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Fake news sites, or sites that have some fake news, used to be dominated by those who have political agendas. Increasingly, the industry has turned in good money too. Witness The Real Singapore’s (TRS) rise and demise.

I am not sorry for TRS but have always wondered if the Sedition Act was the only tool available to bring the site down. The Class Licence Act was only invoked after the heavier legal weapon was wielded. In its review, I’m hoping that the Ministry of Law won’t take the easy way out and suggest legislation to crack down on “fake news”. I say this because there are other tools which can be applied first – and are sometimes applied. For the individual, it is the Protection from Harassment Act and defamation laws. In Singapore, however, it seems that the review is to protect the interest of the State after its failure to utilise the Protection from Harassment Act.

Of course, the interest will be defined as the preservation of law and order and social harmony concerns. The phrase is “right of reply”.

I suggest that the G looks at all the weapons in its arsenal before resorting to drafting a Bill for a speedy route through Parliament.

My question is: Is the G already doing enough to put its point of view across in the first place? Does it give enough information so that people wouldn’t fill the gaps with speculative comment? Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that the PUB price hike could have been explained better. So too the disastrous and out-of-touch move to call a permanent exhibition, Syonan Gallery.

Which brings me to one of the weapons which the G has said would counter misinformation and gossip: The Factually website. Launched in 2012, way before other governments around the world introduced their own channels, it is now a shambles.

The “trending articles” are old articles which people are still reading, like what is Zika, probably because of its re-emergence, which the website doesn’t explain. Quite a few old issues re-surface because they become current, like why GST is imposed on waterborne tax. This is probably because of the impending price rise – which the website doesn’t explain.

There is a piece on “Why are electricity tariffs rising?”, dated July 2016, when every household knows it has gone up again on April 1. The U-save rebates are therefore dated, which is a pity given that the G had announced a rise in the last Budget. Sometimes, the G doesn’t know how to help itself.

Factually’s “news” section is a hotch-potch of articles that are lifted from MSM, which only propagates the perception that they are G mouthpieces. Increasingly, there are re-writes of press releases, supposedly by Ministry of Communications and Information staffers and FAQs on policies which the ministries put up as annexes to the media in the hope that they will be published.

There are some attempts to debunk “fake news” and name the perpetrators but in the main, it’s more a regurgitation of G policy than a head-on clash. The biggest take-down was during the haze or when sites and bloggers were named.

The most recent posts of such kind had to do with remarks attributed to Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in October 2016.

States Times Review (STR) article “Law Minister K Shanmugam: Eurasian Singaporeans are Indians” is a disgraceful fabrication. The Minister never said any of the things STR attributes to him. Indeed, he never said anything about Eurasians nor were there any questions posed to him about Eurasians at the IPS conference. It is malicious of STR to spread such vicious falsehoods, calculated to sow discord among our different ethnic groups. The Government will review STR’s post and decide whether to take further action against STR.

STR gave its response on its own website.

Editor’s note:
States Times Review report news without fear or favour, and will not entertain the Lawless Minister. States Times Review operates under laws of the Australia government, K Shanmugam is welcome to sue us under the Australian judiciary. As a Law Minister, resorting to police reports and lawsuit threats as the first response to criticisms speaks volume about the sad state of political affairs in Singapore.

Sometimes, it’s oblique, like this one before the September 2015 General Elections.

There have been claims on some online websites that the Government will raise the GST after the forthcoming General Elections to fund increased spending planned in the next term of government. There is no basis to these claims, and they are inconsistent with what the Government has recently stated.

In the 2015 Budget Statement in February, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam stated that the revenue measures the government had already undertaken will provide sufficiently for the increased spending planned for the rest of this decade.

Given that this is on the Factually website, it’s going to be tough for the G to change its mind…

Why doesn’t the G confront fake news perpetrators directly, like Snopes or PolitiFact, especially when policies have been distorted?

My view is that the G has to show that it has done more to resist the fake news plague before it embarks on something heavy-handed.

MPs have been a disappointment. No question was asked of the minister in the last sitting earlier this month when he spoke of the review. Last month, there was one question from Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, who wanted to know how the webpage selects falsehoods to respond to.

Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said the site aims to clarify “widespread or common misperceptions of government policy, or incorrect assertions on matters of public concern that can harm Singapore’s social fabric”. It was concerned with facts, not opinions, he added.

Going by Factually, we’re doing pretty well on the fake news front. The G has very little fake news to debunk. Which makes you wonder why a review is even needed.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Pokemon catchers along Orchard Road.
Pokemon catchers along Orchard Road on Sunday (Photo: Sean Chong/TMG)

by Bertha Henson

I am getting old(er), so I don’t recall how many times I have seen plans to re-fresh and re-vitalise Orchard Road. An undergraduate doing her thesis on pop culture asked me last week about Swing Singapore, which was decades ago but which I still remember as a teenager. I was there! It was boring, walking the pedestrian-only road with deejays doing their best to hype the crowd. Except that everybody was just waiting for something to happen – rather than make it happen.

The plans to revitalise Orchard Road sounds fun, but it’s really more of the same thing as in past plans. Allowing more pedestrians and activities (buskers still need a licence no?) and festivals at open places, making Orchard Road pedestrian-friendly – which actually is if you consider the sidewalks are extremely wide, even without the suggestion to close off one lane. Have you ever had trouble walking along Orchard Road?

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We’re told there will be a Design Incubator, which sounds like a term that should remain in one-North or Science Park, showcasing local talent. Should we get excited about having scramble crossings?

It seems to me we are putting cart before horse and exploring ideas without understanding why Orchard Road is the way it is now – and what is it now, exactly?

What are we concerned about? That tourists are staying away from the street? Or locals giving it a miss? That there’s a parking problem? That retailers are complaining about lack of business? Even if the G goes about laying the infrastructure (and take away all the green lungs in the area), what’s the bet that people will come?

Don’t we recall the hype that accompanied the openings of ION Orchard, 311@Somerset, Knightsbridge, Orchard Central and Orchard Gateway? Have we considered that the road is too malled-up with stores that are too fancy and high-priced – that is, if we are thinking about getting locals down.

In any case, locals are well-served by the strategically-placed suburban malls. Neighbourhood centres are bustling with plenty of activities organised by town councils and commercial operators. Why go to Orchard Road? For high-class dining and high-price boutiques?

If it’s the high-priced parking that’s the problem, then there are at least three MRT stations there, so is the solution really to get everyone to go car-lite if they want to go there? If people are still attached to their cars especially if they’re shopping. Again, this is only if we’re thinking about local participation.

If the idea is to court foreign tourists, then what sort of effort have been made to ask them for their views on Orchard Road? Why have a plan which is without their feedback? Surely, we can’t be conjuring things from our imagination rather than based on information. If Orchard Road is losing out as a shopping destination, what else would tourists be looking for? Plenty of happenings everyday and night?

I took at look at Orchard Road’s website for events this month. There is Fiesta on a Great Street, from April 21 to 23 and we’re called upon to “ feast on local favourites and new gourmet classics presented by Baker’s Oven Patisseries, Café O, Good Chance Restaurant, Keng Eng Kee Seafood, Potluck and Rice Bowl”. It doesn’t say if the fare is discounted but 20 per cent of proceeds go to the Singapore Red Cross. So, it looks like a charity programme. You can also pay $29.21 to attend a masterclass with five chefs. Don’t know how this adds to vibrancy. There will be “local acts”, but don’t know who or where they will play.

Maybe everybody’s preparing to hype the Great Singapore Sale (GSS), which over the years, is beginning to look more like attempts to get in the Chinese tourists. The GSS, which used to be an Orchard Road staple, extends to heartland shops too although you see fewer taking part, so why go to Orchard Road?

Okay, maybe Orchard Road is supposed to be a place to jalan-jalan, window shop and look at the myriad complexions and modes of dressing of the people who are there. I, for one, find the activity entertaining. But it also makes me feel like a fish out of water – most of them don’t look like me. So is Orchard Road really for foreigners because I have no reason to be there except to shop at Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City. I’d rather sit in a coffeeshop or a café in the heartlands – and feel at home. Our foreign workers probably feel more at home in Orchard Road if you go by the congregations that mass in open spaces having picnics on weekends.

This is really odd because in big cities, the foreign tourist sees more locals at their prime spots than their own kind. It’s part of the tourist experience to able to see locals doing their own thing, so to speak.

As I said, maybe I am getting old(er). I didn’t see Orchard Road in the same blasé light when I was a teenager. Then again, I have it on good authority that teenagers now have so many more places to flock to than in my time.

All I am asking is whether we’ve taken a hard look at why Orchard Road is the way it is, before moving on to grand plans which require construction and hoardings. Take away words like “revitalise”, “rejuvenate” and “refresh”, and ask why is Orchard Road so dead first.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Daniel Yap

AFTER his shock-inducing announcement that HDB owners should not expect to get their flats redeveloped at the end of their 99-year lease, which means the value of a 99-year-old flat is practically zero, Minister for National Development, Lawrence Wong is now saying that HDB flats are “a good store of asset value”.

It seems to do little to solve the problems that owners (leaseholders, really) of end-stage leases are facing – possible homelessness or having to shell out tons of money for stuff they wrongly assumed they’d get for free. And those who panicked at the initial reminder that a 99-year lease only really lasts for 99 years will be wondering – what does Mr Wong mean to say now?

Is he trying to calm down stunned flat buyers who thought that the value of their home was a sure thing?


HDB flats are “a good store of asset value so long as you plan ahead and make prudent housing decisions”.

Ah, but the good minister did include a caveat, although he didn’t explain it. His whole phrase is that HDB flats are “a good store of asset value so long as you plan ahead and make prudent housing decisions”. What decisions exactly? What’s the key to unlocking all of this asset goodness, if indeed there is any to be unlocked?

There are two ways of viewing something as an “asset”. The first is that an asset is something you can use to pay off liabilities, for example loans. That’s why you can’t (and shouldn’t be able to) take a housing loan for more than your house is worth. That’s also why banks are not happy at all when you miss a mortgage payment. It means that the value of the money you owe in the loan gets dangerously closer to the money they can get if they repossess and sell off your house, should it come to that.

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The thing about assets is that for every upside, there is a downside. Inflation eats away at the value of cash, property, everything. Markets go up and down, and you cannot guarantee that you will exit in the black. And some assets depreciate, like HDB flats, which run down to zero after 99 years. The ownership of any asset bears some degree of risk.

You just have to make sure that the risks are smaller than the returns.

There’s a second way to look at something as an asset. It is a more “business” approach, where something that is an “asset” is supposed to generate income. Like a factory building or a machine. It can also be something that generates income over a longer period of time (or which can be liquidated for capital gains), like Singapore Government bonds, or stocks.

So, what Mr Wong may be saying is either a) buy and sell and finance your HDB flat in a way that makes your returns greater than your risks or b) rent it out for income (as in rent it out not to cover mortgage payments, but at a price that is higher than depreciation and the costs of rental – agents, repairs, fees).

Taking advantage of renting out for income is straightforward – you get permission to rent out and then you pay money (either your own costs or you hire an agent) to put your property on the market and maintain it.

Taking advantage of buying, selling and financing is also simple (but not necessarily easy). All you need to do is recognise that the market is irrational. If you told any accountant that asset X would last for 100 years and cost $100,000, they would depreciate it (say on a straight-line basis) at $10,000 a year. Or maybe accelerate the depreciation in the first few years.

The money you spent on renovations too should be depreciated (including original fittings), say over 15 years, which is when you may need to renovate again. This is how we do cars – we know that a COE lasts for 10 years and there’s a PARF rebate and a “scrap” value, so every year the value of a car goes down by a certain amount.

Not so for HDB flats. Market values actually rise over time even as the life-span of the asset falls. It may be some kind of hyperbolic discounting (read about how it makes you stupid in our linked story) or people are just plain crazy. But take advantage of this! Buy a BTO flat that is much larger than you actually need, rent out a room and then when the five-year minimum occupation period is up, sell the whole thing and downgrade to a newer, prudent sized unit. Or just sell the older unit and buy a same-sized newer unit every 10 years or so, before people start to get jittery about the HDB flat you’re selling having only 60 or 70 years left on its lease. It should still fetch about the same price. Because people are crazy.

Eventually, when it’s just you and maybe someone else living in your home, you can downgrade further to use your asset (the market value of your HDB flat) to pay for your liabilities (daily expenses, travel, etc), if you’ve preserved it well. If you’re retired, a chunk of that money is likely to go into your CPF, because the housing loan goes back in, with interest (and then gets paid out via CPF Life).

But no matter what age you do it at, the bottom line is this – let it go. If you never sell your depreciating asset, you’ll never get any cash out of it at all. And the “prudent housing decision” you need to make is to take advantage of people who will shell out as much for a 30-year-old flat as a 10-year-old one (especially when the renovation looks fancy).

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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GERMAN police are on the hunt for a brazen attacker. Officers comb a quiet street turned crime scene late on Tuesday (April 11) after a bus carrying the Borussia Dortmund football team was hit by three explosions.

The devices were planted in bushes on the side of the road, near the players’ hotel in what police say was a deliberate assault on players and staff.

Dortmund police chief Gregor Lange said, “We assumed from the start that the blast was a targeted attack on the Borussia Dortmund team. That is why we immediately activated the emergency plan to put all available police forces on duty.”

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The players were on their way to a home match against Monaco when their bus was struck, smashing several windows.

Spanish defender Marc Bartra has been hospitalised and is undergoing surgery on his hand.

The attack sending shock waves through the European football community.

Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone said in Spanish, “I’ve nothing really to say. I’m speechless. I’m just concerned.”

Many fans were already at the club’s ground when word of the blast reached them.

The stadium announcing that the game had been called off and will now be played on Wednesday (April 12) night.

-Reuters

 

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by Bertha Henson

FOUR top-ranking civil servants were huddled in the subterranean sound-proof room, tasked with the mission of drawing up a list of issues that cannot be publicly discussed, not even in Parliament. Their new assignment comes after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that sensitive issues such as whether Muslim women in front-line jobs should be allowed to wear the hijab should be discussed behind closed-doors. After closing the steel-reinforced doors with a double-locking mechanism, the bureaucrats, known fondly as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, got down to work.

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Mr War (cracking knuckes): Well, the boss has already given us the hijab for the no-go zone. What else should be eliminated?

Ms Famine (cracking melon seeds): I don’t know why though? There’s always the Parliamentary Committee of privileges which can hammer down bulimic MPs who throw up everything and anything…

Mr Pestilence (popping a health supplement): That’s because Parliament is not a contained facility and we risk the virus getting out and infecting people. Remember we just had a resurgence of Zika?

Mr Death: The bell tolls. I hear. Death knell.

Mr War (ignoring Mr Death): I recommend a scorched earth policy, where everything to do with religion is out. Like mosque-building, church fund-raising, temple celebrations, Thaipusam, Christmas and how much hongbao to give relatives on Chinese New Year…

Ms Famine: That’s piling too much on the plate. We would be starving people of information and they’ll just go for a diet of fake news. Maybe just foreign imams using village bibles and church leaders who think they can sing should be added to the menu.

Mr Pestilence: I already said I could bug everyone and stop things from going viral… Why do we even need a list?

Mr Death: Leave it. To me. I will. Meet. Everyone.

Ms Famine (sweeping shells onto the floor): Surely, people won’t refrain from partaking of the City Harvest? Such appetising food for thought! Too harsh, too lenient or just right… ?

Mr War (impatient): Well, the AGC is applying for a criminal reference, so we shouldn’t talk about it. I also say we shouldn’t allow discussion on terrorist attacks unless they are accompanied by nation-building and societal-bonding terms.

Mr Death: Death. To terrorists. In London. Stockholm. Egypt. Everywhere. I will. Be. Busy.

Mr Pestilence: But we haven’t dealt with who should be invited to such closed-door discussions. People whom we’ve already inoculated?

Ms Famine: Then, they won’t have very much to chew on since we’re sure they would swallow everything anyway.

Mr Death: Walking. Dead. People.

Mr War: At least the rules of engagement will have been set and we won’t have loose cannons destroying our fortified policies. Think of closed-door discussions as a barricade against attacks.

Mr Death: SGSecure.

Outside the bunker, fire and brimstone rained on the surface. The Four Horsemen traded bureaucratic jargon as they worked on their policy paper, oblivious to tremendous on-goings outside because of their double-locked, steel-reinforced, sound-proof bunker. Mission accomplished, they were going out for air when they found that the doors had malfunctioned. Mr War couldn’t punch through steel. Mr Pestilence couldn’t infect the locks while Ms Famine’s shrill screams went unheard.

Mr Death: Death. Comes. To us all.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Suhaile Md

THE Attorney-General Chambers (AGC) has filed a Criminal Reference today with the Court of Appeal with regards to the City Harvest Church (CHC) case, said the AGC in a statement earlier today (Apr 10). A Criminal Reference is made when any party of the criminal proceedings wishes to refer “any question of law of public interest”, according to the Supreme Court.

In other words, if there is reason to believe that a decision of the High Court has significant implications beyond the current case down the road, then a Criminal Reference is made. This is the next step that can be taken once the appeal process has run its usual course.

Said the AGC today: “Having carefully considered the written grounds, the Prosecution is of the view that there are questions of law of public interest that have arisen out of the High Court’s decision.”

This is the latest development since last Friday (Apr 7), when the six leaders of CHC, including founder Kong Hee, had successfully appealed to have their sentences reduced from between 21 months and eight years to between seven months and three and a half years. Three judges presided over the appeal and it was a split 2-1 decision.

The six are guilty of misappropriating $24 million in church funds, and spending a further $26 million to cover their tracks. They were initially charged with Criminal Breach of Trust (CBT) under section 409 of the Penal Code in a lower court. But the High Court said in its judgement that the charges of CBT should fall under the lesser charge in section 406 of the Penal Code instead. The questions of law arise here.

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406, 409, what’s the difference?

Criminal Breach of Trust basically happens when someone who is “entrusted with property… dishonestly misappropriates” said property. This is established in section 405. But the severity of the punishment borne by the guilty depends on WHO the person is.

According to section 409, if the person is entrusted with property “in his capacity… as an agent”, then the person may be jailed up to 20 years. The AGC of course claims that the six are considered agents. And in fact the AGC had appealed that the jail terms be increased from between 21 months and eight years to between five and 12 years.

Kong Hee and gang appealed that they were not agents, and hence their punishment should fall under section 406 where the maximum sentence is seven years jail.

But last Friday, the high court had agreed the charges should fall under section 406. And so the six leaders had their charges reduced.

Many had expressed surprise at the reduced sentence. Even prompting the Minister for Law Mr K Shanmugam to say on Saturday (Apr 8) that “the matter is not over yet, the AGC is considering whether it’s possible to take further steps”.

From the G’s point of view, said the Minister, “this legal reasoning has serious implications in other cases, including corruption cases. And we will have to consider as a matter of policy what other steps to take because we cannot relax on that.”

The Criminal Reference is held in open court and the public can attend it. If successful, the six will not get off with the lighter sentences they received on Friday. The decision in a Criminal Reference is final.

 

Want to know more about the case? Read more here.

  1. City Harvest Trial: Facing Judgement Day
  2. Church and state: What’s next for City Harvest?
  3. CHC Appeal: Sounding a similar refrain, church leaders downplay own roles in final attempt to escape jail
  4. City Harvest Appeal: Trying to overturn conviction, lawyer argues ‘no personal gain’ for Kong Hee
  5. Not a good Harvest for the state
  6. Transcript of the CHC guilty verdict

 

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By Ryan Ong

ALTHOUGH they’ll never admit it, a large part of the finance industry aim to convince you that what they do is very complicated, and impossible to understand for anyone short of a NASA scientist (that’s why you better pay them to manage your money for you). Over the past two decades, one of their secrets has been the ETF – a straightforward financial product that makes them look like geniuses, while actually proving the opposite. You should at least have a basic grasp of the concept:

BB BE: Relax & Vote

ELECTIONS serve to be pivotal in leadership transition in the higher echelons of leadership in the public sector. It determines the country’s leaders and major decisions that will affect the people and the country on a global level. An election is thus an event that is anticipated.

In Singapore, taking into account the constitutional changes in the Elected Presidency last year and the announcement that this year’s presidential elections will be reserved for candidates from the Malay community, Singaporeans will definitely be looking forward to being part of the journey in choosing the next president of Singapore in September this year.

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Here are some leadership transition in the world to look out for:

1. Berlin, Germany – Angela Merkel runs for fourth term 

Dr Angela Merkel. Image by Alexander.kurz from Wikimedia Commons. 

The German federal election has been set on September 24 this year to elect the members of the Bundestag, the legislative body of Germany. Members serve four year terms with elections held every four years unless the Bundestag is dissolved by the president before the said four years.

German chancellor Angela Merkel’s party has won an election in the small southwestern state of Saarland, which is an indication of a trend for the upcoming election in September. Dr Angela Merkel will be running for the fourth term this year. The leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) received criticisms for her controversial open-door policy. In September last year, her approval rating fell to a five year low of just 45 per cent.

Far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has gained popularity in the wake of the migrant crisis and Brexit victory in the UK. Former European Parliament President Martin Schulz is standing for the SDP in a bid to become Germany’s next Chancellor.

The Head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations Mr Piotr Buras said that “despite the criticism of Merkel and her sinking support, a majority of voters support the idea of her remaining Chancellor.” He expects the coalition – made up of the Christian Democrats and SDP – to remain in power after the election. He added that there was an outside chance of a coalition between the SNP, Green Party and left-wing populist party Die Linke.

Dr Merkel has been the chancellor of Germany since 2005 and the leader of the CDU since 2000.

2. Tehran, Iran – 12th Presidential election: President Rouhani runs for a second term

President Hassan Rouhani. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Iran will be holding its 12th Presidential election on May 19 this year.

Cabinet spokesperson Mohammad Bagher Nowbakht said that President Hassan Rouhani will be running for a second term and that he will be the only cabinet minister registering in the upcoming elections. Mr Rouhani is the current and seventh President of Iran. Tasnim news agency reported that a conservative cleric Mr Ebrahim Raisi will run for Iran’s presidency as well. This new candidate “has transformed the race, potentially unifying opponents to President Hassan Rouhani in a strong challenge to his re-election,” Bloomberg Politics reported. Mr Raisi declared his candidacy a day after two other conservatives “bowed out”.

An associate fellow at the Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) described the upcoming elections as a “very serious race with huge consequences.”

3. Beijing, China – 19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress

From left to right: (Politburo Standing Committee) Zhang Gaoli, Liu Yunshan, Zhang Dejiang, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Yu Zhengsheng and Wang Qishan. Image from Getty Images by Feng Li 

While the People’s Republic of China does not hold democratic elections, 2017 is an important year for China politically as the Chinese Communist Party will be hosting the 19th National Congress in autumn this year, which will likely determine the country’s top leadership.

In this leadership transition, around 60 per cent of the party’s leaders will retire, including 11 out of the 25 member Politburo and five out of seven members of the country’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee. The only two not retiring in the incumbent group are President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. This event is critical as it will not only affect how China is governed, it will also have an impact on President Xi’s political posture and the continuity of Chinese leadership.

According to Managing Director and Head of China Macro Research for Credit Suisse Mr Vincent Chan, the National Congress “goes a long way in deciding the top leadership around President Xi Jinping and how far he could consolidate his power, and potentially creates conditions for him to extend his rule in China beyond 2022 (his scheduled retirement date)”. In Mr Chan’s words, this meeting could decide China’s political landscape during the next decade.

4. Paris, France – French Presidential Elections

From left to right: Mr Francois Fillon, Mr Emmanuel Macron, Mr Jean-Luc Melenchon, Ms Marine Le Pen, and Mr Benoit Hamon.  Image from Reuters.

The French will be going to the ballot boxes in April and May of 2017. The presidential candidates will first run against one another on April 23. If no candidate gets half the vote, the top two candidates will compete against each other in a run-off vote on May 7.

This election comes as a surprise as french elections are usually a fierce contest between the conservative Les Republicans and the left-wing Socialist Party. Yet, this year, the limelight is mainly on candidates from neither of the two parties.

Battered by his lack of popular support, incumbent French President Francois Hollande will not be seeking re-election. There are five prominent candidates running for the presidency this April – Mr Emmanuel Macron, Ms Marine Le Pen, Mr Francois Fillon, Mr Jean-Luc Melenchon and Mr Benoit Hamon.

Mr Emmanuel Macron, an ex-banker and former economy minister, is currently hailed as the centrist front-runner as the presidential candidate of his centrist party En Marche. Mr Macron is staunchly pro-Europe and a social liberal. Trailing behind Mr Macron is Ms Marine Le Pen, a former lawyer and leader of National Front. Ms Le Pen has promised to take France out of the euro and the Schengen open-border zone, reintroduce the franc and tighten border controls and trade barriers. She is not dismissing the possibility of calling a referendum on leaving the European Union if the bloc isn’t agreeable to her requests of a radical treaty renegotiation. Third in the polls is former Prime Minister and Thatcherite, Mr Francois Fillon of Les Republicans. Mr Fillon began his campaign as a front-runner in 2017 but saw his popular support plummet after a French newspaper accused him of fictitiously employing his British wife, Mrs Penelope Fillon, using public funds. Despite the ‘Penelopegate’ scandal, Mr Fillon will still run for president and enjoys the loyal support of traditionalist Catholics.

The other two notable candidates in the race are ex-education minister Mr Benoit Hamon who is backed by the Socialists and Mr Jean-Luc Mélenchon of left-wing Unsubmissive France. However, it is unlikely that either will make it through the first round of elections in April.

All eyes are on the French elections as the results would not only affect France, but also the European Union and the rest of the world.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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