April 28, 2017

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Obaku watch on a wrist with clock faces pointing at 8:30.

MORE graduates are taking on freelance and part-time jobs, as a result of changing workplace demands and of the mindsets of employees. Of the 89.7 per cent of local graduates who found work within six months of completing their examinations – according to the 2016 Graduate Employment Survey (GES), released last week – 80.2 per cent secured full-time employment. This is 2.9 percentage points lower than the figure in the 2015 GES. On the one hand, given the advent of technology and the emergence of the “gig” economy, these alternative work arrangements allow the companies to respond quickly to changing economic needs, while on the other, freelancers and part-timers may enjoy the flexibility.

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In parliament earlier this month, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said that about eight per cent of Singapore’s working residents are freelancers. And because they fall outside the employment protection and social safety net framework, the need for regulation has also been mooted. This same protection could, moreover, be extended to internships, which are become more popular among young Singaporeans. In the private universities, for instance, students use internships to gain work experience. Internships allow to-be graduates to ascertain their work interest, to interact with industry professionals, and to even secure a full-time role upon their graduation.

From the workplace to the classroom: More Singaporeans are choosing to do degree programmes overseas. And in at least four of these countries – Austria, France, Germany, and Norway – tuition is free or marked down.

Public universities in these four countries have been attracting Singaporeans for some years, who are drawn by affordable higher education as well as the opportunity to stay and study abroad. In Norway, for example, the number of Singaporeans enrolled in full-time programmes increased from just 17 in 2007 to 150 in 2014. But before students pack their bags for enrollment, they must have mastered the foreign language, and hope that regular tuition fees – given a potential climate of protectionism in Europe, and the high taxes paid by the locals to subsidise the cost of education – will not be introduced in the near future.

And finally, back in Singapore, three of the four autonomous universities – the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) – and searching around the world for new deans. In the next phase of growth for NUS, NTU, and SUTD, the hope is that the new deans will be able to revamp curricula and to better prepare graduates through work-study programmes and other innovative policies.

 

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by Daniel Yap

I’M A rider. My trusty motorcycle has been my means of transportation over long distances for more than a decade. This week, the G dropped a bombshell tiered tax of up to 100 per cent of a bike’s open market value.

My current, very, very modest ride is my Suzuki DRZ 400SM. Even though I don’t fawn over it as much as other bikers do their rides, I love it. It’s considered a small capacity bike in any other developed country. Here, the G has suddenly deemed it a “luxury”. My bike is now a luxury I cannot afford.

I’m venting now, excuse me. I don’t care what you think of it.

When my bike was new it would go for $16,000 or so, COE included. Today, the latest iteration of such a bike will cost about $1,500 more thanks to the G’s new tax regime. A larger bike, even a modest-sized 600, will cost $6,000, $12,000, $20,000 more than before. Madness.

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But I know the score, it is the G’s prerogative to tax what they will. And it’s my prerogative to feel how I feel about it. And I’m not alone.

It seems like the G doesn’t understand us bikers. Biking is in our blood. Biking is a lifestyle, a community. I don’t greet other drivers in my multi-storey car park when our paths cross. I only greet other bikers. “Be safe out there, bro”, “it’s raining up north”, “nice ride”. The bike was the poor man’s hope for that feeling of freedom, of empowerment. And now it’s out of reach.

You’ve hurt us, G, you’ve hurt us. We aren’t “dismayed” like the Today article says. We are pissed off. Outraged. Livid. I’ve heard biker friends screaming blue murder, trying to migrate, crying, frantic because the dreams and plans they’ve been cherishing for the last few years, working slowly up to the next-level ride, it’s all up in smoke now. It’s crushing.

And for what? The new tax on bikes is supposed to “solve” a problem created by another more or less pointless policy decision – the slashing of bike COE supply.

The COE for bikes has risen from under $900 in 2010 to well over $6,500 today. The massive jump is because LTA decimated the bike COE supply as a proportion of all COEs. Why did they do that? To move the quota to the car COE supply because, I don’t know, somehow bikes cause the same congestion as cars in LTA-La-Land. Or maybe because car COEs make a lot more money. Or poor people should not be on the road. Or car owners were lobbying, I don’t know.

This price rise is the cause (not the result) of the surge in popularity of bigger bikes because the kinds of people who could only afford to buy a small bike like a brand new $6,000 kupchai in 2010 will never ever be able to afford a $6,500 COE in 2016. This prices them out of the market, leaving the COE supply for buyers with slightly deeper pockets. And which idiot would pay for a $6,500 COE to buy a $3,000 bike anyway?

Of course those poor unkers and delivery riders whose livelihoods got screwed over complained, and rightly so. These days even food delivery riders and couriers ride 400cc bikes. In the past, it was rare to see anything past 200cc for these jobs.

Guess what? This new tax isn’t going to make a difference for those poor bikers who got shafted by the COE crunch. It will simply put more bikes out of reach for more Singaporeans. It will just make more money (pennies, really) for a G worried about balancing the budget.

And does this tax make things more “progressive”? In a sense, yes – those who can afford to pay for a better bike will have to pay more. Cars are subject to such a tax regime (although the price of a luxury car is still ten times or more than that of a luxury bike).

But don’t make a pretence of being “progressive” when what should have been done is to make COEs more affordable for lower end bikes (and therefore more progressive) by introducing a tiered COE system, which bikers have been agitating for. Now low-income bikers are penalised with high COEs, while middle-income bikers are penalised by COEs and high ARF taxes.

No doubt, this new scheme makes good money for the G, as fellow rider Ian Tan has calculated. It makes some sense in itself, although the implementation is as shocking as the 30 per cent hike on water. Why crimp our move towards a “car-lite” society? Bikes are the definition of “car-lite”.

I could defend bikes all day. They ease congestion. Riding helps develop better driving habits. They pollute less. Riders are more community-minded. Bigger bikes are safer because they have better design, control, better brakes, and more power for responsible riders to escape danger.

Maybe I’ll still buy a bigger bike someday. I’ll just have to work hard and save more for it. But today I feel pain, a pain echoed by my fellow bikers in Singapore.  My dreams are further out of my reach. I can forget about that Speed Triple now that it costs $6,000 more. Or that Ducati Scrambler in yellow with the racing stripe. I can forget about ever feeling the exhilaration of mounting a litre bike… maybe if I move abroad. Wait, did I just think of migrating?

This is a heart issue, and the new and mostly senseless tax regime is causing us pain. I don’t want to hear the “justifications”. That you’re trying to open up the supply of bikes to lower income bikers. If the G wanted to do that, they would have raised the COE numbers.

I don’t want to hear how the G said over half of new motorcycle buyers will not be affected by the new system because they buy small bikes. We are all affected because we all dream about owning a bigger bike, a better bike. To me, this is about the G making more money, money, money, and making it off regular joes with mid-sized and low incomes.

I’m not going to listen to attempts at “reason”. Deal with it. Just like I’m going to have to deal with the new bike tax.

 

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FINALLY, the PUB has given some answers on the cost of producing water. What was so difficult about that? Does it think that big words such as “resilience”, “sustainability” and “water security” are enough to move people to accept a 30 per cent hike in water price? Or is it waiting for the Committee of Supply debate on the budget of the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources to unveil the figures? In this day and age, it’s not good to let speculation and discontent fester, simply because they can be spread so much faster via the Internet.

So what do we know now? In response to queries from the MSM, it said that in 2000, it cost $0.5 billion to operate the water system. In 2015, it was $1.3 billion. The money was spent on NEWater production, desalination, used water collection and treatment, and the maintenance of the island-wide network of water pipelines, among others. It did not say which contributed the most to rising cost, although one guess would be desalination plants.

PUB also said that from 2000 to 2015, it invested $7 billion in water infrastructure, and it expects to spend another $4 billion on such infrastructure from this year to 2021. What water infrastructure? Presumably the NEWater and desalination plants that are in the pipeline.

ST reported that besides the cost of producing water, it’s also getting more difficult to distribute water. PUB, for instance, can no longer just dig trenches to lay water pipes underground because the country is so built-up. It has to use pipe-jacking, a more expensive method which involves assembling pipes into shafts and then pushing them into position with a hydraulic jack.

In our heart of hearts, we probably know that it’s time for a rise in water prices, especially since it was last raised 17 years ago. The question is why now and why this much? Minister of State for Finance Lawrence Wong said there is never a good time for water price rises, which is true.

But a hiatus of 17 years?

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CIMB economist Song Seng Wun said at a forum yesterday that the fact that “we are finally charging a bit more for water after 17 years reflects that somebody forgot it hasn’t been done yet”.

Going by what experts say, the 30 per cent rise isn’t good enough. It should be way higher, like doubled. Say this to the people though. At forums on the Budget statement yesterday, the water price was a key issue, which is probably to the G’s chagrin since it wants to bill the Budget as a tool to shift the economy into high gear.

Although the argument is about water security (read: what if we get no more water from up north?), the price rise is also to add to the G’s coffers, which is increasingly under strain.

Now before you get your hackles up because the G is “rich”, consider what the experts have to say about the Budget.

Maybank Kim Eng economist Chua Hak Bin was reported in ST as noting that despite projecting a small overall fiscal surplus of $1.91 billion for the 2017 financial year, the G is looking at a primary deficit of $5.62 billion, worse than it was during the 2009 financial crisis.

A primary fiscal deficit does not take into account investment contributions from GIC or Temasek Holdings, and broadly implies that tax revenues are not keeping up with government spending.

He might as well add we can always tweak the formula on investment contributions, but that would be cheating, won’t it?

Economists are asking for more transparency in accounting and even the setting up of an independent agency to look at the effectiveness of G spending.

They have a point: We’ve seen so many announcements about millions and even billions on this or that G scheme over the years but what have they resulted in so far?

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat made no bones about the need to raise revenues, especially since he has ordered G agencies to trim their budgets. So far, he has only talked about making non-GST registered companies which do cross-border businesses here pay the tax. That means the likes of Taobao and Amazon and e-retailers.

But if the G wants to persuade people to part with more money, it has to do better at telling people what things cost. It can start with this: What in heaven’s name is “long-run marginal cost of water supply”, the formula which underpins water prices?

 

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Black clock showing 8.30.

DON’T expect the property market to change much after Budget 2017 and in the years to come. National Development Minister Lawrence Wong cautioned that existing property curbs will “stay for some time” and that Singapore has achieved a “soft landing” for the market with its measures – just the outcome it had been looking for.

The additional CPF housing grant announced on Monday (Feb 20) is also unlikely to have a significant effect on property prices, given that it is a buyer’s market and if sellers raise prices, buyers will simply move on to a better offer elsewhere. Volumes are expected to go up.

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Now is probably not the best time to ride your soon-to-be-expensive motorcycle into Malaysia. The trip back might be extra long as newly-deployed automated MBIKE customs lanes on the Johor side have malfunctioned for the second day in a row, causing hours-long tailbacks.

The Johor Immigration Department said that the breakdowns were caused by motorcyclists tailgating and damaging the gantries. The department also said that 38 motorcyclists had been detained for going through the gantries without providing their passports to the Immigration Department.

Coldhearted – some people are going around impersonating Singapore Heart Foundation volunteers, and armed with flag day stickers too! The Heart Foundation has made a police report about the miscreants, who were operating around Bugis Junction.

Bona fide Heart Foundation fundraisers are required to carry an identification badge and a copy of the Collectors Certificate of Authority issued by the National Council of Social Service, so if you’re in doubt, ask.

Heartbreaking – the body of hiker Steward Lee, reported missing by his family on Friday, has been found hanging at the top floor of multi-storey car park Block 468A Segar Road on Monday (Feb 20) night.

A widely shared appeal for information by his sister on social media kicked off a 70-man search through Mr Lee’s favourite nature reserves on Sunday. Police have classified the case as unnatural death and are investigating.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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MEDIAN household income grew by 2.6 per cent to $8,846 in 2016, lower than 2015’s 4.9 per cent. The slower growth most affected the ends of the spectrum, with the bottom 10 per cent of earners seeing growth of only 1.4 per cent, compared to 10.7 per cent in 2015, and the top 10 per cent of earners saw their growth slow to 0.2 per cent from 7.2 per cent in 2015.

At the same time, the Gini Coefficient, which measures income inequality, also fell to 0.458 in 2016, lower than 0.463 in 2015. After transfers from the G in the form of subsidies and taxes are taken into account, the Gini stands at 0.402.

It’s a sign of the times, as an embattled economy drags down overall growth in spite of bright spots in tourism and manufacturing. Oil and gas remain in a critical state, which has had a knock-on effect on banking, finance and insurance companies, from which a larger proportion of high earners derive their income.

DBS reported a 9 per cent drop in Q4 profits, and on Tuesday (Feb 14) OCBC said its fourth quarter earnings had fallen by 18 per cent.

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A second woman and a man, said to be her boyfriend, have been arrested in connection with the killing of Mr Kim Jong-Nam in Malaysia. Malaysian police confirmed that the first woman arrested, a 28-year-old with a Vietnamese passport, was the suspect pictured wearing a white shirt with “LOL” printed on it.

The second woman, identified as Siti Aishah in her Indonesian passport, worked with her partner. Siti Aishah distracted Mr Kim by standing in front of him while the other woman grabbed Mr Kim from behind in a chokehold and administered the fatal poison.

Their escape was short-lived thanks to the many cameras deployed at the airport. Authorities are still seeking other suspects as “there are definitely other individuals involved” according to Malaysian Police Special Branch director Mohamad Fuzi Harun.

Word is emerging from sources close to China that North Korea had nothing to do with the assassination, even as Malaysian authorities continue to track the work of “foreign agents”. Malaysia has now said that they could release Mr Kim’s body to North Korea once all due process had been followed in Malaysia.

 

 

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FIRST up on our list is Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore‘s (AVA) new reason for culling chickens (or was it *gasp* red junglefowl?) In a letter to Today’s Voices page, Dr Yap Him Hoo, director-general of the AVA, says that the birds were culled because of the risk of bird flu due to rising populations getting infected by migratory birds.

Dr Yap said that media reports had given the wrong impression that the birds were killed because of complaints about noise, when in fact it was the noise complaints that drew AVA’s attention to a rising risk of bird flu.

No mention was made of why the clarification came only two weeks after the first news reports. No word of the clarification was published in ST.

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Second: the case of the golden anus. A man has been arrested after landing in Hyderabad coming from Singapore because he was smuggling 2kg of gold bars, 1.2kg of which were shoved up his yoo-hoo. The rest were hidden in LED lamps, which would have helped with the search where the sun don’t shine.

The total gold seized was worth $126,000, although it is unclear if there is a post-rectal discount when buying bars that have been ‘processed’ through the ‘Hershey Highway’.

Gold smuggling is a regular pain in the ass for customs officials in India, the world’s largest consumer of gold. Smuggled gold often comes in through the back door from places like Singapore and Dubai.

Third: a second falling tree lands a 48-year-old woman in the hospital. The incident happened in a car park in Yuan Ching Road on Monday (Jan 13) afternoon.

The large tree also crushed the open passenger door of a parked lorry. It’s been a windy few days – please be alert for danger.

Fourth: one taxi driver’s reason for this behaviour:

The unnamed 69-year-old driver told Lianhe Wanbao that the incident happened because his taxi was spoiled and because he was being considerate.

He said that he wanted to be considerate and leave more space for the car in front after parking, but when he put the car in reverse, nothing happened, and then when he shifted into neutral, the car moved forward.

“I was already parked, if I hadn’t been so considerate, none of this would have happened,” he told Wanbao. Consideration remains a possibility as police have only ruled out drink driving or dispute as causes of the accident.

And finally, a Public Transport Council poll of 1,526 commuters (1,004 were polled after getting off a taxi, and 522 after getting off a private car) showed that Grab and Uber have not had a significant impact on the number of daily taxi rides (967,000 average daily rides in 2013 vs 954,000 last year).

It seems that private car drivers aren’t eating that much into the taxi pie – most of it is new demand.

Grab and Uber fared better than taxis in all comparable categories: waiting time, ease of booking, information on services, ride comfort, knowledge of routes, customer service and safety.

Overall,  97.3 per cent of the respondents were satisfied with private hire car services, compared with 94.4 per cent for taxis.

So, tell us whether you believe all this.

 

 

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CAN we tell when a tree will fall? The National Parks Board (Nparks) was quick to say that all trees in the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ Palm Valley had been inspected and were safe, after a woman was killed and four others were injured by a falling heritage tree on Saturday (Feb 11).

But at the same time, authorities were quick to point out that the fallen 270-year old tree had been inspected in September 2016 and was healthy. So, is the announcement about healthy trees supposed to reassure the public, or is it that any tree could fall, even a seemingly healthy one?

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A North Korean ballistic missile test was testing US President Donald Trump’s reaction to the hermit kingdom. Mr Trump said that the US is “behind Japan, its great ally, 100 per cent”, and issued a joint statement rebuking North Korea for the launch.

White House adviser Stephen Miller also said that the US would “reinforce and strengthen our vital alliances in the Pacific region as part of our strategy to deter and prevent the increasing hostility that we’ve seen in recent years from the North Korean regime.”

The reaction hints at Mr Trump’s willingness to get tougher on Pyongyang than previous administrations did. Which policy levers he will use to put pressure on the North, however, are not yet clear.

Mr Trump also said he will bring down the cost of the wall he wants to build along the Mexican border. The initial cost estimated was for US$21.6 million, much higher than the US$12 million figure that Mr Trump had floated during his presidential campaign trail. He pointed to how the cost of the F-35 and Air Force One projects dropped after he got involved, tweeting that for the wall, the “price will come WAY DOWN!”

Another wall to come down is the one between Singapore’s Jobs Bank website and the Individual Learning Portfolio ran by SkillsFuture Singapore. The new site will integrate training, learning and landing a job, and could provide data on training and job matching, helping to guide individual choices and pathways as well as policy-level decisions. The Jobs Bank will also be enhanced this year based on feedback from users.

 

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FOR a paper published in this month’s issue of the Environmental Research Letters journal, Ms Yuan Lin, Mr Lahiru Wijedasa and Dr Ryan Chisholm from the National University of Singapore (NUS) asked 390 people of varying ages and income brackets this: from a range of 0.05 per cent to 5 per cent, how much of one’s annual income is worth giving to secure clean air?

About 0.97 per cent, it turns out. In real terms, that amounts to USD$643.5 million (SGD$913 million) a year.

Transboundary haze is a long-standing problem in the South-east Asian region, largely caused by the drainage of carbon-rich peatland as well as companies and farmers in Indonesia using fire to clear land. Singapore experienced its worst haze episode in 2015 from September to November, with the Pollutant Standards Index hitting hazardous levels.

“[Sufficiently] negative impacts” from the air pollution make compelling enough the reason to trade-off “personal financial gain” for an improved environment, the NUS researchers concluded. At least it is, to a certain point, and to most people. Three out of 10 interviewees remained unconvinced of the need to pay at all.

The underlying challenge between personal comfort and environmental responsibility is valid too for people of these countries. 

 

1. Beijing, China – smog data control tightened

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Image from Flickr user Kevin Dooley.

It was announced on Tuesday (Feb 7) in People’s Daily, China’s state newspaper, that the Beijing government has established a national network that will track the smog affecting several major cities. It will use a combination of data gathered from manual sampling stations, satellite sensing and airborne platforms to generate reports about the air quality. This national system replaces the manual smog tracking system of local meteorological stations, which smog alert services the China Meteorological Administration suspended on Jan 17.

The People’s Daily’s article reported that this change of monitoring structure was to better pollution reduction and prevent falsified data. Last year in October, environmental protection officials in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, were caught producing false numbers about the air quality by tampering with the monitoring equipment.

Public anger against China’s infamous smog condition has been rising. When the local smog alert service was suspended, citizens took to severely criticising the authorities online and raising suspicions of information suppression. Independent media outlets have complained about being told to take down articles that are derisive of Beijing’s efforts.  A Peking University study published on Feb 4, 2015, claiming that the smog had caused 257,000 excess deaths in 31 Chinese cities cannot be found online.

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2. Fukushima, Japan – radiation reading the highest since 2011

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Image from Wikimedia Commons by Digital Globe.

On Monday (Feb 6), China urged the Japanese government to detail plans on how to tackle the radiation from the broken reactors of the defunct Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. It was responding to utility operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) revelation that radiation level in the containment vessel of reactor 2 was at 530 sieverts per hour.

This is the highest reading calculated since the March 2011 meltdown of the three reactors in the plant, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami and followed a few days later with the breaking down of the fourth reactor. The previous highest reading was 73 sieverts per hour.

According to Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences, 4 sieverts of radiation exposure already would kill 1 in 2 people. Japan Times, an English language newspaper in Japan, reported that experts have claimed this reading as “unimaginable” and that an institute official said medical professionals have never considered dealing with this level of radiation.

Mr Azby Brown, a member of a radiation-monitoring citizen science organisation called Safecast cautioned against unnecessary alarm by noting that this reading reflected radiation activity inside the reactor and not what was happening in the wider area of Fukushima.

 

3. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – toxic smog failed to abate

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Image from Flickr user Einar Fredriksen.

Reuters, the international news agency, produced an article this week about the smog that has been shrouding the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, created from the smoke from thousands of chimneys. The World Health Organisation has set acceptable standard of harmful breathable particles existing in the air, known as PM2.5, at 20-25 micrograms per cubic metre. Late last month, the reading in Ulaanbaatar hit 855 micrograms per cubic metre, at least over 30 times that limit.

But this pollution is also a socio-economic problem.  About 80 per cent of the smog comes from what is known as the “ger” districts found at the edge of the city, said Mr Tsogtbaatar Byamba, director of Mongolia’s Institute of Public Health. “Ger” districts are a mass of traditional tents, housing ex-herders who migrated to the city upon losing all their livestock to the harsh environment and weather conditions. Winter could be fierce in Ulaanbaatar and these poor would burn whatever they can get their hands on – coal, wood and even trash – to keep warm.

To tackle the smog, the Mayor of Ulaanbaatar, Mr S. Batbold, had announced on Jan 9 measures that heightened restriction of migrants to the capital. It would accept only those who need long-term medical care, already owning homes or mortgage loan.

Still, the pollution failed to abate. So, on Jan 28, near 7,000 protestors gathered in the capital’s Chinggis Square to signal their dissatisfaction against the authorities’ inability to improve air condition.

 

4. London, United Kingdom – multiple failings in applying environmental laws

london

Image from Flickr user David Holt.

The European Commission released the Environmental Implementation Review on Monday (Feb 6) which pointed at the United Kingdom (UK) as one of the 23 member states within the European Union (EU) that failed to meet air pollution quality standards.

The review aimed to improve implementation of EU’s current environmental legislation and policies, which UK has been in breach of since 2010 when it first crossed safety limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). In fact, within just five days of 2017, it was reported that London overshot its annual air pollution limit. Not only has UK failed in effectively applying laws on air quality, laws on water standards and conservation of several species, particularly marine porpoises, have not been followed. Until the Brexit deal is realised, UK remains obliged to fulfill all EU’s environmental regulations.

According to the review, about 50,000 Britons have died prematurely from illnesses related to the country’s air pollution. Also, six million working days are wasted, at the cost of €28 billion (or SGD$49.7 billion) per year.

 

5. Dakota, United States – US Army has given approval to complete Dakota Access pipeline

Dakota

Image from Wikimedia Commons by Pax Ahimsa Gethen.

On Tuesday (Feb 7), the United States (US) Army granted the last permit, or easement, needed to allow the final section of the Dakota Access oil pipeline to be built under North Dakota’s Lake Oahe, which forms part of the Missouri River system. Should construction process goes well, the USD$3.8 billion pipeline can begin operation by June.

This project became controversial because of resistance by The Standing Rock Sioux, a native American tribe which contended that the pipeline desecrates sacred sites and could potentially pollute its water source. Protest camps sprung up in the North Dakota plains, where thousands gathered last year to show their support for the tribe. Activists clashed several times with law enforcers, with more than 600 people arrested. In late November, the police even used water cannons in the -4°C weather against them. The previous US president, Mr Barack Obama, allowed a delay in the completion of the pipeline because of this protest and instructed last December for an environmental study to be carried out.

However, the suspension of the project was overturned when the current president, Trump, ordered on Jan 24 a continuation of the construction. Supporters of the pipeline believe that it is safer to transport oil using a pipeline than by rail or trucks. Then, less than a fortnight after, the Army said that it would cancel the study. Mr Robert Speer, the acting secretary of the Army stated that there was already enough information on the likely effect on the environment to make a decision about whether to grant the easement.

The tribe and its supporters are not accepting the recent development. Mr Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, one of the activist groups, promised even greater “mass resistance”.

 

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

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