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Bruneians unfazed by ‘sensationalism’ of Sharia law

By Sumisha Naidu/www.channelnewsasia.com/10th Jun 2015

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN: Every Friday at 12pm, Brunei’s capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan becomes a ghost town.

Muslims in the capital observe Friday prayers and for the next two hours, every business – from restaurants to entertainment outlets – must remain closed by law.

During the fasting month, a similar scenario occurs. In 2014, the government declared that restaurants will not be able to serve dine-in food between sunrise and sunset, regardless of the owners’ or customers’ religion.

These are just some of the effects of the deep Islamic roots that run through the nation of about 420,000 people. In 2014, the Sultan announced the rollout of a strict Islamic penal code, a first for a Southeast Asian country. Some of the harsher penalties include flogging, severing of limbs and death by stoning.

While Islam is Brunei’s official religion, government figures state about 34 per cent of the population are of different religions, including Buddhism and Christianity.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs said the minorities are free to practice their faiths, but only among themselves. Public displays of non-Muslim festivities are prohibited as this could be construed as attempts to propagate religions other than Islam.

The laws sound restrictive but many non-Muslims appear unfazed.

“This is a Muslim country so we have to follow Muslim laws right?” said Jessica, a retiree.

“I think because I grew up here in Brunei, I’m used to the life here so I think everything is fine,” added Shar Pay, a teacher.

Professor James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said: “Being a minority in Brunei, they’ve always lived under restrictions, even before the Sharia law was imposed. So I think they are used to living with restrictions. They have a coping mechanism built in. The Chinese population has been there since the 15th century.” Read More

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All about food security

This is for those who have been researching on the issue of food security:

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/food-security

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Government reviewing benefits for unwed mothers

By Kok XIng Hui/The Straits Times/280715

SINGAPORE – Unwed mothers could, in the future, have the same benefits as married mums.

The Government is reviewing some of the discrepancies in benefits, such as how unwed mothers are given eight weeks of paid maternity leave, instead of the 16 weeks received by married mothers.

This was disclosed by Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin in an interview on Monday (July 27).

 Mr Tan said he had asked his colleagues to review the policies when he joined the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) in April, and that he hopes to make announcements on it before the Budget next year.

“I’ve a great deal of sympathy for single unwed mothers,” he said. “Some of the differentiation that exists, could we harmonise it? So that’s being reviewed.”

Unwed mothers also do not get perks such as the Baby Bonus cash gift and parenthood tax rebates, and have to wait till they are 35 years old to buy a HDB flat under the singles scheme.

While these differences have been raised many times, including in Parliament, the answer has always been that the Government can only move as far as society is prepared to.

Just in March, then Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing had said that Singapore needs to find a balance between supporting unwed mothers as well as the policy to support parenthood within marriages.

When asked if he thought Singapore society is now prepared to change its stance, Mr Tan said: “My sense is that the public understands and sympathises with single unwed mothers.”

He added that there is more support available for unwed mothers than maternity leave and baby bonuses. “It’s about healthcare availability, it’s about education opportunities and the support that comes with it.”

When probed about how extensive the review will be, he said the issues – such as housing, education, health, employment – are being discussed from a “whole-of-government perspective”.

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Myanmar army chief vows to respect election outcome

The Straits Times/July 19th 2015

YANGON (AFP) – Myanmar’s powerful army chief has vowed to respect the outcome of November’s landmark elections and has not ruled out becoming president if asked to take the top post.

“Whoever wins I will respect the result if they win fairly,” General Min Aung Hlaing told the BBC in a rare interview with a Western news outlet released on Monday.

“I believe the elections will be free and fair. That is our true wish. We are committed to helping make that happen, anyway we can,” he added.

Some 30 million voters are expected to head to the polls on November 8 for what is expected to be the freest election in decades.

Myanmar languished for years under a brutal, isolationist and paranoid junta which crushed opposition and ruined the economy while enriching a coterie of senior military officers.

In 2011 army rule gave way to a quasi-reformist civilian government – dominated by former generals – which led to the lifting of most Western sanctions and a promise of elections.

The November polls will be the first general election in a quarter of a century to be contested by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which is expected to make huge gains at the ballot box if the vote is free and fair.

It will also give the international community a chance to judge the country’s democratic progress.

But the army will continue to wield significant political influence even if the opposition sweep the polls because 25 per cent of seats in the country’s parliament will continue to be reserved for the military.

Observers say the army is deeply wedded to its perceived role as the protector of the Myanmar constitution, which was drawn up under a former military regime that suppressed all dissent and kept Suu Kyi under lock and key for some 15 years.

The NLD has vowed to change the charter to reduce the army’s role and overturn a provision which currently bans Suu Kyi from becoming president because she has foreign born children.

In his interview, the general said he was open to changing some parts of the constitution, but said others had to remain in place because of ongoing fighting with ethnic rebel groups.

“It is impossible to leave people with all these problems, without real security,” he said of on-going efforts to end decades of civil war.

Myanmar’s long-running peace process between the government, army and multiple rebel groups has foundered in recent months following the signing of a draft ceasefire deal in March.

Asked whether he had plans to seek the presidency, Min Aung Hlaing insisted he would remain as army chief until his retirement next year. But he also did not rule out accepting the top post.

“If needed we have to be prepared to serve the country in any role, this is part of our national politics,” he said.

“If people ask me to do this duty, I will decide then.”

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‘Only a 1MDB smoking gun can topple Najib’

By Nyshka Chandran/CNBC/12 Jul 2015

Political pundits say Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is likely to remain in power despite calls for his resignation amid a multi-million dollar corruption scandal.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported earlier this month that nearly $700 million from the troubled quasi-sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development (1MDB) was deposited into the Prime Minister’s (PM) personal bank accounts, leading to the launch of an official investigation.

The PM has denied any wrongdoing in relation to 1MDB and is reportedly considering a lawsuit against the WSJ over its coverage of the issue.

However, the expose, one of the worst political crises to embroil the 61-year old leader, appears to have triggered a serious backlash among voters. An analysis by social media research firm Politweet of 600 Malaysians on Twitter from July 3 to July 7 found that 85.5 percent of users felt negatively about the PM. Nearly 40 percent believed he should step down immediately.

Former PM Mahathir Mohamad has also demanded his resignation. “The person who has shamed the country is Najib and his 1MDB. Before this, the country was never ridiculed like this,” he wrote in a recent blog post.

The investigation is the latest in a series of problems surrounding 1MDB. The troubled state-fund, whose advisory board is chaired by the PM, reportedly has a $11.6 billion debt load and investors are afraid of a public bailout even as the recent oil price crash strains the crude-exporting economy’s finances.

The graft probe helped push the ringgit to its lowest level since the Asian Financial Crisis last week. Yet, experts say PM Razak will ride out the crisis relatively unscathed.

“Politically, his image is of course greatly affected but he will be able to survive because either the opposition or those in the party against him don’t have enough members of parliament to topple him,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University and former political secretary to the PM from 2009-2011.

“If the allegations turn out to be true, Najib will have to clarify for what purpose. If they are not true, he will definitely be taking legal action against the WSJ. But he does need to do something more decisive than just denying the allegations for now,” he added.

The country’s ruling political party is the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has been in power since Malaysia become an independent nation in 1957. A number of MPs within UMNO threw their support behind the PM last week, according to Malaysian news media.

The PM isn’t in any danger just yet, echoed Murray Hiebert, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also pointing to the rock-solid support he enjoys within UMNO.

“If no real linkages are found to the PM during investigations, Najib can muddle through but it’s really distracting the country from bigger issues like its economic slowdown.”

Indeed, a weak fiscal position and a declining current account surplus are key worries for Kuala Lumpur, Fitch warned in a ratings review earlier this month. Malaysian government debt as a share of gross domestic product was 53.9 percent at the end of last year, above the median range, it said. That is especially problematic as the U.S. gets set to tighten monetary policy, which could see domestic interest rates rise and trigger capital outflows.

The allegations are being referred to as a smoking gun, but William Case, professor at the Southeast Asia Research Center of the City University of Hong Kong, points to the fact that the PM has direct control over the investigation process as well as a long history of surviving scandals. One of the most high-profile of these was the 2006 murder of a Mongolian model, which made Malaysian headlines due to her alleged involvement in past government negotiations for a $1.1 billion purchase of French submarines.

Moreover, Case warned that there is no obvious replacement for the PM even in the event that he did resign, adding nobody else in the upper echelons of government could operate internationally and domestically in the way he does.

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U.S. government hacked; feds think China is the culprit

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Football: FIFA suspends Indonesia over long-running row

www.channelnewsasia.com

JAKARTA: FIFA on Saturday (May 30) suspended Indonesia after the government in Jakarta sought to oust the country’s football association, the latest crisis to hit the sport in Indonesia.

The decision means Indonesian sides will no longer be able to take part in world football, and comes less than two weeks before the country was due to begin qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup. The national team will, however, still be able to participate in the football tournament at the Southeast Asian Games, which is just getting under way.

FIFA’s decision “resulted from the effective ‘take over’ of the activities of PSSI (the Indonesian football association) by the Indonesian authorities,” a spokesman for the world governing body said. “All Indonesian national teams (national or club) are prohibited from having international sporting contact which includes participating in FIFA and AFC competitions.”

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is one of six regional federations that make up FIFA, and the ban means Indonesia will no longer be able to participate in the AFC Cup, the region’s premier football tournament. PSSI also loses its FIFA membership rights and its members and officials will not benefit from any FIFA and AFC development programmes or training, the spokesman said.

The decision was made at a meeting of the FIFA’s Executive Committee in Zurich on Saturday.

CORRUPTION AND MISMANAGEMENT

The row erupted in April when the PSSI halted the country’s top-flight league due to a disagreement with the sports ministry over the participation of two clubs. The ministry then froze all activities of the PSSI, and said it was setting up a transitional body to replace the association, which has long faced allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

FIFA, which takes a dim view of governments interfering in domestic associations, backed the PSSI and gave Jakarta until May 29 to allow the association to resume activities, or face a ban from world football.

A series of last-ditch efforts this week to resolve the row, including an attempt by Indonesia’s vice president to persuade the sports ministry to back down, came to nothing. Sports Minister Imam Nahrawi has refused to change course and in recent days expressed hope that the crisis engulfing FIFA would delay the sanction.

Top FIFA officials were arrested this week after being accused by US authorities of taking huge bribes, while Swiss police are investigating the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

President Joko Widodo has supported Nahrawi, saying urgent reform is needed in Indonesian football. “It doesn’t matter if we are absent from international competitions for a while as long as we can win big in the future,” he was cited as saying in the Jakarta Post newspaper on Saturday, before the suspension was announced. “I’m confident when the reforms are made, we will be moving forward.”

The suspension is just the latest crisis for Indonesian football, which was only just recovering from a feud between the PSSI and a breakaway association, which led to the creation of two separate leagues. FIFA also threatened to ban Indonesia over that row but the two sides eventually came back together, avoiding a sanction.

Weak management, poor security at games, and high-profile cases of foreign players dying after going unpaid have also cast a shadow over football in the world’s fourth-most populous country.

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Singapore to offer US$200,000 to support countries providing help to Rohingyas

www.channelnewsasia.com

The Singapore Government will offer an initial contribution of US$200,000 (S$267,000) through ASEAN to support the efforts of countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia that have been aiding Rohingya refugees, said Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Saturday (May 23).

Singapore is concerned about the situation and welcomed efforts by countries, in particular Malaysia and Indonesia, which agreed to provide temporary shelter for the Rohingyas, said Mr Shanmugam.

He said the financial aid is part of an ASEAN-led initiative, adding that Singapore is prepared to consider further assistance, if there are specific requests.

Mr Shanmugam said the Rohingya crisis has raised two key issues – one is how to help those currently on boats and stranded at sea, while the other is the need to deal with the problem at its source.

This would require looking at living conditions created by countries of origin as well as the criminal organisations putting them on boats, subjecting them to terrible conditions. That, he added, is a “more serious problem” because tens and thousands of refugees could potentially suffer.

Mr Shanmugam stressed that the countries where the refugees originated from should take responsibility, and both ASEAN and the international community needs to address this issue.

Singapore’s contribution comes days after the Government said it is unable to accept any refugees or those seeking political asylum because it is a small country with limited land.

Over the past week, countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have provided shelter to Rohingya refugees who have landed on their shores. Food and medical aid were also provided.

Up to 2,000 migrants are thought to be stranded in the Bay of Bengal, many at risk of falling victim to people smugglers. Most are Muslim Rohingyas from the western Rakhine state in Myanmar.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said finding and saving the lives of those migrants should be a “top priority”.

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Dredging for Disaster

Foreign Policy/By Siddhartha Mahanta/15th May 2015
Dredging For Disaster

BEIJING — Tensions are rising in the South China Sea. On May 16, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Beijing, for talks which will likely focus on the territorial disputes. But China’s controversial effort to assert its sovereignty in the South China Sea is not only antagonizing its neighbors and the United States: it’s destroying the a precious coral reef ecosystem, and the Chinese agency charged with protecting it seems curiously unmoved to stop the damage.

Since 2014, Beijing has been engaged in a series of “reclamation” projects in the waters of the South China Sea, expanding islands and constructing landing strips on the coral reefs and rock formations that make up island chains, like the contested Spratly Islands. Through this so-called “great wall of sand” operation, Beijing hopes to assert a permanent claim to these specks of rock and coral and, ultimately, the vast majority of the sea itself. And the project is picking up speed. In April, Foreign Policy reported on a set of new satellite images showing that China had built out roughly 3,000-feet of a 10,000 foot runway on the Fiery Cross reef, a part of the Spratlys in the sea’s southern reaches.

China’s expansive activities have been met with unease and outright condemnation by some of the other claimant states, including Vietnam and the Philippines, which in January 2013 took its case against China’s claims before an international tribunal under the U.N. Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China asserts that it conducts these activities within the bounds of international law, and for peaceful, defensive purposes. Beijing has declined to participate in the UNCLOS proceedings. It also asserts – correctly — that its neighbors have engaged in reclamation activities that allegedly predate their own. But the sheer scale of its build-out puts it in a league of its own, and exponentially so: China has now reclaimed over 6.6 million square feet of new land, while Vietnam’s projects amount to some 656,188 square feet, according to the latest figures from Washington.

All that reclaiming comes at a tremendous ecological cost. The Spratlys host some of Southeast Asia’s most productive coral reefs, with up to 571 different species of coral. These habitats provide a breeding and feeding ground for a staggeringly diverse range of fish. These species, in turn, are essential for the fishing communities of the Philippines. “The dredging and building on coral reefs in the South China Sea is causing irreparable damage to one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth,” says Dr. Alan Freidlander, a biologist at the University of Hawaii and an expert on coral reef ecology.The destructive dredging involved in China’s land reclamation obliterates these reefs, leaving sterile sand and concrete in their place. The actual construction process also destroys areas surrounding the reefs, writesUniversity of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea director, Jay L. Batongbacal. So far, an estimated 311 hectares of reefs in the region have been lost, which will result in an estimated $110 million of annual economic losses for the Philippines.

On May 11, Foreign Policy joined a group of 15 journalists traveling in Asia with the East-West Center to report on the disputes in the South China Sea, on a visit to the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) in Beijing, which manages China’s maritime affairs and environmental protection policies. Sitting at the front of a long conference room furnished with easy chairs and a plush rug, the director general of SOA’s Department of International Cooperation Zhang Haiwen discussed the agency’s broad mandate, which includes establishing China’s exclusive economic zones, safeguarding its maritime interests, and mapping out a sustainable plan for the development of China’s booming marine economy.

Zhang said that China’s “ultimate goal” in the South China Sea “is to achieve the sustainable development of the marine economy.” But SOA’s stance on the ecologically destructive construction in the South China Sea appears to contradict its environmental responsibilities. Zhang spoke repeatedly about SOA’s plan to protect and restore the reefs and preserve the overall ecosystem of the South China Sea, while refusing to directly address questions about the clear contradiction that China’s land reclamation is destroying that very ecosystem that SOA theoretically exists to protect.

Zhang also made it clear that China has every right to continue its reclamation activities, no matter how disputed they are or how much damage they do to the sea’s delicate reef architecture. In fact, SOA insisted that it had undertaken extensive environmental monitoring and management of these activities. Reclamation, Zhang insisted, follows a very specific process that is “closely reviewed” and subject to “strict observation” by SOA.

That claim seems difficult to believe. In 2012, a team of Chinese scientistsfound that coral abundance in the South China Sea along the Chinese coast had shrunk by some 80 percent over the past 30 years. Further south, the amount of coral covering a group of atolls and archipelagos claimed by six different countries decreased from an average of over 60 percent cover to 20 percent in the previous 10-15 years, due to coastal development, pollution, and unsustainable fishing practices, according to those scientists.

Politics aside, one thing is indisputable: China’s hunger to assert its sovereignty in the South China Sea will have enormous, potentially irreversible natural costs.

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Singapore not in a position to accept refugees: MHA

www.channelnewasia.com/15th May 2015

Singapore will not be accepting refugees or people seeking political asylum, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Friday (May 15).

“As a small country with limited land, Singapore is not in a position to accept any persons seeking political asylum or refugee status, regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin,” said an MHA spokesperson, in response to queries from Channel NewsAsia.

More than 700 migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar arrived in Indonesia on Friday after fishermen rescued them from their sinking boat off Aceh province. Indonesian police said they were pushed away by the Malaysian navy to the border of Indonesian waters.

More than 1,000 migrants have also landed in Malaysia.

The Malaysian branch of the UN refugee agency UNHCR on Friday urged the regional governments to act urgently to help the migrants stranded at sea. Meanwhile, Indonesia said it will follow international regulation on illegal migrants in handling the refugees.