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Malaysian PM tells France not ready to decide on buying Rafale jets

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Tuesday that he discussed the possible purchase of Dassault Aviation SA’s Rafale fighter jets with French President Francois Hollande but remained undecided.

“We’re not ready yet to make a decision, but we take note of its success in other countries…,” Najib said at a joint press conference hosted by both leaders during Hollande’s visit to Malaysia on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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Commentary: Smart Nation 2.0? Three ideas to keep Singapore smart

SINGAPORE: The provocative power of digital advances lies in the novel ways we can use them to improve lives. The newly announced Smart Nation and Digital Government Office under the Prime Minister’s Office, is recognition of this transformative power. 

Digital advances push us to think more expansively about what is smart. Building on recent major government initiatives, the following possibilities outlined here present opportunities to think beyond physical places and infrastructure constraints and build a more inclusive society. They aim to tackle job disruption precisely, nurture each student’s strength by drawing on global resources, and scale-up solutions more readily.

IDEA 1: THINK TASKS ON TOP OF SKILLS

“The top priority for the Smart Nation (initiative) has to be jobs, jobs, jobs,” Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative Vivian Balakrishnan stressed during the Budget 2017 debates.  

Global debates about digital disruption and jobs are divided. Techno-pessimists warn us that all jobs are at risk. Techno-optimists assure us jobs will evolve. There is a divergence in thinking on how we should approach these disruptive forces.

Automation has transformed the productivity of manufacturing since industrial robots first started painting, cutting, welding and assembling in the 1960s. (Photo: AFP)

Can we tackle disruption better? We have so far focused primarily on skills. However, emerging evidence suggests we should focus on tasks too, because tasks add precision to skills.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Economics Professor David Autor points out tasks “have played a key role in reshaping the structure of labour demand in industrialised countries in recent decades”. Stanford University’s report Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030 states “AI systems are specialised to accomplish particular tasks”. The consultancy McKinsey concluded last year that analyzing “work activities rather than occupations is the most accurate way to examine the technical feasibility of automation”.

Digital advances break down jobs into tasks, which are automated or performed by humans. When all tasks are automated, humans lose jobs. But humans also create new tasks, turning them into new jobs.

By examining tasks, we can see which tasks, and subsequently which jobs, workers, and companies are more likely to be disrupted. We can thus better prepare them for the future and take corresponding steps to do so.

For example, the chart below details the tasks an information security analyst carries out, and shows which of these are shared with other IT professions. Professionals in the latter who wish to become an information security analyst can see which tasks they have experience in, and which they need training in. Workers and companies can thus target their training better.

Chart showing tasks performed by professionals in the IT sector. (Source: SUTD)

There are potential wider economic benefits to adopting such an approach. The Netherlands Bureau of Economic Analysis conducted a study of cities, tasks and skills. They concluded that tasks explained a “significant part of the changes in employment”, and cities with more tasks connected to each other had higher employment growth. Examining how connected tasks are could target economy-wide job growth better.

IDEA 2: FROM MORE TO ALL – GLOBAL MENTORS FOR EVERY STUDENT

Budget 2017 saw greater emphasis on nurturing students’ strengths. More students can now stretch and develop their talent.

The story of an eight-year-old Singaporean I met during our projects suggests we could nurture all students according to their unique diverse strengths.

Adi lives in a HDB flat and attends a neighborhood school. He also represented Singapore at the Asian Youth Chess Championships last year. Interestingly, he picked up chess by chance only three years ago.

How did Adi become championship-ready so quickly? Indeed, he has sparred online against algorithms and top chess players worldwide (who did not know his age).  

But Adi made the most progress with his online coach, Prab. Other coaches – in person and online – had not worked out.

Coach Prab is based in India. He also suffers from double kidney failure. To reduce infection risks, he started coaching online. He watches, reviews and discusses Adi’s online chess games with him. He even uses AI analysis to augment his feedback.

File photo of chess board. (Photo: AFP)

Consider for a moment what has happened.

Now imagine assembling, for each student, their own individual global team of mentors, augmented by technology, to pursue their unique talent.  Imagine what each student could achieve. Each could pursue excellence and become as good as they can be. Some might even be among the best in the world.

Trends in the global gig economy and talent marketplace suggest such global teams of mentors could be affordable: they can come from any part of the world, are hired for only part of their time, and are mentoring digitally. 

Large countries will find it challenging to do this. But a small Smart Nation with annual Primary One cohort sizes of forty thousand can. If we do, imagine the impact we could have on the world.

IDEA 3: GOING GLOBAL – SCALE-OUT BEFORE SCALE-UP

The Committee on Future Economy highlights that Smart Nation digital solutions “can be exported to rapidly urbanising cities in Asia”. The current model: test-bed in Singapore, scale-up here and then scale-out to the region. 

Singapore’s size and single-layer governance offers speed and simplicity for test-bedding and scaling up. But the market is small, and scaling out to cities with more complicated governance is challenging.  

Moreover, our infrastructure and environment have been so carefully honed, that solutions which work well here, might work less well elsewhere. “The environment exacts a price for the survival of the fittest: it captures them,” says Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man. He draws an analogy: the Grant gazelle was “gracefully adapted” to the savannah to escape predators, but “its lovely leap never took it out of the savannah”.

What if for digital solutions, we flipped the current model to first scale-out test-beds concurrently to Singapore and two regional cities, then scale-up in all three? We can still exploit Singapore’s strengths, and concurrent regional test-beds could yield versatile solutions more easily deployed to different cities.

The Marina Bay central business district is home to many businesses in Singapore. (Photo: REUTERS)

Adopting this model means changing how we invest, recruit, and educate. Funding and financing will have to account for additional risks. Companies will need multi-city expertise. And tertiary institutions will have to immerse students in multi-city projects. 

Current business models suggest we cannot afford to do this. But for long-term economic prospects, can we afford not to? 

GET SMART BY DISAGREEING TO AGREE

We often need novel and provocative possibilities to think expansively.

One way to find them might be to disagree to agree. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and pioneering psychologist Gary Klein, who respect each other’s work, arrived at differing conclusions about how people make snap decisions. They did not choose to agree to disagree, and move on with their own work. Instead, they examined together why they disagreed. They found that they “agree(d) on most of the issues that matter”, and collaborated to elaborate on this. They chose to disagree, and used that to subsequently find agreement, and a superior outcome.

Disagreements between citizens, companies, cities and countries are inevitable. We could choose to agree to disagree, and leave it at that. Or if we respect each other, we could do the smart thing: choose to first disagree to agree, so as to search for subsequent agreement and a superior outcome.

Like what Kahneman and Klein did.

That will make our nation really smart. 

Poon King Wang is Director of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. 

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Singapore film company mm2 Asia sets its sights on the region

SINGAPORE: Singapore film production company mm2 Asia is pushing hard to become a bigger player in Asia, starting with an investment of US$ 12.9 million (S$ 18 million) in nine movies from Singaporean, Hong Kong, Malaysian and Taiwanese filmmakers covering a range of genres.

The titles include the fourth instalment of Singaporean director Jack Neo’s popular Ah Boys To Men franchise and Wonder Boy, the biopic and directorial debut of prominent Singaporean musician Dick Lee starring The Sam Willows’ Benjamin Kheng. Hsieh Chun Yi’s Taiwan romantic drama Take Me To The Moon starring Vivian Sung is also in the pipeline.

Mr Melvin Ang, mm2 Asia’s executive chairman and CEO, told Channel NewsAsia that the company sees “huge opportunities” in Chinese speaking markets around the region.

“Given our small market environment, we have to step up efforts in developing projects that can work in all these markets,” he said. “With this strategy, ‘produced and developed by Singapore talent’ is equally important as compared to ‘produced in Singapore’. This will clearly make our presence stronger as a regional producer in the coming years.”

The development of Singapore cinema is still important to the company, which is headquartered here.

But the company’s further expansion into the region does not mean that it will be holding back on making homegrown films. In fact, mm2 is committed to producing more local movies along with their regional projects, said Mr Ang.

“As of today, in our current slate of projects, mm2 has more than 10 new Singapore movie titles in the pipeline over the next 18 months,” he revealed. “Being present in all the Chinese markets in Asia, mm2 is confident that Singapore talents, given the right opportunities and support, will stand an equal chance to produce quality films that can travel beyond our shores.”

He continued: “We have to identify homegrown talents, particularly in the area of scriptwriters, directors and production talent pool who have the capabilities to develop and execute projects for the growing regional markets. For example, successful Singapore scripts and movies can be adapted or remade in Hong Kong, Taiwan or China.”

When mm2’s extensive slate was unveiled at the Hong Kong Film Mart earlier this month, Ha Yu, veteran Hong Kong actor and executive director of mm2 Hong Kong, said that while the projects were considerably smaller than the usual big budget Chinese co-productions, the mainland audience is still seen as one of mm2’s targets.

The focus with this slate, according to mm2 Asia’s chief content officer Ng Say Yong, is about developing new talent, particularly new directors, and exposing them to work in the region. “Leveraging on our multi-market presence, we welcome companies or individuals looking for collaborative opportunities to identify projects and co-produce content that is compelling and relevant.”

The company has been on an upward trajectory ever since it was listed on the Singapore stock exchange market two years ago – the first movie production company to do so – and has diversified from its roots in film production and financing.

Amongst other moves, it acquired a 51 per cent stake in Singapore 3D animation company Vividthree Productions, procured the exclusive rights to produce and broadcast a Singapore/Malaysia edition of the The Voice from Talpa Global, established its own cinema chain, mmCineplexes, through the ownership of five multiplexes in Malaysia, and most recently announced the proposed purchase of another 13 multiplexes in Malaysia from Lotus Fivestar Cinemas.

The company is best known for being behind Singapore’s most successful franchise – Ah Boys To Men – that generated a combined local box office of more than S$ 22 million from the first three films.

The franchise director Neo told Channel NewsAsia that the fourth instalment will commence filming in June and that it will definitely be released this year. 

“Because 2017 is the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s National Service,” he explained. “This one is going to be about reservists. It’s something most of us have or had to do so many people will relate to this storyline.

“And I’ve also decided to focus on the Armour unit, like all the tanks and artillery. People always gets excited during National Day every year when they see the Armour unit on display.”

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Indian vice president defends liberal values, right to dissent

NEW DELHI: Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari said on Saturday universities must uphold liberal values and respect dissent, a month after violent protests erupted at a university in the capital Delhi over a speech by a student accused of sedition. 

Addressing students at a university in the northern state of Punjab, Ansari said commitments to the right to dissent should be revisited at a time when the “value and scope of academic freedom” was being called into question.

“The right of dissent and agitation are ingrained in the fundamental rights under our constitution, which sets out a plural framework and refuses any scope to define the country in narrow sectarian, ideological or religious terms,” he said.

“Recent events in our own country have shown that there is much confusion about what a university should or should not be. The freedom of our universities has been challenged by narrow considerations of what is perceived to be ‘public good’.”

Ansari appeared to be referring to violence at the University of Delhi last month involving Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a pro-BJP student union. 

According to media reports, ABVP protested against inviting the student to give a speech at a literary seminar and violent clashes broke out.

The vice president’s defence of plurality also comes as criticism grows over an apparent shift in course by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that could redefine the world’s largest democracy as a Hindu nation.

Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu ascetic with a history of agitation against minority Muslims, was sworn in to lead the country’s most populous state on March 19, and observers said it marked a departure from the platform of development for all on which Modi rose to national power in 2014.

(Reporting by Neha Dasgupta; Editing by Helen Popper)

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Singapore's manufacturing output up 12.6% in February

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s manufacturing output in February rose 12.6 per cent from a year ago, on the back of strong growth in the electronics and precision engineering clusters.

Excluding the more volatile biomedical manufacturing cluster, output grew 17.1 per cent, according to data released on Friday (Mar 24) by the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB).

On a month-on-month seasonally-adjusted basis, industrial production fell 3.7 per cent in February, it added. 

Output of the electronics cluster jumped 39.8 per cent on-year last month, mainly due to robust growth of 63.6 per cent in the semiconductors segment. The other electronic modules and components and infocomms and consumer electronics segments also grew 16.5 per cent and 8.3 per cent respectively. 

The output of the precision engineering cluster also expanded 26.2 per cent over the same period, with the machinery and systems segment posting strong growth of 33.2 per cent on the back of higher export demand for semiconductor-related equipment. The precision modules and components segment also grew 16.4 per cent with higher output of dies, moulds, tools, jigs and fixture, optical instruments and metal precision components. 

There were also increases in output in the general manufacturing industries cluster (3.3 per cent) and chemicals cluster (1.9 per cent), but declines in the biomedical manufacturing cluster (-2.6 per cent) and transport engineering cluster (-9.6 per cent). 

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How Ninja Van's 'smart and ruthlessly aggressive' co-founder hooked a big investor

SINGAPORE: Irked at not being able to find a nice-fitting men’s shirt, Lai Chang Wen ditched his five-figure-salary job as a derivatives trader for the risky retail scene – to build his own menswear brand.

It was a decision his parents thought quite mad at the time. Said Mr Lai’s mother Madam Tan Poh Siang: “It was a real shock. I said: ‘You’re a guy (working) in banking. Why would you want to go into something that is about fashion and tailoring?’”

The answer boiled down to simply this: Mr Lai’s fixation with solving problems.  Even if it was in a field he knew next to nothing about.

“Do you think Chang Wen was interested in fashion?” laughed current business partner Shaun Chong, referring to the blue rubber slippers Mr Lai wore for the interview. “Look at what he’s wearing to the office. At least I wear shoes.”

Marcella, a made-to-measure menswear brand, was started in Mr Lai’s own words “when I couldn’t fit into a shirt well. And I couldn’t afford a nicely tailored shirt”.

Unfortunately, the business – which automated the process of translating clients’ body measurements into paper patterns – quickly ran into problems with unreliable courier services. Deliveries were either delayed or lost.

“When anything went wrong, the customers had no way of reaching out to the couriers. They were stuck at home waiting the whole day just for our parcels. That’s not what e-commerce was meant to be,” he said.

And so, once again, he set his mind to fixing the nub of his frustration – by setting up logistics company Ninja Van in 2014 at the age of 27 with co-founders Mr Chong and Boxian Tan, despite “zero experience” in logistics (“all I knew how to do was to receive parcels,” said Mr Lai).

Ninja Van went on to redefine the industry by enabling next-day door-to-door deliveries for e-commerce firms and their customers, at a time when such services were not yet ubiquitous in Singapore and most had to depend on the postal service.

WATCH: How they did it (2:58)

It has been so successful that it has raised S$ 45 million from investors so far, including B Capital Group, a venture capital firm whose founding partner is Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.

Mr Lai’s journey, and that of Ninja Van, is profiled in Monday’s (March 27) episode of Game Changers, a series about entrepreneurs who reinvent themselves and their industry.

A DO-IT-YOURSELF REVOLUTION

The learning curve was steep and it meant 22-hour work days, sleeping in the office, and even sorting parcels and doing deliveries himself.

“The first few months was hell. Everything was inefficient. We didn’t know what we were supposed to do,” said Mr Lai, now 30. 

Still, they didn’t look to hire logistics industry veterans, who would just bring with them “old tricks”.

Instead, the trio was confident they could leverage on their mathematical and technology skills to improve the delivery process. They examined the entire life cycle of a parcel, from the point when it is picked up to when it’s delivered.

Technology and algorithms were used to improve every process – for example, to calculate the best route a driver should take, or which van should be used to deliver a parcel. This means drivers are able to deliver more parcels in an hour while saving on fuel costs.

Existing logistics providers were then still relying on outdated mail-sorting technology, where delivery documents were usually handwritten and tracking of parcels was difficult. But at Ninja Van, staff used their handphones to scan parcels and find out in an instant where the parcel is heading and what should be done with it.

“The only reason we got to where we were is because our technology was much better than the incumbents at that point in time,” said Mr Lai, acknowledging: “But a lot of them have caught up or are close (now).”

Ninja Van also harnesses crowdsourcing during crunch times, where they activate part-time drivers to help them deliver more parcels and in a shorter period of time, easing the load on their existing drivers.

Mr Lai said: “We make our engineers drive to understand how difficult it is operationally. And we make our operations people think of product specifications, and we try to educate them more about technology.

“We tell them that this is a technology company and here, you get your hands dirty.”

FACEBOOK CO-FOUNDER GIVES THUMBS UP

It is this ethos of Mr Lai that helped sway Mr Saverin’s firm to invest in the start-up. Ninja Van received US$ 30 million in a second round of funding in 2016 from investors including B Capital Group, which will help them expand regionally.

Mr Saverin said: “As soon as I met him, he struck me as a smart and ruthlessly aggressive entrepreneur who would do whatever it takes to get it done.

“The example was just clearly laid in front of me. A mattress on the floor of his office where he would sleep most of the nights, because that’s how hard he worked.”

The billionaire said that Mr Lai was focused on developing the right culture where everyone in the company understood what each other was doing, and weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty while doing so.  

He credits Mr Lai for creating real-time tracking in logistics where control is handed back to the consumer, just like what Uber and Grab did for the taxi industry.

Mr Saverin said: “Innovations like Facebook, even in the early days, were not these out-of-the-box brilliant thinking. It was replicating something that existed in the real world.

“So these are the types of businesses that create new markets and drive through real positive change. They’re not destructing, they’re enabling.”

More about Lai Chang Wen’s story on Game Changers on Monday, March 27, at 8pm SG/HK.

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Thailand seeks new abbot for scandal-hit Buddhist temple

BANGKOK: Thailand’s government is trying to get a new abbot appointed to head the country’s biggest Buddhist temple, whose former leader is wanted for money laundering, an official said on Thursday.

Police pulled back from a three-week siege of the Dhammakaya temple this month after failing to find Phra Dhammachayo in a search that was frustrated by monks and devotees in one of the biggest challenges to Thailand’s junta since a 2014 coup.

Dhammachayo, 72, is wanted for questioning for suspected money-laundering and on numerous charges of building on land without authorisation.

Thailand’s National Office of Buddhism had proposed to religious authorities that a monk with no affiliation to the temple should now be appointed to lead it, the head of the government office, Pongporn Pramsaneh, told Reuters.

This would help with an investigation into the temple’s assets and in the process of disrobing Dhammachayo, he said.

“The monk in chief should be someone the society can rely on for unbiased action and judgment,” Pongporn said.

The proposal on changing the leadership was made to the most senior monk in the Pathum Thani province, where the temple is located.

The temple’s current acting abbot is Dhammachayo’s deputy, Phra Dattajivo, but police last week said they were investigating him for using temple money in stock dealing.

The temple said the accusation was “fake news” and that none of its money had gone into stocks.

The Dhammayaka temple, nearly 10 times the size of the Vatican City, dwarfs Thailand’s other temples in wealth as well as size. It claims millions of followers, although still a small minority of Thai Buddhists.

Traditionalist Buddhists accuse the temple of commercialism, though it says it is just as dedicated to Theravada Buddhism as them and its money is only to do good works.

Pongporn said the Buddhist governing body in Pathum Thani province would convene to inspect the Dhammakaya temple’s financial records at the end of the month.

(Additional reporting and writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Simon Cameron-Moore)

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Singapore's consumer prices rise for third consecutive month

SINGAPORE: Consumer prices in Singapore rose for the third straight month in February, due in part to increases in transport and education costs. 

The consumer price index (CPI) – a key measure of headline inflation – rose 0.7 per cent in February from a year ago, up from the previous month’s 0.6 per cent, according to figures from the Department of Statistics on Thursday (Mar 23). 

This was mainly due to year-on-year increases in costs related to transport (4.2 per cent), education (3.6 per cent) and healthcare (2.6 per cent). 

However, there were drops in the prices for housing and utilities (-3.1 per cent), miscellaneous goods and services (-0.6 per cent) and clothing and footwear (-0.2 per cent). 

Consumer prices rose for the first time in December 2016 after a record two years of negative inflation.

MAS Core Inflation, which excludes the cost of accommodation and private road transport, rose 1.2 per cent year-on-year in February, slightly lower than the previous month’s 1.5 per cent.

Looking ahead, MAS Core Inflation is expected to average 1–2 per cent for the whole of 2017, compared with 0.9 per cent in 2016. CPI-All Items inflation is projected to pick up to 0.5–1.5 per cent this year, from -0.5 per cent in 2016.

“The firmer rate of inflation in 2017 largely reflects the contribution of energy-related components, as well as some administrative price increases, rather than generalised demand-induced price pressures,” MAS and MTI said.

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Countering terrorism and violent extremism key concern for Singapore, region: MFA

SINGAPORE: Countering terrorism and violent extremism is a key concern for Singapore and the region, given the risks posed by returning ISIS fighters as well as the group’s radical propaganda in Southeast Asia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said on Thursday (Mar 23). 

Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan met with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and participated in the Meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Global Coalition on the Defeat of ISIS in Washington DC on Wednesday.

MFA said Singapore welcomed the Meeting of the Foreign Ministers, hosted by Mr Tillerson.

“Singapore has consistently supported the coalition’s efforts through contributions of military assets and personnel, and believes in the need for a comprehensive response that encompasses addressing economic, social and political factors,” it said in a statement.

At the meeting, MFA said Dr Balakrishnan and Mr Tillerson reaffirmed the “deep and multi-faceted relations” between Singapore and the US in the areas of defence, economic and security.

They also discussed regional developments as well as ways in which the US could build on its enduring strategic and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific and strengthen its engagement of ASEAN, the ministry added.

Dr Balakrishnan will meet Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker before departing the US for Singapore on Friday, according to MFA.  

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Vietnam seeks South Korean support in South China Sea

HANOI: Vietnam’s Prime Minister sought support for the nation’s stance in the South China Sea when he met South Korea’s foreign minister in Hanoi on Monday.

Vietnam is the country most openly at odds with China over the waterway since the Philippines pulled back from confrontation under President Rodrigo Duterte.

“The Prime Minister proposed that South Korea continue its support over the position of Vietnam and Southeast Asia on the South China Sea issue and to help the country improve its law enforcement at the sea”, the government said in a statement on its website after the meeting between Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se.

The statement did not say whether South Korea backed Vietnam’s position on the South China Sea.

Yun did affirm his country’s willingness to promote ties despite instability in South Korea after the ousting of President Park Geun-hye over a graft scandal.

South Korea is Vietnam’s biggest foreign investor thanks to companies like Samsung.

South Korea and China are currently in dispute over deployment of the U.S. anti-missile defence system. South Korea on Monday has complained to the World Trade Organization about Chinese retaliation against its companies over the deployment.

Last week, Vietnam demanded China stop sending cruise ships to the area in response to one of Beijing’s latest moves to bolster its claims to the strategic waterway.

China claims 90 percent of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan lay claim to parts of the route, through which about US$ 5 trillion of trade passes each year.

(Reporting by My Pham; Editing by Julia Glover)

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