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Myanmar should dismantle laws blocking free speech – Human Rights Watch

YANGON: Myanmar’s government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), should amend and abolish laws that threaten freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Wednesday.

Laws covering areas from telecommunications to defamation have been used to arrest at least 70 people this month, said the report’s author, Linda Lakhdhir.

The arrests come despite reforms by former President Thein Sein and the NLD, which won the November election in a landslide, giving it control of both houses of parliament and installing Suu Kyi as the country’s de facto leader.

“We think there has been a mixed bag of achievements on behalf of the new government,” said David Mathieson, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, referring to the NLD’s efforts to ease laws restricting freedom of speech.

While the NLD deserved credit for freeing many political prisoners, the “legal architecture of repression” that put them behind bars remained largely in place, Mathieson added.

The NLD, made up of many former activists and dissidents, has scrapped some restrictive laws and proposed changes to others, such as the Peaceful Assembly Law, which allows for protests that were barred under the junta, but still imposes limits, and is used to arrest and jail many demonstrators.

The NLD’s proposed changes to the law are an improvement, Human Rights Watch has said, but they do not go far enough.

The draft bill, being discussed in parliament, would punish protesters for spreading “wrong” information and make it an offence for them to swerve from slogans registered in advance with the authorities.

Also troubling, the report said, was a broadly worded clause of the Telecommunications Law that prohibits use of the telecoms network to, “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate”.

Arrests of social media users whose posts are deemed distasteful have continued under Suu Kyi’s government.

“While some of these posts may be considered offensive by some, being offensive is not a crime,” said Lakhdhir.

Enacting change in Myanmar is not a simple task.

Under the country’s semi-civilian government, the military controls 25 percent of the seats in parliament and three ministries, including home affairs, which oversees the police.

Sensitivities over the portrayal of the army as the country deals with the legacy of 49 years of harsh military rule have been exposed in recent weeks.

7Day News Journal, a popular newspaper, was sued by a member of the military last week for a story that carried comments from Shwe Mann, a top member of the former junta who is now a close confidant of Suu Kyi and has been ousted from the military-backed party.

The charges, levelled against the editor-in-chief and a reporter, claimed that his comments could aid in a mutiny and carried a sentence of 10 years imprisonment but were dropped late Wednesday, according to staff member who asked not to be name.

7Day published a lengthy apology on Tuesday expressing “deep regret” to the armed forces, saying that it did not intend to “incite disloyalty” of the armed forces.

The publication said that it would carefully edit future stories that dealt with the armed forces.

“The military maintains an air of menace,” Mathieson said. “They are ultra sensitive about how they are perceived in the community and willing to threaten and sue people.”

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

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New programme to train professionals for logistics industry

SINGAPORE: A new programme to help more professionals join the logistics industry was launched on Wednesday (Jun 29).

Called the Logistics Professional Conversion Programme (PCP), it will offer 150 vacancies for professionals, managers, executives and technicians in two job roles – logistics officer and logistics executive. The programme will commence in July, and is expected to last two years.

The Supply Chain and Logistics Academy (SCALA) has been appointed as programme manager, and will work with the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) to develop the programme.

Speaking at the launch of the programme, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said the logistics industry contributed to almost 7 per cent of Singapore’s GDP, and provided employment for more than 200,000 people.

He added that several emerging roles in the industry have been identified, ranging from innovation and process improvement, to vertical specialists, logistics solutions and programme management.

“With technology and better integration across systems, enterprises and service providers, orders are expected to be fulfilled in even shorter time frames, with fewer mistakes,” Mr Lim said. “To do well, logistics companies need to leverage technology and people to deliver everything cheaper, better and faster, every time and for everyone.”

With emerging technology in the logistics industry, the programme aims to help PMETs acquire the necessary skillsets to take up these new job roles. It is targeted at PMETs who have just joined the industry, and have at least a year of working experience.

They must also be nominated by a company that has come on board the programme. A total of 10 companies are already part of the programme, including DHL Express, YCH Group and Yang Kee Logistics.

During the year long programme, participants will go through 18 days of classroom sessions, on-job-training and a 12-day mentorship programme.

This is the first time a mentoring and coaching feature has been included in a PCP, which will see industry practitioners guide PMETs as they undergo conversion to adapt to their new roles.

Participants will then be awarded an Advanced Certificate in Supply Chain Operations Management from SCALA, as well as the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications Statement of Attainment issued by the WDA.

To help companies with the cost of hiring PMETs, the programme will also provide salary support at 70 per cent of the participants’ salary for the one year training period, capped at S$ 2,000 per month.

There is also an enhanced salary support of 90 per cent for participants who are Singapore Citizens and are long-term unemployed, or those aged 40 and above. This salary support is capped at S$ 4,000 a month.

Course fee support of up to 70 per cent is also provided under the programme, and SMEs can tap on the Enhanced Training Support to enjoy higher course fee support of up to 90 per cent capped at S$ 50 per hour.

SCALA also offers other programmes targeted at different segments of the industry, such as the Logistics Assimilation Programme and WSQ certifications.

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McDonald's Singapore launches menu inspired by local flavours

SINGAPORE: It started with salted egg yolk croissants and donuts, then salted egg yolk ice-cream and dressing for waffles were introduced. And now McDonald’s Singapore is the latest to jump in on the salted egg yolk craze here, with a limited-time menu featuring other local flavours such as pepper crab and gula melaka as well.

In a media release on Wednesday (Jun 29), McDonald’s said the launch includes a salted egg yolk chicken burger, as well as Twist & Shake fries with salt & pepper crab-flavoured shaker.

A new ice-cream flavour will also be introduced. The Gula Melaka McFlurry will come with layer cake bites.

Two other items will also be available for a limited time. The Spicy McNuggets and Banana Pie will both be making a comeback.

All new offerings will be available from Jun 30, McDonald’s said. 

The restaurant chain has also previous added locally-inspired offerings to its menu in the form of a beef and chicken satay burger in 2014, and a beef rendang burger the year before.

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Asian stocks, pound fall in Brexit aftershocks

TOKYO: Asian stocks fell and the British pound tumbled more than 2 percent in early trade on Monday as markets struggled to shake off deep uncertainty sparked by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

The worst of the turmoil seen on Friday, when global stock markets suffered their biggest decline in nearly five years, had eased, but sentiment remained weak and trading was volatile.

“Things are so uncertain that investors still do not have a clear idea how much risk assets they need to sell,” said Hiroko Iwaki, senior foreign bond strategist at Mizuho Securities.

“But it is safe to assume investors are not yet with done all the selling they need to. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another 10 percent fall in share prices,” she added.

Among many questions the British exit, or Brexit, has triggered are just how much UK and European economies will slow, how they will negotiate their new relationship and how European leaders will try to boost the crumbling European Union.

“We believe that markets will remain cautious, as uncertainty over exit negotiations causes risk averse sentiment to linger,” George Davis, chief technical analyst at RBC Dominion Securities in Toronto said in a note.

U.S. S&P mini futures , the world’s most traded stock futures, fell 0.7 percent to 2,004 on Monday, edging near Friday’s 3-1/2 month low of 1,999.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan dropped 1.2 percent in volatile trade as companies with British exposure in particular came under more pressure.

Japan’s Nikkei , however, rose 1.8 percent, a partial rebound after Friday’s hefty 7.9 percent fall.

The British pound fell 2.3 percent to US$ 1.3388 , still some distance from the 31-year low of US$ 1.3228 touched during Friday’s wild trade.

Against the yen, sterling fell more than 2 percent to 136.85 yen . That was more than 14 percent below its levels early on Friday when investors believed the “remain” camp would win the referendum.

The euro also came under further pressure, falling almost 1 percent against the dollar, as investors fret Brexit could stoke the anti-establishment mood in Europe and even talk of disintegration of the union.

“(There will be) sell-off in the euro as talk of other exit referenda builds,” said Jerome Booth, chairman of New Sparta Asset Management in London.

“This sell-off will be more profound and long-lasting and will be not just against the dollar and yen but also against the pound. It will also raise fears of significant loss of values for holders of Euro-zone government bonds.”

The euro fell to US$ 1.1008, edging closer to Friday’s 3-1/2-month low of US$ 1.0912.

Still, in a sign Briton’s shock decision to leave the European Union may be encouraging Europeans to seek the safety of the status quo, support for Spain’s conservative People’s Party (PP) surged in Sunday’s general election.

Oil prices fell more than 1 percent in early trade, with international benchmark Brent futures down 1.3 percent to US$ 47.80 per barrel.

Demand for safe haven assets such as government debt and precious metals remained strong.

The 10-year U.S. debt yield dropped 9 basis points to 1.490 percent in early Asian trade. On Friday, it fell as low as 1.406 percent, near its record low of 1.381 percent marked in July 2012.

U.S. interest rate futures have completely priced out chance of a rate hike by the Federal Reserve this year and pricing in less than 50 percent chance of a rate hike even by the end of 2017.

Gold rose 1 percent to US$ 1,334.50 per ounce .

(Editing by Lincoln Feast)

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Singapore banking system remains sound following Brexit outcome: MAS

SINGAPORE: The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) said on Friday (Jun 24) that “Singapore’s interbank money markets continue to function in an orderly manner and its banking system remains sound”, following the outcome of the UK’s referendum on EU membership.

Britain voted to leave the European Union, in a decision that sparked upheaval across Asian markets. 

In response to media queries, the Singapore central bank said: “The liquidity positions of the major banks in Singapore are healthy, and overall banking system liquidity remains adequate. MAS will provide additional liquidity to the banking system if needed.

“The trade-weighted Singapore dollar remains within its policy band, notwithstanding heightened volatility in international foreign exchange markets today. MAS stands ready to curb excessive volatility in the Singapore dollar.

“We have been prepared for the market volatility. MAS had been in close contact over the past weeks with banks in Singapore, foreign central banks and regulators to take preparatory actions to ensure the resilience of our financial system and markets in the event of Brexit.”

MAS added that it would continue to be vigilant and stay in close contact with fellow central banks and regulators, as uncertainty is likely to persist following the referendum outcome.

Meanwhile, deputy president and group chief investment officer of GIC Lim Chow Kiat said the Singapore sovereign wealth fund runs a “long-term and diversified portfolio” and is “prepared for a period of heightened market uncertainty”. 

“What’s most important to us is that markets remain open,” Mr Lim said. 

MEDIUM- TO LONG-TERM IMPACT ON SINGAPORE “MODEST”: MTI

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said while the immediate aftermath of Brexit has led to substantial uncertainty and volatility in the financial markets, it is “too early” to assess its full consequences.

“Based on analysts’ current estimates of the impact of Brexit on the UK and the Eurozone economies, MTI’s assessment is that the medium- to long-term direct impact of Brexit on the Singapore economy is likely to be modest,” the spokesperson said.

The full impact of Brexit on the UK, the EU and the global economy will be heavily dependent on the UK’s subsequent trade arrangements with the EU and other markets, including Singapore, MTI said.

With Brexit, the UK is no longer covered by the existing trade agreements that the EU has, according to the trade ministry. This means it will need to negotiate new agreements with its trading partners, including Singapore.

However, the nature and precise timing of the negotiations will depend on when Brexit takes effect following the UK’s deliberations with the EU, stated the MTI spokesperson. 

“We will continue to monitor the situation and assess the economic consequences of Brexit on the Singapore economy and our businesses,” the spokesperson added.  

SINGAPORE FIRMS IN UK COULD FACE SLOWER GROWTH: SCCCI

Responding to the Brexit vote, Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) president Thomas Chua said in the immediate term, Singapore companies will face some uncertainties in terms of how Brexit will impact Asia. “Companies who are already in the UK may face the prospects of a slower growth,” he said.

Added Mr Chua: “For our SMEs who are suppliers to the UK MNCs based here, they will be affected if their UK principals become more cautious in their business plans due to a weaker British Pound. While the UK may traditionally be the first-choice hub of our companies to access the European market, they may now review UK as their preferred choice, and open to consider other options.

He noted that both Singapore and London are key financial centres in the world and with the uncertainties following Brexit, combined with the growth potential of Asia, Singapore may stand to benefit as more financial institutions may consider to set up here.

LONG-TERM IMPACT ON S’PORE ‘HARD TO ASCERTAIN’: SBF

Meanwhile, the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) expressed concern over the outcome of the vote.

“The decision to leave the EU adds more risk to Europe’s stability and to global markets at a time when the world economy needs more stability,” SBF said in a statement. “The possibility of a weaker EU, given its importance as a trading and investment partner to Singapore, will have significant impact on our economy.”

SBF also said the long-term impact of Brexit on Singapore and the world is “hard to ascertain”, although new configurations are currently being negotiated and put together, and the ripple effects of these “will take time” to work out and “add prolonged uncertainties”.

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Para-athlete jailed 3 years for child trafficking, recruiting for prostitution

SINGAPORE: National para-athlete Adam Kamis was sentenced to 38 months’ jail on Monday (Jun 27) for recruiting several women, including a 16-year-old girl, into the sex trade.

Adam, 37, said he set up a social escort agency in early 2013 to get out of debt, and operated it for more than two years before he was arrested in 2015.

The one-armed athlete took to Facebook to recruit women, promising them a “high paying freelance job … Earn up to S$ 1,000 per assignment”, he wrote in the job advertisement.

To “pique their interest and gain (the women’s) trust”, Adam used the moniker “Angel Tan” to pass himself off as an escort girl working for the agency, Deputy Public Prosecutor Sharmila Sripathy-Shanaz told the court.

Besides getting victims to fill in a “sexually explicit” questionnaire, Adam would also ask the women to indicate the sexual services they were willing to provide to clients, DPP Sripathy-Shanaz said. Then, he would “interview” the women in his Yishun flat, when his wife was not at home.

Adam told the women to strip, so he could “inspect the condition of their bodies”. To prove that they were indeed willing to provide sexual services, Adam would “try out” the women by having sex with them, DPP Sripathy-Shanaz told the court.

The DPP noted that except for the 16-year-old girl, the other victims appear to have joined Adam’s agency voluntarily.

DPP Sripathy-Shanaz said Adam had clearly exerted pressure on the teen to make her compliant to his demands, by falsely assuring her the agency was legitimate, and that he had other underage girls working for him.

He persuaded her to let him “inspect” her body, assuring her that all the girls who attended the interview had to do the same. After she complied, Adam told her he needed to “test her sexual skills”, DPP Sripathy-Shanaz said.

Adam persisted despite the girl saying that she was only 16, telling her that no one would find out. He had sex with her, but in the days following, the girl stopped responding to his attempts to contact her again.

For procuring or attempting to procure a woman for the purpose of prostitution, Adam could have been sentenced to up to five years’ jail and a fine of up to S$ 10,000. For child trafficking, Adam could have been jailed for up to 10 years, fined up to S$ 100,000, or given up to six strokes of the cane.

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Nepali migrants banned from working in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria

KATHMANDU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Nepal has banned its nationals from working in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria after 13 Nepali security guards were killed by a Taliban suicide bomber in the Afghan capital earlier this week, Labour Minister Deepak Bohara said on Friday.

The decision comes after a parliamentary panel ordered Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s government to crack down on traffickers who send thousands of migrants each year to conflict-torn countries where they can often face danger or exploitation.

“Our decision is prompted by the security situation in those countries,” Bohara told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “If our nationals already working in those countries want to return home, the government will make arrangements for that.”

Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries.

Political instability since a decade-long civil conflict ended in 2006 has discouraged investment, stunted growth and curtailed job creation – forcing hundreds of thousands of Nepalis to migrate overseas in search of work.

To make matters worse, the Himalayan nation is still recovering from twin quakes in April and May last year which killed more than 8,800 people and left two million homeless.

Most go to the Middle East, India and Malaysia to work as guards, drivers, construction workers or domestic staff – sending home remittances which make up nearly 30 percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product.

Many however face a labour abuses such as a lack of freedom of movement, long working hours, unsafe working conditions and withholding of their salaries, say activists.

Bohara said Monday’s attack on a bus carrying Nepali guards working at the Canadian embassy in Kabul had forced the government to withdraw issuing work permits for the four nations in the interests of the safety of its citizens.

Analysts however say the ban will not help and will rather prompt human traffickers to transport more Nepalis migrants through India, with which it shares an open border, and then onward to these countries.

(Reporting by Gopal Sharma. Editing by Nita Bhalla. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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Sinking pound creates opportunities and challenges across Singapore

Sterling’s decline to multi-year lows against the Singapore dollar in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has presented big questions for companies, individuals, and investors. Channel NewsAsia assesses who might stand to lose or gain in the current conditions.

SINGAPORE: Money changers across the country ran out of pounds as investors, students, and holiday-makers sought to cash on a weak sterling on Friday (June 24). The pound, which has fallen 11 per cent against the Singapore dollar so far this year on Brexit fears, crashed to a multi-year low of around S$ 1.80 when it became clear those fears would become reality. When Channel NewsAsia visited Change Alley at Raffles Place, money changers including Raffles Money Change, China Money Exchange, Mohamed Thahir Exchange, and City Money Changer had run out of sterling by 3pm on Friday.

A crowd gathering around Arcade Money Changers at Raffles Place on Jun 24, 2016. (Photo: Wendy Wong)

It was a similar story elsewhere in the Bugis area, according to 25-year-old Tan Yenfang, who is starting a masters degree programme in the UK this September. “I went to five money changers around my workplace and they all said there’s no stock,” she said.

Others, like Ms Chew Hui-Yan, second year student in University College London, said her parents managed to buy pounds via the bank. “My parents bought 10,000 pounds once they heard the pound was falling. I have another friend whose mum was also changing money as the pound fell,” said Ms Chew.

Beyond a potential short-term buy opportunity, the weak pound creates new dynamics for people travelling to, working in, and doing business with the UK. 

COMPANIES & MARKETS

Singapore companies with significant investments in the UK include property developers City Developments and Ho Bee, and transport group ComfortDelGro. According to Mr Gabriel Yap, executive chairman at investment firm GCP Global, the sliding pound would mean currency losses for these Singapore firms.

“I think the impact mainly will be in the translation losses from earnings for those that have invested in the UK. These firms invested in assets in the UK when the pound was significantly pricier,” he said.

“Their earnings translated back to Sing dollars this coming year will be significantly affected. The uncertainty of that will also wreck havoc on their share prices.”

Still, CDL struck a positive note, saying that the company continues to have confidence in the long-term fundamentals of the UK economy and its strategy of targeting predominantly UK nationals for its residential developments. It added that it has a strategy to deal with exchange rate uncertainties: “The Group manages its foreign exchange exposure by a policy of a matching receipts and payments, and asset purchases and borrowings in each individual country, so as to create a natural hedge”.

Describing the situation as “uncharted waters”, Singapore International Chamber of Commerce chief executive Victor Mills said he expects volatility in the global markets to continue until clarity of the UK’s exit terms are known. This a matter which could easily stretch out over the next two years at least.

“I think the result of the referendum will be mainly negative for the UK in the mid to long term. The issue of membership of the European Union was hijacked by the immigration debate which, as we all know, is an emotive issue everywhere and usually for all the wrong reasons,” he added.

TOURISM

Travel agency Chan Brothers said that should the pound continue to weaken against the Sing, already-strong demand for travel to the UK “looks set to continue”.

“The British pound has been falling steadily against the Singapore dollar since August 2015. This is definitely a boon for travel,” said Ms Jane Chang, its head of marketing communications, adding that the agency has so far seen a 30 percent year-on-year growth in demand for travel to the UK.

Travel booking companies Wego.com and TripZilla.com said they saw the developments as a positive for UK-bound Singapore travellers, but a negative for Singapore’s tourism market in the short run.

“As a destination, Singapore welcomes a large number of UK travellers and serves as a gateway to the rest of Asia. There may be a slight drop in UK visitors initially,” said Mr Ross Veitch, CEO and co-founder of Wego.com.

“We expect there will be a overall drop in inbound tourists from the UK due to weakness in pound and uncertain economic impact of the Brexit. The UK makes up almost 30 per cent of Singapore’s inbound travellers from EU, so we would certainly feel some impact,” said Ms Winnie Tan, CEO, TripZilla.com.

Ms Tan was a shade more circumspect about the numbers of Singaporean tourists looking to take advantage of the cheaper pound.

“We do not expect the number of bookings to skyrocket overnight. Again, drawing comparison to what happened when the Australian dollar fell below parity versus the Sing recently, it will take a while for travellers to react and travel bookings to pour in.”

PROPERTY

As the dust settles on the Referendum result, and officials start to negotiate the exit plan, there will be uncertainty over the next two years, said Mr Ku Swee Yong, the CEO of property agency Century 21 Singapore. This could hurt London’s appeal to international property investors and absentee landlords.

“The uncertainty could result in corporate considerations, like to shore up cash by downsizing the workforce. This could hit those in trading-related activities, in commodities. And this will affect rents, especially in London,” said Mr Ku.

“With the decision to exit the European Union, for existing Asian property owners, the fall in the pound will impact the repatriation of any income returns, as well as the gains on any disposal,” said Mr Nicholas Holt, head of research for Asia Pacific at Knight Frank.

“Although there is likely to be more volatility in the market, ultimately most investors are looking to the long term – so will continue to hold their assets, in the hope that any short-term instability will eventually subside when more clarity of the UK’s role in Europe is determined.”

Meanwhile, Colliers International said the UK’s economic fundamentals remained unchanged despite Brexit.

We consider buying opportunities “ripe” for Asian investors, said Mr Richard Levene, Director, International Properties, Colliers International. “This also creates an excellent opportunity for our international buyers to benefit from currency gains as the pound strengthens over time.”

WORKING PROFESSIONALS

The exchange rate implications would also be felt on salaried professionals working in Singapore and the UK. Architect Leanne Taylor, 27, who earns in Sing dollars, has mixed feelings.

The British national, who has been working in Singapore for more than two years, said Brexit has led her to reconsider plans to move back home.

“On one hand, maybe it’s a good time to go back and buy a house. On the other, architects like me may not be able to access the EU market and tender for work, and that’ll mean fiercer competition for local work,” she said.

“If I were still in the UK, I wouldn’t be too happy. On a US dollar basis, income would have dropped 5 to 10 per cent and taxes are still sky high, at 30 to 40 per cent,” said a Singaporean banker who declined to be named. He recently relocated home after two years in London.

“Some of my colleagues, especially those who have invested in real estate, are reeling from the sterling plunge. The property market is relatively more illiquid, with more transaction costs,” said the 29-year-old.

As for London-based Singaporean Edna Goh, 29, she is less concerned about the dollars and cents of it all.

The finance professional, who has lived in London for the last seven years said: “To me, it’s not about the money. It’s about how London is becoming less tolerant to immigrants. It’s very upsetting given that London is London because of the EU.” 

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Belt up your kids, says Singapore Road Safety Council

SINGAPORE: Last week, a car carrying a family of four slammed into a tree near Lentor Avenue, injuring two young children and killing their mother. One child, who sustained head injuries, is believed to have been riding in the passenger seat without a child or booster seat. 

With Traffic Police data showing that about 10.7 per cent of total seat belt violations in the past five years involved children, the Singapore Road Safety Council (SRSC) has said it is crucial that young ones are properly buckled up. 

SRSC chairman Bernard Tay said: “A lot of parents feel the child or baby is so small – if you hold them tightly to your bosom or on your lap, it should be okay. But unfortunately, that is not so. 

“Research has proven that if a car travels at 50km/h and the child is below 20kg and not well belted up, he will be a living catapult – ejecting through the windscreen. The child could be killed.”

Mr Tay added that SRSC wants to intensify efforts in this area, and one possibility it is looking into is to teach parents about buckling up their kids from the moment they leave the hospital with their newborns. This could be done by collaborating with the industry to produce brochures or videos, he suggested. 

While the Traffic Police recorded a drop in seatbelt violations last year – from over 11,404 in 2013 and 11,622 in 2014 to about 8,126 in 2015 – Mr Tay said authorities could do more to bring numbers down through greater enforcement action.

“People who don’t wear seatbelts – from what I understand, they say it creases their clothing, it’s inconvenient, their destination is only a couple of minutes (away), so it causes a lot of inconvenience to belt up.

“I think that thinking is wrong, because accidents can happen anytime and within seconds.” 

Drivers and passengers who do not wear a seat belt could face a fine of up to S$ 1,000 or a jail term of up to three months for the first offence. For a second or subsequent offence, offenders face a fine of up to S$ 2,000 or a jail term of up to six months. Drivers also get demerit points for not wearing a seat belt or failing to ensure their passengers are wearing seat belts. 

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Filipino fishermen pin hopes on China tribunal

INFANTA, Philippines: Jonathan Almandrez was chased away from the rich fishing grounds of a South China Sea lagoon by a Chinese patrol — something he hopes will stop happening if the Philippines wins an international legal case against Beijing.

The incident at Scarborough Shoal, a necklace of reefs and rocks that Filipino fishermen say hosts some of the world’s most abundant marine life, is part of a long-running territorial row that sits at the heart of a UN backed tribunal expected to rule in the coming weeks.

“I was angry at their gall to shoo us away when we were clearly inside Philippine territory,” said the 30-year-old, who used a pseudonym as he did not want to be identified for fear of potential Chinese repercussions.

Almandrez — who provided mobile phone footage of the encounter to AFP — said for two hours on Jun 7, Chinese coast guard patrol boats circled a wooden outrigger carrying 10 Filipino fishermen.

The patrol boats got within about two metres of the vessel, which had been fishing the reefs just outside the shoal before daylight betrayed them to the Chinese.

“Transfer to another area! No fishing inside,” the Chinese patrol personnel shouted in English, according to Almandrez.

“You go (back) to China because this is the property of the Philippines,” Almandrez recalled shouting back.

The Filipino crew eventually left when a much larger Chinese vessel began to approach and they feared it would fire water cannon.

Video footage shows two patrol boats flying Chinese flags and with the English words “CHINA COAST GUARD” on the side.

CHINA TAKES CONTROL

Local fishermen say the shoal, 230km off the main Philippine island of Luzon, has been their hunting ground for generations.

It is 650km from Hainan island, the nearest major Chinese landmass, but falls within the ill-defined “nine-dash line” that marks the extent of Beijing’s claim to control of nearly all of the South China Sea.

The reefs and shallow waters mean one fisherman can easily spear 200kg of fish in just over an hour, according to Almandrez and others from Infanta, one of the main Scarborough Shoal fishing towns on Luzon.

It also provides vital shelter for stranded fishermen during storms.

China took effective control of the shoal in 2012, following a brief encounter with the Philippine Navy’s flagship and Filipino coast guards.

Since then, non-Chinese fishing boats approaching the lagoon mouth have routinely been given an ear-splitting horn blast from a ship stationed inside, and those who refuse to leave run the risk of being hosed down or even rammed, according to Filipino fishermen.

“The water spray was so strong it destroyed one of our styrofoams,” Felix Lavezores, 36, told AFP at Infanta, recalling an early May water-cannon attack at the lagoon mouth that split an ice box used to store their catch.

An expedition to the shoal costs around 90,000 pesos (nearly US$ 2,000) per boat, including fuel, supplies and crew salaries — money the boat’s owners cannot make back if they are forced to hightail it home with an empty hold.

The Chinese at times also cut anchor cables, putting Filipino boats at risk of running aground, according to some of the Filipino fishermen at Infanta and Masinloc, another fishing town.

‘INTRINSIC TERRITORY’

China claims it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of its Asian neighbours.

When asked about incidents at the shoal, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying repeated China’s long-standing position.

“We have said that Scarborough Shoal is China’s intrinsic territory. The Chinese coast guard vessels’ law enforcement activities in China’s sovereign territorial waters are legitimate and beyond reproach,” Hua told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday.

The competing territorial claims have for decades made the South China Sea a potential source of regional conflict, and tensions have risen sharply in recent years as China has sought to expand its presence in the disputed areas.

Aside from taking control of Scarborough Shoal, it has undertaken unprecedented land-reclamation works in the Spratly Islands, one of the sea’s main archipelagoes that are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Critics of China fear the artificial islands could be put to military use, and to establish effective sea and air control over some of the world’s most important shipping routes and waters that are believed to sit atop significant oil and gas deposits.

The Philippines, the most vocal critic, has responded by lodging a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration, a UN-backed tribunal at The Hague, asking it to rule that China’s claims to most of the sea violate international law.

Although China is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, it has vowed to ignore the ruling and accused the Philippines of stirring tensions with its legal challenge.

The Philippines hopes a favourable verdict will, at minimum, help build global diplomatic pressure on China.

But regardless of the outcome, China looks unlikely to let Philippine fishermen return to Scarborough Shoal. 

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Channel NewsAsia Asia Pacific News