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India says destroys four posts along contested border with Pakistan

SRINAGAR: The Indian army said it had destroyed four Pakistani military posts on Saturday along its contested border, the latest escalation of tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

The attack comes a day after India and Pakistan traded accusations that each had killed civilians in cross-border shelling in the Kashmir region, which is claimed in its entirety by both countries but controlled in part by each.

“Four Pak posts destroyed in massive fire assault in Keran Sector. Heavy casualties inflicted,” the Indian army’s Northern Command said in a statement on its Twitter account late on Saturday.

The Indian army gave no further details of the assault, but an officer, who asked that his name not be used, confirmed that troops on both sides had been exchanging mortar fire in and around an area known as the Keran sector since Saturday morning.

Pakistani military officials were not immediately available for comment on Saturday evening.

On Friday, a Pakistani official said three civilians were killed as Indian troops shelled villages along the Line of Control in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Indian officials, meanwhile, said two civilians died when Pakistani shells hit India-administered Kashmir.

The Indian army on Friday said in a statement that militants at the border mutilated the body of an Indian soldier they had killed before crossing back into Pakistan.

The army had warned that the “act will invite an appropriate response”, saying the militants were “supported by covering fire from Pakistan Army posts”.

Shelling by both sides in the divided and disputed Himalayan regions has been going on since gunmen killed 19 Indian soldiers in September at an army camp in Kashmir, an attack India blamed on Pakistan-based militants.

(Reporting by Fayaz Bukhari with additional reporting by Drazen Jorgic in Islamabad; Writing by Aditya Kalra, editing by Tom Lasseter and Richard Balmforth)

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Tech disruption comes to real estate sector: Should property agents be worried?

SINGAPORE: When she wanted to sell her flat along Hougang Avenue 4 earlier this year, Ms Lee and her husband engaged a property agent and at the same time, decided to have a go at creating their own listing on a few online property portals.

“Our friends told us about these DIY (do-it-yourself) platforms and we thought: ‘Why not? There’s no harm trying’,” said the 39-year-old who declined to reveal her full name. “It was quite easy. We took some photos of our house, wrote a description and posted them online.”

While the couple did meet a few prospective buyers through the property agent, Ms Lee said none went ahead with an offer. Nearly two months later, the Lees sold their flat to an agent-free buyer who contacted them through their listing online.

“We decided to settle the paperwork ourselves,” said the administrative manager, who added that the process was easier than she thought. “We were surprised because we thought it would be quite complicated. The officer at HDB (Housing and Development Board) was also very helpful to go through the paperwork with us.”

“Most importantly, I saved a commission that’s worth about S$ 10,000 so I think we are happy,” she told Channel NewsAsia. Property agents typically charge 2 per cent for the sale of an HDB flat.

People like Ms Lee, who have tried to complete a property transaction on their own, are growing in number in Singapore.

According to figures from HDB, the number of resale flat buyers and sellers who have gone the DIY way rose to 24 per cent in 2015, from 11 per cent in 2010. So far this year, 23 per cent of resale transactions carried out from January to May were completed without a property agent.

(Data provided by HDB)

Meanwhile, HDB also conducts seminars for the public on policies and procedures involved in the buying and selling of an HDB flat on the resale market. Its English sessions, conducted monthly, have a maximum capacity of 100 participants per session and are usually fully booked. The participation rate for the quarterly Mandarin seminars has been consistent at about 60 to 80 participants per session.

Apart from guidelines readily available from HDB, many digital platforms facilitating DIY property transactions have also sprung up over the past year.

Unlike established portals such as PropertyGuru and SRX Property, where listings are posted only by agents, newer sites such as DirectHome and Snappyhouse seek to connect buyers with sellers, as well as landlords with tenants directly, effectively doing away with the “middleman” property agent.

Other platforms such as OhMyHome offer people wanting to go DIY the back-up option of engaging an in-house agent at a flat fee, while Yotcha operates on a bidding system where property agents bid to serve home owners looking to sell or rent their properties.

“THIS IS A BIG THREAT”

With a wide variety of online portals and apps emerging, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong urged the real estate industry to brace for technological disruptions. “We have opportunities but we also have to be realistic about these disruptions which are happening around the world and in Singapore,” he said at an event in August.

According to Mr Harry Yeo, president of the Institute of Estate Agents (IEA), disruptive technology is a “big threat” and a “real cause for concern”, especially with property agents in Singapore already reeling from the downturn in the local property market.

“The emergence of many DIY real estate platforms enable sellers and buyers, landlords and tenants to deal directly with one another and bypass the middlemen. The disruptors are taking away a big slice of the traditional real estate practitioners’ market,” Mr Yeo said.

“This results in a rapidly shrinking market that cannot sustain the current big number of licensed real estate salespersons. As a result, some fall away and leave the trade, due to the inability to compete and survive under this challenging market condition,” said Mr Yeo, referring to the latest annual report from the Council for Estate Agencies (CEA), which showed 30,423 licensed property agents in Singapore in the year to March 2016, down 1,583 from a year ago.

Likening the arrival of digital real estate platforms to the technological disruptions that other industries such as transportation have seen, ERA Realty agent Germaine Ong said the threat is limited for now.

“Going to these portals means that people will need to do a lot of homework, especially for first-timers. Also, these portals are still new and they still lack exposure. That means few responses to your listings,” said Ms Ong, 24, who first got her agent licence four years ago. “That’s why some people who have jumped on such portals come back to us at the end of the day.”

But Ms Ong told Channel NewsAsia that property agents seem to be losing their place as the first thought that comes to people’s minds when they think of buying or selling property.

“Especially among the tech-savvy, they seem to think of these platforms first … I still don’t think these platforms are much of a threat now but who knows in the next five years or so?”

AGENTS MAY SOON BECOME A LUXURY ITEM: DIRECTHOME

Another set of numbers from CEA seems to add on to the discouraging outlook for agents. Its Public Perception Survey 2015 showed that 31 per cent of customers were undecided about engaging agents for property transactions in 2015, up from 24 per cent three years ago.

In particular, those aged between 21 and 39 were more undecided, compared to those above 40.

Apart from the potential cost savings, a change in consumer preferences to do things independently and an increasingly tech-savvy generation are some factors spurring the DIY trend.

For DirectHome’s founder Kiegan Chia, that shift opens up an untapped opportunity.

“Especially with the emergence of social media, people get connected much easily compared to 10 years ago. That’s why many home owners are now able to find home seekers by themselves or vice versa,” the 35-year-old, who was a property agent from 2010 to 2015, told Channel NewsAsia.

Mr Chia said that during the later years of his career, he noticed an increase in clients approaching him solely for help on the paperwork of their transactions. “The property market has been very opaque and there’s a gap in the market in terms of information available about the paperwork process. After five years in the industry, I started thinking what else I can do, and that is why I decided to come up with a platform that will transparentise (sic) the process.”

Mr Kiegan Chia left his job as a property agent to start online portal DirectHome. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

Started in February this year, the online portal provides a platform for DIY property transactions at flat rates of S$ 80 for landlords looking to rent out their property and S$ 800 for sellers. DirectHome also provides its users with a step-by-step guide to complete a transaction. Since its launch, the portal has attracted “thousands of users”. Mr Chia declined to reveal a specific number, citing market competition.

On DirectHome’s Facebook page, it is not uncommon to spot negative reviews from other property agents. On whether he thinks his new start-up is a threat to the industry he came from, Mr Chia said: “If you’ve already found a buyer and there’s a portal that is able to complete the process for you, would you still want to pay S$ 20,000 for a S$ 1 million property that you are thinking of selling?

“I would put it this way – property agents will become a luxury item to have. If prawns are good enough, would you eat something luxurious like lobsters every day?”

PROPERTY AGENCIES, AGENTS URGED TO EMBRACE TECHNOLOGY TO STAY AHEAD

To be sure, there are observers who feel that the up-and-coming digital portals and apps will not be a direct replacement for property agents.

“The roles of these intermediaries are likely to complement those in the property sector, not replace, as there are still aspects of this business that cannot be replicated with technology yet,” said Mr Sanjay Modi, manager director for APAC and Middle East at recruiter Monster.com.

However, to fend off the threat of new competitors, property agencies and its agents will need to embrace technology, according to industry groups.

“We recognise that property agents are working in an increasingly complex and challenging environment,” Mr Heng Whoo Kiat, director of policy and licensing at CEA, said. “Property agencies should embrace technological changes to remain relevant and competitive. They should also enhance service standards and find new ways to better serve their customers by raising the bar for themselves in areas such as their professionalism, productivity and customer-centricity.”

Among real estate agencies, many observers singled out OrangeTee as the frontrunner in embracing change with the rollout of its Property Agent Bank – a platform that allows customers to write reviews and rate their agent.

In an interview with Channel NewsAsia in May, managing director Steven Tan cited the rising threat of technology upending the local property sector as a reason why the homegrown company created the new platform.

Over at PropNex Realty, apps that provide real-time information on property news and upcoming projects have also been introduced to help its salespersons become more productive.

While property agencies and agents are concerned about the threat of disruptive technology, they told Channel NewsAsia that there are things they can offer which technology will not be able to replicate.

Mr Ku Swee Yong, CEO of International Property Advisor, noted that DIY platforms are only ideal for “simple, straightforward deals”. He added: “Unless a website can act like an encyclopedia that explains all kinds of exceptional cases, otherwise once something goes awry, what are you going to do?” 

OrangeTee agent Lee Kang Kian, 44, raised the example of property agents adding a “personal touch” to transactions. “We speak to our clients and from there, we understand their needs and can refine our list of options if something doesn’t work out. We do the research for you and save you time.”

Mr Andrew Wong, who recently purchased a four-room flat in the Chinatown area, echoed that view. During his search for a property, Mr Wong sought the help of a relative who is an experienced property agent. She was able to help Mr Wong to negotiate for a price that was around S$ 20,000 lower than the initial asking price.

“Considering how much property in Singapore costs, it is better to have someone experienced and knowledgeable to negotiate on your behalf, especially when the other party also has an agent,” Mr Wong told Channel NewsAsia.

“Experienced property agents also know what issues to look out for, such as potential leaks or quality of fittings. They can advise on whether you have to rewire a home or the extent of needed renovations, costs which can easily balloon and should be taken into consideration before you buy a house,” he added.

Apart from traditional promotional activities such as flyer distribution, more property agents are moving into social media platforms to promote themselves.

In the meantime, property agents agree that they will need to keep up with changing trends.

“We will have to embrace it whether we like it or not. The impact will be there but if it helps us to improve, then it will only be a good thing,” Mr Lee said.

Moving forward, apart from updating his account on the Property Agent Bank which has a five-star rating, Mr Lee said he will devote more time on social media platforms moving forward. “I know my colleagues have been really active on Facebook. I do share links of my property listings on Facebook sometimes, but I’ll probably need to spend more time cultivating my personal page from now on.”

Follow See Kit on Twitter @SeeKitCNA

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Gathering of different races and religions to celebrate Deepavali

SINGAPORE: People of different races and religions joined Deepavali celebrations at the historic Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple in Ceylon Road on Saturday (Oct 29).

Fifty volunteers from the South East Development Council (CDC) got a guided tour of the temple, which dates back to the 1850s, and learned more about Hindu practices and the significance of Deepavali.

The visit was part of South East CDC’s efforts to build greater awareness and appreciation of different cultural and religious beliefs in Singapore.

Said the district’s mayor Dr Maliki Osman: “We want to make sure that we don’t take our social cohesion and religious harmony for granted. We must make sure that Singaporeans appreciate that harmony.”

The temple itself reflects the multiracial nature of Singapore society. 

Dr Maliki noted that when the temple was being rebuilt in 2003, it had donors not only from the Hindu community, but also the Muslim and Christian communities.

Deepavali, also known as Diwali or Festival of Lights, marks the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness.

In a Facebook post on Saturday morning, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wished all who celebrate the Festival of Lights a Happy Deepavali.

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China's Communist Party refers to Xi Jinping as party's 'core'

BEIJING: China’s ruling Communist Party on Thursday declared that President Xi Jinping is the party’s “core”, a title he had not previously had, putting him in a more powerful position ahead of a key congress next autumn.

A statement released by the party following a four-day meeting of top party leaders in Beijing, and carried by state media, referred to Xi as “core of the party centre”.

Xi is also head of the party and the military, as well as being head of state.

Late Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping coined the phrase “core” leader. Deng said Mao Zedong, himself and Jiang Zemin were core leaders, meaning they had almost absolute authority and should not be questioned.

But Xi had yet to assume that mantle.

Since assuming office almost four years ago, Xi has rapidly consolidated power, including heading a group leading economic reform and appointing himself commander-in-chief of the military, though as head of the Central Military Commission he already controls the armed forces.

The plenum meeting which has just ended paves the way for a once-every-five-years congress in the second half of next year, at which Xi will further consolidate his power and could give a clue as to who may replace him at the 2022 congress.

A new Standing Committee, the pinnacle of power in China consisting at present of seven people, will be announced at the congress.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Benjamin Kang Lim, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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OCBC posts 5% jump in Q3 profit, beating expectations

SINGAPORE: The Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp (OCBC) beat estimates with a 5 per cent rise in quarterly profit in the third quarter of the year, helped by gains from its insurance and wealth management units, according to its financial results released on Thursday (Oct 27).

However, the bank warned of a challenging operating environment. The city-state’s lenders must contend with growing risks to earnings as credit woes deepen for the offshore services sector, which has been hit hard by a drop-off in orders due to a near-two year rout in oil prices until early this year.

Net profit for Singapore’s second-biggest bank came in at S$ 943 million in the third quarter as its insurance and wealth management business powered a 25 per cent climb in non-interest income.

The result handily beat expectations for a decline in profit with the average estimate at S$ 834 million from five analysts polled by Reuters.

But provisions for bad debt jumped almost 11 per cent to S$ 166 million, while net interest income dropped 6 per cent due to lower loan volumes and a weaker net interest margin.

“We continue to keep a firm grip on cost, maintain strong liquidity and capital, and ensure prudent levels of provisioning,” OCBC Chief Executive Samuel Tsien said in a statement.

Offshore firms that have said they are struggling with debt payments include oilfield services company Swiber Holdings, which was placed under judicial management this month.

Signs of weakness in a trade-dependent economy and the domestic property market are also further squeezing loan demand.  

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Jermaine Pennant to leave Tampines Rovers

SINGAPORE: Former Arsenal and Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant will be leaving S.League side Tampines Rovers at the end of the season, he confirmed on Thursday (Oct 27). The announcement comes nine months after he was unveiled as the S.League’s biggest acquisition.

“I wasn’t offered a new contract, and wasn’t offered a new figure,” he said to the media. “I guess they realised they wouldn’t have been able to (offer a good deal) and would have been less than half of what they’ve been paying. I guess they realised I wouldn’t have been able to accept it. It is understandable … it is what it is.”

Pennant hinted that he is not the only one getting the axe. “Not only me, but quite a number of players are not coming back to Tampines Rovers next season. It’s a sad time, as the team has gelled so well. I think if the chairman could add a few more players to our team, we might even win the league or make it to the final of the AFC Cup. It’s just sad that things have had to end the way they have after starting so well.”

He added that he was “quite happy” with the way Rovers performed this season. “As a team, we finished 2nd and just 1 point behind Albirex Niigata in the S.League, made it to a Cup Final and narrowly missed out on the semi-final of the AFC Cup. We were unlucky, in those few games we would have won and we could have been champions.”

As for what’s next, he said his next destination “would probably be  the Championship back home in England”. “The team I can’t really say because I don’t want to jinx anything. I’d probably look at some offers in Europe as well. It would either be clubs in Europe or in the UK, so we’ll see.”

Saturday’s Singapore Cup final is likely to be Pennant’s final appearance for the Stags. 

The 33-year-old joined Tampines Rovers in January to much fanfare. Back then, he was hailed as the player that would reignite supporters passion for the S League. Pennant scored five goals in 21 S.League appearances this season. 

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Philippines' Duterte softens stance toward US before Japan visit

TOKYO: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte softened his remarks about a “separation” from long-time ally the United States on the eve of a visit to Japan, a country worried about Manila’s apparent pivot away from Washington and towards China.

“The alliances are alive,” Duterte told Japanese media in Manila on Monday, Kyodo News reported. “There should be no worry about changes of alliances. I do not need to have alliances with other nations.”

The remarks will be welcomed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants to keep ties with the Philippines tight during Duterte’s visit to Japan, starting on Tuesday.

Duterte jolted the region last week on a trip to China when he announced a realignment toward Beijing, the latest in a series of outbursts against the United States.

Duterte’s aides and the president himself later tried to clarify that he did not mean he was cutting ties with the United States and his remarks on Monday were the most conciliatory yet.

Duterte told Japanese media he had been expressing a personal opinion, not speaking for the government when he mentioned separating from Washington, the Nikkei newspaper said. He said he only plans to have an “alliance of trade and commerce” with China, Kyodo reported.

Abe, who has sought to strengthen ties with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries as a counter-balance to a rising Beijing, will be trying to wed Manila to Tokyo’s side without prompting a backlash that pushes it closer to China.

“It’s certainly unfortunate and we are worried, but such things will not change Japan’s commitment to the Philippines,” said Narushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and former defence official, referring to Duterte’s comments.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, after talking to his Philippine counterpart on Sunday, is confident the two countries can “work through” a period of confusion caused by Duterte’s remarks the State Department said.

Japanese officials said Abe would not overtly try to mediate between Tokyo and Washington.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida will meet Duterte on Tuesday for a low-key dinner, and Abe will hold rare one-on-one talks with Duterte at his residence in Tokyo the next evening following a larger, more formal meeting with senior officials.

“I don’t think he has any negative feeling toward Japan,” said a senior Japanese government official. “We are confident the visit to Japan will produce good results.”

Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino angered China by lodging a case with an arbitration court in the Hague challenging the legitimacy of Beijing’s maritime claims in the resource-rich South China Sea.

A ruling earlier this year emphatically favoured Manila but was rejected by China, which has repeatedly warned the United States and Japan to stay out of the dispute.

Duterte told the Japanese media that at some point Manila would have to talk with Beijing about the international court’s ruling, the Nikkei said. He said China and the Philippines had agreed not to discuss the matter in his initial trip to China.

(Additional reporting by William Mallard; Editing by Grant McCool and Lincoln Feast)

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Consumer prices fall for 23rd straight month in September, but pace still slowing

SINGAPORE: Consumer prices fell further in September, marking the 23rd straight month of decline, according to data released by the Department of Statistics on Monday (Oct 24).

The consumer price index (CPI) fell 0.2 per cent last month, compared to 0.3 per cent the month before, which mainly reflected the smaller decline in private road transport costs and, to a lesser extent, higher food inflation, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said in a joint statement.

Private road transport costs fell by 0.4 per cent, moderating from the 1 per cent decline the previous month, largely due to a smaller drop in petrol prices. 

Accommodation costs went down 3.7 per cent, continuing on from August’s 3.6 per cent drop, amid continued softness in the housing rental market. 

Food prices rose 2.2 per cent in September, up from August’s 2 per cent, due to a steeper rise in the cost of non-cooked food. Price increases for prepared meals remained stable though, the press release said. 

Services inflation was 1.5 per cent, from 1.7 per cent the month before. This reflected a fall in public road transport cost, in addition to a smaller increase in telecommunication services fees, with the slower pace of increase largely due to the discounts offered during the various consumer electronic fairs held that month. 

Core inflation, which excludes the costs of accommodation and private road transport, fell slightly to 0.9 per cent from 1 per cent in August, largely due to the lower services inflation which offsets the stronger pickup in food prices, the press release said.

MAS and MTI said they expect core inflation to average 1 per cent this year, before rising to 1 to 2 per cent next year, driven by energy-related costs.

However, ANZ Bank economist Weiwen Ng said he disagrees and expects core inflation to remain subdued, because of the weak growth outlook and soft property market. He added that inflation has bottomed out and he expects inflation to increase. He warned that the cost of driving might also rise.

“I think, going forward, what people can look out for is petrol prices, given that oil prices have been hovering above US$ 50, compared to US$ 30 at the start of this year,” said Mr Ng.

“So, definitely, higher petrol prices will come into play. And other administrative measures such as the higher carpark charges, expiry of the rebates, I think all these will come into play.”

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StarHub fibre broadband service suffers second outage in 2 days

SINGAPORE: Customers of telco StarHub took to social media to air their frustrations about a second fibre broadband service outage on Monday evening (Oct 24), two days after the first outage.

Singer Taufik Batisah was among the StarHub customers who joined in the chorus of complaints, commenting that they had to rely on their mobile data for their Internet connection instead.


In response to queries by Channel NewsAsia, a StarHub spokesperson said: “We are aware that some broadband customers are facing difficulties accessing the internet. We are looking into this right now, and will provide our customers with updates through our Facebook page.”

In a post on its Facebook page on Tuesday at 1.25am, StarHub said that at about 11.20pm on Monday, it rectified a network equipment issue that had temporarily affected their residential broadband service since about 10pm the same day.

“We are currently investigating the root cause of this incident. We have been monitoring the service in the past two hours to ensure it remains stable for our customers, and thank everyone for their patience and understanding.”

StarHub had also attributed Saturday’s outage to a “network equipment issue”, which it fixed at 2am on Sunday.

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Philippines says to keep US ties but will not be subservient

MANILA: The United States remains the “closest friend” of the Philippines but Manila wants to break away from a “mindset of dependency and subservience” and forge closer ties with other nations, the Philippine foreign minister said on Saturday (Oct 22).

The comments by Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay came two days after President Rodrigo Duterte announced his “separation” from Washington, though he went on to strike a more conciliatory tone on Friday.

Yasay said in a Facebook posting that Duterte had “unmistakably” stated that severing ties with Washington was not in the nation’s interest.

However, he wrote that separation “implies breaking away from the debilitating mindset of dependency and subservience – economically and militarily – that have perpetuated our ‘little brown brother’ image to America, which has stunted our growth and advancement.”

He said Duterte had told Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders during a visit to Beijing that “if they are not willing to lend their support… the Filipinos will chart their destiny alone, despite great odds.”

Yasay’s posting is the latest sign of an administration once again scrambling to put out fires after Duterte’s stunning declarations, which if delivered upon could upset the geopolitical balance in a region where China and the United States are vying aggressively for influence.

On Friday, Duterte’s economic managers were quick to clarify the Philippines was not cutting economies and trade ties with the United States.

Prior to Duterte taking office in late June, China was a bitter rival of the Philippines, and Manila was one of Washington’s most dependable Asian allies.

Duterte’s efforts to engage China, months after a tribunal in the Hague ruled that Beijing did not have historic rights to the South China Sea in a case brought by the previous administration in Manila, marks a reversal in foreign policy since the 71-year-old former mayor took office on June 30.

“It is not severance of ties. When you say severance of ties, you cut diplomatic relations. I cannot do that,” Duterte told reporters at a midnight news conference in his southern home city of Davao after he arrived from his four-day trip to Beijing.

Duterte’s abrupt pivot from Washington to Beijing is unlikely to be universally popular at home, however. On Tuesday, an opinion poll showed Filipinos still trust the United States far more than China.

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