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Mayor of China's Chongqing steps down, paving way for promotion

BEIJING: The mayor of the major southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing has stepped down, the government said on Friday, paving the way for a promotion to a more senior position, possibly alongside Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing.

Sources told Reuters earlier this year that mayor Huang Qifan was tipped to replace Yang Jing as secretary-general of the State Council, or cabinet, making him Li’s right-hand man to help tackle a stalling economy.

The cabinet secretary-general helps the premier oversee the entire spectrum of portfolios, from the economy to finance, industry, agriculture, energy, the environment, state planning and technology.

The Chongqing government said in a brief statement it had approved Huang’s request to step down, without giving other details or saying where he might go next.

It named deputy mayor Zhang Guoqing as Chongqing’s acting mayor.

Huang is widely respected as an expert on financial and economic affairs, appearing frequently as a commentator in domestic media.

He is also a political survivor, weathering a scandal in 2012 which clipped the wings of his high-flying and flamboyant boss, Bo Xilai, then Chongqing party secretary and a member of the party’s decision-making Politburo.

Bo was sentenced to life in prison in 2013 for corruption and abuse of power.

In China, the downfall of a senior politician can often spell the same fate for his closest allies.

Chongqing’s current party boss, who outranks the mayor, is Sun Zhengcai, a man tipped for top national leadership.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait)

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Slow start, but future remains bright for ASEAN Economic Community: Analysts

SINGAPORE: Saturday (Dec 31) will mark the first year anniversary of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).

Conceived as a single market and production base, the AEC is part of broader efforts to integrate ASEAN economies. But one year on from its inception, about 74 per cent of Singapore companies polled in a recent Singapore Business Federation (SBF) survey said they do not think the AEC has benefited them.

Associate Professor Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), said bigger companies have the capabilities to take advantage of opportunities from the AEC, but smaller business may not be so well equipped to do so.

“So the big test in the longer term will be whether the SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) will be able to also play across the region,” he said. “And not just Singapore SMEs, (but also) Filipino SMEs, Indonesian SMEs.

“It will take some time because the integration is not just as deep. (There’s) still too much bureaucracy and rules standing in the way. The tariffs, I think are gone, but these non-tariff measures are almost like barriers to deeper integration.”

RHTLaw Taylor Wessing’s deputy managing partner Azman Jaafar agreed that the lack of resources is a stumbling block for smaller companies. However, he added that it “just means that you have to be a little more ingenious”.

IMPORTANT TO CHANGE MINDSET                             

ASEAN’s market of more than 600 million people, and almost US$ 3 trillion in combined GDP, represents vast opportunities for companies from the city-state of Singapore. But Mr Azman, who is also chairman of the law firm’s ASEAN Plus Group, said local companies could have traditional business models that limits the extent of their expansion outside of Singapore. 

“Local SMEs who want to benefit from the AEC must rethink how they are doing their business, and how they should change their mind set, and apply quite different rules of engagement,” he said.

Governments can also help to change these attitudes. Said Assoc Prof Tay: “Sometimes, SMEs, not just in Singapore but other countries – they are really on the defensive. Say (they) don’t let people in, because I can’t compete in my own home market.

“I think increasingly, governments have got to reassure SMEs that as the AEC opens up, they will be given assistance by ASEAN, by governments on the whole, to also go out and become more competitive, become more efficient on the whole about boundaries.”

There is also the cultural diversity of the 10 member countries in ASEAN to consider, said Mr Azman. “When our local businesses are able to appreciate these differences, they are probably better placed to get into these markets,” he said.

LONG TERM OUTLOOK BRIGHT

Observers agree that it is premature to write off the AEC despite its slow start. “There’s a right to get a bit disappointed with the AEC in the first year,” said Assoc Prof Tay. “But what makes me slightly optimistic is that, at the national level, different key economies have already started to see the need for reform.”

Mr Azman emphasised that the push for the AEC to succeed must not come from just the governments, but other key stakeholders too. “It’s easy to say that the government has got to push this. But at the end of the day, a lot of things happens without government assistance.

“Within industries and within countries, if we keep discussing this, we open up the discussion across borders. This creates a level of awareness that’s very different from the level of awareness in a local forum.” 

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DPM Tharman to make working visit to India

SINGAPORE: Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam will be visiting New Delhi, India on Friday (Dec 30), the Prime Minister’s Office announced in a press release on Thursday. 

Mr Tharman – who is also Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies – will meet with Indian Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs Arun Jaitle during his trip to discuss revisions to the tax agreement governing Singapore investments in India, as well as ways to enhance bilateral economic cooperation, PMO said. 

Mr Tharman will be accompanied by officials from the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore and the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

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Please don't see my animated blockbuster, says Japan's 'new Miyazaki'

PARIS: Makoto Shinkai has a problem, a big problem. His mystical teenage body-swap movie “Your Name” has become such a massive hit it’s beginning to worry him.

“It’s not healthy,” the boyish director told AFP. “I don’t think any more people should see it.”

Every week it gets closer to being the biggest Japanese animated film of all time.

And now there’s talk of Oscars. “I really hope it doesn’t win,” he added.

It would be funny if Shinkai wasn’t so in earnest about getting off the promotional circuit and back to work. He just wants to get on with his next story about teched-up Japanese teens.

But the little animated film has become a runaway cultural juggernaut in Asia, and now it’s winning awards in the United States and Europe.

One in seven Japanese have already paid to see its brilliantly plotted supernatural love story about a boy and a girl who exchange bodies as a comet is about to hit the Earth.

Inevitably it has led to 43-year-old Shinkai being called the “new Miyazaki” – the natural successor to the now retired master animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose 2001 classic “Spirited Away” is still the most successful Japanese film ever. But the comparison makes the diminutive Shinkai even more uncomfortable.

“Of course I’m happy when people mention his name and mine in the same breath. It’s like a dream. But I know they are overpraising ‘Your Name’ because I am absolutely not at Miyazaki’s level.

“Honestly, I really don’t want Miyazaki to see it because he will see all its flaws.”

RAVE REVIEWS

Despite the rave reviews, Shinkai insists his film is not as good as it could have been – a refreshingly novel approach for the man who is supposed to be promoting it.

“There were things that we couldn’t do,” he said, explaining that his team of animators led by one of Miyazaki’s greatest disciples, Masahi Ando, wanted to keep working on it but with money running out he had to cry stop.

“For me it’s incomplete, unbalanced. The plot is fine but the film is not at all perfect. Two years was not enough.”

But Shinkai knew he had a hit on his hands when he showed it in Los Angeles before its Tokyo premiere. “The audience laughed then they sobbed… I had drawn a graph when I was making it about how the audience might react, and it was just like that.

“Obviously I was happy to see it worked but at the same time I was afraid that it had worked too well. I said to myself, ‘Damn, maybe I overdid it’.”

LAUGHING ABOUT SEXUALITY

More than anything, the movie’s motor is the comedy Shinkai extracts from the hilarious gender swap set up, with its running gag of the horrified boy waking up in a girl’s body, and yet unable to stop himself feeling her breasts.

“I wanted to talk about the way we see sexuality now but in a funny way,” he said.

The ying and yang doesn’t end there. The story is set between the beautiful mountainous Nagano region where Shinkai grew up and Tokyo’s hyper modern megapolis.

It also plays on the tension of teenagers desperate to quit their small towns for the big city yet who are still entranced by the beauty of age-old Japanese traditions.

“It is a film about memory, but also about losing memories,” said Shinkai, who adapted the story from his own novel. “It’s about individual memory and collective memory, the forgetting of a certain morality and sense of tradition.”

While he is resigned to the fact that the comparison with Miyazaki will haunt him forever, he insisted that they are very different.

To prove it he commissioned the Japanese J-rock group Radwimps – whose music you could see giving the old master tinnitus – to do the soundtrack.

Shinkai is also at pains to point out that although “the chemistry between Ando” and his other lead artist Masayoshi Tanaka was key to the film’s success, his team is no reboot of Miyazaki’s famous Studio Ghibli.

“I have never really sensed any of Miyasaki’s artistic influence on Ando. If there is an influence it’s more in his attitude to his work,” he said. “When Ando arrives in the studio he picks up his pen even before he gets a cup of tea, and he stays seated until the very last train at night.

“He hardly eats, just nibbles at little balls of rice at his desk. He hardly ever goes to the toilet.

“When I see him I see a monk in a monastery, and I say to myself that is perhaps how the people at Studio Ghibli work.”

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Singapore dollar to weaken further in uncertain 2017: Analysts

SINGAPORE: The Singapore dollar may have recovered some lost ground after hitting multi-year lows against the greenback last week, but this momentum is unlikely to be sustainable when the new year comes around, analysts told Channel NewsAsia.

Alongside most of the regional currencies, the Sing dollar has been on the back foot since Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the US presidential election shook the greenback out of a slump.

Compounded by the US Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates earlier this month, the local currency fell to 1.4509 versus the US dollar on Dec 22, hitting its weakest level since August 2009. The Sing dollar has since made mild gains and was last seen fluctuating between 1.4463 and 1.4497 on Tuesday (Dec 27).

However, market analysts said the greenback’s resurgence looks set to continue in 2017 on the back of expectations for a stronger economic recovery in the US and as the Fed flagged a faster-than-expected pace of rate hikes. That could deal Asian currencies a further blow.

“With further upside for the US dollar in 2017, we expect more weakening for the Sing dollar and in fact, weaker Asian currencies across the board with no exceptions,” ANZ’s senior FX strategist, Irene Cheung, said.

“The recent hike in US interest rates and the possibility of more aggressive rate hikes as indicated by the Fed will, for one, be underpinning the US dollar. Markets will also be looking out for the fiscal policies that Mr Trump has been advocating,” added Ms Cheung, referring to the President-elect’s fiscal stimulus proposals such as tax cuts that have been seen as bolstering US economic growth and inflation. “That will only be good for the US dollar.”

Apart from that, the incoming US President’s protectionist stance on trade will likely remain as a source of pressure for the Sing dollar and other currencies of export-dependent economies in Asia. Since the US elections, the Sing dollar has fallen 3.5 per cent against the greenback while the South Korean won and Malaysian ringgit slumped around 5 per cent and 7 per cent respectively.

“On what the new US administration could announce on its trade policies with Asia and in particular, China, we are a little bit wary (as) the signs don’t appear to be good,” said Mr Julian Wee, senior markets strategist for Asia at the National Australia Bank (NAB).

For one, the appointment of Peter Navarro, an economist who has urged a hardline stance on trade with China, to head a newly formed trade council is “not a good sign”, Mr Wee added. “It is shaping up to an uncertain year ahead.”

In addition to external factors, the Sing dollar’s fortunes are also hamstrung by a growth deceleration in Singapore’s economy. For the third quarter, gross domestic product (GDP) slowed to 1.1 per cent on a year-on-year basis amid headwinds such as stubbornly weak external demand, and economists have grown increasingly pessimistic about growth prospects in the year ahead.

“If you look at the open economies globally, Singapore is one of the most vulnerable in a rising trade protectionism and anti-globalisation environment. Domestically, we are still in the transition phase for the Singapore economy so I think markets are pricing these in,” said Mr Saktiandi Supaat, head of FX research at Maybank Singapore. “Both externally and domestically, things are not looking too positive.”

In light of the double whammy, Mr Saktiandi expects the Sing dollar to “proceed towards 1.45 or be slightly above 1.45” by mid-2017, before stabilising around 1.43 at the end of the year.

ANZ’s Ms Cheung has a gloomier forecast, predicting that the currency will weaken more than 3 per cent to touch 1.50 – its lowest level since April 2009 – next year.

KNOCK-ON EFFECTS OF WEAK SING DOLLAR

Amid expectations for more Sing dollar woes, what will that mean for Singapore’s economy, businesses and the country’s monetary policy settings?

While a weakening currency is theoretically seen as a tailwind for the economy as exports get a leg-up in competitiveness, the boost may not quite materialise for Singapore, according to Nomura economist Brian Tan.

Noting the presence of “bigger factors” such as sluggish external demand and falling trade intensity that are weighing on Singapore’s exports, he said that a weaker Sing dollar “will not necessarily prove to be such a huge boost for exports”.

Meanwhile, import-intensive sectors and businesses with foreign-currency borrowings will begin feeling the heat as a limp local currency makes imports more expensive and makes their debts dearer in Sing dollar terms, Mr Tan added.

As to whether the weakening currency will sway central bank action, analysts are mostly opting to sit on the fence, citing various events that take place before the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s (MAS) next policy meeting in April 2017.

“There’s a possibility that the MAS could ease but we will be watching the events in early 2017, such as Donald Trump taking office. By then, we will have more clarity on what he will do for the US economy and global trade. We will also be looking at the Budget for any support to the economy on the fiscal front,” said Ms Cheung.

“So, it seems very much like an uncertain year ahead.”

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Singapore, Australia 'committed' to building new military training facilities in Queensland

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Australia’s Department of Defence (ADoD) “remain committed” to implementing a Memorandum of Understanding to expand Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training facilities in Queensland, Australia, MINDEF said on Tuesday (Dec 27).

Australian media have said farmers living near Townsville are unhappy over the land acquisition. ABC reported that while Australian authorities have yet to detail which properties will have to go, some cattle farmers said the area is prime grazing land and are suggesting other sites further west. At least 23 families have said they will not sell their land, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Responding to queries from Channel NewsAsia, MINDEF said on Tuesday that it “understands that the ADoD is consulting closely with the land owners on their concerns”. 

Up to 200,000 hectares of farmland will be used to build new, state-of-the-art military training facilities, jointly developed by Singapore and Australia. Construction is slated to begin in Queensland in 2019.

When the development in Townsville is complete, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will have a total training area in Australia equivalent to 10 times the size of Singapore, up from the current six times.

The SAF currently holds its annual Exercise Wallaby at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Rockhampton, which began 26 years ago. SAF’s presence in Australia will also grow from 6,600 to 14,000, and its personnel will spend 18 weeks per year in the country, up from six weeks at present.

Singapore has reportedly committed up to S$ 2.5 billion over the next 25 years to the project, which includes a live-firing range and an urban training facility.

MINDEF said it will continue to work closely with the ADoD on the development of the training areas.

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China's aircraft carrier to drill in Western Pacific

BEIJING: China’s first aircraft carrier will carry out drills in the Western Pacific, in what the navy called part of routine exercises, but amid renewed tension over self-ruled Taiwan that Beijing claims as its own.

The navy said in a statement late on Saturday the Liaoning, along with its accompanying fleet, would conduct “exercises far out at sea”, without giving details of the location or route, in what is likely its first blue-water drill far from home waters.

“This exercise is being carried out in accordance with annual exercise plans,” the navy said, in a statement also carried on the front page of the official People’s Liberation Army Daily.

China’s military has conducted its first ever live-fire drills using an aircraft carrier and fighters in the northeastern Bohai Sea close to Korea this month, and has more recently been in the East China Sea.

The navy showed pictures on its official microblog from the drills in the East China Sea, including J-15 carrier-borne fighter jets launching into the sky, overseen by navy chief Wu Shengli.

They conducted aerial refuelling and air combat exercises on Thursday, the navy said.

China’s growing military presence in the disputed South China Sea in particular has fuelled concern, with the United States criticising its militarisation of maritime outposts and holding regular air and naval patrols to ensure freedom of navigation.

The Western Pacific exercise comes amid new tension over self-ruled Taiwan, following U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s telephone call with the island’s president that upset Beijing.

China’s air force conducted long-range drills this month above the East and South China Seas, that rattled Japan and Taiwan. China said those exercises were also routine.

China’s Soviet-built Liaoning aircraft carrier has participated in previous military exercises, including some in the South China Sea, but China is years away from perfecting carrier operations similar to those the United States has practiced for decades.

Last December, the defence ministry confirmed China was building a second aircraft carrier, but its launch date is unclear. The aircraft carrier programme is a state secret.

Beijing could build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years, the Pentagon said in a report last year.

China’s successful operation of the Liaoning is the first step in what state media and some military experts believe will be the deployment of domestically built carriers by 2020.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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Singapore's manufacturing output up 11.9% in November

SINGAPORE: Industrial production in Singapore in November expanded at its fastest annual pace since March 2014, buoyed by strong electronics and pharmaceuticals output, data showed on Friday (Dec 23).

Manufacturing output in November jumped 11.9 per cent from a year earlier, data from the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) showed. The median forecast in a Reuters survey predicted a 1.6 per cent expansion.

Excluding biomedical manufacturing, output grew 6.4 per cent. 

On a month-on-month and seasonally-adjusted basis, industrial production rose 6.1 per cent in November, its strongest since January this year. The median forecast was for a contraction of 2.0 per cent. Excluding biomedical manufacturing, output grew 5.1 per cent month-on-month.

STRONG ELECTRONICS AND PHARMACEUTICALS OUTPUT

Output of the biomedical manufacturing cluster grew 34.8 per cent in November, compared to the same month last year, while the pharmaceuticals segment expanded 36.1 per cent. The growth was mainly due to a different mix of active pharmaceutical ingredients and biological products produced, said EDB. The medical technology segment also posted a growth of 30.8 per cent, with high export demand for medical instruments, it added. 

Meanwhile, the electronics cluster’s output increased 24.2 per cent in November on a year-on-year basis. According to EDB, growth in the cluster was largely attributed to the semiconductors segment, which grew 49.6 per cent.

Output of the precision engineering cluster grew 7.6 per cent, compared to a year ago. The machinery and systems segment grew 10 per cent as export demand for semiconductor-related equipment increased, while the precision modules and components segment recorded higher output of industrial rubber and dies, moulds, tools, jigs and fixtures. 

The chemicals cluster’s output rose 3.5 per cent, led by the petroleum segment which grew 22 per cent due to the low base effect last year as some plants shut down for maintenance, EDB said.

General manufacturing industries’ output declined 0.9 per cent year-on-year, mainly attributed to the miscellaneous industries and printing segments which contracted 4.5 per cent and 16.2 per cent respectively.  

The transport engineer cluster’s output shrank the most, contracting 14.8 per cent compared to the same month last year. The land transport segment grew 12.2 per cent, but this was offset by declines in the aerospace and marine and offshore engineering segments. Meanwhile, the marine and offshore engineering segment remained weak as the low oil price environment continued to affect rig building activities and demand for oilfield and gasfield equipment. 

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Singaporean man found dead in Riau Islands waters: Report

SINGAPORE: Indonesian police are investigating the death of a Singaporean man whose body was discovered in the Karimun Anak waters near the Riau Islands on Friday (Dec 23), according to a Jakarta Post report on Saturday. 

According to the Post, the man’s body was found in black trousers, a white shirt with “PSA Marine” written on it and boots. He was also found with an identification card giving his name as Ilzam bin Odit and birth date as Sep 8, 1963. His identification card stated that he lived in Sengkang. 

Karimun Police water police unit head First Inspector Sahata Sitorus was quoted by the Post as saying that the body, which was found by local fishermen, had been transferred to the Muhammad Sani General Hospital for a post-mortem examination. He also estimated that the body had floated in the sea for around two days.

“We have yet to identify the cause of the death and why the body was floating in the Karimun Anak water,” Sahata reportedly told the Post on Saturday.

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Philippines rights body to probe Duterte killing boast

MANILA: The Philippines’ independent rights watchdog said on Thursday (Dec 22) it will investigate President Rodrigo Duterte’s boasts he killed criminals years ago, invoking a strong rebuke from the Filipino leader against a United Nations official who called for the murder probe.

Duterte, who is waging an anti-drugs war that has left thousands dead, said last week that he helped police kill three suspected kidnappers early in the first of his several terms as mayor of the southern city of Davao.

UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said on Tuesday that Duterte’s killings, by his own admission, “clearly constitute murder” and Philippine judicial authorities must launch an investigation.

Duterte, known for his foul-mouthed outbursts, replied to Zeid’s call in a speech on Thursday with a stream of insults, describing the UN official as “either a joker or slightly unhinged” while stating that UN member-nations’ contributions pay the UN officials’ salaries.

Philippine Commission on Human Rights chief Jose Gascon said earlier on Thursday he had formed a team of investigators to look into alleged past killings by Duterte.

“Law enforcement agencies … must investigate as a matter of course any information that suggests that a crime may have been committed with the view to ensuring that perpetrators are ultimately held accountable should the evidence warrant it,” Gascon said in a statement.

The commission is an independent government body that prosecutes law enforcers or other officials who commit torture, extrajudicial killings or violate Filipinos’ constitutional rights.

NEW REVELATIONS

It had investigated then Davao mayor Duterte over allegations he ran death squads that killed more than a thousand petty criminals there.

Duterte has variously denied or confirmed the allegations. The commission did not file any criminal charges after completing its inquiry.

But Gascon said his agency had “reconstituted a team to further investigate (Davao death squads) to look into the new revelations and public admissions that may shed light on our previous findings.”

“The team will look into any matter that may further shed light on the killings in Davao that was the subject matter of our previous investigation.”

Duterte easily won presidential elections in May largely on a promise to eradicate illegal drugs in society by launching an unprecedented campaign in which tens of thousands of people would be killed.

More than 5,300 people have died since he took office in late June, including 2,124 at the hands of police. The commission has said it is investigating several cases where police were responsible.

Duterte insists police have not violated any law in killing drug suspects.

On Wednesday Duterte’s spokesman said his admission about the killing of three people referred to “legitimate police action” but did not address the fact the then mayor was not a police officer.

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