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Taliban kills eight soldiers at army HQ in northern Afghanistan

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan: At least eight Afghan soldiers were killed and 11 wounded on Friday when Taliban gunmen dressed in uniforms talked their way past checkpoints and attacked a military headquarters in northern Afghanistan, officials said.

The attack occurred near a mosque on the base in Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, as soldiers were leaving Friday prayers, said army spokesman Nasratullah Jamshidi.

Six attackers in two military vehicles told guards at the base gates that they were carrying wounded soldiers and urgently needed to get in, he said.

After killing at least eight soldiers and wounding 11 others with rocket-propelled grenades and guns, one attacker was killed and the other five arrested, Jamshidi said.

The Western-backed Afghan government is locked in a prolonged war with Taliban insurgents as well as other militant groups.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the fighters set off an explosion, allowing suicide bombers armed with small arms to breach the base.

“Our fighters have inflicted heavy casualties on the Afghan army stationed there,” he said.

Other army officials confirmed that the attackers entered the base in disguise.

The base is the headquarters for the Afghan National Army’s 209th Corps, which covers most of northern Afghanistan, including Kunduz province where there has been heavy fighting.

A number of German and other foreign soldiers are based in Mazar-i-Sharif, including about 70 who advise the corps headquarters as part of a NATO-led multinational mission to advise and train the Afghan security forces.

German military says no German or international troops were involved in the attack.

“To our knowledge, no Germans were affected. Nor were any other soldiers in the multinational force harmed,” said a spokesman for the German Operations Command.

The NATO command in Kabul called the attack “murderous and reprehensible”.

(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Alison Williams)

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Local flavours, higher necklines and longer shorts: Hooters adapts to Asian tastes

SINGAPORE: US restaurant chain Hooters is aiming for a bigger share of the food and beverage market in Asia and to do so, it is willing to adapt to the tastes and demands of the region.

Led by Bangkok-based franchisee Destination Group, the ambitious expansion plan will see more than 30 new Hooters restaurants across Asia over the next few years. This year, it has unveiled two outlets in Singapore and one in Jakarta. This adds to the four restaurants in Thailand and one in Hong Kong, which opened in 2015.

According to Mr Neil Bailey, the president of Hooters Asia, the company will remain on an “aggressive” expansion path, given the encouraging results thus far. The new restaurants in Singapore, which opened in the first quarter of 2017, have seen good takings, with its 100-seater outlet at Marina Bay exceeding expectations.

Hooters – known for its attractive female staff who wear the uniform of tight white tank tops and skimpy orange shorts while serving chicken wings and drinks – made its foray into Asia in 1996 when another franchisee set up the first Hooters restaurant in Singapore.

The outlet, which remains in Clarke Quay, underwent a revamp last year to celebrate its 20th anniversary and is the only outlet in Singapore that does not come under Destination Group.

The outlet at Fusionopolis opened for business in March. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

With skimpily clad waitresses being a core part of the restaurant chain’s image, the expansion of Hooters in largely traditional Asia faces some hurdles. To garner a bigger slice of the burgeoning Asian market, Mr Bailey told Channel NewsAsia that the American diner is willing to make adjustments.

“We are still Hooters but we recognise that if we want to be a part of the community, we have to adapt to be embraced. So, as opposed to the attitude of ‘We are here and get used to it’, we say ‘We’d like to be here. Is this acceptable?’”

At its newly unveiled outlet in Jakarta, for instance, there have been minor modifications. While it largely mimics most of the chain’s other 420 restaurants in the US and worldwide, Mr Bailey describes it as having a “family restaurant experience”.

Apart from a halal menu that offers kids’ meals and local flavours such as sambal sauce, the outlet is fitted with high chairs, booster seats and a tinted glass window that blocks the view of the bar from the main street. Uniforms of its waitresses, otherwise known as Hooters Girls, will have higher necklines, longer skirts with shorts underneath and thicker stockings.

“We want to be culturally respectful,” said Mr Bailey, adding that the management team reached out to local officials and community leaders before the outlet in Kemang opened for business.

“We sat down with members of the local governing boards and advisers of a mosque nearby. We showed them our website and said: ‘This is who we are. We know this is not acceptable so what would be acceptable?’ They gave us some suggestions and we asked for some time to work on them.”

Mr Neil Bailey, president of Hooters Asia, is leading the American restaurant chain’s ambitious expansion plan across Asia. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

For now, the new uniforms remain in the works and will be rolled out in due course.

“We are still talking and engaging with the local community. In fact, when we opened the outlet, the senior community leaders came and we had dinner together,” added Mr Bailey, who emphasised that adapting to distinct conditions of each market is a critical ingredient for success.

“Hooters of America was worried (that modifications would dilute the brand) but we didn’t have to take long to convince them. You can’t just come in with the mindset of ‘I’m here now so accept it’. It’s about adapting to your environment and knowing that you are the guest. When you recognise that, they will welcome you like any new neighbour.”

With the successful opening in Indonesia, Hooters is confident of replicating this in neighbouring market Malaysia, where it has received interest from prospective landlords.

“Since we opened in Jakarta, landlords in Kuala Lumpur have reached out to us now that we have a good business model that we can present in a respectful way,” said Mr Bailey. “We think we can be ready by early next year.”

The restaurant in Kemang, Jakarta, opened for business on Mar 24. (Photo: Hooters Asia)

Apart from Kuala Lumpur, the company has also set its sights on Taipei, Manila, Koh Samui and Phnom Penh. Among those, Mr Bailey thinks Cambodia will be the most challenging market. 

“Cambodia has a very reserved culture, even compared with Indonesia, and it is still a developing economy,” he said. “Our mid- to high-level pricing is not a barrier in developed cities but in an emerging market, we do notice that it’s not as easy to fill the restaurant. But if we want to be a brand throughout Asia, we cannot cherry pick.”

IS HOOTERS’ RECIPE OF SEX APPEAL OUTDATED?

Hooters’ plan to increase its presence in this part of the world comes as the American diner faces souring profits and market share back home amid up-and-coming competitors such as Twin Peaks.

Since opening its first outlet in Florida in 1983, the restaurant chain has long been criticised for building its brand based on sex appeal.

When asked whether he thinks that Hooters’ concept is outdated and sexist, Mr Bailey said: “Good food and good quality service – these are at the heart of Hooters. I would like to think of us as a five-star hotel where you know what you are getting – big screens showing sports, ice-cold beer and wings.”

“The Hooters Girl is iconic. She is a professional who may be earning extra money for college or working hard to (become) a general manager. Waitresses, pretty or sexy, are professional service staff who give you a great experience.”

But one might ask what does good service have to do with skimpy uniforms?

To that, Mr Bailey replied: “The uniform has (been) altered over the last 30 years of the brand … and if you think this is dressing sexy, you might want to walk down Orchard Road on a Saturday. I think this is attractive, feminine and I don’t think this is overly sexualised in my opinion.”

In fact, all Hooters Girls are not allowed to don accessories, including earrings, bracelets and necklaces, to avoid “overly sexualising her image”. The chief of Hooters Asia also revealed that the main criteria for a Hooters Girl is a “vivacious, outgoing character” and the ability to dance. Apart from waitressing, female staff at Hooters also perform choreographed dances.

According to Mr Bailey, Hooters Girls enjoy “premium pay”, such as S$ 20 per hour for part timers and free gym memberships.

Ms Kelwen Liew, 21, says she likes the “fun, lively working environment” at Hooters. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

Twenty-one-year-old Kelwen Liew, who is working part time at Hooters, said she had reservations initially but the “fun, lively working environment” has since made her change her mind.

“I’ve heard people talking about how (we) are dressed skimpily but I don’t think so. We have stockings which provide some coverage and even the top is nothing too revealing for me,” the polytechnic graduate said. “To people who have a bad impression of Hooters, I would say it’s not what you think. The work environment is lively and fun, and people I’ve encountered so far treat us with a lot of respect.”

Follow See Kit on Twitter @SeeKitCNA 

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Singapore researchers turn water into 'virtual lemonade'

SINGAPORE: It looks like lemonade, tastes like lemonade, but it is simply water.

Researchers in Singapore say they have invented a “virtual lemonade”, using electrodes to mimic the flavour of the beverage and LED lights to imitate its colour, that could one day allow people to digitally share drinks over the Internet.

“We are primarily motivated by the fact that our current digital interactions are not supportive for sharing beverages and food, which is something very common in our everyday lives,” said Nimesha Ranasinghe, who led the team that did the research.

The team conducting the research at the NUS-Keio CUTE Center, a collaboration between the National University of Singapore and Japan’s Keio University, decided to focus on the sour taste of lemonade to prove their idea.

A sensor dipped into a glass of real lemonade collects data on its acidity and colour, which is transmitted via Bluetooth to silver electrode strips on the rim of a tumbler.

The action of a drinker running their tongue over the strip in taking a sip causes the electrodes to simulate the sour taste, while a light-emitting diode (LED) flashes yellow.

The technology can also simulate bitter and salty sensations, Ranasinghe said, adding that it could help people on restricted diets who need to cut back on salt or calories.

“We can even help the people who want to cut down their calorie intake,” she added. “If he craves lemonade, and can have a virtual lemonade, he can get the same experience, but zero calories.”

Still, the design needs some improvement, said student Genevieve Low, a volunteer who participated in tests of the drink.

“I think it’s definitely the way the tongue touches the cup, because no one would, sub-consciously or consciously, put their tongue onto the electrode and then drink the water,” she said in a recent test round.

Another volunteer student, Wang Pan, was surprised by the taste.

“I was imagining the electronic taste, but it’s actually quite real to me because it’s really mild, like mild-sweet. It’s less sour than the real lemonade,” she said. 

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Approval for Duterte's drug war slips in Philippines

MANILA: Satisfaction in the Philippines with President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs declined in the first quarter this year, a survey showed on Wednesday, with opinions split about police accounts that the drug suspects they killed had resisted arrest.

Seventy-eight percent of 1,200 people surveyed by Social Weather Stations (SWS) said they were satisfied by the government’s crackdown on illegal drugs, down from 85 percent in a similar poll in December last year.

The number of dissatisfied respondents rose from eight percent to 12 percent.

Almost 9,000 people, many small-time users and dealers, have been killed in the Philippines since Duterte took office on June 30. Police say about a third of the victims were shot by officers in self-defence during legitimate operations.

Human rights monitors believe many of the remaining two thirds were killed by paid assassins operating with police backing or by police disguised as vigilantes – an accusation the police deny.

A Reuters special report published on Tuesday cited two senior law enforcement officials saying the police had received cash for executing drug suspects, planted evidence and had carried out most of the killings they had blamed on vigilantes.

Reuters was unable to independently verify if the police are behind vigilante killings.

The SWS survey on the anti-drugs campaign included questions on “extrajudicial killings”, a term the government and police strongly object to, insisting no such killings have taken place.

The latest poll was conducted from March 25 to 28 and showed 73 percent of Filipinos were worried that they, or someone they know, would be a victim of extrajudicial killing.

Ninety-two percent said it was important authorities captured drug suspects alive rather than killed them.

About a fifth of respondents felt police were “probably” telling the truth about circumstances behind their killing of drug suspects, while 14 percent believed they were “definitely” lying.

Forty-four percent of respondents were undecided. Those who said they “definitely” believed police were truthful fell from nine percent in December to six percent in the latest survey.

“This is a black eye for the Philippine National Police,” said Ramon Casiple, head of the Institute for Electoral and Police Reforms.

“I don’t think this will impact on the president, it’s more on the police whose members were seen and perceived to be more involved in crimes and in the killings. They should do more and convince the public about reforms not by words but by actions.”

Asked by reporters about the fall in satisfaction rating for the anti-drugs campaign, Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said: “There seems to be consistency in the way the public appreciates the efforts.”

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty, Robert Birsel)

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Small countries like Singapore, Switzerland must cooperate in fintech: Swiss Finance Minister

SINGAPORE: Singapore and Switzerland are not competitors when it comes to the development of financial technology (fintech) and with both countries being small financial hubs, it is important to cooperate, said Swiss Finance Minister Ueli Maurer.

Mr Maurer was speaking to Channel NewsAsia after his tour of Lattice80 – a not-for-profit fintech hub located along Robinson Road – on Tuesday (Apr 18). The minister is in Singapore as part of a week-long trip in Asia and was leading a 20-member delegation, which comprised of representatives from the Swiss banking industry.

“It is important to have good relationships and today is a step to network between the two countries… I think it is important that small countries (which) are important financial centres have this network and understand the need to cooperate,” he said.

“We are not competitors (and) we can cooperate together.”

Last year, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (Finma) signed a cooperation agreement to foster greater cooperation on fintech.

Mr Maurer noted that Singapore’s fintech scene is on a “high level” and there are learning points for Switzerland, such as in the case of consumer protection. “We are a little bit not in the same speed like you… but I think we can go step by step.”

The minister also noted that Singapore’s fintech sector benefits from its close proximity to a big Asian market, and can act as a stepping stone into Asia for Swiss fintech start-ups. For Singapore firms looking to expand into Europe, Switzerland can similarly do the same.

Swiss Finance Minister Ueli Maurer listens to a presentation at Lattice80. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

“Singapore’s fintech (sector) is on a high level and we have to learn from you… We can continue this sense of cooperation between Singapore and Switzerland,” Mr Maurer said. 

Lattice80 is one of the organisations that the Swiss delegation is visiting during their time in Singapore. Launched in November 2016, more than 80 foreign and local fintech firms have taken up spaces at Lattice80, which is dubbed the world’s largest fintech hub by Singapore-based private investment group Marvelstone.

Ms Gina Heng, co-founder of Lattice80 and CEO of Marvelstone Group, noted that European start-up founders are among those who have taken up residence at the fintech hub as they view Singapore as the first step for their ventures in Asia.

“They see this as a central location to kick-start their companies. There’s good infrastructure and legal system, with a supportive government. We are also near to many countries which which makes it easier in terms of outreach,” she said.

A report by Deloitte dated September 2016 listed Singapore among the top fintech hubs globally, citing a business-friendly environment, adequate government support and access to expertise.

The report did not rank the 21 fintech hubs that were evaluated. Instead, it assessed the countries based on three main factors –  the Global Innovation index, the Global Financial Centre index and the Doing Business index – and both Singapore and London scored the best score of 10. Switzerland scored 42, coming in behind Silicon Valley, New York and Hong Kong.

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Caldecott Hill in the limelight at this year’s Singapore Heritage Festival

SINGAPORE: Did you know that years before Zoe Tay became the Queen of Caldecott Hill, there was already a royalty of sorts in the area?

During the 1800s, a merchant named Seah Eu Chin – who was known as the King of Pepper and Gambier – had set up plantation houses and grew crops in the area.

Mediacorp’s former home will be in the limelight at this year’s Singapore Heritage Festival (SHF), which is turning up the glitz and glamour by holding one of its main events at Caldecott Broadcast Centre.

This year’s edition, which comprises 110 programmes and activities, will run over three weekends from April 28 to May 14. 

The SHF’s Caldecott Hill events will take place over the first two weekends. Visitors will be treated to a festival village with a flea market and food stalls, as well as guided tours by television stars and crew. There will also be a performance by Cake Theatrical Productions titled Studio 6, which revisits some of Mediacorp’s famous shows such as The Little Nyonya, Under One Roof, and Growing Up.

The exhibition TV50 – which looks at Singapore’s broadcast history and culture from the 1960s and was previously shown at the National Museum of Singapore – will also be presented. At some point, stars from Mediacorp’s upcoming blockbuster Channel 8 drama The Lead are planning to drop by.

A set at Caldecott Broadcast Centre’s Studio 6, where many shows were filmed. (Photo: Yeo Kai Ting)

The historic Caldecott Hill is the first location for the festival’s new SHF Takes Over! programme.

“Through the years, we’ve seen how people have been very excited to be brought to new places or spaces they don’t normally get to go to, so we decided to try out this new initiative,” said Christie Chua, the festival’s creative director.

Caldecott was a perfect and timely choice as a first location. “Last year, we found out that most of Mediacorp was already moving (to the new Mediacorp Campus), so we thought this was a very good place to bring people.”

She also pointed out it was a place rich in history. Aside from being the site of pepper and gambier plantations, the area was also named after Andrew Caldecott, a British colonial administrator (hence, Andrew Road). In the 1930s, the first broadcasting station by the British Malayan Broadcasting Corporation was set up, which would morph into Radio Television Singapore, Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, Television Corporation of Singapore, and, eventually, Mediacorp.

After 80 years at Caldecott Hill, Mediacorp recently completed its move to its new Mediacorp Campus in one-north. (Photo: Calvin Oh)

FROM ZOE TO ZOO, AND MORE

Aside from Caldecott Hill, another unusual place the festival will head for is the Singapore Zoo, where there will be a trail, where people can learn more about some of its “heritage” occupants, such as Inuka the polar bear, Omar the white tiger, Komali the elephant and Astove the giant tortoise.

Introducing events that look at the world of broadcast and entertainment, as well as animals, is a way of expanding one’s idea of what heritage is all about, said Chua.

“That’s what we want to share with people; that after all these years, these are part of our heritage and the whole mind map of Singapore.”

One of the Singapore Zoo’s most senior occupants, the polar bear Inuka, is in the heritage spotlight this year. (Photo: Reuters)

SHF events will also take place at areas such as Little India, Bukit Pasoh, the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) and along the Singapore River.

At Little India, there will be events such as a Ramayana performance, food trails with celebrity chefs, among others. Meanwhile, the clans and associations at Bukit Pasoh will also be participating in various events, and there will be a special focus on Ann Siang Hill. Among the shows are a Taiwanese puppet group.

The Satay Club. (Photo: National Archives Singapore)

The Asian Civilisations Museum will be the focal point of events along the Singapore River on the final weekend, where hawker culture – including a nod to the Empress Place Food Centre and the Satay Club in the vicinity – will be revived through installations and exhibitions. Across the river, the Fullerton Hotel will be holding a performance tour through its area.

Meanwhile, the NMS will also look at other unique places in its festival-related events. Among these is a multimedia exhibition of works by mural artist Yip Yew Chong. Known for his murals found in Kampong Glam and Tiong Bahru, these will be given an animated touch at the museum’s Gallery 10 space.

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Many feared buried as hopes dim after Sri Lanka garbage dump landslide

COLOMBO: Hopes faded on Sunday for the survival of an estimated 100 people trapped under the mud and debris of a landslide at a giant rubbish dump in the Sri Lankan capital.

Police say the known death toll from the disaster has risen to 26 and emergency workers are to resume their search on Monday after halting late on Sunday night.

The 300-foot-high (90-metre) dump in the Meethotamulla area on the border of the commercial heart of Colombo collapsed after flames engulfed it late on Friday, the nation’s new year’s day, burying many homes.

Military spokesman Roshan Senivirathna told Reuters that survival was “very unlikely” but the rescue mission involving more than 1,000 emergency workers from defence establishments would continue.

Authorities are struggling to ascertain the exact number of missing people.

Liyanage Menaka, who lost her house in the disaster, urged the government to provide homes for those who live in danger around the country’s biggest garbage pile.

“The lives of more than 100 are lost. What we are asking is (that they) give us a solution and take care of our kids,” she told Reuters.

President Maithripala Sirisena has instructed the authorities to ensure financial resources are not an obstacle in the relief operation, his office said in a statement.

The police said they were investigating whether the landslide was natural or man-made. They also said about 145 houses had been damaged.

Residents of the area, mostly living in shanties, had been demanding the removal of the dump, saying it was causing health problems. The government had said it would remove it soon, under an infrastructure plan.

(Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

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