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Singapore economy logs 2.5% growth in Q1, higher than expectations

SINGAPORE: For the first quarter of 2017, Singapore’s gross domestic product (GDP) expanded by 2.5 per cent compared to the same period a year ago, advance estimates from the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) showed on Thursday (Apr 13).

That is higher than the median forecast of 2.4 per cent in a Reuters poll but marks a pullback from the previous quarter’s 2.9 per cent growth.

On a quarter-on-quarter, seasonally adjusted annualised basis, the economy shrank 1.9 per cent during the January to March period, coming in line with expectations. While the annualised GDP reading is a stark reversal from the stellar 12.3 per cent rebound last quarter, economists said it is not a cause for worry.

“The quarter-on-quarter figure tends to be very volatile. A mild pullback shouldn’t be a surprise given the manufacturing surge last quarter,” said Maybank Kim Eng economist Chua Hak Bin, referring to the strong turnaround in factory output towards the end of 2016 which provided a surprise lift to the overall economy.

For the first three months of 2017, Singapore’s manufacturing sector contracted 6.6 per cent on a quarter-on-quarter seasonally adjusted annualised basis, reversing from the 39.8 per cent surge in the previous quarter.

On a year-on-year basis, the sector moderated from growth of 11.5 per cent to 6.6 per cent, which according to Dr Chua is still a “very healthy reading”.

In other sectors, construction continued to underperform by shrinking 1.1 per cent year-on-year in the first quarter, extending the 2.8 per cent decline in the previous quarter on the back of a slowdown in private sector construction activities. On a quarter-on-quarter seasonally adjusted annualised basis, the sector expanded by 5.4 per cent, accelerating from the 0.8 per cent growth in the preceding quarter.

The services producing industries grew 1.5 per cent on a year-on-year basis in the first quarter, improving from growth of 1.0 per cent in the previous quarter. However, on a quarter-on-quarter basis, the sector shrank at an annualised rate of 2.2 per cent after expanding 8.4 per cent in the last quarter.

Such mixed figures show that the local services sector, which accounts for about two-thirds of the economy, continues to “punch below its weight”, said Mizuho Bank’s senior economist Vishnu Varathan.

“Anything related to the property or banking sector is not in high gear and with these uncertain (components), any recovery is not going to come as quickly as what we’ve seen in the manufacturing sector,” he told Channel NewsAsia. “Services will remain a lingering drag.”

MTI will release the revised GDP data for the first quarter, including performance by sectors, sources of growth, inflation, employment and productivity, in its Economic Survey of Singapore in May.

The advance GDP estimates are computed largely from data in the first two months of the quarter – in this case, January and February. They are intended as an early indication of GDP growth in the quarter and are subject to revision when more comprehensive data becomes available.

Private sector economists had forecast Singapore’s first-quarter GDP to be 2.6 per cent, according to the latest quarterly survey by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) in March. For the full year, economists raised their GDP forecast to 2.3 per cent – a sharp hike from the previous estimation of 1.5 per cent.

That marks a pick-up from the 2.0 per cent growth recorded in 2016, and would be in the upper half of the Government’s official 2017 GDP forecast range of 1 to 3 per cent.

Noting the growth figures, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore’s economy “did quite well in Q1” and that the “outlook is encouraging”.

In a Facebook post on Thursday evening, Mr Lee added that he met labour movement leaders during the week to find out “how things are in their different industries”. 

“They spoke about the challenges they are facing, the changes they foresee, and how they are helping workers cope,” he wrote.

Mr Lee added that he will talk about Singapore’s economy and job situation at the upcoming May Day Rally. 

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Veterans Zoe Tay and Chen Hanwei take home Star Awards' biggest prize

SINGAPORE: Back in 1988, three aspiring actors named Zoe Tay, Chen Hanwei and Aileen Tan joined a talent show organised by the then SBC (Singapore Broadcasting Corporation) 8. Tay and Tan were named winner and runner-up of that inaugural Star Search, with Chen finishing as a finalist.  All three signed on to become artistes.

Twenty-nine years later, the veteran actors have emerged as the biggest winners of the Mediacorp Star Awards, taking home the coveted Best Actress for Tay, Best Actor for Chen and Best Supporting Actress for Tan.

The Star Awards, which was held on Sunday (Apr 16) at the MES Theatre, is the annual Singapore award show that recognises and celebrates the best and brightest of local Mandarin television. 

“This is the very first time since that very first Star Search that all three of us have won awards together!” said Tay in Mandarin backstage after her win. “So today is very special and emotional. Not just because of my own win, but also because both Hanwei and Aileen won as well. Especially Aileen.”

Tay, dubbed the Queen of Mediacorp, won only her second Best Actress trophy of her three decade-long career.  She last won the award 21 years ago in 1996 for her role in The Golden Pillow.

This time round, she bested her fellow nominees- the younger generation of Mediacorp Channel 8 actress including Rui En and Jeanette Aw with a role that saw her playing  a cancer-stricken nurse manager in the 2016 medical drama You Can Be An Angel 2.

Chen, who picked up his fifth Best Actor honour for his role as a confinement nanny in the family drama The Gentlemen, reiterated his admiration for fellow nominee Andie Chen, who he paid kudos to during his acceptance speech.

“For me, I was rooting for Andie Chen. I think he gave a very good performance,” said Chen in Mandarin. “I think he just hasn’t been very lucky during these awards. I really believe that one day he will stand on this stage and win the Best Actor award.  I really want to encourage him.”

Andie Chen was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor this year, but lost out in both categories. 

This fifth Best Actor win for Chen equals former actor Xie Shaoguang’s record.

Xie was one of Channel 8’s biggest stars before he retired in 2005 and moved to Malaysia.  He became an ordained Buddhist monk in 2013 but has since reportedly returned to secular life as a chef in a vegetarian eatery.

“If there really is one day that Shaoguang would come back to the entertainment industry to collaborate with both Zoe and I, that would really be great!” said Chen.

Tay agreed: “We can only hope! Shaoguang, please come back.”

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'Conflict could break out at any moment' over N Korea: China

BEIJING: A conflict over North Korea could break out “at any moment”, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said Friday (Apr 14), warning there would be “no winner” in any war as tensions soar with the US.

The sharp language came after President Donald Trump said the North Korea problem “will be taken care of”, as speculation mounts that the reclusive state could be preparing another nuclear or missile test.

“Lately, tensions have risen … and one has the feeling that a conflict could break out at any moment,” Wang said. “If a war occurs, the result is a situation in which everybody loses and there can be no winner.”

Whichever side provoked a conflict “must assume the historic responsibility and pay the corresponding price,” he said in a joint press conference with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Trump has sent a aircraft carrier-led strike group to the Korean peninsula to press his point, one of a series of signals that indicate his willingness to shake up foreign policy strategy.

The US military on Thursday dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb it possesses on Afghanistan, targeting a complex used by the Islamic State group.

Trump also flexed his military muscle last week by ordering cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airbase the US believed was the origin of a chemical weapons attack on civilians in a northern Syria town.

The moves are seen as an implicit warning to North Korea that Washington is not afraid to use force.

Trump has repeatedly said he will prevent Pyongyang from its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile capable of reaching the mainland United States.

A White House foreign policy advisor said Friday that the US is assessing military options in response to the North’s weapons programs, saying another provocative test was a question of “when” rather than “if”.

There are reports of activity at a nuclear test site in North Korea ahead of Saturday’s 105th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder Kim Il-Sung, which have fuelled speculation it could carry out a sixth test.

But Beijing has long opposed dramatic action against Pyongyang, fearing the regime’s collapse would send a flood of refugees across its borders and leave the US military on its doorstep.

“Dialogue is the only possible solution,” Wang said.

Any US strike on North Korea could prompt retaliation against allies or US forces in South Korea or Japan. But there are few good diplomatic or economic options for the Trump administration.

The North is already under multiple sets of United Nations sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and appears to see these programs as insurance against regime change.

Rattled by Trump’s behaviour, Beijing – Pyongyang’s sole major ally and economic lifeline – has adopted a tougher line against its neighbour, including suspending coal imports from the country for the remainder of the year.

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MAS says no change to monetary policy, in line with expectations

SINGAPORE: The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) kept its exchange rate-based monetary policy unchanged at its semi-annual review on Thursday (Apr 13), in line with expectations.

In a statement, the central bank said it would maintain the rate of appreciation of the Singapore dollar nominal effective exchange rate (S$ NEER) policy band at zero per cent. The width of the policy band and the level at which it is centred will also be unchanged, it added.

“A neutral policy stance is appropriate for an extended period and should ensure medium-term price stability,” said MAS, reiterating a stance it first mentioned in its policy review last October.

Following the announcement, the Singapore dollar fluctuated between 1.3976 and 1.3956 against the US dollar.

The central bank noted that the Singapore economy will continue to expand at a “modest pace” this year while the MAS core inflation measure, which excludes accommodation and private road transport costs, will rise gradually on the back of higher global oil prices.

However, demand-driven inflationary pressures will likely be restrained, the statement added. Over the medium term, core inflation – a key policy consideration for the MAS – is expected to trend towards but average slightly below 2 per cent.

Given the “subdued outlook for growth and inflation”, its current neutral policy stance is “assessed to be appropriate”, MAS said.

MAS TO MAINTAIN NEUTRAL POLICY STANCE THIS YEAR: ANALYSTS

Analysts have largely expected the central bank, which manages the economy through the currency rather than setting interest rates, to maintain its current policy approach amid an uneven turnaround in the economy. The MAS allows the exchange rate to float within an unspecified policy band and changes the slope, width and centre of that band when it wants to adjust the pace of appreciation or depreciation of the Sing dollar.

Said Mizuho Bank’s senior economist Vishnu Varathan: “Despite a pick-up in manufacturing and exports, it has been uneven. As mentioned in its statement, it sees lingering lethargy in domestic sectors like services.”

He added: “Another reason is that global uncertainty remains high, with geopolitics being thrown into the mix now. They don’t know what will happen so they will not jump the gun for now.”

Advance estimates released by the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) on Thursday showed first-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) grew at 2.5 per cent year-on-year, easing from 2.9 per cent in the previous quarter, as the manufacturing sector moderated its pace of expansion.

With the MAS reiterating the view that its neutral policy stance is “appropriate for an extended period”, Maybank Kim Eng economist Chua Hak Bin thinks the central bank could stand pat yet again at its next policy review six months later, barring any surprise spikes in inflation or GDP growth.

“We were looking out for the phase ‘extended period’ to be dropped but they’ve maintained that in the statement so it seems to suggest that come October, the MAS may keep its policy stance,” said Dr Chua. The local labour market remains weak and inflation, both headline and core, remains stuck at the lower end of MAS’ forecast range, he added.

Westpac’s currency strategist Sean Callow echoed that sentiment, noting that “those hoping for a hawkish hint for October are likely to be disappointed”.

“There had been some market discussion over whether there would be any hint of a return to modest SGD appreciation from October 2017. There was not,” Mr Callow said. “Six months might seem a long time in (forex) markets but the MAS appears not to expect much to have changed by the next meeting.

Last April, the central bank unexpectedly flattened the slope of the band it uses to guide the local currency against an undisclosed trading basket, reducing the rate of appreciation to zero per cent.

The MAS maintained this stance last October and reiterated in February that the Government’s growth forecast of between 1 and 3 per cent this year falls within the “planning parameters” of its October monetary policy statement.

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Yusof Ishak Mosque opens in Woodlands

SINGAPORE: A mosque named after Singapore’s first President Yusof Ishak was officially opened on Friday (Apr 14) by his widow Noor Aishah.

The ceremony was witnessed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister-in-Charge for Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim.

The Yusof Ishak Mosque in Woodlands will serve not only the needs of the Muslim community, but will also reach out to non-Muslims in a bid to foster multiculturalism – a value the former head of state stood firm on while he was in office.

Back in 2014 – the same year when plans for the mosque were first unveiled by Mr Lee in his National Day Rally speech – Dr Yaacob urged the mosque to hold as many programmes as possible to bring non-Muslims closer, instead of just serving the socio-religious needs of the Muslim community.

For instance, non-Muslims will be able to use some of the mosque’s new facilities, such as the multi-purpose hall and the conference room. There are also features that are signs of inclusiveness, including lifts and ramps for older worshippers, a dedicated praying area for women and more spaces for families to pray.

Members of Parliament Ong Ye Kung, Khaw Boon Wan and Masagos Zulkifli, along with several members from the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs), representatives from nearby schools, and Mr Yusof’s family members and friends from Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei were also at the opening ceremony.

Naming the mosque after the former head of state pays tribute to his contributions and is in line with the nation’s efforts to honour its pioneers, said the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS).

The prayer space of the mosque was consecrated by Singapore’s Mufti Dr Mohamed Fatris Bakaram. It will be able to accommodate 4,500 people and will help ease the crowd situation at An-Nur Mosque, which was previously the only mosque serving the Woodlands and Admiralty areas. The new mosque will also help meet the increasing demand for prayer spaces. 

What’s unique about this mosque is its look – it breaks away from the grand domes and instead, has the feel of a Malay house. The design of the mosque drew inspiration from Mr Yusof’s official and private residences, and blends traditional mosque characteristics with the heritage of the “Malay world”, the Nusantara.

The colours used on the stained glass windows in the mosque represent Islamic and Malay art heritage. (Photo: MUIS)

The Yusof Ishak Mosque, which cost S$ 18 million to build, is one of 71 mosques in Singapore and the 26th to be funded by the Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund, which all working Muslims in the country contribute to.  

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5.6-magnitude quake hits Philippines

MANILA: A 5.6-magnitude earthquake struck the centre of Mindanao island in the Philippines on Wednesday (Apr 12), the US Geological Survey said.

The quake, initially reported as a 6.0-magnitude, struck at 5:21am on Wednesday (2121 GMT on Tuesday). It was very shallow, at a depth of six kilometres, which would have amplified its effect. Its epicentre was 75.5 kilometres northeast of Cotabato on the large southern island of Mindanao.

A 5.6-magnitude quake is considered moderate and is capable of causing considerable damage.

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NETS buys 2 OCBC subsidiaries for S$38m

SINGAPORE: Payment provider NETS on Tuesday (Apr 11) signed an agreement with Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) subsidiaries – Banking Computer Services (BCS) and BCS Information Systems (BCSIS) – for S$ 38 million. 

Upon completion of the acquisition, BCS and BCSIS will become wholly owned subsidiaries of NETS and will continue to operate as independent entities, according to NETS’ press release. 

The company’s strategic acquisition will enable it to deliver payment innovations that are simple, swift, secure and accessible to its customers. “The assimilation of both companies will enable a more pervasive digital payment platform which will facilitate wider adoption and utilisation of electronic payments,” it said.

BCS manages and operates the clearing and payment infrastructure for the Singapore Clearing House Association (SCHA), including managing an electronic service that allows immediate transfer of Singapore dollar funds between accounts of the participating banks in Singapore. It was set up in 1976 and currently operates core services like FAST (Fast And Secure Transfers), IBG (Inter-bank GIRO) and CTS (Cheque Truncation System).

BCSIS designs and develops clearing and payment technology solutions for the financial services industry. It also provides bureau services that include cheque processing, lockbox services, document digitisation and imaging, as well as business continuity services.

The transaction is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2017, NETS said. 

“The coming together of BCS and NETS is timely and fully aligned with Singapore’s electronic payments roadmap,” said Monetary Authority of Singapore’s managing director, Ravi Menon.

“The creation of a single operator for FAST, Interbank GIRO, and NETS EFTPOS will strengthen synergies across these key retail payment systems, encourage more innovative and inter-operable payments solutions, and spur the adoption of e-payments by consumers, businesses, and the Government,” he said.  

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Josephine Teo, Governor of Heilongjiang affirm warm Singapore-China ties

SINGAPORE: Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office Josephine Teo is leading a Singapore business delegation on a three-day working visit to Harbin, China, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) announced on Tuesday (Apr 11). 

Mrs Teo, who is also Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and for Transport, called on Mr Lu Hao, the Governor of Heilongjiang Provincial People’s Government, on Tuesday. They affirmed the warm bilateral relations between both countries and discussed developments in Singapore as well as Heilongjiang. 

Mr Lu also welcomed the signing of four commercial agreements between Singapore companies and their Chinese partners in the areas of logistics, hospitality, education and human resource training, MFA said.

Mrs Teo and Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Harbin Municipal Committee Chen Haibo, as well as Singapore’s Ambassador to China Stanley Loh and Vice Mayor of the Harbin Municipal Government Shi Jiaxing co-witnessed the signing of these commercial agreements. 

Mrs Teo and Mr Lu agreed to continue exploring opportunities to deepen cooperation and exchanges, MFA said. 

On Tuesday afternoon, the Executive Vice Governor of Heilongjiang Provincial People’s Government Li Haitao hosted the delegation to lunch. 

Mrs Teo also met with and was hosted to dinner by Secretary Chen, MFA added. 

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Marvel to discipline Indonesian X-Men Gold artist for hidden political, religious references

Marvel Comics is planning to take disciplinary action against an Indonesian artist who sneaked several controversial references into his artwork for the first issue of X-Men Gold, according to reports citing a statement by the comics giant. 

X-Men Gold #1, which was published on Wednesday (Apr 5), was illustrated by Indonesian artist Ardian Syaf. 

His artwork allegedly contained several hidden religious references and sparked an outcry by comic book fans on social media.

In one scene, Jewish mutant Kitty Pryde is seen standing in front of a crowd of humans. Her head is adjacent to a sign saying “Jewelry”, which some took to be a reference to her heritage.

In the same panel, there is a building with the numbers “212” on it – a reference to a mass rally by Indonesian Muslims on Dec 2 last year against Jakarta’s Christian Chinese governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Ahok is on trial for blasphemy over accusations that he insulted the Islamic holy book, the Quran. 

Another scene in the issue shows Colossus wearing a t-shirt with “QS 5:51” on it, a reference to a verse in the Quran used by some in Indonesia to support their view that non-Muslims should not lead the government.

Ardian shared artwork for the panel on his Facebook page on Thursday. By Sunday evening, the post had drawn almost 200 comments. 

Many criticised him for the alleged political messages. “The X-Men message at its core is integration, not division,” Facebook user Zauri Severino Junior wrote. 

“It’s shameful to see (an) Indonesian artist make a fool of himself worldwide just because of his impaired religious views and racism,” another commenter, Nuri Agustiani Setiawan, wrote. 

In a statement published by ComicBook on Saturday, Marvel said the artwork “was inserted without knowledge behind its reported meanings”.

“These implied references do not reflect the views of the writer, editors or anyone else at Marvel and are in direct opposition of the inclusiveness of Marvel Comics and what the X-Men have stood for since their creation,” the statement said.

Marvel added that disciplinary action would be taken against Syaf, but did not give further details.

It added that the artwork would be removed from subsequent printings, digital versions, and trade paperbacks.

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UK firm Ingeus to help unemployed professionals get back to work

SINGAPORE: A UK recruitment firm will be one of two private-sector employment agencies working with the Singapore Government to help unemployed professionals get back to work, Workforce Singapore (WSG) announced on Thursday (Apr 6). 

Ingeus commenced operations on Monday at the Lifelong Learning Institute at Paya Lebar, while another overseas provider will start operations at the end of the second quarter of this year, WSG said in a media release.

Under a two-year pilot, both providers will localise their know-how and assistance models to help local unemployed professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) get back into the workforce, the statutory board added. 

The Government’s move to work with the private-sector employment agencies was announced by Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in Parliament last month. 

The partnership is part of the Government’s plans to help more jobseekers who are what Mr Lim described as “missed match” cases. “They are ready for the jobs, the jobs are suitable for them, but they are yet to find each other,” he had said.

On Thursday, WSG said the two designated “career matching providers” were selected based on their focus, track record and capabilities in matching active jobseekers to jobs. They will help eligible jobseekers with customised career advice and coaching sessions, it added.

“Jobseekers will gain access to industry knowledge and insights and receive coaching in resume preparation, managing of interviews and profiling themselves to prospective employers to highlight their strengths,” it added in the news release. 

Only unemployed PMET jobseekers who have been actively searching for jobs for at least three months or have been made redundant may be assigned to the career matching providers after approaching the WSG Career Centres or the National Trades Union Congress’ (NTUC) Employability and Employment Institute (e2i) centres for Career Matching Services. 

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