Jumaat, 7 Oktober 2011

The Star Online: World Updates

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The Star Online: World Updates

Obama faces long odds in Afghanistan bet


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In order to win its high-stakes wager in Afghanistan, the Obama administration must ensure security trends can hold, peace talks gain traction and governance improves -- all with fewer troops and less time.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the war in Afghanistan during a televised address from the East Room of the White House in Washington June 22, 2011. (REUTERS/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool)

If it cannot, the United States and its partners may join other world powers who tried, and failed, to tame that restless nation in the past.

"It is all too clear that they are also in a race -- a race against time, against resources, and the enemy -- that they simply may not win," wrote Anthony Cordesman, a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama unveiled a plan to start bringing U.S. troops home at a faster pace than proposed by the Pentagon, a decision that has alarmed top U.S. brass who fear it could squander military gains.

Obama said he would pull out a third of the 100,000 troops now in Afghanistan by the end of next summer. The remainder will come home at a steady pace.

Obama's advisors defended his plan on Thursday, saying his decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan last year had delivered both real and symbolic victories, pushing the Taliban out of their southern heartland.

The president, visiting troops of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., said, "We have turned a corner where we can begin to bring back some of our troops."

But southern Afghanistan is still far from stable, and the picture is less encouraging elsewhere. Violence has intensified along the rugged eastern border, and even the top U.S. military officer warned in blunt terms on Thursday that conditions may deteriorate if rigorous conditions are not met.

"The progress we have made, though considerable, can still be reversed without our constant leadership, the contributions of our partners ... or a more concerted effort by the Afghan government," Admiral Mike Mullen said.

Even in areas that epitomize the modest successes Obama's troop-intensive strategy has achieved, such as southern Kandahar, U.S. soldiers there are already thinly spread and fret about what a rapid drawdown will mean.

Military commanders will likely have to withdraw significant numbers of troops at the height of next summer's fighting season in order to meet a September deadline.

"This really, really constrains the military in 2012," said Ronald Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

Obama's security strategy also rests on the West's ability to create a competent local fighting force, which virtually all observers agree is key to Afghanistan's long-term stability. The speedier drawdown will mean fewer U.S. troops mentoring Afghans.

Even as a gradual security transition begins, there is little evidence local security forces will be ready to secure Afghanistan any time soon.


Yet the obstacles the Obama administration faces off the battlefield make its military challenges look straightforward. A decade and billions of dollars in Western aid efforts have made little headway in creating a stable Afghan state.

U.S. ties with Afghan President Hamid Karzai are at best testy and at worst openly hostile. Corruption has reached epidemic levels; the economy remains in shambles; the booming opium trade continues to fund insurgents.

On Thursday, a special court set up by Karzai after a fraud-marred election last year threw out results for about a quarter of Afghanistan's parliament.

Far from being seen as a step toward ending months of political paralysis, the move deepened questions about the credibility of Afghan officialdom.

Even as Washington rushes to show results from its 'civilian surge' of diplomats and aid workers, an impatient U.S. Congress may well slash the budget for Afghan aid efforts it feels have fallen flat.

Obama's plan for gradually shrinking the U.S. footprint will also depend on Washington's ability to foster a political settlement with the Taliban, which may choose to wait out dwindling appetite for U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan.

"The bottom line is no number of troops will resolve the challenge of Afghanistan," John Kerry, the influential Democratic senator, said on Thursday.

Both the United States and Britain have confirmed they are reaching out to the Taliban. But earlier efforts to get peace negotiations underway have failed and it is hard to gauge the likelihood the secretive initiative will succeed.

If other conflicts are any guide, it could take far longer to clinch a peace deal than U.S. politicians are willing to wait as they seek to refocus on the flagging economy and other domestic priorities.

Yet officials concede that biggest challenge for the United States in Afghanistan is not in Afghanistan. Without progress in curbing militant groups operating in neighboring Pakistan, it is unlikely a wobbly Afghan state can survive.

U.S. officials are leaning hard on Islamabad after last month's raid that killed Osama bin Laden deepened suspicions in Washington about Pakistan's complicity with militants. Plans for a relatively swift U.S. drawdown, Neumann said, will require more Pakistan action against militants.

"But if they think we're leaving, why should they do more of what we want?" he asked.

(Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Anthony Boadle)

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

Angry Greeks say new taxes to hurt middle class, again


ATHENS (Reuters) - Greeks seething after two years of belt-tightening reacted in anger on Thursday against a new round of tax rises and spending cuts worth some 3.8 billion euros which they said would again hit honest taxpayers hardest.

A Greek Orthodox priest is seen in front of police officers as they protest against a new austerity package in Athens, June 23, 2011. (REUTERS/John Kolesidis)

Coming on top of a 10-15 percent reduction on pensions and salaries over the last year and a half, the raft of new measures announced by Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos will cut average earnings by a further 3-4 percent, analysts said.

People on the streets of Athens, who have protested for weeks over the government's plan to carve out savings of 28 billion euros by 2015, were livid at the measures they said once again failed to tackle rampant tax evasion and corruption.

"These measures aren't fair. Shop owners who pay their taxes are treated the same way as those who don't know what a cash register looks like," said Kostas Batsoulis, 37, a restaurant owner in central Athens.

"It would be better to sack 10,000 civil servants rather than the 1 million private sector employees who are being sacrificed right now," he added.

Unions and parties were also quick to slam the measures, saying slapping more and more taxes on the middle class was no way to kick-start an economy which has plunged into its deepest recession in 37 years.

"These people have lost their mind," said Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary of the ADEDY public sector union. "These measures are hitting the same people, making them even poorer."

Unions have announced nationwide strikes for Tuesday and Wednesday, when the mid-term plan goes to parliament, and huge protests are expected in Athens and other cities.

In Syntagma square outside parliament, where protesters have camped for weeks to oppose the fresh wave of austerity, thousands gathered in the streets on Thursday, beating drums and blowing whistles but their protest remained peaceful.


Stathis Anestis, spokesman for the largest labour union federation GSEE, said the measures were particularly unfair because they once again failed to address the chronic problem of tax evasion, seen as the root of most of Greece's fiscal ills.

"This hypocrisy must finally stop in Greece," he said. "The rich doctor who sees 20-30 patients a day declares an annual income of 5,000 euros a year and the worker who can hide nothing is asked to pull the country out of the crisis?"

Venizelos said a "solidarity tax" ranging from 1 to 5 percent will be slapped on annual incomes over 12,000 euros, the self-employed will be hit with a 300 euro levy and heating oil tax will increase as well.

Analysts said that for the average annual Greek income of about 20,000 euros, this means a 700-800 euro loss, without counting heating costs and the levy on the self-employed.

Michalis Mihalides, 33, a press distribution worker who has a 3-month-old baby, said his family had already cut spending to the very basics to make ends meet and the new measures were spurring him to protest on the streets.

"What bothers me more than anything is that those who should pay, won't pay once again," he said. "It makes me mad because this crisis is not my fault. I didn't steal."

The main conservative opposition New Democracy party, which opposes the 110 billion IMF/EU bailout deal that saved Greece from bankruptcy last year, said the measures will push the economy further into recession.

"Venizelos' deal can be summed up in three words: taxes, taxes, taxes! Even on those who earn 570 euros a month. The measures even more painful and ineffective, will crush the middle class and finish off the poor," said Ioannis Vroutsis, a New Democracy spokesman.

(Writing by Dina Kyriakidou; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

Obama seeks to rally support for Afghan troop plan


FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama defended his planned Afghanistan troop drawdown on Thursday, as he sought to rally support during a visit to an Army base in upstate New York.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to soldiers from the U.S. 10th Mountain Division during his visit to Fort Drum in New York, June 23, 2011. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)

Speaking to about 200 soldiers, Obama stood by the blueprint he unveiled in a televised speech on Wednesday to remove 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year and a total of 33,000 by the end of next summer, a pace some top military officials have said is too aggressive.

"We have turned a corner where we can begin to bring back some of our troops. We're not doing it precipitously. We're going to do it in a steady way to make sure that the gains that all of you helped to bring about are going to be sustained," he told soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, who listened mostly in silence.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General David Petraeus, top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in congressional testimony that Obama's drawdown was riskier than they recommended but that they backed the strategy to start winding down the nearly decade-old war.

U.S. public support for the war has fallen sharply since U.S. special forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan.

As he seeks re-election in 2012, Obama wants to show Americans he is crafting an endgame for the costly war and putting his focus on the troubled economy and high unemployment, the U.S. electorate's chief concerns.

Some 25.3 million Americans watched Obama's speech on Wednesday, which was broadcast live on nine U.S. television networks, ratings company Nielsen said on Thursday.

War-weariness has also started to set in among many U.S. troops and their loved ones.

The advocacy group Military Families Speak Out said in response to Obama's Wednesday announcement that the United States should get out of Afghanistan even more quickly.

"While we applaud any service members returning home, this plan maintains 70,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan through 2014," the group said on its website.

"Three more years is unacceptable for a military community who have already suffered through 10 years of war, multiple deployments, deteriorating troop morale, and extremely high rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress."

More than 1,600 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan, according to official figures.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Jill Serjeant in Los Angeles; Editing by Paul Simao)

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

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The Star eCentral: Movie Reviews

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The Star eCentral: Movie Reviews

Green Lantern

Posted: 15 Jun 2011 10:00 PM PDT

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Temuera Morrison

Ryan Reynolds? Not a fan, after Blade: Trinity. I received the news that he was to play Hal Jordan pretty much the same way I reacted when my dentist said he'd have to grind two perfectly good teeth down to stubs to fit my bridgework.

So, yeah … as much as I had become an overnight fan of the "rejuvenated" GL comics under writer Geoff Johns, I wasn't exactly looking forward to the movie.

'In the Corps, human, you'll learn that the correct posture is chest way, way out and stomach way, way in.'

When the previews hit, and more scenes of the Green Lantern Corps plus some of the series mythology was presented, I thought they might be on to something here.

After all, director Martin Campbell kick-started the stalled James Bond franchise – twice – and made an old-school masked avenger like Zorro all modernsexycool.

An intergalactic canvas, however, is not so easily painted on, even with green as the dominant colour in the palette.

The result is an origin story that falls a bit short of the best "begins" movies to spring from the DC stable (the gold standards would be Superman: The Movie and Batman Begins).

So, while the filmmakers certainly were on to something here, they don't exploit it to its fullest. There are, however, enough fan-pleasing moments and appearances to keep … well, at least to keep this fan happy.

'I'll say this for you, son ... your head's finally big enough for your overinflated opinion of yourself.'

As an example, there's a scene where supporting character Amanda Waller (Bassett), a prominent member of the DC Universe, brushes against a telepathic supervillain (Sarsgaard) and he accesses memories of her husband and children being murdered – as they were in her comic-book roots. Pretty good attention to detail there, I'd say.

For the uninformed units out there, Green Lantern is the story of how brash test pilot Hal Jordan (Reynolds) is chosen to become a member of an intergalactic peacekeeping force known as the Green Lantern Corps.

The Lanterns are each equipped with a power ring that conjures up whatever the wearer can imagine, from jet fighters to giant fists to, uh, Hot Wheels-style stunt car tracks (really).

Oh, and they can also fly through space and travel incredible distances in the wink of an eye.

Unfortunately, the circumstances of Jordan's recruitment also bring our young and humble planet to the attention of an ancient, destructive entity known as Parallax – a twisted creature that will devour anything in its path to get revenge on the Lanterns and their creators.

The Parallax of the movie is significantly different from what longtime readers of the comic would picture – not just in appearance but in origin too.

The villain aside, there's been some dumbing-down of much of the Green Lantern mythology to make the movie more accessible to the un-clued-in viewer.

At least Campbell and his production designers did go to obvious lengths to ensure that, if anything, the film would live up to expectations as a visual adaptation of the comics.

The planet Oa, home of the Lanterns, the dazzlingly diverse members of the Corps, even the made-of-pure-energy Green Lantern suits with their "fibre-optic networks", are all wonderfully rendered.

What about the main character, you ask? Well, to a degree, Reynolds handles the cocksure, deeply troubled aspects of Hal Jordan well and acquits himself satisfactorily when the character undergoes the inevitable transformation into a confident hero able to overcome his fears.

Given the numerous triumphs and tragedies in the character's (printed) life, in this sense the film does a nice job of depicting Jordan's struggle to rise above his own character defects.

So, while I'm still no fan of Reynolds, at least it will be all right having him in the role for however long the franchise survives.

The best interpretation in this film is, for me, Mark Strong's Sinestro, perhaps one of the most complex characters in mainstream comics.

'Please, people - no "The Proposal" jokes, okay?'

His initial disdain and eventual respect for Jordan mirror the characters' relationship in the comics perfectly, and Strong makes a fine meal of it all – he even carries the red makeup and pointy ears majestically.

The hits: the visuals, Strong, Sarsgaard as a human supervillain with daddy issues, some good action scenes, and a funny bit that shoots down the whole notion of why heroes wear masks.

The misses: Parallax (ok, so he/it wasn't as bad as the movie version of Galactus), not enough Corps time, a messy story flow and somewhat cartoonish ring constructs that hark back to the silliness of the 60s and early 70s comics.

Oh, and the 3D – absolutely unnecessary in my opinion, as it just got in the way of my viewing pleasure and had no truly memorable "comin' at ya" moments.

All things considered, I found Green Lantern to be an enjoyable but flawed entry in the superhero sweepstakes, much like Thor. Both have got the look right, but we're just not feeling it yet, yo.

Super 8

Posted: 09 Jun 2011 10:00 PM PDT

Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Riley Griffiths, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich, Glynn Turman

A small-town setting. A disparate group of kids drawn together for a common purpose. A misunderstood central character from a troubled or tragedy-stricken household. Clueless or outright mean adults. And an element that's either science-fictional or supernatural in nature that the whole story revolves around.

The elements of a typical Steven Spielberg (either directed or produced) movie from the 80s? Yes – and now, from 2011 too.

Super 8 plies its trade in familiar territory and manages to hold its own with the best of those tales.

'What d'you mean, great pyrotechnic effects? My home movie doesn't have a budget for 'em ... it's real, RUN!'

It's 1979, and the kids in this one are a bunch of film geeks led by Charles Kaznyk (Griffiths), a would-be auteur who's trying to make a zombie movie to enter in a regional film festival.

But Super 8 is really the story of his buddy Joe Lamb (Courtney), a lad whose recently widowed father, town deputy Jackson Lamb (Chandler), just can't seem to connect with him.

Joe is delighted when Charles tells the group that Alice Dainard (Fanning), the prettiest girl in their school grade, has agreed to appear in his movie to provide its "emotional centre".

And it is while the motley film crew is shooting the latest revision of Charles' script that the Big Event occurs which changes their lives forever. No secret that it's a train wreck, but this is one hell of a breathtaking sequence.

While an element of the fantastic binds everything together, Super 8 is better enjoyed as a tale of optimism, enterprise and great notions from a viewpoint of youthful innocence – a coming-of-age story that just happens to coincide with calamity and, shall we say, some scary close encounters.

The familiarity of the setting is offset by the young cast's natural, excellent performances, notably by the central trio of Courtney, Fanning and Griffiths – quite impressive when you consider that Courtney and Griffiths are both first-timers.

'As far as I can figure, it's an extraterrestrial pencil sharpener.'

To say that all three are revelations would be an overstatement, though they are so earnest and convincing that you can't help but get immersed in their unfolding story. (Film fans will also find Charles' frequent script tinkering and his actors' reactions a hoot.)

Much as I loved the characters and their easygoing interaction, Super 8's other half – its secrecy-shrouded sci-fi aspect – did not impress as much.

When the hurly-burly's done, you may wonder why all the fuss over what was essentially an extended "(spoiler deleted) phone (spoiler deleted)" sequence, only nastier.

When a movie comes on the heels of something like Star Trek, expectations are bound to be high and the mystery and hype that were built up around Super 8's creature/alien/whatever didn't help its cause any.

The Big Reveal, when it finally rolls around, would have to be something super-special to live up to such anticipation but … not really, no.

So it's more in the context of the film than the story that the kids save the day, and leave it to them to wrap it up brilliantly over the closing credits – that bit is pure gold.

Henry's Crime

Posted: 09 Jun 2011 10:00 PM PDT

Henry(Keanu Reeves)is a purposeless toll collector, but by accident gets involved in a bank robbery and does time. In prison, he meets conman Max (James Caan) who helps him decide that he should commit the very crime he has already served a sentence for. Once out, he bumps into the leading lady of the play The Cherry Orchard, Julie (Vera Farmiga), and finds an old tunnel running from the bank to the theatre where – wait for it – Julie is performing.

Henry's Crime has an interesting premise, but the turn of events happens too easily and conveniently to make it believable.

If the cinematography is uninspired, the acting doesn't fare any better with Reeves being bland (Keanu) and Peter Stormare (the theatre director) playing his character a tad over the top. The only bright spot in the acting department is Caan, who lends an engaging personality to his character despite the bland script.

The other problem with Henry's Crime is that it tries to be both a heist movie and a romantic comedy, but the laughs are too far and few, while the romance is underwhelming due to the one-dimensional pair.

If you are looking for a quiet movie in the midst of the deafening blockbuster season, Henry's Crime may not be the solution.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

The Star eCentral: Movie Buzz

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The Star eCentral: Movie Buzz

Nia Vardalos For 'American Girl' Movie

Posted: 16 Jun 2011 10:00 PM PDT

My Big Fat Greek Wedding actress Nia Vardalos, who co-wrote Universal's upcoming romantic comedy Larry Crowne with Tom Hanks, has signed on to star in a new American Girl movie.

Newcomer Jade Pettyjohn, who's appeared in TV shows such as United States Of Tara, will play the lead character in the movie. Production is scheduled to begin July 11 in Winnipeg, which also happens to be Vardalos' hometown.

American Girl is a line of dolls and accessories extremely popular with the tween girl set that in the mid-2000s were tapped for screen adaptations. Most movies were made for the direct-to-home market, although 2008's Kit Kittredge: An American Girl was made for a theatrical release. It grossed US$18 million in North America. The conceit is a focus on stories of young heroines in various time periods.

''Not only is this is free trip home but most importantly, it'll make me cool to my daughter,'' Vardalos told The Hollywood Reporter.

The storyline for the new movie isn't being revealed, although it is known that Vardalos will play Pettyjohn's mother. The picture is still casting.

(Hollywood Reporter)

Kate Winslet To Star In 'Labor Day'

Posted: 16 Jun 2011 10:00 PM PDT

Kate Winslet is in negotiations to join Josh Brolin in Labor Day, a coming-of-age drama that Jason Reitman will shoot next year.

The movie is an adaptation of a Joyce Maynard book set during a Labor Day weekend in a small New Hampshire town.

A mother (Winslet) and an awkward and isolated young boy meet a stranger and offer him a ride. The man turns out to be an escaped convict and ends up teaching the boy life lessons.

Winslet returns to theaters in October with Contagion, a 3D medical thriller from Steven Soderbergh.

(Hollywood Reporter)

JK Rowling Launches New Harry Potter Website

Posted: 16 Jun 2011 10:00 PM PDT

Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling has launched a new website called Pottermore, but fans of the boy wizard will have to wait to see what it entails as the entry page says simply ''Coming Soon....''

The site, www.pottermore.com, was launched a month ahead of the release of the eighth and final Harry Potter movie on July 15.

Some Potter fansites, which have been instrumental in generating a large and loyal fan base for the movies and seven-book series on which they are based, were given a sneak preview of the mysterious new website.

''It is, in a word, breathtaking,'' wrote Leaky Cauldron, one of the leading Potter sites. ''That is all we are permitted to say at the moment.''

Rowling and Potter studio Warner Bros. have never shied away from building up the hype ahead of key releases in the series.

The Harry Potter novels have sold more than 400 million copies worldwide, while the seven movies released so far have grossed some US$6.4 billion in ticket sales. Rowling has been billed the ''world's first billionaire author.''

Rowling's spokesman and literary agent did not immediately reply to emailed questions about the website.


Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

The Star Online: Entertainment: TV & Radio

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The Star Online: Entertainment: TV & Radio

Archie Panjabi talks about being Kalinda Sharma

Posted: 24 Jun 2011 02:54 AM PDT

Archie Panjabi, who fashionably walks the talk in The Good Wife, was in town recently and had a tete-a-tete with The Star.

THOSE boots ... they seem to have a life of their own," says actress Archie Panjabi of the now iconic leather boots her character Kalinda Sharma wears in the critically-acclaimed legal drama The Good Wife. "There is something about those boots and how fitted her clothes are ... it makes me feel very powerful when I am playing the character."

The boots in question – a pair of knee-high black leather Via Spigas – are arguably the most talked about piece of footwear on TV at the moment; maybe even of all time.

Kalinda, the in-house investigator at the Stern, Lockhart & Gardner law firm is rarely seen without them; unless, of course, she switches them for a pair of studded, suede Calvin Kleins – also black.

So popular are those boots that fans (and Kalinda has legions of them) dub them the "boots of justice".

Cool as they may be, the boots have nothing to do with fashion. They are an extension of Kalinda's character; a character so mysterious and so guarded that we need clues (like a pair of kick-a** leather boots) to gain some insight.

"Even though everything about Kalinda looks very sexy, the intention is not for her to come across as sexy but as someone very focused and reserved. Her job is not to intimidate people but to get information. It's more about creating a presence."

Panjabi was in Kuala Lumpur last week with her husband, businessman Rajesh Nihalani, for a five-day holiday to visit relatives (she has close relatives in Seremban, Port Dickson and Kuala Lumpur) but graciously agreed to meet with Malaysian media during her brief trip. Despite battling jet lag having flown in from New York the night before, the actress gamely shared some insight into her character and the series.

With Kalinda, talk isn't cheap. According to Panjabi, audiences don't really get to know her from what she says.

She observes: "She doesn't have a lot of dialogue a lot of the time. It's more her reactions, her dress and the way her hair is tied up."

Figuring out a character so ambiguous, while challenging, isn't easy. "I am always paranoid before I do a scene. I usually have a very clear idea of what my character would do but with Kalinda, she's so mysterious ... imagine how it is playing a character that is so complex. How do you do a scene when you don't fully know what to expect from the character? I am learning to go with my gut.

"When they say 'action' it's almost like those boots take over. They kind of guide me to do things which I normally would not do," says the 39-year-old actress of Indian descent from Edgware, London.

The Good Wife is a law procedural that focuses on Alicia Florrick (Juliana Margulies) whose husband Peter (Chris Noth), a former state's attorney, is jailed following a very public sex and corruption scandal. An out-of-practice lawyer, Alicia has to return to her old job as litigator at Stern, Lockhart & Gardner to provide for her children.

The series follows her as she learns to deal with her husband's betrayal and copes with unresolved romantic feelings for her boss, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), an old college sweetheart.

The series is said to have been partly inspired by real life American political scandals such as that of Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards and Bill Clinton.

Kalinda is the firm's investigator who soon becomes a close friend and confidante of Alicia.

Professionally, Kalinda is an ace investigator. She uses a combination of stealth and charm to get information to win their cases. She is alluring, fearless and manipulative. She hangs out with cops and is able to knock back tequila shots like a pro.

Personally, however, she is a closed book. Nobody knows what she is thinking or feeling and even after two seasons, viewers don't have a clue about her family or friends or where she comes from. Even her ethnicity is never discussed. We do know, however, that she is bisexual (thanks to the emergence of an ex-lover mid season) and that she has some deep, dark secrets.

Physically, Kalinda is daunting despite her petite stature. Her pulled-back hair, close-fitting tops and dresses, short skirts, leather vests and jackets and, of course, the knee-high boots are sexy but more than that, they spell power and mean business.

In person, Panjabi seems nothing like her character. While Kalinda is aloof and unapproachable, Panjabi is warm and friendly. She smiles a lot and giggles. She poses for photographs.

Does she share any traits with Kalinda?

"Uhmmm ... no," she laughs. "I am sure there are similarities between us. We're different but sometimes I do things on instinct (when in character) and so I learn a little bit about myself as well as Kalinda. Sometimes, when I am in a situation and I don't know how to resolve it, I find myself wondering what Kalinda would do because she is so able to resolve a problem without getting too emotionally involved.

"I think if I ever met Kalinda, I would definitely love to hang out with her. People often say they wish they had a friend like that because they'd feel protected by her. I would probably be a little intimidated by her because she doesn't say much to you. "

Reel journey

The role of Kalinda was something that sort of fell into her lap because her preference is for film, not TV. Panjabi's screen debut was in the 1999 British hit movie East Is East, a comedy set in the 1970s, in which she played Meenah, a soccer-mad teenaged tomboy. Panjabi received good reviews and the movie went on to win The Evening Standard Best Film Award and the Alexander Korfa Bafta award for Best British Film in 2000. She also starred in another British blockbuster, Bend It Like Beckham (which won a Golden Globe and a Bafta in 2003), The Constant Gardener with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, and more recently, in A Mighty Heart alongside A-list Hollywood mega star Angelina Jolie. She can currently be seen in The Infidel, a British comedy about a British Muslim (Omid Djalili) who goes through an identity crisis when he discovers that he was adopted as a child and that he is actually Jewish! He secretly tries to discover his Jewish heritage but his wife (played by Panjabi) suspects that her husband is having an affair.

It was Panjabi's performance as Indian-American journalist Asra Nomani in A Mighty Heart that caught the attention of the casting agents of The Good Wife.

"They had seen a lot of actresses for the role and they were about to offer it to somebody else. Then one of the casting associates mentioned my performance in A Mighty Heart and they sent me the script and asked me to put myself on tape.

"Normally in America, you can go for five or six castings before you are seen by the executives. But they really liked the way I had done the recording and so as soon as they saw it, they offered me the role. It was the easiest casting I've had in my career," recalls Panjabi.

Getting the job may have been easy but the actress admits that she was a barrel of nerves in the beginning.

"I didn't really know much about the role of an investigator. I kind of just thought of detectives ... you know, Sherlock Holmes, and Cagney and Lacey. I was at a dinner about the time we were doing the pilot episode and I was sitting next to Matt Czuchry who plays Cary (Argos) and I remember telling him how nervous I was because I didn't know what to do with this character. Kalinda is so mysterious. I was worried that if the character just doesn't work, they would re-cast me. This was such a dangerous character and I wanted to please everyone. I really wanted to come back and do the season because I loved it. And Matt gave me the best piece of advice. He said: 'Archie, you are never going to please everybody, so if you sit there worrying about pleasing all the executives, it's not gonna happen. You should follow your gut and play the character the way you want to.'

"That was really the best piece of advice. I just made decisions based on what I felt was right rather than trying to do the right thing for the American public or for an American show," she shares.

Always evolving

Kalinda was a hit with fans from the get go. Somehow, fans (both men and women) fell in love with the character despite her reserve.

Says Panjabi: "When they tested the pilot with a test audience, one of the things that scored very highly was the character of Kalinda and the relationship between her and Alicia. As a result, the writers knew they had something very interesting with the character. The response from the audiences was a lot better than they anticipated and so they developed it ... which has all been very fortunate for me."

One of the things the actress loves about her role is its ambiguity which, she says, challenges her as an actress even after two seasons. Constantly evolving, Kalinda is like no character Panjabi has played before.

"I think I am one of those actresses who gets bored quite easily if I really understand everything about the character. It becomes almost robotic, which is why I haven't really done much television. Most of my previous work tends to be in film. But with this character, because she is so ambiguous, its exciting and keeps me interested. The thing about this series is you never know what the back story really is. I was told in the beginning, the character was an investigator who may come in and out of the series. I don't think the role was meant to be as big as what they made it, which has been very fortunate for me.

"But I remember when I read it (the script), I felt there was something really strong and interesting about this character. She's so different from anything I've done or anything I've seen on television. I definitely got a good feeling about it."

As she wasn't given much background about Kalinda when she was offered the part, Panjabi wrote a two-page back story for her character, which she uses as a reference point. "Kalinda is really a work-in progress. My suspicion is that, she is the way she is because of survival. She has obviously had something in her life that affected her. It's almost like people have let her down. In one of the last few episodes (of Season Two) she has a line where she tells Will that she doesn't have to confide in anyone. To me, when a character says something like that, she may have been hurt a lot or let down a lot in the past and her way of surviving is to divorce herself (from feeling) and move on."

The constantly developing plot lines and character arcs keep Panjabi on her toes.

"It's a really exciting project because they (creators Robert and Michelle King) never know themselves. They write something and if they feel it works or that it's interesting or if the audience responds to it, then they will write further. It's almost interactive."

Winning formula

Panjabi's dazzling portrayal of Kalinda won her an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series last year. At the time, she was barely mid-way into the first season and a relative unknown in America. Also, she was up against favourites Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks of the Mad Men.

The win came as a sweet surprise.

"I didn't hear my full name. I just heard 'Ar...' and was getting ready to clap for somebody else. I hadn't prepared a speech. I was so shocked. People in the business had actually told me: 'You know Archie, it's a great character but you're not hugely known'. I really convinced myself that I didn't have a chance. When they announced my name ... I was ecstatic and a bit emotional. I wasn't able to speak. Then I realised that the whole world was going to be watching this speech for years to come, and I had better think of saying the right things. It's amazing how the human body is, it somehow just gets on with it and I was able to come up with something. I was okay after I gave the speech."

Panjabi reckons that the popularity of the series is because the characters – even Kalinda – are real and the presentation of them is so novel.

"The characters are all layered and the performances are very nuanced. It's not over-written. It's the kind of drama where you really have to watch it to understand what's going on. You can't sit in the other room ironing or making a cup of tea and know. It's actually watching what's not being said that's important. I think this challenges audiences. In today's world, there is so much variety and choice in TV dramas and I think people want something that's a little more stimulating.

"Also, the characters resonate with people. Even the good wife is not necessarily 'good' as you will see in the finale. It shows people as they really are. The reality is that no one is perfect. No one is completely imperfect. I think people connect to that," she says.

While the drama on The Good Wife can get heavy and complicated, the atmosphere on the set, says Panjabi, is "a lot of fun".

"It's quite a relaxed set. We work long hours, so there needs to be some lightness on set. There is a lot of legal jargon to learn and when you're working 16 hours a day, sometimes that legal jargon is too much. I mean, we're not lawyers, we're just actors and sometimes the words are so hard to remember. To lighten the atmosphere, sometimes when someone is on camera, the others will be trying to make him or her laugh. You really have to be very strong in order not to laugh. It gets really hard to look at the (other) actors' eyes because they've got a mischievous smile on their face," she shares, with a laugh.

Who's the naughtiest one?

"I think people would probably tell you that I laugh the most, which is really ironic. I am very bad at corpsing. If I catch somebody's eye, I'll laugh and once I start laughing, I find it very difficult to stop ... sometimes the whole crew starts laughing as well and we have to remind ourselves to be serious or the bosses might tell us off," says Panjabi, giggling as she recounts the behind-the-scenes stories.

Panjabi resumes filming Season Three in three weeks and while it may spell the end of her holiday, she's excited to know what's next.

"Well, I definitely get a new pair of boots next season," she jokes. "I think you're going to see if Alicia and Kalinda's friendship can be saved. I think Kalinda really wants to save it but the ball is really in Alicia's court. I think they're also going to develop the relationship between Cary and Kalinda and I don't know which way that's going to go. It will be very interesting to see because there definitely is an attraction between them but they're on opposing sides – he's with the state attorney's office and she's with the law firm. I think it's going to be fun."

The repeat of The Good Wife (Season Two) finale will air on Diva Universal (Astro Ch 702) tomorrow (1pm) and Sunday, June 26 at 2pm. You can also catch Panjabi in The Infidel, now playing at cinemas nationwide.

It’s a dog’s world

Posted: 23 Jun 2011 03:14 PM PDT

TV series, Eukanuba Extraordinary Dogs, highlights some of the most amazing canines in the world and their kinship with the human species.

IT'S simply extraordinary that dogs continue to fascinate us when in fact, we've always known of their potential to, not just co-exist with us humans, but to contribute to the betterment of our lives. Why else would there be an endless string of movies and series on dogs? The point behind the making of Lassie, Old Yeller, Beethoven, K-9:P.I. and Hachi: A Dog's Tale, among others, has never been lost.

In fact, that point is taken to a new level of consciousness with Eukanuba Extraordinary Dogs, a TV series that features some truly remarkable four-legged friends who display mind-boggling abilities, everything from knowing when its owner is about to have a hypoglycemic attack to detecting cancer even.

So what is it that continually intrigues us about our four-legged friends if they've consistently proven themselves to be our best friends?

"I guess it's surprising how similar dogs are to humans, in terms of sight and sound, though dogs are more advanced in these areas, and I think that's really what the series is trying to demonstrate," explained Neil Osborne, chief executive of programme producer A Brand Apart Television Ltd, during a recent telephone interview from London.

Osborne also pointed out how the show attempts to draw parallels between dogs and the human species. "Although there are dogs around the world who have developed special tasks, like helping the disabled and working with military, I think what's interesting is, your dog at home is just as capable of doing these things. Dogs show incredible loyalty and awareness and are able to react like humans even."

The dogs on Eukanuba Extraordinary Dogs are almost unreal in their ability. Take for instance, Scamp, a pet miniature Schnauzer belonging to the Pines Nursing Home in Canton, Ohio, United States, who raises the alarm when he gets a feeling one of the seniors is about to pass on. Then there's Maybe, a Golden Labrador which helps it's owner forsee a potential epileptic seizure.

"The word extraordinary is truly appropriate because it's quite unbelievable that a dog can detect cancer cells in a human or even a diabetic attack. I think these stories really wowed a lot of people," explained Osborne of the brief of the programme.

While Eukanuba, the dog food maker, doesn't claim to be the first to highlight the extraordinary abilities of dogs, the packaging of the show certainly makes it one of the more engaging watches.

A Brand Part Television's partnership with Eukanuba was almost a no-brainer, Osborne revealed. "We're in the business of making television shows for international brands. So we develop stuff in music, sport, lifestyle, travel ... all sorts of things, really. When we came up with this idea, we knew it would be popular right across the world with television networks. So, that was the easy bit. The next was to find a brand that would support this show, a brand of an international scale that would fit the message of the show, and there was only one choice."

The programme is distributed to Asia, South America, Europe and the Middle East – "Across around 100 territories," informed Osborne.

Unlike actors turning up for auditions to bag a part in a movie or play, the dogs on the show didn't have to read Shakespearean lines or jump though rings of fire. "We had about 70-80 stories from around the world which were whittled down to the 39 on the programme. The Eukanuba Kennel Club helped in narrowing the search, too.

"Although dogs are highly intelligent, it is still difficult to get them to act. There were some things which were re-enacted, like dogs being dropped into rivers and lakes to rescue people from the Italian School Of Water Rescue Dogs, and that can be difficult. But generally, all the dogs were good and well-behaved in front of the cameras. Of course, we had trainers and handlers present," Osborne revealed.

His own favourite story is the one with Bingo, a Jack Russell Terrier who plays guardian to his 10-year-old owner Cole. Cole suffers from sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that can cause a victim to stop breathing in his sleep.

The series is divided to various categories – smell, hearing, sight, power in movement and sensitivity. So, the dogs are recognised for these individual abilities. Production for the series took a speedy five months.

Having worked so closely with dogs, it's no surprise that Osborne himself is a dog lover. "I have three Boxers. They're very intelligent and also very good guard dogs." Osborne was also quick to tease his dogs' greedy behaviour.

As a dog owner, Osborne has learned a fair bit about the canine species but he was still intrigued by a number of things in the series. "Beyond being reminded of how extraordinary dogs are, I learned a bit more about the science, like the dog's advanced nose receptacles ... nose sensors, which are way more powerful than a human's."

Eukanuba Extraordinary Dogs takes full advantage of video technology by being filmed in high definition. "At this point in time, I think I can safely say that this is the ultimate television series on dogs," concluded Osborne. With a sterling cast including the likes of Yorkshire Terrier Poppy, Labrador guide dog Tommy and Napal, the black Labrador Retriever, among others, it would be hard to disagree.

Eukanuba Extraordinary Dogs screens every Saturday at 1.50pm on National Geographic (Astro Ch 553).

Related Story:
Canines to the rescue

Canines to the rescue

Posted: 23 Jun 2011 03:14 PM PDT

THE coming weeks will see some truly clever canine friends, from those trained to rescue people on snowcapped mountains to detecting pirated DVDs.

June 25 – Kaya, the black Irish Labrador, works with handler Lori Spence as part of the Avalanche Rescue Program in Aspen. She helps locate people trapped on the mountain, and assists in lift and gondola evacuations.

She is also an excellent swimmer and in winter, rides on the chair lift and on the shoulders of Lori when she skis.

July 2 – The Sussex Police Working Dogs unit in Britain is responsible for patrolling a population of over 1.5 million people. In this episode, find out what goes into the training of a "general purpose dog" and witness how these training methods are put into practice.

July 9 – This episode focuses on dogs' extraordinary sense of smell and features Paddy, a Black Irish Labrador, and part of Malaysia's first ever K-9 unit specially trained to detect pirated DVD's.

Follow Paddy on patrol as he sniffs for polycarbonate, a key material used in the manufacture of pirated discs. His previous work has seen him uncover 35,000 pirated DVD's in an operation involving a raid on six warehouses.

July 16 – Labrador Lola is a real canine heroine. Together with her handler, Cristian, she helps find victims of earthquakes all over the world, as well as people who have gone missing in the wilds of her native Argentina.

Lola can detect living and dead bodies hundreds of metres away. Her speed and agility also mean that she can be much quicker at finding people in trouble than humans ever could.

Related Story:
It's a dog's world

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French Open champ Li upset by Lisicki at Wimbledon

Posted: 23 Jun 2011 05:46 PM PDT

WIMBLEDON, England (AP): French Open champion Li Na squandered two match points and lost in the second round of Wimbledon on Thursday to German wild card Sabine Lisicki, the biggest upset of the tournament so far.

The 62nd-ranked Lisicki erased both match points with service winners in the ninth game of the third set and beat the third-seeded Chinese player 3-6, 6-4, 8-6 under the roof on Centre Court. Other winners on Day 4 included six-time champion Roger Federer, women's defending titlist Serena Williams and second-seeded Novak Djokovic.

After Li hit a forehand long on Lisicki's third match point, the 21-year-old German fell to her knees at the baseline and put her head to the turf. She broke into tears at her courtside chair.

"My emotions are so, I mean, just over the moon," said Lisicki, who served 17 aces and had 32 winners. "It's just amazing."

Li was up 4-2 in the third set and twice served for the match but was broken each time. She had won 14 of her previous 15 Grand Slam matches in 2011, reaching the final at the Australian Open, then becoming China's first major singles champion at Roland Garros last month.

"Tough match," Li said. "But I think both players today played great. Nothing wrong, just unlucky. I have two match points. But I can do nothing for these two match points."

Lisicki has now won 12 of her last 13 matches on grass, including reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2009 and winning a tuneup tournament in Birmingham this month. She missed five months last season with a left ankle injury, and she fell out of the top 200 in the rankings.

"It was very, very hard," she said. "I really had to start from zero after being on crutches for seven weeks so it just means so much to me, you know, winning the title in Birmingham and getting the wild card here. I appreciate it so much, to be back in Wimbledon. It's just a place that I love so much."

At 5-3 down in the third, Lisicki fell behind 15-40 on her serve and faced two match points. She came up with two service winners at more than 120 mph (193 kph) and two straight aces - including a 124 mph (200 kph) delivery, the fastest by any woman this year.

Li served for the match at 5-4 and 6-5 but couldn't convert. "I just wanted to enjoy myself here and that's what I'm doing," Lisicki said. "That's what I told myself on the third set when I was down a break and she was serving for the match and I was just fighting and I wanted to stay longer out there.

"The crowd was cheering. I didn't know it could get so loud in there. It was just amazing. I loved it out there. The support was just amazing."

Li said she couldn't handle Lisicki's huge serve.

"Start of the first point until the end of the match, every serve was like around 117 miles (per hour)," she said. "I mean, this is impossible for the women."

Li reached the quarterfinals here in 2006 and 2010. Her landmark victory in Paris last month was watched by a reported 116 million people in China.

"I didn't feel different," she said Thursday. "I didn't feel pressure. Only change is right now opponents see you different. They (have) nothing to lose. So they can play best tennis on the court."

Federer, playing the last match on Centre Court, needed only 1 hour, 28 minutes to put away Adrian Mannarino of France, 6-2, 6-3 6-2. With his parents watching from the Royal Box, the third-seeded Swiss finished the match in style - soaring high in the air for a flying overhead smash.

It was the first time Federer has played under the roof on the court where he has made his name as perhaps the greatest player of all time. Fans held up play by doing the wave before Federer served for the match.

"It was very nice to play indoors for the first time," he said. "I've played on Centre Court for 10 straight years. The atmosphere was fantastic. It very nice for me to have such a standing ovation every time. I thought the conditions were fantastic from start to finish."

Earlier, Williams recovered from a poor start to defeat Romania's Simona Halep 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 and move into the third round, staying on course for a fifth title.

After dropping the first set, Williams regained her renowned intensity and powerful shot-making to dominate the rest of the way on Court 2. The winner of 13 Grand Slam singles titles is still searching for her form after a yearlong absence because of injuries and health issues.

There were no tears this time from Williams, who sobbed with relief on Monday after winning her opening match on Centre Court against Aravane Rezai.

"I'm just happy to be playing and hopefully I'll get better as the tournament goes on," Williams said. "It was a little windy out there and I just was a little tight so I just got to relax and enjoy myself more."

Williams wasn't happy about playing out on Court 2, rather than Centre Court or Court 1. Her sister, five-time champion Venus, played her first-round match on Court 2. Their two other matches were on Centre Court.

"They like to put us on Court 2, me and Venus, for whatever reason," Serena said. "I haven't figured it out yet. Maybe one day we'll figure it out. I don't know."

Williams said top male players, such as Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, are "never moved across" to the outside court.

"Actually Venus and I have won more Wimbledons together than a lot of the players or by ourselves in doubles even," she said. "At the end of the day, I don't know.

"They're not going to change, doesn't look like," Williams said, referring to All England Club organizers.

Told of Williams' comments, tournament spokesman Johnny Perkins said there was no intentional snub.

"I don't think it's anything deliberate, clearly," he told The Associated Press. "It's a hugely complex jigsaw puzzle. Everyone probably looks at it from their own point of view, so she's obviously quite entitled to (her opinion). ... We obviously have a duty to the paying public, plus the international audiences around the world."

It was the fourth consecutive three-setter Williams has played since returning last week at the Eastbourne grass-court tournament. She had been out for nearly a year after two foot operations and blood clots in her lungs.

"I guess I just want to play longer matches because I can get more practice," she said.

In men's play, Djokovic swept into the third round by beating South Africa's Kevin Anderson 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 on Court 1. The Serb has won his opening two rounds in straight sets after his 43-match winning streak was ended by Federer in the French Open semifinals.

In a dramatic five-setter that lasted nearly four hours, No. 5 Robin Soderling came from two sets down to overcome 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt 6-7 (5), 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-4 in a second-round match played under the Centre Court roof.

The big-swinging Soderling, a two-time French Open finalist, broke Hewitt at love in the final game and dropped to his knees in exhilaration after the Australian slapped a forehand into the net on match point.

Soderling withstood a bravura performance from the 30-year-old Hewitt, who made at least three diving backhands during the match, two at the net and one running pass in the first set in which he rolled over after flicking the ball down the line to break serve.

No. 12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga rallied for a 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (8) win over 20-year-old Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov. The Frenchman jumped over the net and helped up his opponent in a sporting gesture after the deciding tiebreaker.

No. 13 seed Viktor Troicki became the highest seeded man to go out so far, falling to Taiwan's Lu Yen-hsun, 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-4. Lu reached the quarterfinals last year.

Yani Tseng leads LPGA Championship

Posted: 23 Jun 2011 05:42 PM PDT

PITTSFORD, New York (AP): Yani Tseng, the top-ranked player in women's golf, shot a 6-under 66 on Thursday to take a one-shot lead over Paula Creamer after the first round of the LPGA Championship.

The 22-year-old Taiwanese, already the youngest player to win three majors, made five birdies on the front nine and three more on the back to go with a pair of bogeys as she began her quest for another major title.

"I tried to put it on the fairways as much as I could," said Tseng, who finished second to Stacy Lewis at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March, the first major of the year. "When you put it on the fairways, you have more chance to make birdies. The second shot I hit it very good."

Among her eight birdie putts at Locust Hill Country Club, was an 8-footer at No. 15. And although Tseng hit only six of 14 fairways, her strength allowed her to hit solid shots out of the thick rough and she was able to reach 15 of 18 greens in regulation.

She was nearly flawless on the short holes, birdieing all four par 3s on a course that had been softened by overnight rain.

Tseng faltered twice, bogeying the par-4 13th hole after hitting a "terrible drive" and missing a 12-foot putt for par, then pulling her drive at No. 16, another par 4, and missing an 8-foot par putt.

"It's hard to put it on (the) fairway. The course is really narrow," Tseng said.

Leading Creamer by one shot heading to the 18th tee, Tseng recovered from a bad tee shot that landed in the thick right rough. She hit a 9-iron onto the ridge above the hole, then watched as it rolled down within 4 feet of the pin and sank the birdie putt.

"I'm enjoying what's happening right now," said Tseng, who won the State Farm Classic two weeks ago for her second LPGA Tour victory of the season. "The last few weeks just gave me lots of confidence for my putting and my driving, too. So that helps a lot for a major golf course. (It) make me very comfortable."

Angela Stanford, Meena Lee, Diana D'Alessio and Stacy Prammanasudh were 4 under, and Morgan Pressel, Stacy Lewis, Ryann O'Toole, Amy Hung, Minea Blomqvist, Jennifer Johnson and Hee Young Park were 3 under.

Defending champion Cristie Kerr, who was ailing with a cold, shot an even-par 72.

Creamer withdrew from this tournament two years ago - before it became a major - with an injury to her left thumb, and last year finished tied for 42nd, never going lower than her first-round 71.

"Normally, I shoot myself in the foot after the first day with putting pressure on myself and wanting to do so well," said Creamer. "It's nice to be on the other side going into tomorrow. I just need to keep it going and try to make as many birdies as I can."

Creamer missed a chance to tie - or even take the lead - when she misread a 45-foot eagle putt at the par-5 17th hole and ended up three-putting for par. She then got a birdie at 18, hitting a 7-iron from 150 yards within 2 feet of the pin.

"I gave myself a lot of opportunities. I made a lot of good putts," Creamer said. "I kind of was kicking myself after 17. I had a good birdie chance there, just two putts. But I finished strong, and I feel good about where I'm sitting."

10-man Malaysia down Lebanon to book place in the final round qualifiers

Posted: 23 Jun 2011 03:46 PM PDT

BUKIT JALIL: Ten-man Malaysia advanced to the final round of the Asian Olympic qualifiers (last 12) through the skin of their teeth after edging Lebanon 2-1 on aggregate at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil last night.

It was a gallant performance indeed by Ong Kim Swee's boys after they had held the seeded Lebanese side to a goalless draw in the second round, first-leg match in Beirut on Sunday.

Mohd Irfan Fazail opened the scoring for Malaysia in the ninth minute before Wan Zack Haikal Wan Nor doubled the advantage with a cool finish in the 42nd minute.

Chadi Atie reduced the deficit for the visitors in the 64th minute.

But it was not an easy win as Malaysia had to slog hard with 10 men for most of the second-half when Gary Steven Robbat was sent off for a second bookable offence in the 51st minute.

The Malaysians were walking on thin ice because if Lebanon had equalised, they would have qualified for the final round on the away goal rule.

The gutsy Malaysians can now look forward to rubbing shoulders with the best 12 teams in Asia in the final round of the Olympic qualifiers for the 3.5 slots to the 2012 London Olympics.

It may not have been a vintage performance by the Malaysians but they got the job done all the same.

Malaysia, who defeated Pakistan 2-0 on aggregate in the first round last month, will definitely find life much tougher in the final round.

Asia have 3.5 slots for the London Olympics. The 12 winners in the second round will be divided into three groups of four teams each and the matches will be played from Sept 21-March 14.

The group winners qualify for the London Games. The second-placed teams will then play off at a centralised venue from March 25-29 and the winner will face an African side for a place in the Olympics.

For the record, Malaysia have only qualified twice for the Olympics – in 1972 (Munich) and 1980 (Moscow).

The draw for the final round will be held on July 7.

MALAYSIA: Khairul Fahmi Che Mat, Mohd Muslim Ahmad, Mohd Affize Faisal (Wan Zaharulnizam Zakaria), Mohd Fadli Shahs, Mohd Irfan Fazail (Izzaq Faris Ramlan), Syahrul Azwari Ibrahim (Abdul Shukur Jusoh), K. Gurusamy, Gary Steven Robbat, Mohd Zubir Azmi, Wan Zack Haikal Wan Nor, Mohd Fandi Othman.

LEBANON: Mohd Dakramanji, Jad Noureddine (Rabih Ataya), Mohd Haidar, Omar Quaida, Nour Mansour, Haytham Faour, Ali Bazzi (Hassan Chaito), Chadi Atie (Mustapha Chahine), Kassem Leila, Mahmoud Kojok, Abdallah Taleb.

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EPF's investment income best ever at RM24.06bil

Posted: 23 Jun 2011 03:57 PM PDT

PETALING JAYA: The Employees Provident Fund (EPF) returned its best performance to date to post a gross investment income of RM24.06bil in its financial year ended Dec 31, 2010 reflecting a 39.8% year-on-year growth amid the impressive recovery of the Malaysian economy from the 2009 global economic recession,

The growth had also led EPF to declare a dividend rate of 5.8% for 2010, up 15 basis points compared with the previous year.

The EPF also recorded its highest ever dividend payout amount of RM21.61bil, an increase of 11.55% over the 2009 dividend payout of RM19.37bil.

"Financially, we leveraged on the recovery in the markets to garner our highest gross income to date, while operationally, we further built upon the strong foundations laid to enhance operational efficiencies, deliver on key performance targets and elevate the customer service experience," said EPF chairman Tan Sri Samsudin Osman in a statement yesterday.

The EPF's Annual Report 2010 was tabled in Parliament yesterday.

The retirement fund maintained its prudent strategy and devoted the majority of its investments in 2010 to fixed income assets with 32.38% invested in loans and bonds, 26.9% in Malaysia Government Securities and 5.45% in money market instruments.

Equities emerged as the single-largest asset class comprising about one third or 34.85% of total assets, while 0.42% was invested in properties.

The year also saw the EPF total investment assets crossing the RM400bil mark to stand at RM440.52bil as at Dec 31, 2010.

Astro to increase prices

Posted: 23 Jun 2011 05:06 PM PDT

COME July, you will be paying new rates for your entertainment, brought to you by Astro.

If you ask Astro, it won't mince its words. The new pricing is effective July and the hikes range from RM1 to RM15 a month. That works out to an additional RM180 a year or 49 sen more a day for the package that has gone up by RM15 a month.

Astro will make about RM17.7mil a month from the total price hike and for a year, this would total RM212mil.

If you ask Astro, it will be quick to point out that some users will benefit from the price adjustment its first since 2007 anything from RM4 to RM14.95 per month. The good thing about this new pricing is that the basic package of RM37.95 is left untouched, and Astro says the new structure is such that the more channels you order, the lower the rate will be.

Astro has come up with three super-value packages two priced at RM125 (tailored for Malay and Indian viewers) each and RM155 for the Chinese. If you want all 146 channels, it will cost RM199, down from RM274.75, but this group makes up only about 3% of Astro's total subscriber base of 2.95 million.

Astro b.yond, the high-definition (HD) offering, is now part of the super-value bundle and that means you need not to fork out RM20 extra every month. On hindsight, the idea of charging RM20 a month for Astro b.yond was ridiculous as Astro shouldn't have passed its cost of going HD to the consumers. That should not have been imposed at all.

The unfortunate part of the new pricing is that Astro was only thinking of its three main groups of viewers Malays, which make up 1.7 million of its subscriber base, Chinese (600,000) and Indians (300,000) when it drafted the super-value deals. It did not factor in those who just like to watch English language programmes, and that is grossly unfair.

The announcement on the hike came on June 7 and the charging will begin on July 11. The rationale for the hike is that content cost has gone up, with a compounded annual growth rate of 14% from 2008 to 2012.

Astro's content bill stood at RM762mil in 2008, RM1.17bil in the financial year ended January 31, 2011, and will rise to RM1.2bil in the current financial year. Content makes up 35% of its overall cost. Although many think sports is the main culprit, sucking up all the content cost, it actually use up only a third, just like local and international contents.

After the announcement, Astro has been talking to its customers and so far, about 50,000 have opted for the super-value deals.

Some of Astro's subscribers are aware of the hikes. Some think it is unfair to raise prices at a time when electricity cost has gone up and so has petrol price. In fact, the increase in petrol price has resulted in costlier foodstuff.

Some users have aired their grouses via social networks while consumer groups have spoken against the hike as they questioned the rationale for Astro being a monopoly service provider. Others are asking for a review of the new price structure or else a boycott will be staged.

The matter has reached Parliament, where questions have been raised and answers given. The irony of it all is the Government is saying that "it is still discussing with Astro over its plan to adjust the pricing of its packages ... will need to know whether it is appropriate or reasonable for the company to increase its fees ... the new package price effective July 11 is not final".

But if you ask Astro, it would say the new pricing will be reflected in your July bill.

Going by the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, under which Astro operates, Astro says it can set its own pricing, and that it had revealed the new rate to the regulator on May 13.

A monopoly in satellite TV it is. However, there are others, nine to be exact, that have similar licences, some of which have not fully exploited their licences. Those that have gone into the game have yet to come up with a compelling alternative. That is why Astro is able to dominate. It is also sitting on content, some exclusivities which others cannot touch, and the company can say that it is the seller's world.

Let us be reminded that Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority in the United Kingdom, has the will to dictate its market in many areas, from pricing to keeping players on their toes so that consumers are well protected.

In the spirit of competitive pricing, should the regulator have more say in the pricing charged on consumers and should we be burdened so soon after the recent electricity hike?

  • Deputy news editor B.K. Sidhu hopes for Kongsi-2 and she may have some ideas too.
  • Maybank and CIMB no longer pursuing RHB Cap

    Posted: 23 Jun 2011 05:01 PM PDT

    PETALING JAYA: The grand deal that would have created a regional banking champion has fallen flat even before it could take off. Barely a month after they expressed their interest to take over RHB Capital Bhd, both Malayan Banking Bhd (Maybank) and CIMB Group Holdings Bhd announced yesterday that they were no longer pursuing merger talks with the country's fifth largest bank.

    Maybank announced to Bursa Malaysia that its board had decided not to pursue the possible merger "in light of recent developments and following further deliberations" at this juncture.

    Similarly, CIMB Group also said it had ceased negotiations with RHB on a potential merger exercise. "Based on our various discussions and our assessment of the present expectations of key stakeholders, we do not believe that we will be able to arrive at a value-creating merger," CIMB Group chief executive Datuk Seri Nazir Razak said in a statement.

    "Merger negotiations are both resource consuming and distracting for staff and stakeholders. Therefore, we prefer not to prolong our discussions unnecessarily, allowing all parties to return to business as usual' as soon as possible," he added.

    Even so, sources have not ruled out a possible merger between these parties "not too far into the future."

    RHB Capital's share price, which has been on an uptrend since the announcement of the takeover bid, suffered a major beating yesterday, shedding 6% of its value, or 57 sen, to close the day at RM9.03 on news that the merger talks had fallen through. RHB Cap's largest shareholder is the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), which owns a 45% interest in the banking group.

    It's "business as usual for us," EPF chairman Tan Sri Azlan Zainol told StarBiz. Azlan, who is also RHB Bank Bhd chairman, said: "We will continue to serve our customers and pursue our strategic direction and initiatives. The group has performed well over the years and will continue to achieve higher level of profitability as a stand-alone entity."

    According to sources, the talks for the potential merger started heading south very early this week. The main stumbling blocks were pricing and divergent interests.

    "It was clear that the talks were not going to have a good ending. If there was not going to be a positive outcome, it would be better to stop it as soon as possible. The situation was getting too complicated. That could be why the two banks decided to walk away," said a source.

    The breakdown in talks closely followed the sale of Abu Dhabi Commercial Bhd's (ADCB) 25% stake exactly a week ago to its sister company, Aabar Investments PJSC, at RM10.80 per share. It is believed that Bank Negara had last week set a condition that ADCB's sale price of the block should be adjusted accordingly if the offer price for the merger was lower than RM10.80, which was not received well by parties espousing free market forces.

    The price tag of RM10.80, which works out to 2.25 times the book value of RHB Cap, had inadvertently set a floor or indicative price for the takeover bids by Maybank and CIMB, which the suitors were evidently not willing to pay. Even so, industry observers had pointed out that the transaction between ADCB and Aabar was not an arm's length deal as they were related parties and should not have set the benchmark pricing for the takeover exercise. Evidently, not everyone had agreed with that assessment.

    An advisor to Aabar said the sovereign-owned investment agency would proceed as signed to acquire the 25% stake in RHB Cap as it "believes in the long-term value proposition with EPF as a long-term partner and would support any proposal that enhances shareholder value whether it is organic growth, mergers and acquisitions or a combination."

    "Aabar has transacted the purchase on a willing buyer-willing seller basis after thorough analysis and believes RHB Cap is a good investment in the long term," he added.

    Analysts were not surprised by the outcome as most had expected a "walkout" largely due to the wide gap in price expectations. One analyst said the sharp fall in RHB Cap's share price yesterday was an "expected knee-jerk reaction as it has risen significantly on the takeover talks."

    "Investors were definitely looking forward to CIMB buying RHB Cap because it (CIMB) was well integrated with other financial institutions previously. An integration would have reaped real operational benefits for RHB Cap. Now that this is not happening, it's a great disappointment," said the analyst.

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