Ahad, 27 November 2011

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Arab sanctions tighten noose on Syria's Assad

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 07:04 PM PST

AMMAN (Reuters) - The Arab League approved unprecedented economic sanctions against Syria, isolating President Bashar al-Assad's government over its eight-month crackdown on protests against his rule.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad greets the crowd during his visit to Raqqa city in Eastern Syria, November 6, 2011, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA. REUTERS/SANA/Handout

Britain said the sanctions could help enlist support at the United Nations for action against Damascus, which launched the crackdown against protesters calling for Assad's removal soon after the uprising began eight months ago.

The United Nations says Syrian security forces have killed more than 3,500 people in the crackdown.

Anti-Assad activists said there was no respite and security forces had killed at least 24 civilians Sunday, many in a town north of Damascus that has become a focus for the protests. Others were killed in raids on towns in the province of Homs.

"The indications are not positive ... the sanctions are still economic but if there is no movement on the part of Syria then we have a responsibility as human beings to stop the killings," Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, Qatar's prime minister and foreign minister, told reporters.

"Power is not worth anything when a ruler kills his people," he said after 19 of the League's 22 members approved the decision to immediately enforce the sanctions at a meeting in Cairo Sunday.

The sanctions include a travel ban on top Syrian officials, a freeze on assets related to Assad's government and are aimed at halting dealings with Syria's central bank and investment in the country, Sheikh Hamad said.

He added that Turkey, which attended the meeting, would also honour some of the measures, which will be another blow to the Syrian economy already reeling from sanctions imposed by the European Union and United States.

Arab nations wanted to avoid a repeat of what happened in Libya, where a U.N. Security Council resolution led to NATO air strikes. Sheikh Hamad warned other Arab states that the West could intervene if it felt the league was not "serious."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the "unprecedented decision to impose sanctions demonstrates that the regime's repeated failure to deliver on its promises will not be ignored and that those who perpetrate these appalling abuses will be held to account."

Hague said Britain hoped the move would help break what he called United Nations silence "on the ongoing brutality taking place in Syria" after Russia and China thwarted Western efforts to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria.

"To that end we welcome the commitment by the Arab League to engage with the U.N. Secretary General at the earliest opportunity to gain the U.N.'s support to address the situation in Syria," he said.

Britain has repeatedly ruled out a military attack on Syria.

Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, said in an interview this month that he would continue the crackdown and blamed the unrest on outside pressure to "subjugate Syria."

Many Arab leaders have become increasingly concerned by a series of "Arab Spring" revolts that have toppled the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.


A Western diplomat said Assad could for now count on support from China and Russia at the United Nations but that the two countries may change position if Assad heightens the crackdown and if the Arab League campaigns for international intervention.

China and Russia have oil concessions in Syria. Moscow also has a mostly disused naval base in the country and military advisers to the Syrian army.

"The sanctions are likely to lose Assad support among those in Syria who have been waiting to see whether he will be able to turn things around, such as merchants who could now see their businesses take more hits," the diplomat said.

The president of the Union of Arab Banks, a division of the Arab League, said Sunday the sanctions would hit Syria's central bank, which has "big deposits" in the region, especially the Gulf.

Arab ministers were spurred to action by worsening violence in Syria and by the Assad government's failure to meet a deadline to let in Arab monitors and take other steps to end its crackdown on the uprising.

Syrian official media quoted an undated letter by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem to the Arab League as saying Damascus viewed the plan for monitors as interference in its affairs.

The League has been galvanised by pressure from Gulf Arabs, already angry at Syria's alliance with regional rival Iran, by the political changes brought about by Arab uprisings, and by the scale of the Syrian bloodshed.

Along with peaceful protests, some of Assad's opponents are fighting back. Army defectors have loosely grouped under the Syrian Free Army and more insurgent attacks on loyalist troops have been reported in the last several weeks.

Officials blame the violence on armed groups targeting civilians and its security forces and say 1,100 security force members have been killed.

(Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh in Cairo; editing by Elizabeth Piper)

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

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Rage grips Pakistan over NATO attack

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 05:26 PM PST

ISLAMABAD/KABUL (Reuters) - Fury spread in Pakistan Sunday over a NATO cross-border air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and could undermine the U.S. effort to wind up the war in Afghanistan.

A man walks past burning motorbikes which were set ablaze by an angry mob in Karachi November 27, 2011. REUTERS/Athar Hussain

Sunday night in Pakistan, more than 40 hours after the incident, many questions remained.

NATO described the killings as a "tragic unintended incident" and said an investigation was underway. A Western official and an Afghan security official who requested anonymity said NATO troops were responding to fire from across the border.

It's possible both explanations are correct: that a retaliatory attack by NATO troops took a tragic, mistaken turn in harsh terrain where identifying friend and foe can be difficult.

"All of this is extremely murky and needs to be investigated," said a U.S. official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Our goal today is ... that the investigation gets mounted in a way that is confidence-building on all sides."

Militants often attack from Pakistani soil or flee after combat across a porous border that NATO-led troops, under their United Nations mandate, cannot cross.

What is clear is the incident could undermine U.S. efforts to improve ties with Pakistan so that the regional power helps stabilise Afghanistan before NATO combat troops go home by the end of 2014.

The attack was the latest perceived provocation by the United States, which infuriated Pakistan's powerful military with a unilateral special forces raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May.

Thousands gathered outside the American consulate in the city of Karachi to protest against the NATO attack.

A Reuters reporter at the scene said the angry crowd shouted "Down with America." One young man climbed on the wall surrounding the heavily fortified compound and attached a Pakistani flag to barbed wire.

"America is attacking our borders. The government should immediately break ties with it," said Naseema Baluch, a housewife attending the demonstration. "America wants to occupy our country but we will not let it do that."

Pakistan buried the troops killed in the attack Sunday. Television stations showed coffins draped in green and white Pakistani flags in a prayer ceremony at the headquarters of the regional command in Peshawar, attended by army chief General Ashfaq Kayani.

The NATO attack highlights the difficulties faced by the United States as it tries to secure the unruly border area that is home to some of the world's most dangerous militant groups who have mastered the harsh mountainous landscape.

Around 40 troops were stationed at the outposts at the time of the attack, military sources said.

Militants targeting NATO forces have long taken advantage of the fact that the alliance's mandate ends at the border to either attack from within Pakistan or flee to relative safety after an attack.

Three Pakistani soldiers were killed last year by NATO gunships. NATO said then that its forces had mistaken warning shots from Pakistani forces for a militant attack.

In the latest incident, a Western official and a senior Afghan security official said NATO and Afghan forces had come under fire from across the border with Pakistan before NATO aircraft attacked a Pakistani army post, killing the soldiers.

"They came under cross-border fire," the Western official said, without identifying the source of the fire.

The Afghan official said troops had come under fire from inside Pakistan as they were descending from helicopters, which had returned fire.

Both officials asked not to be named because the attack is so sensitive.

Pakistan has said the attack was an unprovoked assault and has said it reserves the right to retaliate.


U.S. and NATO officials are trying to defuse tensions but the soldiers' deaths are testing a bad marriage of convenience between Washington and Islamabad.

Many Pakistanis believe their army is fighting a war against militants that only serves Western interests.

Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by telephone early Sunday to convey "the deep sense of rage felt across Pakistan" and warned that the incident could undermine efforts to improve relations, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Pakistan shut down NATO supply routes into Afghanistan in retaliation for the incident, the worst of its kind since Islamabad uneasily allied itself with Washington following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Pakistan is the route for nearly half of NATO supplies shipped overland to its troops in Afghanistan. Land shipments account for about two thirds of the alliance's cargo.

A similar incident on Sept 30, 2010, which killed two Pakistani service personnel, led to the closure of one of NATO's supply routes through Pakistan for 10 days.

U.S. ties with Pakistan have suffered several big setbacks starting with the unilateral U.S. special forces raid in May that killed bin Laden in a Pakistani town where he had apparently been living for years.

Pakistan condemned the secret operation as a flagrant violation of its sovereignty, while suspicions arose in Washington that members of Pakistan's military intelligence had harboured the al Qaeda leader.

The military came under unprecedented criticism from both Pakistanis who said it failed to protect the country and American officials who said bin Laden's presence was proof the country was an unreliable ally in the war on militancy.

Pakistan's army, one of the world's largest, may see the NATO incursion from Afghanistan as a chance to reassert itself, especially since the deaths of the soldiers are likely to unite generals and politicians, whose ties are normally uneasy.

Pakistan's jailing of a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, and U.S. accusations that Pakistan backed a militant attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul have added to the tensions.

"From Raymond Davis and his gun slinging in the streets of Lahore to the Osama bin Laden incident, and now to the firing on Pakistani soldiers on the volatile Pakistan-Afghan border, things hardly seem able to get any worse," said the Daily Times.

Islamabad depends on billions in U.S. aid and Washington believes Pakistan can help it bring about peace in Afghanistan.

But it is constantly battling Anti-American sentiment over everything from U.S. drone aircraft strikes to Washington's calls for economic reforms.

"We should end our friendship with America. It's better to have animosity with America than friendship. It's nobody's friend," said labourer Sameer Baluch.

In Karachi, dozens of truck drivers who should have been transporting supplies to Afghanistan were idle.

Taj Malli braves the threat of Taliban attacks to deliver supplies to Afghanistan so that he can support his children. But he thinks it is time to block the route permanently in protest.

"Pakistan is more important than money. The government must stop all supplies to NATO so that they realise the importance of Pakistan," he said..

But some Pakistanis doubt their leaders have the resolve to challenge the United States.

"This government is cowardly. It will do nothing," said Peshawar shopkeeper Sabir Khan. "Similar attacks happened in the past, but what have they done?"

(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad, Izaz Mohmand and Aftab Ahmed in Peshawar, Imtiaz Shah in Karachi, and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Peter Graff)

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

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Arab states cut commercial ties with Syria

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 04:40 PM PST

CAIRO (Reuters) - The Arab League approved economic sanctions on Syria on Sunday to try to force Damascus to halt an eight-month crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad that Qatar said may prompt international intervention.

Demonstrators march against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Deir Balaba near Homs November 27, 2011. The banner reads, "God is the greatest". REUTERS/Handout

Anti-Assad activists said there was no respite from the crackdown and security forces had killed at least 24 civilians, many in a town north of Damascus that has become a focus for protests demanding Assad's removal. Others were killed in raids on towns in the province of Homs.

Nineteen of the League's 22 members approved the decision to immediately enforce the sanctions, hailed by Britain as unprecedented. They include a travel ban on top Syrian officials and a freeze on assets related to Assad's government.

"The indications are not positive ... the sanctions are still economic but if there is no movement on the part of Syria then we have a responsibility as human beings to stop the killings," Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, Qatar's prime minister and foreign minister, told reporters.

"Power is not worth anything when a ruler kills his people," he said, adding that the sanctions were also aimed at halting dealings with Syria's central bank and investment in Syria.

Sheikh Hamad said Arab nations wanted to avoid a repeat of what happened in Libya, where a U.N. Security Council resolution led to NATO air strikes. He warned other Arab states that the West could intervene if it felt the league was not "serious."

"All the work that we are doing is to avoid this interference," he said.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said the "unprecedented decision to impose sanctions demonstrates that the regime's repeated failure to deliver on its promises will not be ignored and that those who perpetrate these appalling abuses will be held to account."

Hague said Britain hoped the move would help break what he called United Nations silence "on the ongoing brutality taking place in Syria" after Russia and China thwarted Western efforts to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria.

Damascus, where the Assad family has ruled for 41 years, says regional powers helped incite the violence, which it blames on armed groups targeting civilians and its security forces.


The president of the Union of Arab Banks, a division of the Arab League, expected the sanctions to hit Syria's central bank, which he said has "big deposits" in the region, especially the Gulf.

"Once individual countries that have voted for the sanctions issue instructions, Syrian deposits will be frozen, which will affect the financial resources of the Syrian government," Adnan Youssef told Arabiya television.

Arab ministers were spurred to action by worsening violence in Syria and by the Assad government's failure to meet a deadline to let in Arab monitors and take other steps to end its crackdown on the uprising.

"It is a symbolic but a huge step. The Arab League has tried to stop civilian killings but it failed. Now it is removing the Arab cover from the regime, which could make it easier for the international community to intervene," said opposition figure Walid al-Bunni.

"No one wants to see ordinary Syrians deprived of essential supplies. The Arabs are telling Bashar: 'You are killing the people to whom you say you belong. We will not receive you in our capitals. We're freezing your assets. We are not investing in your country,'" Bunni said from Cairo.

Even so, the measures could plunge Syria deeper into economic crisis.

Syrian official media quoted an undated letter by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem to the Arab League as saying Damascus viewed the plan for monitors as interference in its affairs.

"We trust that all Arab countries stand against foreign interference in the affairs of Arab countries. Therefore we hope that the League will issue (a statement) confirming this," he said.

The League for decades avoided action against its 22 members.

But it has been galvanised by pressure from Gulf Arabs, already angry at Syria's alliance with regional rival Iran, by the political changes brought about by Arab uprisings, and by the scale of the Syrian bloodshed.


Troops backed by armour killed 11 people, including two children, in Rankous, a town 30 km (19 miles) north of Damascus as they raided houses looking for activists who had taken part in anti-Assad rally on Friday that was broadcast live on al-Jazeera television, activists said.

"It is difficult to know what is happening in Rankous exactly. The communications have been cut. A couple of Facebook messages that trickled from there talked about heavy tank fire on the town," said one activist, who lives in Damascus and gave his name as Fares.

"There were hit-and-run attacks by insurgents on loyalist forced in Rankous last week. The raid today may be also in revenge of that," he said.

In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, security police killed two people and wounded 10 at a funeral of an activist.

"The funeral came under fire at the mosque when the crowd started chanting 'the people weren't the downfall of the regime'," Abu Jassem, an activist in the city, said by phone.

In al-Ghab plain, northwest of the city of Hama, troops arrested dozens of villagers in the town of Kfar Nbouzeh, burnt six houses belonging to activists and ransacked shops, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that 11 people were also killed in the central province of Homs.

"Even regular food stores were not spared from the ransacking," said Rami Abdelrahman, the Observatory's director.

The United Nations says the crackdown has killed more than 3,500 people. Along with peaceful protests, some of Assad's opponents are fighting back. Army defectors have loosely grouped under the Syrian Free Army and more insurgent attacks on loyalist troops have been reported in the last several weeks.

The defectors are drawn from the majority Sunni rank and file. The military and security apparatus are dominated by officers from Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam that has controlled the majority Sunni country for the last five decades.

Hundreds of people, including civilians, soldiers and army deserters, have been killed in Syria this month, possibly the bloodiest since the unrest broke out in March inspired by uprisings which overthrew leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Alongside the mainly peaceful protests, armed insurgents have increasingly attacked military targets in recent weeks. Officials say 1,100 security force members have been killed.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, Patrick Werr and Tom Pfeiffer in Cairo, and Patrick Markey in Baghdad; Writing by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

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Analysis: NYSE stokes Wall St battle for "mom and pop" investors

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 05:28 PM PST

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The fight for mom and pop's stock orders is getting testy on Wall Street.

The New York Stock Exchange wants to give retail investors fractions of a penny in better prices when they trade securities listed there.

The plan, unveiled last month, would effectively set individuals apart from funds, brokers and other professionals - who would still pay the publicly displayed prices.

It is an effort to induce retail investors back from trading mostly off-exchange at electronic "wholesalers." And it means the Big Board is effectively taking on the handful of these wholesale market makers, such as Knight Capital Group Inc and hedge fund Citadel, that have been able to get a first look at retail orders and the opportunity to use that information to aid their own trading strategies.

If the NYSE wins regulatory approval for the plan, it could change the way many orders circulate, and it could mean slightly cheaper trading for Main Street investors.

But that approval isn't certain given the plan will resurrect a fierce philosophical debate over preferential treatment for some market participants. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has only weeks to decide what to do.

"For the first time in a very broad stroke they could approve the ability of exchanges to discriminate by customer," said Christopher Nagy, managing director of order strategy at TD Ameritrade Holding Corp, the largest U.S. retail brokerage.

In a way, much of the commotion is because mom and pop aren't the savviest of stock traders.

Many casual traders don't even know that their orders rarely end up at the Big Board or Nasdaq. Instead, TD Ameritrade, E*Trade Financial Corp and other online brokers send the orders - up to 12 percent of all U.S. equity trading, according to Rosenblatt Securities -- to the wholesale market makers, who fill the orders and pay the broker a small fee for the privilege.

The wholesalers are willing to pay the small fee because mom and pop orders are seen as uninformed - or "dumb", to use the derogatory industry term. Unlike professional investors with sophisticated short-term strategies and quantitative market analysis, retail investors aren't usually in a position to keep on top of news, rumors or the flow of orders and liquidity, and may sometimes buy or sell based on a hunch.

The diversion of these orders to wholesalers is quite legal, and said to give retail investors about a tenth of a penny in better prices, on average, than they would otherwise get on the exchanges. It is also one of the main reasons more than 30 percent of U.S. equity trading takes place off-exchange in the anonymous "dark", up from about 20 percent in 2007.

The payment-for-order-flow by wholesalers and online brokers has frustrated NYSE Euronext and Nasdaq OMX Group Inc, which have seen their market share dwindle over the past decade. NYSE Euronext now has only 35 percent of trading in NYSE-listed stocks, down from 80 percent in 2005.

The SEC, meanwhile, has been increasingly uncomfortable with the growing share of dark trading as it is more difficult to regulate.

"The vast majority of retail traders don't know that when they're trading NYSE stocks, they're not actually trading at the NYSE," said market structure author and expert Larry Harris, a finance professor at University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.

"The NYSE's proposal is designed to try to recapture some of that retail order flow."


The NYSE plan, which is called the Retail Liquidity Program, was proposed last month after consultation with the SEC. It is the latest in a long line of attempts by U.S. exchanges to win back retail investors.

If exchanges can attract more "dumb" orders to their market, they'll also attract more institutions and high-frequency trading firms eager to trade against those orders - which is potentially lucrative trading volume.

But getting the green light will take work.

There is some tough opposition to NYSE's plan, interviews with wholesale groups and other industry players shows. Overall, though, there is an expectation the SEC will approve an adjusted version of the plan that would give retail investors some sort of exemption for better exchange pricing.

Nasdaq as well as Direct Edge, a private exchange operator that handles 10 percent of U.S. equity trading, are expected to propose similar retail-pricing proposals, according to industry sources familiar with the plans. BATS, another private exchange, is expected to criticize parts of NYSE's plan, said the sources, who requested anonymity.

The three exchanges declined to comment. The SEC declined an interview, citing the ongoing public comment period.

A raft of letters reacting to the NYSE is expected from brokerages, exchanges and others before the November 30 public comment deadline. The SEC, under Chairman Mary Schapiro, then has until December 16 to decide whether to back the plan or take more time to mull it over, based on the comments.

"I would be quite surprised if the SEC were to approve this as is," said Jamie Selway, managing director and head of liquidity management at Investment Technology Group Inc. "People have played footsie with this issue of price discrimination ... but this would be a big step for the SEC."

In detail, here is what the NYSE wants to do:

For a one-year pilot, NYSE would create two new classes of market participants: companies such as E*Trade, Charles Schwab Corp or even wholesale firms that are qualified to send bona fide retail orders to the exchange; the second is market makers that are required to provide "potential price improvement" to the orders in an anonymous, or dark, fashion.

Retail investors would get at least a tenth of a penny in better prices than the best displayed bid or offer at that moment. The NYSE has not yet said how much it will rebate brokers that send the orders, nor how much it will charge firms that provide the liquidity.

It all adds up to a challenge to Knight, Citadel, UBS AG, Citigroup Inc and E*Trade's market making arm, which are the dominant U.S. retail wholesalers. It could also hurt "dark pool" venues, some run by banks such as Credit Suisse Group AG, where stocks are traded anonymously.


The NYSE proposal effectively gives some people in the market preferential treatment over others. This is not allowed at exchanges, though some argue that wholesalers and those running dark pools already offer it.

Exchange rules are "not designed to permit unfair discrimination between customers, issuers, brokers, or dealers..." the U.S. Securities Exchange Act says.

"My broader concern," said one brokerage official, "is that the fair access provisions that the exchanges have to abide by are significantly weakened by this."

Joseph Mecane, NYSE Euronext's co-head of U.S. listings and cash execution, acknowledged he is challenging fair access provisions, but only to an extent. "What we're essentially arguing is, by making this program only available to retail customers, we're not unreasonably discriminating against any class," he said.

The SEC would also have to grant the NYSE an exemption to a rule that limits the pricing of stocks to no finer than penny increments -- that is, General Electric Co's shares can only trade hands at $15.08, not $15.085 or $15.0852.

In the end, the regulator will have to decide whether NYSE's plan will bring enough benefit to individual traders and to the public markets to outweigh all the concerns over fairness, and the complaints that it will only complicate an already complicated marketplace.

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US markets stay on edge(update)

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 05:27 PM PST

NEW YORK: US investors came to the Thanksgiving holiday table on Thursday mostly thankful that the week was a short one, or losses could have been larger.

As another round of news and bond auctions from Europe begins this week, traders will watch closely sovereign bond yields that have kept markets on edge.

Yields rose in almost every eurozone country last week, and Germany failed to find enough bids for a 10-year auction.

The S&P 500 reacted by posting a second straight week of declines and its worst week in two months.

Politicians are scrambling to find a way out of a two-year-old sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone and a visit to Washington from top European Union officials, as well as a meeting of eurozone finance ministers, will provide the market with headlines and possibly add to uncertainty.

With the spectre of rising yields, France, Britain, Italy, Belgium and Spain are holding debt sales this week. The direction of bond yields will determine the direction of equity markets.

"Politicians are trying to buy themselves time so austerity measures kick in and impact budgets and deficits, and markets become more forgiving and rates come down," said Wasif Latif, vice-president of equity investments at the San Antonio, Texas-based USAA Investment Management, which manages about US$45bil.

"The credit market and fixed income are a little bit more in the eye of storm; that's where the issue is rising, so equities are more reactionary," he said. "You may continue to see more of the same."

Investors have worried about rising borrowing costs in many eurozone nations, but Italy, the third largest eurozone economy, has grabbed most of the focus. On Friday, Rome paid a record 6.5% to borrow for six months and almost 8% to issue two-year zero coupon bonds.

Many market participants have said that the sharply differentiated risk on and off trades that the eurozone crisis has generated has seen equities being sold as an asset class, with little or no difference between strong and week balance sheets and earnings reports. But a wedge has opened at least from a global perspective, as data show stocks of companies with more exposure to Europe are underperforming.

US President Barack Obama will meet today with European Council president Herman van Rompuy and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, and Europe's response to the two-year sovereign debt crisis is expected to top the agenda.

"The only thing that will come out of that is speculation," said Todd Salamone, vice-president of research at Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati, referring to the meeting in Washington. "It will come down to the US trying to convince European leaders to get something in place to solve this crisis."

Not many hopes are set either on tomorrow's meeting where eurozone finance ministers are expected to agree on how to further strengthen the region's bailout fund.

On Thursday, European Central Bank president Mario Draghi presents the bank's annual report to the European parliament.

As the latest reminder from markets to politicians that they are running out of time, Belgium's credit rating was downgraded by Standard & Poor's.

Some of the most important US economic monthly data will be released this week, but will they be enough to unlink the stock market's behaviour and European yields?

New home sales and the S&P/CaseShiller home prices index will start the week showing if the housing market continues on life support. Data on confidence among consumers, who flooded US stores on Friday as the holiday shopping season started, will be released tomorrow.

The Institute for Supply Management's manufacturing report is due, with investors not only looking at the US number on Wednesday but also factory readings from Europe and China on Thursday.

By midweek labour data will take over with the private sector employment report from ADP and Challenger's job cuts report, followed on Thursday by the weekly jobless claims numbers and topped by Friday's monthly nonfarm payrolls report. - Reuters

Asian shares, euro firm on Europe fund hopes

On Monday Reuters reported from Tokyo that Asian shares rose and the euro firmed on Monday on hopes Europe will come up with some concrete steps this week towards activating a euro zone bailout fund that is crucial to relieving funding stresses on the region's troubled economies.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia Pacific shares outside Japan rose 1.1 percent, after slumping to its lowest level since early October on Friday to mark a fourth consecutive week of declines.

Japan's Nikkei opened up 1.4 percent on Monday after hitting its lowest in two and a half years on Friday.

With a European Union summit looming on Dec. 9, officials said at the weekend that Germany and France were exploring radical proposals for more rapid fiscal integration, possibly with fewer than the 17 countries that make up the euro zone.

The move would help fend off fierce market attacks on highly indebted countries and give more leeway for the European Central Bank to buy sovereign bonds.

Euro zone finance ministers will meet on Tuesday, and detailed operational rules for the region's bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), are ready for approval.

This would pave the way for the 440 billion euro facility to draw cash from investors.

Traders said media reports suggesting the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was preparing a rescue plan worth up to 600 billion euros for Italy was also bolstering sentiment.

"Talk about radical fiscal integration with fewer countries is slightly positive as it sounds like a pragmatic approach," said Yuji Saito, director of the foreign exchange division at Credit Agricole Bank in Tokyo.

The euro was swept higher in thin trade on Monday by a wave of shortcovering when traders buy back a currency to realise gains on an earlier bet it would fall rising as high as $1.3342 from $1.3230 late in New York on Friday.

Some market players, however, were sceptical that the gains for the euro would last long.

"Unless we see a confirmation the IMF is working on such a programme, I suspect the market is going to want to sell into any further strength," said Robert Rennie, chief currency strategist at Westpac Bank in Sydney.

Traders said it was premature to expect investors to resume risktaking ahead of key events this week, including Italy's 8 billion euro debt auction and German CPI and consumer confidence data, both due later on Monday.

On Friday, Italy paid a euro lifetime high yield of 6.5 percent to sell new sixmonth paper, while yields on 10year government bonds ending last week at more than 7.3 percent, in the territory that forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to seek international bailouts.

Funding stresses for European banks escalated further, with the cost of swapping euros into dollars in the currency swap market reaching new threeyear highs of 166 basis points on Friday, levels analysts said may make the European Central Bank tender more attractive for dollarfunding.

Bearish sentiment still prevailed in Asian credit markets, with spreads on the iTraxx Asia exJapan investment grade index widening slightly early on Monday

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New Zealand business confidence recovers in Nov

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 05:10 PM PST

Published: Monday November 28, 2011 MYT 9:10:00 AM

WELLINGTON, Nov 28 (Reuters) New Zealand's business confidence rose for the first time in four months in November, and firms were also more optimistic about their own prospects going into next year, a survey showed on Monday.

The National Bank of NZ's monthly business outlook showed a net 28.8 percent of companies expect their own business to grow in the next 12 months, compared with a 26.1 percent optimism level last month and 35.4 percent in September.

The survey's headline measure of sentiment showed a net 18.3 percent of respondents expecting the economy to improve over the next 12 months, compared with a net 13.2 percent optimism level in the previous month.

Inflation expectations for the year ahead eased a touch to 3.10 percent from 3.12 percent in October.

The central bank is expected to leave its benchmark rate steady at a record low 2.5 percent next month because of global market volatility and outlook.

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Webber wins Brazilian Grand Prix

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 03:42 PM PST

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Mark Webber led a Red Bull one-two in Brazil Sunday to celebrate his first victory of the year in the last race of the Formula One season.

The Australian, second on the starting grid, passed world champion team mate Sebastian Vettel for the lead after 30 of the 71 laps when the German was apparently wrestling with a gearbox problem.

Vettel, who had wrapped up his second title last month with four races to spare, finished second ahead of McLaren's Jenson Button.

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Federer tames Tsonga to end year on high

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 03:38 PM PST

LONDON (Reuters) - Roger Federer became the first player to win the ATP World Tour Finals six times but had to weather a storming fightback by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before retaining his title with a 6-3 6-7 6-3 victory at the O2 on Sunday.

The 30-year-old, playing in the title match of the tournament for the seventh time in 10 years and contesting his 100th Tour final, squandered a match point in the second set but eventually extinguished Tsonga's fire to claim the 70th title of a career that burns as bright as ever.

On yet another record-breaking day for the 16-times grand slam champion, Federer not only edged clear of five-timers Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras in the tournament's roll of honour but he also gained the distinction of being the oldest player to win the season-ender since Ilie Nastase in 1975.

It took all his years of experience and a few moments of magic to withstand Tsonga's force, however, as the explosive Frenchman thrilled the 17,500-capacity crowd with a barrage of winners that threatened to turn the contest on its head.

After levelling the match Tsonga threw everything at Federer in the decider but he was stopped in his tracks when he dropped serve at 3-4 and this time there was no escape as the Swiss pounded away a volley to triumph in two hours 18 minutes.

"I couldn't be more happy and I couldn't be more exhausted because Jo sucked all the last energy out of me today," Federer said on court after sealing the $1.63 million jackpot for going through the tournament undefeated for the second year in a row.

Despite not winning one of the year's majors for the first time since 2002, Federer ended 2011 on a 17-match winning streak and with a hat-trick of indoor titles and claimed his triumph in London ranked alongside his greatest moments.

"It feels very special," Federer, who climbs back above Andy Murray to No.3 in the rankings and will start next year eyeing Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, told reporters.

"I've been trying to sort of block it out for the entire tournament. So now it's finally sort of reality that I've been able to win six World Tour Finals. It's an amazing feeling. I know it's one of my greatest accomplishments.

"This definitely is an amazing finish again to the season. I've never finished so strong."

Bizarrely, it was the third successive Sunday that Federer and Tsonga faced each other across a net. PARIS MASTERS

Last week Federer opened London's third hosting of the ATP's showpiece tournament with a three-set round-robin victory over the 26-year-old and the week before he came out on top in a one-sided Paris Masters final.

Tsonga, bidding to become the first Frenchman to win the season-ending championship since its inception in 1970, began in impressive fashion, though, and looked the more menacing player until Federer found a spark to break serve to love in the eighth game when Tsonga fluffed a backhand volley.

A forehand winner gave Federer a break midway through the second set and a routine victory beckoned until the match unexpectedly burst into life.

Serving for the title at 5-4, Federer came under attack by Tsonga who eked out his only break points of the match by going 0-40 ahead. Federer saved two but Tsonga pounced on a volley to level the set at 5-5 to the delight of a crowd that contained the Duchess of Cambridge and Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo.

Federer went 5-2 up in the tiebreak but even a man with 806 wins on the ATP Tour can get edgy and a passive match point at 6-5 was punished by a belting Tsonga winner. Tsonga then got a set point himself and gobbled up a weak Federer second serve to take the match to a final set shootout.

Federer kept his nose in front in the deciding set despite some ferocious hitting from Tsonga and, just like he did in the first set, broke in a gripping eighth game when Tsonga sent a volley long under enormous pressure.

Serving for the match for the second time, Federer made sure there was no mistake, setting three match points with an ace and then swatting away a volley.

Tsonga can take heart from winning over another army of fans and can look forward to threatening the Big Four next year.

"Tonight I can look at myself in the mirror and say I fought enough," he told reporters.

Belarussian Max Mirnyi and Canadian Daniel Nestor beat Poles Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski 7-5 6-3 to win the doubles title.

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Barrichello tunes out talk of retirement

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 02:58 PM PST

SAO PAULO: Rubens Barrichello tuned out any talk of retirement on Saturday after Sebastian Vettel led tributes to a Formula One stalwart who has been racing for as long as the world champion could remember.

Williams have yet to announce their line-up for 2012, with their 39-year-old Brazilian fighting – seemingly against the odds – to stay on for a 20th season in the sport he first entered in 1993.

"I think it would be a shame to lose Rubens for the future because he belongs here," said Red Bull's Vettel, who was only five years old when Barrichello made his F1 debut in 1993, after taking a record 15th pole for the season in the Brazilian finale.

"The inspiring bit is that he loves what he does."

The Brazilian, who qualified 12th for what could be his final home race at Interlagos, said he was honoured by the compliments but ruled out any farewell to the fans after the season-ender.

"People are now talking about retirement ... I just hope that next year I am definitely racing because you have Michael (Schumacher) and (Pedro) De la Rosa and they are much older than me. So I am the kid on the block," grinned the former Jordan, Stewart, Ferrari, Honda and Brawn driver.

"It would mean a great deal for me to have 20 years (in F1) when I'm 40 but it has to be the right combination. I think Williams have that combination for next year," he added. "I can help them grow. I would love for that to happen."

Barrichello, who spent six seasons at Ferrari with Schumacher and has won 11 races with that team and Brawn, said he was talking to others and was also seeking financial backers to make the decision easier.

The Brazilian said he was not too proud to do that, despite a career that has seen him start more races than any other driver – a record 322 out of the 857 held since the championship started in 1950.

"People say Rubens would feel embarrassed to ask a sponsor. Look, if that's what it takes for me to have a competitive car I'm surely even more powerful for doing that," he declared.

McLaren's Jenson Button, Barrichello's team-mate at Honda and then Brawn where the Briton won the 2009 championship, hoped to be racing the Brazilian again next year.

"It's great that he still wants to race," he said.

"I really hope he gets a drive next year, I hope he's racing next year because otherwise we've missed a really big party on Sunday night." — Reuters

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The Star Online: Nation

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Moderate quake hits northern Sumatra, no tsunami threat

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 03:58 AM PST

Published: Sunday November 27, 2011 MYT 7:59:00 PM

KUALA LUMPUR: A magnitude 5.5 earthquake struck northern Sumatra at 7.01pm Sunday, the Malaysian Meteorological Department said.

It said in a statement that the epicentre of the quake was 134km southwest of Nias, Indonesia and 549km southwest of Klang, Selangor.

However, there was no tsunami threat, the statement added.- Bernama

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Reject party-hoppers, Anwar tells PKR

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 03:50 AM PST

Published: Sunday November 27, 2011 MYT 7:47:00 PM
Updated: Sunday November 27, 2011 MYT 7:50:22 PM

JOHOR BARU: PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim warned that the party would not tolerate corrupt leaders and those not in line with the party's struggles.

These people would not be selected as candidates in the coming elections, he said at the closing of the PKR National Congress here Sunday.

Anwar also urged the party to reject those who had hopped parties, especially during elections.

He said the series of defections of the party's elected representatives after the 2008 general election was a bitter lesson for him.

"I admit that I am partly to be blamed because I endorsed their candidacies but at that time, we lacked candidates and some even declined to become our candidates.

"This time around, it will be different because I want the party to kick out traitors the moment they behave suspiciously," he said.

He reminded PKR's elected leaders not to forget their past and that nobody was invisible in their post.

Anwar claimed the Opposition was now better prepared for the election, including making inroads in Johor.

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Malaysian yatching circuit debuts in February

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 03:20 AM PST

Published: Sunday November 27, 2011 MYT 7:21:00 PM

KUALA TERENGGANU: Sailing is set to create waves with the establishment of a local yachting circuit organised by the Malaysian Yachting Association (MYA) with the cooperation of T-Best Events Sdn Berhad (T-Best).

An agreement and memorandum of understanding for the Malaysian Match Racing Circuit was signed Sunday to pave the way in developing the finest yachting talents in the country.

The signing ceremony was witnessed by Terengganu Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Ahmad Said, T-Best chairman Tan Sri Sabbaruddin Chik and MYA president, Kamaruzzaman Abu Kassim here.

The circuit, expected to commence in February next year, will be held at four locations, namely Lumut, Klang, Langkawi and ending at Pulau Duyong, here.

Meanwhile, MYA president Kamaruzzaman said MYA would cooperate with T-Best on organising the circuit and the Malaysian Match Racing Circuit had received the recognition of the World Match Racing Tour (WMRT).

"This is an opportunity for Malaysian sailing enthusiasts to be in action and hone their skills at internationally recognised races," he said. - Bernama

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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Capturing emotions

Posted: 26 Nov 2011 10:42 PM PST

A PICTURE, they say, paints a thousand words. The images above, featured on a page in the book Hotshots, say that much and more: they are pictures of Malaysian sports teams celebrating various triumphs, including snagging football's Merdeka Cup in 1976.

Hotshots, the book produced to celebrate The Star's 40th anniversary this year, uses pictures to tell the story of a nation and its people as captured for our news and features pages.

In 249 glossy pages, Hotshots brings together some of the most important, memorable and inspiring images of people, landmarks and events of the last four decades.

The book will be available at a special price of RM55 (normal price: RM59.90) at the MPH Carnival at the Mid Valley Exhibition Centre in Kuala Lumpur (booth No. 1065-1071-1084-1090). This offer is valid, while stocks last, from Dec 8 to 12, 2011.

There will also be an exhibition of photos from Hotshots on Dec 10-12 at Function Room B at the carnival, as well as the Hotshots: A Practitioner's Perspective talk that will take place from 3pm to 4pm on Dec 10 and 11 at the carnival's stage area.

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Natural magic

Posted: 26 Nov 2011 10:41 PM PST

Inspired by her childhood, an author explores through her short stories the complicated jumble of human truths that lie just below the surface of life in a small town.

ENVELOPED within green surroundings of swaying coconut trees and tall casuarinas, the inhabitants of Coal Island play out their lives in a fishbowl, enduring the voyeurism inherent in life in a small town. This is the paradoxical, whimsical setting of Wildlife On Coal Island, Shivani Sivagurunathan's debut collection of beautifully written short stories.

There is murder, lust, delusions of grandeur; each story penetrates beneath the surface of gossip, revealing human truths that seem at times deeply absurd, and at other times eerily familiar. Always, however, abrupt conclusions will leave you feeling surprisingly emotional, and weathering a state of strange pondering.

Some describe Shivani's writing as magical realism – there does seem to be an air of the supernatural at work, as we peek into the lives of larger-than-life characters hidden within the underbelly of small town life. Shivani herself, however, prefers not to pigeonhole herself in any one style. Whatever its classification, her writing weaves a series of tales akin to chapters in a novella, bringing the island itself to life almost like an additional character.

A magical quality comes across in the stories of the island's residents: Choong Li the monkey lady, Mrs. Mano the prophetess, and Mr Percy Punter, a lonely decrepit relic of Malaya's colonial past, are as much lost souls as they are part of the island's beating heart. We watch entranced as the folk of the town's close knit community rejoicing in, gossiping about and escaping from each other.

But what makes this book especially intriguing is the role that nature plays in the lives of the islanders. There are bats, chameleons, iguanas, renegade tapirs and fiery flame of the forest trees bent on reminding us that the space is shared by more than just fickle human beings. Sometimes, these other islanders bring forth cryptic visions, connecting us to the past, present and future, appearing in the form of a hungry python, or a flock of wise kingfishers, swarming in the reddish gold of an evening sky.

It is these colourful characters that help bring Coal Island to life, and it is through them that its essence, intricately bound together in the stories of its human subjects, is felt.

The fact that trees and animals make a constant appearance in Shivani's stories is no coincidence. Port Dickson is, in many ways, not unlike Coal Island. A small town located along the Strait of Malacca in Negri Sembilan, PD, as it's known, is where Shivani grew up, and it is possessed of the kind of simple quietude where nature likes to make her presence felt.

Though weekends would bring with it bus loads of tourists, Shivani, 30, remembers that on weekdays, the town (once known simply as Arang, the Malay word for "coal") had a certain "surreal silence" about it.

"As a child you're always looking for entertainment, ways to thrill yourself. But Port Dickson doesn't really lend itself to that kind of experience, unlike the city where there's always somewhere to go, something to do," she explains.

"I don't ever really remember going out anywhere, except for maybe walks on the beach, or just simply sitting in the garden. That's why the book draws so heavily on that engagement with nature – snakes that come into the garden, iguanas that creep through the drain, these form the basis for some of my stories."

To an imaginative yet introverted young girl, that silence was just begging to be filled, and – "I think that's basically what I did!

"My childhood was full of fantasies, about people, about leaving...."

According to Shivani, the two places, real and imagined, share certain things: size, and the kind of gossipy characters you meet, for example. Growing up in PD, there were always plenty of curious news items about the town's colourful characters to be spread through neighbours or aunties doing their morning rounds at the market. Perhaps it was this constant supply of gossip that triggered her interest in the nature of human relationships.

"I'm interested in this division between the public self and the private self, what you project to society, for example, and what you do in private are not necessarily the same thing. I'm also intrigued by how communication happens. I think a lot of how we interact with one another stems from failed understandings between people, and that's something which I think features in most of my stories."

Wildlife On Coal Island is in many ways an imaginary version of Port Dickson. The characters are loosely inspired by real memories and events, subjected, of course, to a wild dose of creative speculation. "On the surface it's all kind of comical. But underneath that, I think, there is a kind of tragedy which comes out through the comedy."

Currently, Shivani lectures in English literature, trying her best to inspire the same passion she has for the subject in her students at Universiti Putra Malaysia.

Wildlife On Coal Island is available in most major bookstores nationwide.

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The game’s afoot once more!

Posted: 26 Nov 2011 10:39 PM PST

Presenting the first ever authorised new Sherlock Holmes book. Is it a worthwhile read? Elementary, my dear Watson.

THE House Of Silk is the first Sherlock Holmes story in history that has been authorised by the Conan Doyle estate. The recipient of this honour is Anthony Horowitz, perhaps best known for his Alex Rider series, much beloved of teenage boys. But Horowitz is also a lifelong Sherlock Holmes fan, well steeped in the Conan Doyle tradition, and it was decided that he could be relied upon to stay true to the style and tone of the original tales. As a writer already proficient in the task of keeping restless teenagers hooked on engaging storylines, the ability to spin a good yarn was not in question. And so it has proved.

The House Of Silk is a cracking good read featuring many of the characters that have left indelible marks on countless thousands of Sherlock Holmes fans over the years. Readers of this addition to the oeuvre will not be disappointed, even if they resent the role of the master being usurped.

The book opens with an introduction from Watson, now an old man still nursing the bullet wound in his shoulder he received at Maiwand in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. As he recalls his days with Holmes, he represents himself as a reluctant chronicler: "If anyone had suggested that I might be a published writer I would have laughed at the thought". Nonetheless, despite being accused by Holmes of "vulgar romanticism" and being regarded by him as little better than a "Grub Street" scribbler, Watson decides that he has one more story to tell before he dies, a story too monstrous and shocking to appear in print until a further century has passed.

Welcome then, dear reader, 100 years later, to The House Of Silk and "one last portrait of Mr Sherlock Holmes and a perspective that has not been seen before".

The book's opening scene is a small tour de force. Watson arrives at 221b Baker Street and is greeted by the words, "Influenza is unpleasant ... but you are right in thinking that, with your wife's help, the child will recover soon".

From his appearance alone, and within seconds of his arrival, Holmes deduces that Watson's wife is out of town, that she left from Holborn Viaduct Station, that their child is sick, that the train was delayed so they had coffee together and that Watson is left without a maid. Watson is astounded at the level and precision of the deduction, to Holmes it is "elementary", and we are on familiar ground. It is only minutes before, once again, "the game's afoot".

The storyline Horowitz develops is ambitious. The accidental loss of some paintings in America triggers a series of events that lead to London. In investigating this line of enquiry an altogether different enquiry opens up.

The number of corpses grows. Sinister characters appear and disappear. There appears to be little connection between events but as the plot widens in scope the two main narratives become inextricably linked and ultimately lead to the same destination, the House of Silk. And more than that, it would be unfair to reveal.

Horowitz manages the complex and intricate storyline well and convincingly. His knowledge of the previous stories clearly helps here, as does the plotting he has developed for his own Alex Rider series. The House Of Silk is as much a page turner as one could wish for but, rightly or wrongly, Horowitz has sacrificed some of the richness of the language of the original tales in favour, presumably, of readability. The intriguingly obscure vocabulary and archaisms are noticeably absent, an absence I occasionally regretted.

A real strength of The House Of Silk is its recreation of London and London street life from Sherlock's time. The fogs and haloes around the gas lights, the jingling of horse harness, the rattle of coaches over cobblestones ... these are as much a part of the Sherlock Holmes vista as the crimes and Holmes' amusement over what he regards as Watson's limited powers of observation.

But there is another side to the London of that time as well, and it features prominently here. The scenes of squalor and poverty are deeply etched. The Baker Street Irregulars that Holmes employs as an essential part of his spy and message network are not romanticised but are street urchins who exist on their wits, and they live dangerous, vulnerable and dispensable lives.

There will be much here for fans of Holmes to enjoy, including rather more benevolent appearances than usual from Lestrade and Moriarty. And even Holmes' brother Mycroft makes a rare and helpful contribution. For such is the enormity of the crimes at the House of Silk that there is a coming together of forces that have in the past ranged from hostile to indifferent.

So is The House Of Silk a worthwhile read? Elementary, my dear Watson.

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Arts & Fashion

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Arts & Fashion

Crazy challenge

Posted: 26 Nov 2011 10:31 PM PST

THE past decade has been a merry-go-round of art shows and residencies all over the world for Chang Yoong Chia. Indeed, he could not make it for the opening of the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize as he was in Chongqing, China, for its Biennale.

But Chang, 36, was present at the awards ceremony at the Singapore Art Museum on Nov 17. Although he did not make it to the winners' circle, it was a feat for him to be among the 15 finalists.

His entry, The World Is Flat, is a collage made up entirely of thousands of Commonwealth postage stamps. Some were chosen for sheer colour harmony and others, for the cutouts of well-known personalities, flora and fauna. The work looks fragile as it does not have any backing; the pasted overlaps hold it together.

As stamps are often state-sanctioned, Chang arrogates himself the power to toy with stereotypes and symbols and post-colonial tensions. There's even a tinge of humour when he puts the head of evolution theorist Charles Darwin on the body of an ape, masquerades a Spanish monarch as Hitler, and shows Queen Elizabeth II dining at a table laden with treasure, with four other versions of herself.

Asked how the idea of pasting stamps together came about, Chang said he was always driven and challenged by "crazy ideas".

But he is not a slave to materials, especially conventional ones. He has used thread and needles (in Quilt Of The Dead), termite wings, human hair, seashells, eggshells and bones (Flora & Fauna Series), ceramic spoons and plates (Narratives).

"I like to use everyday materials, find their expressive or 'magical' potential, and transform them into artworks so they can be seen from a new perspective," he says.

Chang's wanderlust started in 2002, when he took part in the Khoj Artist Workshop in Mysore, India. Then came his residency at Rimbun Dahan in 2006, and he has been country-hopping ever since.

His CV includes the 3rd Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale in Japan (2005); Asian Art Now, C21, Blackburn, Britain (2007); the 14th Asian Art Biennale, Bangladesh (2010) and residencies in Gwangju, Korea (2007), Chiayi, Taiwan (2007), Sapporo, Japan (2008), Yogyakarta, Indonesia (2010) and Pinyao, China (2010). He received a Goethe-Institute scholarship to Berlin in 2007.

But his defining solo exhibition was 2nd Seven Years: Quilt Of The Dead, held in Kuala Lumpur two years ago.

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Art that matters

Posted: 26 Nov 2011 10:30 PM PST

Culture, craft and contemporary techniques mark a regional competition that highlights issues relevant to the artists.

A META-narrative linked to myths and folklore as an allegory of human greed and environmental pillage has won Rodel Tapaya of the Philippines the Grand Prize of the Asia Pacific Breweries (AFP) Foundation Signature Art Prize in Singapore.

Tapaya's acrylic-on-canvas mural, Cane Of Kabunian which beat 14 other entries shortlisted from 130 nominations received from 24 countries, bagged SG$45,000 (RM108,500).

Three Jurors' Prize Awards of SG$10,000 (RM24,200) each went to Daniel Crooks (Australia) for Static No. 12, Aida Makoto (Japan) for Ash Color Mountains, and Sheba Chhachhi (India) for The Water Diviner. A People's Choice Award (also worth SG$10,000), decided by online and registration-form votes – was won by Singapore's Michael Lee, for Second-Hand City.

Malaysia's Chang Yoong Chia was among the finalists with his work made up entirely of postage stamps, The World Is Flat.

The others were Bui Cong Khanh (Vietnam; The Past Moved), Chen Chieh-jen (Taiwan; Empire's Borders I), Ay Tjoe Christine (in collaboration with Deden Sambas, Indonesia; Lama Sabakhtani #01), Kyungah Ham (South Korea; Needling Whisper/Needle Country), Kim Jongku (South Korea; Mobile Landscape), Imran Qureshi (Pakistan; You Are My Love And My Life's Enemy Too), Vandy Rattana (Cambodia; Bomb Ponds), Greg Semu (New Zealand; The Last Cannibal Supper) and Yang Xinguang (China, Thin).

This is Tapaya's second major Asia-Pacific art prize. In 2000, while studying at the University of the Philippines, he received the Nokia Art Award, which included study grants in New York and Helsinki.

Belying his age, Tapaya, 31, is a master raconteur who mines Pinoy myths – in this case, that of the Ifugao and Bontoc of Luzon, built around the supreme being Kabunian and the giant "saviour" canine from the great floods (in reference to recent flood woes in his country). He also draws from Tagalog folklore (eg the glutton who was transformed into a frog).

The judges were particularly struck by his Magic Realism approach, with whiffs of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden Of Earthly Delights.

In the wake of the Fukushima/tsunami tragedy, Makoto's work – a Mount Fuji pile of corpses of seemingly salaried Japanese workers – is like a monument to grief.

Ash Color Mountains hints at karoshi (death by overwork, given the long hours put in by Japanese men) and the failure of capitalism, especially with the current global financial turmoil.

Schhachhi's installation work shows animated stills of a drowning elephant (symbol of Ganesha, perhaps?) with a trail of floor lightboxes leading to it, and stacks of books on the sides. It is the 53-year-old artist's attempt to recover the loss of cultural memory, through history and literature.

New Zealand-born Crooks' single-channel video work is a brilliant experiment with non-linear representation of time: he caught an old man in Shanghai going through the fluid motions of tai chi, at times morphing into a Baconesque figure. This work expands on Eadward Muybridge's locomotion theory, yet exudes a meditative quality.

Lee, who won the Singapore National Arts Council Young Artist's Award in 2005, puts an emotive and anxious face to urban architecture with a thought-provoking suite of eight digital prints.

Bui's installation, which includes a charcoal painting backdrop, records a community dispersed by the demolition of parts of Ho Chi Minh City's historical Old Quarters.

Christine's is by far the most violent entry: it is an actual creation of a four-metre tall, three-blade guillotine that when operated, sets off a chain reaction of a clanging cymbal of brass balls.

Ham's covert piece on North-South diplomacy makes use of faceless North Korean embroidery workers to work on little designs she sent from the South through her network of clandestine couriers. The nine pieces that got past the stringent Pyongyang checks raise questions about artistic ownership.

Kim's calligraphic strokes of ground steel powder simulate ridges of landscapes when seen from floor-level digital projection. It adds an innovative approach to Chinese brush paintings.

Imran's Action Painting of blood-maroon splotches and stains on layered washi paper records with ambivalent feelings of gore and beauty, the suicide-bombing carnage prevalent in his country. He won the Art Prize in the 2011 Sharjah Biennale.

There's a sinister story to the serene Monet-like ponds in Rattana's padi fields, especially in Kompong Chom near the Vietnamese border. The ponds, some measuring five-by-five metres, were the result of American "collateral damage" bombing during the Vietnam War (1964-75).

During his artist's residency in Caledonia last year, Semu used the Kanak actors of Noumea to parody Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. It shows how a community with a history of cannibalism has been impacted by religious colonization.

Chang's tapestry, which features thousands of stamps painstakingly cut and glued together, is a statement about traditional ways of doing things, as well as a loose compendium of selective human history.

Yang's work of carved/chipped femur-like tree staves is audaciously presented as deformed sculptures.

Judges of the Signature Art Prize observed that the entries "reflect the artists' sophisticated responses to contemporary issues facing their region in a highly interconnected global present. They also showcase the range of media and techniques used in contemporary art-making. The artists extend and enrich their practices in diverse ways: by engaging with a heterogeneity of craft cultures, by addressing the fine-arts legacy, and through the critical application of new technologies."

On the panel were Fumio Nanjo (of Japan), Gregor Muir (Britain), Hendro Wijanto (Indoensia), Ranjit Hoskote (India) and Singapore Art Museum director Tan Boon Hui.

The competition, organised by the Singapore Art Museum and sponsored by the APB Foundation, honours artists whose works represent a significant development in contemporary visual art in the Asia Pacific region. It thrives on a system of nominations from selected "moles' in the respective countries, and has no restrictions on the scale, size, medium or theme of the work.

"Artists" of all ages and persuasions can compete. As proof that reputation doesn't count in the overall judging of a work, a major casualty in the preliminary round, for instance, was Australia's Tracey Moffatt.

This year, the APB Foundation doubled its funding of the Signature Art Prize (for five editions) from SG$2.25mil (RM5.39mil) to SG$4.45mil (RM10.6mil). It also expanded the award's outreach to double that of only 12 countries taking part, when it was launched in 2008. That year, Malaysia's Ahmad Fuad Osman was one of the three Jurors' Prize winners.

The works of the Signature Art Prize winners and finalists are currently on show at the Singapore Art Museum until March 4, 2012.

For details on the exhibition, talks and outreach programmes, visit singaporeartmuseum.sg/signatureartprize.

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