Jumaat, 11 Januari 2013

The Star Online: World Updates

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The Star Online: World Updates

Bolivia says re-admitted to U.N. drug convention on its own terms

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 07:31 PM PST

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia on Friday said it had been re-admitted to the U.N. anti-narcotics convention after persuading member states to recognize the right of its indigenous people to chew raw coca leaf, which is used in making cocaine.

President Evo Morales had faced opposition from Washington in his campaign against the classification of coca as an illicit drug.

Bolivia's President Evo Morales speaks to his compatriots during a meeting with social movement members at Centro de Convenciones Internacional de Barcelona (CCIB) in Barcelona December 9, 2012. REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino

Bolivia's President Evo Morales speaks to his compatriots during a meeting with social movement members at Centro de Convenciones Internacional de Barcelona (CCIB) in Barcelona December 9, 2012. REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino

"The coca leaf has accompanied indigenous peoples for 6,000 years," said Dionisio Nunez, Bolivia's deputy minister of coca and integrated development. "Coca leaf was never used to hurt people. It was used as medicine."

The leaf was declared an illegal narcotic in the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, along with cocaine, heroin, opium and morphine and a host of chemical drugs.

Bolivia withdrew from the convention a year ago and said it would not rejoin unless coca chewing was decriminalized.

Opposition came from the United States as well as France and Russia. Bolivia said it automatically rejoined the convention when a deadline ran out for opposing countries to block its petition for readmission with coca chewing permitted.

The country is the biggest cocaine producer after Peru and Colombia. But Morales, himself a former coca leaf farmer, says the plant offers health benefits.

Bolivians have chewed raw coca leaves for centuries as a mild stimulant that reduces hunger and altitude sickness.

(Reporting By Daniel Ramos; Writing by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Xavier Briand)

Copyright © 2013 Reuters

Malian army drives back Islamist rebels with French help

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 06:16 PM PST

PARIS/BAMAKO (Reuters) - Malian government troops drove back Islamist rebels from a strategic central town after France intervened on Friday with air strikes to halt advances by the militants controlling the country's desert north.

France's President Francois Hollande delivers a statment on the situation in Mali at the Elysee Palace in Paris, January 11, 2013. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

France's President Francois Hollande delivers a statment on the situation in Mali at the Elysee Palace in Paris, January 11, 2013. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Western governments, particularly former colonial power France, had voiced alarm after the al Qaeda-linked rebel alliance captured the town of Konna on Thursday, a gateway towards the capital, Bamako, 600 km (375 miles) south.

President Francois Hollande said France would not stand by to watch the rebels push southward. Paris has repeatedly warned that the Islamists' seizure of the country's north in April gave them a base to attack neighbouring African countries and Europe.

"We are faced with blatant aggression that is threatening Mali's very existence. France cannot accept this," Hollande, who recently pledged Paris would not meddle in African affairs, said in a New Year speech to diplomats and journalists.

The president said resolutions by the U.N. Security Council, which in December sanctioned an African-led military intervention in Mali, meant France was acting in accordance with international law.

French military operations in support of the Malian army against Islamist rebels "will last as long as necessary," France's U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, wrote in a letter to the Security Council obtained by Reuters.

In Washington, a U.S. official told Reuters the Pentagon was weighing options in Mali, including intelligence-sharing with France and logistics support.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed France had carried out air strikes against the rebels to prevent them conquering the whole of Mali. He refused to reveal further details, such as whether French troops were on the ground.

France's intervention immediately tipped the military balance of power, with Malian government forces quickly sweeping back into Konna, according to local residents.

"The Malian army has retaken Konna with the help of our military partners. We are there now," Lieutenant Colonel Diaran Kone told Reuters, adding that the army was mopping up Islamist fighters in the surrounding area.


A military operation had not been expected until September due to the difficulties of training Malian troops, funding the African force and deploying during the midyear rainy season. But Mali's government appealed for urgent military aid from France on Thursday after Islamist fighters took Konna.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called on Friday for "accelerated international engagement" and said the bloc would speed up plans to deploy 200 troops to train Malian forces, initially expected in late February.

Blaise Compaore, president of neighbouring Burkina Faso, which is acting as a mediator in the Malian crisis, said his country would contribute a contingent of ground troops toward the African Union mission to retake Mali's north.

Burkina Faso had been due to host peace talks between the Malian government and some of the rebel factions on Thursday, but those have been postponed until January 21 due to the outbreak of hostilities.

The capture of Konna by the rebels - who have imposed strict Sharia Islamic law in northern Mali - had caused panic among residents in the towns of Mopti and Sevare, 60 km (40 miles) to the south. Calm returned, however, after residents reported Western soldiers and foreign military aircraft arriving late on Thursday at Sevare's airport - the main one in the region.

Military analysts said the Western soldiers may have been the first deployment of French special forces.

They voiced doubt, however, whether Friday's action heralded the start of the final operation to retake northern Mali - a harsh, sparsely populated terrain the size of France - as neither the equipment nor ground troops were ready.

"We're not yet at the big intervention," said Mark Schroeder, director for Sub-Saharan Africa analysis for the global risk and security consultancy Stratfor. He said France had been forced to act when the Islamists bore down on Sevare, a vital launching point for future military operations.

"The French realised this was a red line that they could not permit to be crossed," he said.


More than two decades of peaceful elections had earned Mali a reputation as a bulwark of democracy in a part of Africa better known for turmoil - an image that unravelled in a matter of weeks after a military coup last March that paved the way for the Islamist rebellion.

Mali is Africa's third largest gold producer and a major cotton grower, and home to the fabled northern desert city of Timbuktu - an ancient trading hub and UNESCO World Heritage site that hosted annual music festivals before the rebellion.

Interim President Dioncounda Traore, under pressure for bolder action from Mali's military, declared a state of emergency on Friday. Traore will fly to Paris for talks with Hollande on Wednesday.

"Every Malian must henceforth consider themselves a soldier," Traore said on state TV, calling on mining and telecoms companies to contribute to the war effort. He said he requested French air support with the blessing of West African allies.

The chief of operations for Mali's Defence Ministry said Nigeria and Senegal were among the other countries providing military support on the ground. Fabius said those countries had not taken part in the French operation.

A spokesman for the Nigerian air force said planes had been deployed to Mali for a reconnaissance mission, not for combat.

The French Foreign Ministry stepped up its security alert on Mali and parts of neighbouring Mauritania and Niger on Friday, extending its red alert - the highest level - to include Bamako. France has eight nationals in Islamist hands in the Sahara after a string of kidnappings.

A spokesman for al Qaeda's north African arm, AQIM, urged France, in a video posted on the Internet, to reconsider its intervention. "Stop your assault against us or you are digging your own sons' graves," said Abdallah Al-Chinguetti.

(Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis in Dakar, Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg, Phil Stewart in Washington, Alexandria Sage, John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, and Lou Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Giles Elgood and Peter Cooney)

Related Stories:
France tells U.N. that Mali operation to last as long as necessary

Pentagon weighs Mali options, including intelligence-sharing
Malian army retakes central town from Islamists

Copyright © 2013 Reuters

Canadian PM agrees to pay more heed to native demands

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 05:24 PM PST

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed in a meeting with native leaders on Friday to pay more attention to their demands, trying to mollify an aboriginal protest movement that has threatened to blockade roads and railways across the country.

A First Nations protester screams while marching towards Parliament Hill before the start of a meeting between chiefs and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa January 11, 2013. Deep splits emerged in the ranks of Canada's aboriginal movement on Friday, casting doubt on a planned meeting between chiefs and Conservative Prime Minister Harper to discuss a series of native grievances. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

A First Nations protester screams while marching towards Parliament Hill before the start of a meeting between chiefs and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa January 11, 2013. Deep splits emerged in the ranks of Canada's aboriginal movement on Friday, casting doubt on a planned meeting between chiefs and Conservative Prime Minister Harper to discuss a series of native grievances. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Faced with a seemingly intractable situation that has confronted successive governments, Harper agreed to a high-level dialogue with the natives and to have his office take increased responsibility for their issues, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said.

"Working together remains the best way to achieve our shared objective of healthier, more prosperous and self-sufficient First Nations," he told a news conference, using the formal name for most of Canada's aboriginal groups.

Hundreds of aboriginal protesters had blocked the main entrance to a downtown building where Harper was preparing to meet about 20 native leaders on Friday, demonstrating their frustration, but also highlighting a deep divide within the country's First Nations on how to push Ottawa to heed their demands.

The noisy blockade, which lasted about an hour, ended just before the meeting, even as other leaders chose to boycott the session with Harper.

Chiefs have warned that the "Idle No More" aboriginal protest movement is prepared to damage the economy unless Ottawa addresses the poor living conditions and high jobless rates facing many of Canada's 1.2 million natives.

Native groups complain that Canada has ignored treaties signed with British settlers and explorers that they say granted them significant rights over their territory.

Ottawa spends about C$11 billion ($11.1 billion) a year on its aboriginal population, but living conditions for many are poor and some reserves have high rates of poverty, addiction, joblessness and suicide.


The meeting was hastily arranged under pressure from an Ontario chief who says she has been subsiding only on fish broth for a month. It took place in a building across from Parliament where Harper and his staff work.

Outside in the freezing rain, demonstrators in traditional feathered headgear shouted, waved burning tapers, banged drums and brandished banners with slogans such as "Treaty rights not greedy whites" and "The natives are restless."

Until midday on Friday, it was uncertain if the meeting would go ahead, with many native leaders urging a boycott and others saying it was important to talk to the government.

"Harper, if you want our lands, our native land, meaning everyone of us, over my dead body, Harper, you're going to do this," said Raymond Robinson, a Cree from Manitoba.

"You'll have to come through me first. You'll have to bury me first before you get them," he shouted toward the prime minister's office from the steps outside Parliament.

The aboriginal movement is deeply split over tactics and not all the chiefs invited to the meeting turned up. Some leaders wanted Governor-General David Johnston, the official representative of Queen Elizabeth, Canada's head of state, to participate.

Johnston had declined the invitation, saying it was not his place to get involved in policy discussions. He instead later hosted a ceremonial meeting at his residence.

The elected leader of the natives, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, who led the delegation that met with Harper, said in a statement his people wanted a fundamental transformation in their relationship with Ottawa. He said they would press for a fair share of revenues from resource development as well as action on schools and drinking water.

The meeting did not resolve those issues, but Matthew Coon Come, grand chief of the Crees, praised Harper's pledge to consult. "The (commitment to) high-level dialogue for me was the highlight," Coon Come told CBC television.


Gordon Peters, grand chief of the association of Iroquois and Allied Nations in Ontario, threatened before the meeting to "block all the corridors of this province" next Wednesday unless natives' demands were met. Ontario is Canada's most populous province and is rich in natural resources.

Peters told reporters that investors in Canada should know their money was not safe.

"Canada cannot give certainty to their investors any longer. That certainty for investors can only come from us," he said.

Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, who said on Thursday that aboriginal activists had the power to bring the Canadian economy to its knees, was one of the leaders of the protest at the building where the meeting occurred.

"We're asking him (Harper) to come out here and explain why he won't speak to the people," said Nepinak, who banged on the door at the main entrance to the building after choosing to boycott the meeting.

Nepinak and other Manitoba chiefs are also demanding that Ottawa rescind parts of recent budget acts they say reduce environmental protection for lakes and rivers. The most recent budget act also makes it easier to lease lands on the reserves where many natives live, a change some natives had requested to spur development but which others regard with suspicion.

Duncan said the government was convinced it acted appropriately and constitutionally with the legislation.

In Nova Scotia, about 10 protesters blockaded a Canadian National Railway Co line near Truro on Friday afternoon, CN spokesman Jim Feeny said.

A truck had been partially moved on the tracks and was cutting off the movement of container traffic on CN's main line between the Port of Halifax and Eastern Canada, he said. Passenger services by Via Rail had also been disrupted.

The incident was the latest in a series of rail blockades staged by protesters in recent weeks to press their demands.

($1=$0.98 Canadian)

(Additional reporting by Louise Egan in Ottawa and Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; Editing by Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney)

Copyright © 2013 Reuters

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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Radwanska sails into Open on nine straight wins

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 06:03 PM PST

SYDNEY: Agnieszka Radwanska goes into next week's Australian Open the hottest women's player on form and says she believes she can win a Grand Slam.

The Polish world number four crushed hapless Dominika Cibulkova 6-0, 6-0 in just over an hour in Friday's final of the Sydney International to take her unbeaten streak this year to nine.

It was Radwanska's 12th career singles title and she has yet to drop a set this year.

Now she steps up to take on the women's top three - Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova - in the year-opening slam, but her confidence is high.

"Well, I think if I'm going to play like I did today, in Melbourne, I will be very happy. So we'll see," she said.

The 23-year-old faces Australian qualifier Bojana Bobusic in her first match at the Open and is seeded to face China's Li Na in the quarters and Sharapova in the semis.

"Wherever I go now I just always think I can win it. I think Melbourne is also that kind of tournament," she said.

"Being in the top 10, top five already for a couple years, I think it means that I can also win the Grand Slam."

Radwanska reached her first major final at Wimbledon last year only to be beaten by Serena Williams in three sets, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 and has yet to go beyond the quarter-final stage at the Australian Open.

Radwanska, who beat Belgian Yanina Wickmayer in the Auckland Classic final last week, has won back-to-back tournaments following her Sydney victory, but she remains at world number four heading into Melbourne.

"I'm extremely happy I've won two titles in a row and have not even lost a set. Really it's been an amazing two weeks," she said.

"The Australian Open is a different tournament, a different story, and I just have to start from the beginning.

"I just hope I can play at the same level there as well."

Radwanska said she will not have time to lavishly celebrate her Sydney win with her next match scheduled at the Australian Open on Monday.

"My coach and I said if we won (Sydney) we would not to go drinking and have a party, just to have a huge piece of cheesecake," she said smiling. - AFP

Dakar Rally: Peterhansel stage win overshadowed by third death(Update)

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 04:57 PM PST

SALTA, Argentina: Ten-time champion Stephane Peterhansel extended his Dakar Rally lead on Friday, but the world's most gruelling endurance event was once again hit by tragedy when a French motorcyclist was killed.

As Peterhansel claimed the seventh stage, which crossed the Andes at altitudes of around 5,000m between Calama in Chile and Salta to build a lead of more than three minutes on Nasser al-Attiyah, the event was reeling from a third death in two days.

Competitor Thomas Bourgin, 25, was involved in a collision with a Chilean police car on the link road to the start of Friday's stage.

"The rally's medical teams deployed on the ground were only able to certify the rider's death, probably instant," a statement on the race's official website reported.

Bourgin was in 68th place in the overall motorcycling rankings of his first Dakar.

On Thursday, two people were killed in a head-on collision between a rally support vehicle and a taxi near Peru's border with Chile.

Going into the 2013 event, some 59 people, including 20 spectators, had lost their lives in the race.

On Friday, Peterhansel finished the 218km run with a 39sec lead over compatriot Guerlain Chicherit, in an SMG, with American NASCAR driver Robby Gordon, in a Hummer, 1min 08sec off the pace.

Al-Attiyah, the 2011 champion who had won his third stage of this year's race on Thursday to slash Peterhansel's overall lead down to 1min 18sec, was sixth on Friday in his Buggy, 1min 56sec behind.

He remains second overall, but it is now 3min 14sec behind defending champion Peterhansel in the race for the title.

"It was a very long link stage at more than 4,000 metres above sea level. We even went over 4,800 and started to feel the fatigue and headaches that can happen in that situation," said Peterhansel.

"But then we got stuck into the special, just 218 kilometres and I have to admit that for the first 130km, we were flat out.

"There was nothing to do, just 15 or 30 bends and we were driving at 150 kmph on average."

In the motorcycling stage, America's Kurt Caselli, on a KTM, took the honours, winning in 1hr 51min 31sec, an advantage of 1min 23sec over Chile's Francisco Lopez and Olivier Pain of France.

Pain still leads the overall standings by 6min 06sec ahead of Lopez.

Defending champion Cyril Despres, who had been second overall, dropped to more than 14 minutes off the pace after mechanical problems left him without fifth gear for half the distance.

"Cyril's problems have given me a significant gap for the lead, and that's a good thing for me," said Pain.

"That's just part of racing, but I'm not forgetting that it could happen to me too, so I'm not getting cocky about it, especially since Cyril has the capacity to claw back the time he's lost."

Saturday's eighth stage is a 247km timed run between Salta and Tucuman. - AFP

Dakar Rally results and standings after Friday's seventh stage, a 218km timed run between Calama, Chile and Salta, Argentina:



1. Stephane Peterhansel (FRA/Mini) 1 h 47:27, 2. Guerlain Chicherit (FRA/SMG) at 39, 3. Robby Gordon (USA/Hummer) 1:08, 4. Orlando Terranova (ARG/BMW) 1:11, 5. Giniel De Villiers (RSA/Toyota) 1:32, 6. Nasser al-Attiyah (QAT/Buggy) 1:56, 7. Erik Wevers (NED/HRX) 3:45, 8. Leonid Novitskiy (RUS/Mini) 4:07, 9. Carlos Sousa (POR/Great Wall) 4:34, 10. Lucio Alvarez (ARG/Toyota) 6:24.


1. Stephane Peterhansel (FRA/Mini) 16 h 23:43, 2. Nasser al-Attiyah (QAT/Buggy) 3:14, 3. Giniel De Villiers (RSA/Toyota) 44:03, 4. Leonid Novitskiy (RUS/Mini) 48:54, 5. Guerlain Chicherit (FRA/SMG) 1 h 17:05, 6. Ronan Chabot (FRA/SMG) 1 h 34:51, 7. Bernard Errandonea (AND/SMG) 2 h 02:18, 8. Orlando Terranova (ARG/BMW) 2 h 06:38, 9. Carlos Sousa (POR/Great Wall) 2 h 07:29, 10. Erik Wevers (NED/HRX) 2 h 31:22.



1. Kurt Caselli (USA/KTM) 1 h 51:31, 2. Francisco Lopez (CHI/KTM) 1:23, 3. Olivier Pain (FRA/Yamaha) 1:23, 4. Frans Verhoeven (NED/Yamaha) 1:30, 5. Ruben Faria (POR/KTM) 2:30, 6. Juan Pedrero Garcia (ESP/KTM) 2:42, 7. Jakub Przygonski (POL/KTM) 2:51, 8. David Casteu (FRA/Yamaha) 3:12, 9. Stefan Svitko (SVK/KTM) 4:06, 10. Alessandro Botturi (ITA/Husqvarna) 4:39.


1. Olivier Pain (FRA/Yamaha) 17 h 28:17, 2. Francisco Lopez (CHI/KTM) 6:06, 3. David Casteu (FRA/Yamaha) 6:37, 4. Ruben Faria (POR/KTM) 9:42, 5. Cyril Despres (FRA/KTM) 14:07, 6. Jakub Przygonski (POL/KTM) 20:43, 7. Stefan Svitko (SVK/KTM) 24:51, 8. Kurt Caselli (USA/KTM) 27:46, 9. Alessandro Botturi (ITA/Husqvarna) 30:18, 10. Jeremias Israel Esquerre (CHI/Honda) 30:35. - AFP

Golf: 2013 Masters field(Update)

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 04:18 PM PST

AUGUSTA, Georgia: Augusta National Golf Club Friday announced a list of invitees expected to compete in the 2013 Masters, the first major of the golf season scheduled for April 11-14

(Players still can earn invitations through US PGA Tour victories or world rankings through the week prior to the Masters):

2013 Masters Invitees as of January 11 ('a' denotes amateur)

Thomas Bjorn (DEN)

Keegan Bradley (USA)

Angel Cabrera (ARG)

KJ Choi (KOR)

Stewart Cink (USA)

Tim Clark (RSA)

Darren Clarke (NIR)

George Coetzee (RSA)

Nicolas Colsaerts (BEL)

Fred Couples (USA)

Ben Crenshaw (USA)

Ben Curtis (USA)

Jason Day (AUS)

Luke Donald (ENG)

Jamie Donaldson (WAL)

Jason Dufner (USA)

a-Alan Dunbar (NIR)

Ernie Els (RSA)

Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (ESP)

Rickie Fowler (USA)

a-Steven Fox (USA)

Hiroyuki Fujita (JPN)

Jim Furyk (USA)

Sergio Garcia (ESP)

Robert Garrigus (USA)

Lucas Glover (USA)

Branden Grace (RSA)

a-Guan Tianlang (CHN)

Bill Haas (USA)

Peter Hanson (SWE)

Padraig Harrington (IRL)

John Huh (USA)

Trevor Immelman (RSA)

Ryo Ishikawa (JPN)

Dustin Johnson (USA)

Zach Johnson (USA)

Martin Kaymer (GER)

Matt Kuchar (USA)

Bernhard Langer (GER)

Paul Lawrie (SCO)

Marc Leishman (AUS)

Sandy Lyle (SCO)

David Lynn (ENG)

Hunter Mahan (USA)

Matteo Manassero (ITA)

Graeme McDowell (NIR)

Rory McIlroy (NIR)

Phil Mickelson (USA)

Larry Mize (USA)

Francesco Molinari (ITA)

Ryan Moore (USA)

Kevin Na (USA)

Jose Maria Olazabal (ESP)

Thorbjorn Olesen (DEN)

Mark O'Meara (USA)

Louis Oosthuizen (RSA)

John Peterson (USA)

Carl Pettersson (SWE)

Scott Piercy (USA)

Ted Potter (USA)

Ian Poulter (ENG)

Justin Rose (ENG)

Charl Schwartzel (RSA)

Adam Scott (AUS)

John Senden (AUS)

Webb Simpson (USA)

Vijay Singh (FIJ)

a-Nathan Smith (USA))

Brandt Snedeker (USA)

Craig Stadler (USA)

Steve Stricker (USA)

Michael Thompson (USA)

David Toms (USA)

Bo Van Pelt (USA)

a-TJ Vogel (USA)

Nick Watney (USA)

Bubba Watson (USA)

Tom Watson (USA)

a-Michael Weaver (USA)

Mike Weir (CAN)

Lee Westwood (ENG)

Thaworn Wiratchant (THA)

Tiger Woods (USA)

Ian Woosnam (WAL)

YE Yang (KOR)

Ishikawa, Thaworn accept Masters invitations

AUGUSTA, Georgia: Young Japanese star Ryo Ishikawa and Thai veteran Thaworn Wiratchant have accepted invitations to compete in the 2013 Masters, organizers of the golf's first major of the season said Friday.

Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters, said the field for the April 11-14 tournament so far includes 85 golfers from 21 countries, 16 first-time participants and six amateurs.

"Through our established qualifications, and invitations to select international players not otherwise qualified, we historically bring together a collection of the world's top players, and this year is no different," Payne said.

"The Masters has long established a tradition of supporting the global game, and we were excited to extend invitations to Thaworn Wiratchant and Ryo Ishikawa, who we hope will provide added interest and enthusiasm for golf in Asia through their participation in the tournament."

Wiratchant, 46, won the 2012 Asian Tour Order of Merit. He'll be making his first Masters appearance when he competes at Augusta National in April.

He holds the Asian Tour record for most career victories, having won for the 15th time at the India Open last October, a co-sanctioned European PGA Tour event.

The 21-year-old Ishikawa will be making his fifth straight start at the Masters with his best finish coming in 2011 when he tied for 20th.

In his final five starts of 2012, he closed out the season on the Japan Golf Tour by collecting his 10th career win and recording three additional top-10 finishes.

Golfers have two more chances to qualify for the 2013 Masters by winning a PGA Tour event that awards a full-point allocation for the season-ending Tour Championship or by climbing into the top 50 of the world golf rankings published during the week prior to the Masters. - AFP

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RHB plans to be a wholesome bank

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 06:42 PM PST

TWO words: My bank. That's how Tan Sri Azlan Zainol would like RHB Bank Bhd the organisation in which he has been the chairman for the past seven years to be seen by its customers.

Indeed, it is every banker's dream to be the first choice of service providers for customers.

It's not surprising therefore that Azlan is thinking of positioning RHB Bank as such.

"When people look for banks, RHB should be the first choice that comes into their minds," Azlan tells StarBizWeek in an interview in conjunction with the bank's 100-year anniversary this year.

"The key for us (to achieve that) is to find a niche," he says, pointing to "Easy by RHB" as one of the most important initiatives that the bank has launched in recent years towards this end.

RHB Bank is one of the key subsidiaries of Main Market-listed RHB Capital Bhd (RHB Cap). It contributes about 80% of the group's pre-tax profit annually.

The banking group will reach a significant milestone come July this year, when RHB Bank is officially 100 years old.

"I presume that we are the oldest bank in Malaysia," Azlan says, noting that there are not many companies in the country that have reached this milestone.

"We're proud of the fact that we're 100 years old, and that we've done well throughout all these years," he says.

Lots of programmes are in store, according to Azlan, for the banking group's customers, stakeholders and staff, as it will celebrate in a "reasonably big way". The organisation, he says, will also focus a little more on charity as part of its celebration.

Rich history

The RHB Banking group boasts a rich history that traces the development of the country's banking and financial services industry from pre-independence days to the most turbulent economic times in the region's history.

Its important celebration this year is also taking place amid the changing landscape of the industry that has already seen a spate of mergers and acquisitions (M&As) in the past couple of years, both at home and in the region.

The RHB Banking group, which assumed its current name only in 1997, is itself no stranger to M&As.

It came about through a merger between Kwong Yik Bank Bhd and DCB Bank Bhd (formerly known as the Development and Commercial Bank Bhd) in 1997. That year saw bumiputra entrepreneur Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Hussain emerge as the group's executive chairman. The bank's current initials come from his name.

Kwong Yik Bank was founded by a Chinese community led by Wong Loke Yew, or better known as Loke Yew in July 1913, while DCB Bank was established in 1966 by then finance minister Tun Sir Henry H.S. Lee.

In the aftermath of the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis, the troubled Sime Bank Bhd (formerly known as UMBC Bank) was merged into the RHB Banking group in 1999.

Four years later, when Kuching-based Bank Utama Bhd, the banking arm of Cahya Mata Sarawak Bhd, became the latest bank to be merged into the RHB Banking group, Rashid made his exit from the group.

Today, the controlling shareholder of the RHB Banking group is the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), which owns a 41% stake in RHB Cap.

(Azlan is also the CEO of EPF at present and holds directorship in RHB Cap.)

"As a major shareholder in the RHB Banking group, we (EPF) will continue to make sure that the group grows in a healthy way," he stresses.

Going international

According to Azlan, the immediate challenge for the group is to try and grow its business outside Malaysia.

"We are still hopeful of the deal with PT Bank Mestika Dharma (Bank Mestika) in Indonesia as part of our plan to grow our presence outside Malaysia," he says.

RHB Banking group's initial plan was to acquire an 80% stake in Bank Mestika for RM1.16bil. But recent regulatory changes in Indonesia, which put a limit on foreign shareholding, means the group cannot own more than a 40% stake in Bank Mestika.

"We will play by the rules. If the rules now say foreign ownership would be limited to 40%, we will take the 40%," Azlan says.

In November last year, RHB Bank and Bank Mestika had mutually extended the period for the completion of the conditional sale and purchase agreement to Jan 31, 2013.

According to Azlan, the RHB Banking group will still be able to drive the operations of Bank Mestika with its local partner once it completes the proposed acquisition in the latter, which could be by June this year.

The immediate priority in Indonesia upon completion of the deal is to increase RHB group's network and presence in Sumatra, and all the other key economic areas that the Indonesian government intends to develop.

According to media reports, the Indonesian government has identified at least five special economic zones to boost growth. These include Mandalika in central Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, and Bitung in North Sulawesi; Sei Mangke in Simalungun, North Sumatra; and Tanjung Lesung in Pandeglang, Banten.

On its regional expansion plans, Azlan further says: "We want to concentrate on South-East Asia first, and then, South China."

The group already has an office in Hong Kong and China, and is looking at expanding further in the Indochina region, encompassing Vietnam and Laos. The group is also eyeing possible opportunities in the Philippines and Myanmar.

"Our target is to grow our overseas contributions from the current 5% of total revenue to 30% of total revenue by 2017," Azlan says.

He says the recent acquisition of OSK Investment Bank (OSKIB) has boosted the group's presence outside Malaysia.

"There are plenty of synergies gained from the exercise. A boost to our overseas presence is one. The "people factor" is another this is a merger of talented people," he says, adding that the focus is to ensure that the group's growth could be accelerated from now on.

Investment banking currently contributes only about 3% of RHB Cap's group pre-tax profit.

"We expect to see huge growth for the group now because OSKIB is in," Azlan points out.

RHB Cap raked in a net profit of RM1.4bil, or 62.1 sen per share, for the first nine months of 2012. This represented an increase of 8.8% from the corresponding period a year ago.

The group's revenue for the period in review, on the other hand, rose 7.6% year-on-year to RM3.5bil. Pre-tax profit for that period in 2012 stood at RM1.8bil, of which RM1.7bil came from RHB Bank.

Annualised return on equity (ROE) and return on assets stood at 14% and 1.1%, respectively.

"I think we can improve our profitability I don't see why our ROE cannot go to 20% within a short period of time," Azlan says.

The RHB Banking group has already outlined several strategies to grow its business and improve its bottom line.

According to Azlan, these strategies include boosting loan growth to enhance interest income, expanding the group's transaction banking and treasury businesses as well as enhancing other areas that could boost its fee income.

But to Azlan, what's most important is not just about keeping the business growing and making profits.

"I want to build a wholesome bank it is not just about profits and making money, but it is also about our responsibility to society, our duty to develop talent within the management of RHB group, and making our customers happy," he explains of his longer-term vision for RHB Banking group.

Upside seen for RHB Cap

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 06:40 PM PST

ALLIANCE Research was one of the first to flag RHB Capital Bhd (RHB Cap) as its top pick for the domestic banking sector last year despite uncertainties around the group's merger with OSK Investment Bank (OSKIB).

Citing several catalysts, including the completion of the acquisition, the research house's banking analyst Cheah King Yoong said at the time that RHB Cap's low valuations were "no longer justified" and it was poised to go from a "market laggard to a market leader, with its shares outperforming many of its banking peers".

With the merger now signed and sealed, Cheah says he still holds this view.

"We believe investors have been overly conservative on the potential synergistic benefits to be derived from RHB Cap's acquisition of OSKIB," he explains to StarBizWeek.

Indeed, if there is one thing that stands out in discussions about the company, it is that RHB Cap is one of the cheapest banking stocks around.

But this, depending on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty, could either mean it is trading at attractive valuations or that the market is discounting it for a good reason.

RHB Cap is currently valued at a price-to-book of 1.2 times and price-to-earnings of 9.8 times for its financial year 2013. In comparison, Malayan Banking Bhd (Maybank) and CIMB Group Holdings Bhd command a price-to-book of 1.8 times and 1.9 times and price-to-earnings of 12.5 times and 11.9 times, respectively.

Among the second-tier banks, Hong Leong Bank trades at a forward price-to-book of 2.1 times and price-to-earnings of 14.4 times, and Public Bank at 2.9 times and 13.4 times, according to Bloomberg data.

Analysts say RHB Cap shares have underperformed despite solid earnings report cards so far in the first three quarters of its financial year ended Dec 31, 2012.

Its nine-month results had exceeded expectations, with net profit rising 14.4% to RM487.48mil from RM426.22mil in the previous year, accounting for 81.4% of full-year estimates. Revenue was up 10.6% to RM1.96bil from RM1.77bil.

This was on the back of higher net interest income and lower loan loss provisions. Its gross loans grew at a impressive pace of 12.6%, on an annualised basis, to RM106.6bil, beating the industry average of 11.2%, while deposits expanded 11.3% to RM125.7bil.

Its loan-to-deposit ratio ticked up to 84.8% at end-September.

The firm's annualised return on equity stood at 15%, although this may undershoot management's 14% target for 2012 by a small margin because of the enlarged share base.

RHB Cap shares gained 5.2% last year, while Maybank saw its stock rise 10.3%, CIMB 5.4%, Hong Leong 37.4%, and Public Bank 23.7%.

The sceptics opine that the merger with OSKIB was skewed in favour of the latter's shareholders, a move that will dilute earnings and water down its return on equity for at least the next few quarters.

RHB Cap had in November issued 245 million new shares, or 10% of its enlarged share base, at RM7.36 each, which formed the bulk of its settlement with OSK Holdings Bhd. The cash portion was RM147.5mil, giving the entire purchase a price tag of RM1.95bil. OSK Holdings will remain a listed entity.

The acquisition valued OSKIB at 1.77 times price-to-book and 18.9 times historical price-to-earnings, and saw OSK Holdings emerge as RHB Cap's third-largest shareholder behind Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments PJSC and the Employees Provident Fund (EPF).

OSK Holdings will also get a board seat each on RHB Cap, RHB Bank and RHB Investment Bank.

In addition, Maybank IB Research thinks RHB Cap shares could be reflecting a potential merger with Malaysia Building Society Bhd (MBSB). "This possibility cannot be ruled out," it notes in a report.

StarBiz had previously reported that MBSB could be privatised and merged with RHB Bank as both are majority-owned by the EPF.

To Alliance's Cheah, the negativity around RHB Cap can only mean there is plenty of upside.

He also deems the anticipated acquisition of a stake in Indonesia's PT Bank Mestika Dharma would be a strategic move for the group to entrench its position in the lucrative Indonesian market.

"Although the market is concerned that RHB Cap may overpay for Bank Mestika, we believe it will be priced reasonably," he says, pointing out that the unlisted Bank Mestika's product range is currently underutilised.

RHB Cap had originally proposed to buy 80% of Bank Mestika in 2009 for RM1.16bil, but regulatory changes by Indonesia's central bank to limit foreign ownership to 40% had delayed its plans.

RHB Bank and Bank Mestika now have until Jan 31 to ink the conditional sale and purchase agreement.

"RHB Cap remains committed to securing a presence in Indonesia and is willing to take the first 40% stake pending further discussions with regulators," HwangDBS Vickers Research explains in a client note recently.

Maybank IB Research also points out that the halving of its purchase effectively shrinks any rights issue that could be carried out to fund it.

Meanwhile, it is up in the air as to whether RHB Cap will benefit from any merger and acquisition (M&A) play this year. In 2011 it was pursued by both Maybank and CIMB, a deal that was scuppered when Aabar Investments paid RM10.80 per share or 2.25 times book value for a 25% block in RHB Cap from its sister company Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank.

Still, a market watcher contends that Aabar Investments could yet pare down its shares if market talk is to be believed.

Of more immediate focus is how the consolidation between RHB Cap and OSK IB will pan out. Already, industry observers say the usual teething problems are making their presence felt while management maintains that attrition has been minimal.

The market will also be waiting to scrutinise the synergies that are to be extracted from the merger, which RHB Cap has quantified at RM324mil over the next three years, most of which is expected to be recognised in the third year.

The opportunities from cross-selling, a stronger IB presence and expanded retail and commercial offerings could wring in some RM275mil, cost savings and network alignment RM34mil and lower cost of credit RM15mil. Integration costs are estimated at RM86mil.

And in light of the slower loan growth forecast this year of between 10%-11% versus 11%-12% in 2012, Alliance's Cheah believes the key near-term earnings driver for RHB Cap will be non-interest income, such as fees from the disbursement of Economic Transformation Programme-related bonds and the continued robust capital markets.

American Express cuts 5,400 jobs

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 06:32 PM PST

Saturday January 12, 2013

WASHINGTON: American Express said it would lay off 8.5% of its workforce in 2013, in an effort to contain operating expenses and adapt to customers moving to online and mobile platforms.

The bank said it would eliminate 5,400 jobs, though some of those would be offset by new positions, for a net cut of 4%-6% of the 63,500-strong workforce. – AFP

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Water supply in Gombak to be fully restored on Saturday

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 05:37 AM PST

PUTRAJAYA: Water supply is expected to be restored fully by Saturday in Gombak and several areas in Kuala Lumpur affected by a breakdown at the Wangsa Maju pump station, said Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Datuk Seri Peter Chin Fah Kui.

He said water concessionaire Syabas has been working on installing bypass pipes since Jan 8 with work expected to be completed in five days.

"On Jan 2, my Ministry had asked Syabas to present a technical proposal to make sure water supply can be restored to all consumers immediately.

"The proposal which involves the installation of bypass pipes was also discussed with representatives from the Selangor state government and approved by the National Water Services Commission (SPAN) on Jan 7," he said in a statement Friday.

Related Stories:
By-pass pipe to be ready Sunday to bring some relief to Klang Valley water crisis

Angry mob sets RTD patrol car ablaze

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 05:34 AM PST

SITIAWAN: An angry mob overturned a Road Transport Department (RTD) vehicle and set it ablaze following an accident in Ayer Tawar involving 10 vehicles, including two school buses and a lorry, near a traffic light.

The four JPJ officers in the vehicle, a four-wheel drive, who got out and saw the mob heading towards them, flagged down a car and hitched a ride away from the scene at about 12.30pm on Friday.

The 11-vehicle pile-up injured 15 people.

The accident is believed to have happened when the RTD vehicle swerved in front of the lorry to stop it.

The lorry driver hit the emergency brakes but not in time to avoid hitting the patrol car.

The vehicles behind crashed into one another.

Manjung deputy OCPD Deputy Supt Ahmad Mat Isa, who confirmed the incident, said police were investigating the cause of the accident.

A few policemen who were on the spot were powerless to control the crowd that, some witnesses said, swelled to more than 30.

Some smashed the RTD car's windows and others overturned the vehicle before it was set alight.

They also threw objects at a team of 14 personnel from the Sitiawan fire and rescue department who put out the fire and were assisting the accident victims.

The injured were sent to Hospital Seri Manjung for treatment.

"The matter will be investigated under Section 42 and 435 of the Penal Code for rioting and mischief by fire and under Section 43 of the Road Transport Act 1987 for dangerous driving," the deputy OCPD said.

Police detain three over alleged abuse of two-year-old girl

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 05:14 AM PST

SHAH ALAM: The police have detained three people, including a teenage girl, in connection with the alleged abuse of a two-year-old girl on Wednesday, at Desa Jaya, Gombak.

They comprise the victim's 27-year-old mother, a 23-year-old man believed to be her boyfriend, and the 15-year-old girl.

A police team picked up the suspects at a house in Kampung Desa Aman, Sungai Buloh near here about 7.30 Thursday.

They also seized a Proton Saga, cane and wire-hanger tied with a rope, believed to have been used to abuse the victim.

Initial police investigations revealed the car was stolen in Genting Highlands last month.

Selangor police chief Datuk Tun Hisan Tun Hamzah told a press conference here Friday, the suspects tested positive for drugs.

He said the suspects were remanded for four days until Jan 14.

The toddler had sustained burn marks caused by a cigarette and that her feet were tied up for a week before being rescued by her godmother and warded at the Selayang Hospital. - Bernama

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Ang Lee overwhelmed by Oscar nomination

Posted: 10 Jan 2013 08:09 PM PST

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ang Lee already has an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, but the Taiwanese director said he was overwhelmed by the wealth of nominations accorded his acclaimed fable Life Of Pi on Thursday.

"I am deeply honored, and frankly a little overwhelmed, by all of the nominations that Life Of Pi has received this morning," Lee (pic) said in a statement shortly after the fantasy shipwreck film received 11 Oscar nods, including one for best picture.

"So many talented people gave everything they had to this film ... and to see all of them receive this kind of recognition is something I am incredibly grateful for," Lee added.

Across Hollywood, reactions from other nominees poured in after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' announcement of who would vie for the film world's highest honors, to be handed out on February 24.

Producer Harvey Weinstein, known for his aggressively effective but sometimes controversial Oscar campaigns, scored eight nominations for the all-star Silver Linings Playbook and another four for the more controversial Django Unchained.

"I am blown away!" Weinstein enthused, adding, "I can't say thank you enough to the Academy for their support of our films."

Amy Adams, nominated as best supporting actress for The Master, said she was honored, and paid tribute to her co-stars, saying, "I'd also like to send congratulations to the other nominees, and to my co-stars Philip (Seymour Hoffman) and Joaquin (Phoenix)."

British singer Adele turned to Twitter after Skyfall, from the James Bond movie of the same title, received a best original song nomination, posting "Oh my god I feel like Meryl Streep!! Thank you x."

"What can you say? It's so unbelievable," Roman Coppola, nominee for best original screenplay with Wes Anderson for Moonrise Kingdom, told Reuters.

"I was lucky enough to be in a car with my parents heading to the airport when I got the call and my mom started whooping," said the son of Oscar-winning director Francis Ford Coppola.

The acclaimed independent film "Beasts of the Southern Wild" scored a host of major nominations, including one for best adapted screenplay for co-writer Lucy Alibar.

"I think it's tremendous for the film," Alibar told Reuters. "We were such a small, tiny film, it's huge, especially for a film that really works on word of mouth."

Maverick director Tim Burton said his best animated feature nominee Frankenweenie "is a very personal film for me."

Citing the animators, cast members, set builders, and puppet makers who worked on the film, Burton said "I'm so honored that the Academy has recognized this film as one of its nominees."

The director of A Royal Affair, which was nominated for best foreign language film and is set in the court of a mentally ill 18th-century king whose queen romances the royal physician, noted the global reach of the Oscars.

"It's a big thing in Denmark. It's the biggest thing this year," director Nikolaj Arcel said. "It's the biggest thing that's happened to me in my career," added Arcel. "It probably hasn't sunk in yet."

Hollywood watchers blame Washington for 'Zero Dark Thirty' Oscar snub

Posted: 10 Jan 2013 07:29 PM PST

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Kathryn Bigelow's snub by Academy Awards voters stunned her cast and awards pundits on Thursday, with some pointing the finger at Washington politicians for the Zero Dark Thirty director's omission from the best director Oscar shortlist.

Bigelow (pic) was seen as the biggest casualty on Oscar nominations day after her controversial Osama bin Laden thriller won five nods, including best picture, but the director herself was cut out of the running for the industry's biggest honors.

"Kathryn Bigelow was robbed," tweeted Megan Ellison, one of the movie's producers, after the nominations were announced.

The movie about the decade-long U.S. hunt for bin Laden has come under fierce attack in Washington. A group of senators in December chided distributor Sony Pictures in a letter, calling the film "grossly inaccurate and misleading" for suggesting torture helped the United States capture bin Laden in May 2011.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has also launched a review of CIA dealings with Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal.

Hollywood watchers say the negative publicity affected the choices made by the Academy of Motion Pictures, whose 6,000 members are working professionals in the industry.

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan blamed the snub for Bigelow on what he called Washington bullies.

"Chalk up this year's (Oscar) nominations as a victory for the bullying power of the United States Senate and an undeserved loss for Zero Dark Thirty in general and director Kathryn Bigelow in particular," Turan wrote on Thursday.

Noting that the film has been "almost universally acknowledged as formidable," Turan added that "three members of the Senate, a deliberative body not previously known for its cinematic acumen, decided to place their feet on the neck of this particular film."

Bigelow, who won directing and best picture Oscars in 2010 for her Iraq war film The Hurt Locker, was silent on Thursday. But Boal, who got a screenplay nod, said pointedly that "none of us would be so honored today without the genius and remarkable talent of Kathryn Bigelow, and to her we are forever grateful."

Bigelow and Boal have said repeatedly that their film shows a variety of intelligence methods that were used to find bin Laden, and have denied being leaked classified material.

Jessica Chastain, who plays a determined young CIA agent credited with tracking down the al Qaeda leader to a house in Pakistan, called her best actress nomination "bittersweet."

"I'm so excited, but I also feel the shock of Kathryn not being nominated," Chastain told entertainment industry website TheWrap.com.

Hollywood awards pundits noted that Bigelow was nominated just two days ago for a Directors Guild award.

Tom O'Neil of Goldderby.com told Reuters the controversy in Washington may have caused a backlash in Hollywood.

But Pete Hammond, awards columnist for website Deadline.com, said the snub for Bigelow could bring a sympathy vote for the movie itself at the February 24 Oscars ceremony.

"Despite the controversy, people may use the snub of Bigelow to make a bigger statement about artists having the right to make the movies they want to make without the interference of the government," Hammond told Reuters.

Speaking at the Zero Dark Thirty premiere in Washington on Tuesday, Bigelow said she found the criticism on Capitol Hill "surprising, but I also respect their opinions and I think that unfortunately the film has been mischaracterized."

Argo director Ben Affleck, Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) and Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) were also left off the director shortlist although their films were among the best picture nods.

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A list of the worst-ever storyline in Spider-Man's comic world

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 01:48 AM PST

Being a Spider-Man fan can be detrimental to your sanity, as this list of worst-ever Spidey moments proves.

WITH great power comes great responsibility. While this saying has shaped the life and deeds of one of comics' most popular icons, it certainly does not seem to apply to his writers.Although the world did not end in 2012, it certainly felt like it to most Spider-Man fans after the perennial underdog hero, Peter Parker, "died" in a final battle with himself (!) in The Amazing Spider-Man #700.

The final instalment of the 50-year-old Amazing Spider-Man title had Peter and arch-nemesis Doctor Octopus caught in a Face/Off scenario, with the two swapping minds. Obviously Doc Ock got the better deal – youth, exciting memories and a posse of gals (Aunt May included!) – while Peter got trapped in his arch-nemesis' degenerating body with mere hours to live.

Caught in the ultimate death trap and facing a fate that is worse than death, these moments usually end with the hero emerging triumphant, but for once, that was not the case for Peter. While Peter succeeds in staging a final showdown with Doc Ock, he fails to get his body back, and in the end, all he can do is let his memories overwhelm his foe to such an extent that his body's new occupant vows to become a better, "Superior" Spider-Man.

"Superior" usually denotes something of better quality, but in this case, a villain with a bowl haircut who spent his career being Spidey's punching bag is surely an inferior substitute.

I am not buying Peter's "death", though. As Superman, Batman, Captain America, Bucky (twice!), Johnny Storm, Jean Grey, Jason Todd, Hal Jordan, Oliver Queen, Barry Allen and Wonder Woman have shown, death is never a permanent state in comics. Well, unless you are Uncle Ben or Bruce Wayne's parents.

Reinforcing my belief that Peter is merely on sabbatical are potential escape clauses in terms of the brief telepathic exchange moment with the Lizard (ASM #699), or another potential intervention by Mephisto looking to enforce the conditions of his "One More Day" spell.

All the same, Peter Parker's knack of winning while still losing is a persistent outcome in most key Spidey milestones, and what numbs fans to this latest fiasco is the fact that there have been Spidey cop-outs in the past that were just as bad or even worse than this idiotic farce.

Here are 10 of the lowest, a list that makes us wonder why we continue supporting Marvel's "creative" direction for the Spidey-verse:

1) The Parker Parent Trap

(Amazing Spider-Man #386-#388)

To commemorate Spidey's 30th anniversary (Amazing Spider-Man #365 in 1992), the creative team thought it would be cool to reunite Peter with his long-presumed-dead superspy parents, Richard and Mary Parker. The plot later took a drastic turn by revealing that his "parents" were actually killer cyborgs used by the Chameleon (with strings pulled by the Green Goblin) to infiltrate Peter's life. Until today, I still can't understand why after all that trouble, the Chameleon still did not find out Peter's secret identity!

2) The Osborne-Stacy Quickie

(Amazing Spider-Man #509-#514)

The death of Gwen Stacy is a defining moment in the Spider-Man mythos and comic literature, as it offered a turning point in terms of issues like relationships and vengeance. However, trust Marvel (or in this case, J. Michael Straczynski) to complicate things by adding a new, unnecessary dimension to that story, in which Gwen and Norman Osborn – yes, the same Green Goblin who dropped her to her death – supposedly had a tryst before her death.

Adding insult to injury was the revelation that she then gave birth to genetically enhanced twins, who matured at an accelerated rate and were duped by Osborn into believing that Peter was really responsible for their mother's death.

3) The Spider Clone Groan

(Various Spider-Man titles from 1994-96)

Initially, the appearance of a Peter Parker lookalike offered twice the excitement, but the novelty quickly wore off with the appearance of more Peter-permutations, and the rewriting of Spidey mythos via the cloning/resurrections of the Jackal, Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn! But the worst was yet to come …

4) Reilly Is Spidey? Really?

(Spectacular Spider-Man #226)

The Clone Saga reached its lowest point here, as Marvel revealed that Ben Reilly was the "real" Peter Parker – and in the process, insults the intelligence of fans who have followed Spidey's adventures for two decades! Despite the reinstatement of Peter as the real deal a few months later (Spider-Man #75), present efforts to elevate Ben Reilly's character just add to the distrust that we Spidey fans will always harbour towards him.

5) One Day Too Far

(Amazing Spider-Man #544-#545, Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man #24, and Sensational Spider-Man #41)

During Civil War, Peter revealed his real identity to the world, which led to his enemies going after his loved ones, and Aunt May getting shot. In the One More Day (OMD) storyline, a desperate Peter and Mary Jane struck a deal with the demon Mephisto, who cast a spell that saved Aunt May's life and erased Peter's secret identity from everyone's memory, but at the cost of the Parkers' marriage.

As a result, the subsequent five years of Spider-Man stories have been thrown into doubt because we can't be sure whether Spidey is still caught up in some Mephisto-conjured environment! Also, abruptly dissolving the Parkers' matrimonial bonds was a move that made a mockery of MJ's past contributions to Peter's adventures; and at the same time, overstated the importance of Aunt May's role in his life.

6) One Feeble Moment

(Amazing Spider-Man #638-#641)

Three years after OMD, Joe Quesada (Marvel's then editor-in-chief) came up with the One Moment In Time (OMIT) storyline, which was a feeble attempt to explain why the Parkers were not married, why Aunt May was still alive, how OMD fit into Marvel continuity, and in the process, showed exactly how Mephisto managed to "assist" the Parkers (downplaying the demon's role significantly). While the art here was great, it turned out to be just a smokescreen, one story arc that is definitely worth OMIT-ting from your must-read list!

8) A Messy Gathering

(Sensational Spider-Man #32-#33, Amazing Spider-Man #440-#441, Spider-Man #97-#98, and Spectacular Spider-Man #262-#263)

The term "anti-climactic" does not even begin to sum up the disappointing interconnecting Gathering Of Five and Final Chapter story arcs, as Howard Mackie and John Byrne delivered a sloppy clean-up job to facilitate the renumbering of the Spidey titles.

The two directionless story arcs evoked the wrath of Spidey fans by "resurrecting" Aunt May with the excuse that the one who died (in Amazing Spider-Man #400) was actually a genetically-altered actress hired by Norman Osborn. Additionally, the much-hyped return of the Parkers' baby daughter did even not materialise.

8) The "Death" of Mary Jane

(Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 2 #13-#29)

For months, the subplot of MJ being stalked provided interesting reading… until she was supposedly killed in an airplane explosion and Spidey travelled to Latveria to investigate! The "crime of passion" angle took a ridiculous twist when the stalker was later revealed to be an unnamed mutant telepath who abducted MJ as part of a plan to take over Spidey!

9) Spidey does wheelies!

(Amazing Spider-Man #130)

What were they thinking? Spider-Man took a break from web-slinging to endorse a Spidermobile (complete with built in web-shooters!) for Corona Motors (his rationale was the usual overdue rent scenario), despite the fact that he couldn't drive! While the buggy did help against Hammerhead and his goons, it proved to be a liability against Mysterio and the Terrible Tinkerer. And that's not all. While Spidey was busy mucking around with his new wheels ...

10) May and Ock forever?

(Amazing Spider-Man #131)

… Aunt May was getting married to Doctor Octopus! After learning that she inherited a revolutionary atomic processing plant, Doc Ock used his charms to woo Aunt May. With Spidey and Hammerhead playing the wedding crashers' role to perfection. May's loss turned out to be everyone else's gain. Ironically, with the ongoing Doc Ock-is-Peter situation, one wonders how that will impact May's marriage and MJ's status.

Does Dan Slott, the writer behind Peter's "death", even understand the implications of what he has wrought? Or is there another saga in the offing to capitalise on this tangled situation? Only time will tell.

> Reference sources courtesy of Earth 638 (2nd Floor, Kelana Mall, Jalan SS6/12, Petaling Jaya. Tel: 03-7804 8380. Email: earth638@yahoo.com)

Unauthorised biography about British comedienne Jennifer Saunders

Posted: 11 Jan 2013 01:16 AM PST

Jennifer Saunders: The Biography
Author: Jacky Hyams
Publisher: Metro Publishing, 251 pages

It isn't easy to write an unauthorised biography about a celebrity who has guarded her privacy fiercely throughout her life.

IN early 2012, British comedienne Jennifer Saunders made the unthinkable (and somewhat un-celebrity-like) announcement: "There is an unauthorised biography of me coming out. I urge no one to buy it!"

Despite the no buy-in and definite no support for the project from the subject in question, Jennifer Saunders: The Biography still managed to find its way to bookshops by the last quarter of 2012.

Like most unauthorised biographies of celebrities, Jennifer Saunders is essentially based on interviews that the subject had given over the course of her career, with some added insight and documentary-style explanation given by the author.

Jacky Hyams does not reinvent the biographical wheel. Taking the tried and tested route, Hyams documents Saunders' life story chronologically, dividing the biography into nine chapters, with each chapter devoted to a specific era in Saunders' life and career.

Saunders' comedy partner Dawn French had a similar unauthorised biography written about her in 2001; unlike that one, though, Hyams frustratingly does not delve much into Saunders' family life. The closest Hyams gets to shedding some light on her subject's family background is informing readers that Saunders' father was a pilot in the Royal Air Force (the same as French's father), her mother was a biology teacher, and that Saunders has three brothers. My, how revealing ...

Trying either to meet the word requirement or defend her credibility, Hyams, like most writers of unauthorised biographies, peppers her book with descriptive writing that could perhaps be passed off as insight into the subject.

For instance, setting the tone for her subject's early life story, Hyams writes: "Cheshire, in the north of England, is one of the country's more beautiful counties. Tiny, picturesque, 'blink and you might miss it' rural villages where time seems to have stood still. This rural, bucolic area, around Crowton and Acton Bridge, is where Jennifer Saunders spent her early teenage years. Until the age of 11, she would lead a peripatetic life with her parents and three brothers. Her father's career as an officer in the RAF took the Saunders family all over the country, and, at one point, overseas to Cyprus and Turkey for short periods of time."

While the language paints a pretty mental picture, the passage does not provide much insight into the notoriously private Saunders' life.

From Saunders' childhood – which Hyams declares to be average, with a couple of former classmates maintaining that Saunders was dreamy and had no aspirations to be the star she is today – the biography trudges through to Saunders' gap year and eventual enrolment into the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1977. Here, readers get a glimpse into how Saunders ended up at that school (her mother filled in the application form and gave Saunders no choice but to attend) and the much publicised first meeting between Saunders and French.

Saunders and French's early years as stand-up comediennes in sleazy clubs in London's Soho district, their time with alternative comedy troupe The Comic Strip and meeting their respective husbands (French married Lenny Henry in 1984 and Saunders married Adrian Edmondson a year later) have been publicised numerous times, and it is documented as part of the second chapter of Hyams' book.

By the third and fourth chapters, the casual follower of Saunders' career would be able to connect what they are reading with the television shows. Chapter three deals with the 30-year-long French and Saunders series, a superlative sketch show that pokes fun at the celebrity du jour and spoofs cinematic blockbusters and television shows, ranging from Titanic to Baywatch. Here, Hyams digs into the "golden handcuffs" deal Saunders and French signed with the BBC in the late 1990s, the first of its kind.

Chapter four, entitled More Bolly, Sweetie, chronicles Absolutely Fabulous, the comedy show that spawned the catch phrase "Sweetie darling" and made getting drunk in designer outfits that are too small a hilarity. While in French's unauthorised biography author Alison Bower went so far as to claim that her subject was jealous of Saunders' success with Absolutely Fabulous, Hyams does not dwell on how Saunders reacted to the phenomenon that was her creation. Instead, Hyams focuses on the interviews that Saunders gave from 1992-1996 while promoting the show and the slew of awards that Saunders and co-star Joanna Lumley picked up.

Little is said about the next solo Saunders project, The Life And Times Of Vivienne Vyle, except that the show, a clever spin on daytime television chat shows, was vastly underrated.

The closest Hyams gets to penetrating Saunders' privacy is her subject's decision in 2002 to relocate from the hustle and bustle of London to the idyllic countryside of Devon, where Saunders set her next sitcom, Jam And Jerusalem. Hyams observes: "The shift of focus, away from the urban, media-obsessed Ab Fab world, was a certain mirror of (Saunders') own life in the country, where life was so different."

As Saunders is a private individual, it comes as no surprise that Hyams was reduced to merely rehashing various media reports about Saunders' breast cancer when news of her health scare became public knowledge in mid-2010, almost a year after Saunders was diagnosed with the cancer.

Surprisingly, the only post-cancer project that Hyams focuses heavily on is the Spice Girls musical, Viva Forever!, which at the time of the book's publication had still to have its premiere. (The musical opened on Nov 27, 2012.)

Other projects, such as the television series Blandings And Dead Boss, are given the sketchiest of mentions, primarily because Saunders herself did not heavily promote these projects.

As a sideline to her public life, Hyams makes mention of Freddie, Saunders' first grandson, whose existence came to public knowledge through Saunders herself while she was promoting Viva Forever!

To be fair to Hyams, Saunders is not an easy subject to tackle. Notoriously private, stories about Saunders falling about drunk in public after a night of clubbing are non-existent. Thus it is hard to paint Saunders as anything but a woman who cherishes her privacy and her life with Edmondson, their three daughters and now grandson away from the public glare. She just happens to be a comedienne who created a slew of genuinely funny shows that have stood the test of time.

I don't think Jennifer Saunders: The Biography is meant to be anything more serious than the life story about a celebrity. Fans of Saunders will undoubtedly enjoy this book. For the casual follower, this sort of unauthorised biography makes a good starting point, as the book is an easy read and can be devoured within a day.

Love, life and business

Posted: 10 Jan 2013 04:00 PM PST

Happily Ever After
Author: Harriet Evans
Publisher: Gallery Books, 496 pages

ELEANOR Bee has everything planned out: she would move to London, she would become a literary star, and she would not fall in love – not after she has had to live with the aftermath of her parents' divorce. No, Eleanor Bee did not believe in true love. But life has a funny way of catching us unawares, and true love can come in may forms and shapes, not to mention tied to the past in ways that one can never predict.

Wisdom From Laughter
Compilers & Editors: Oh Teik Bin & Lee Kiang Wui
Publisher: Advantage Quest, 241 pages

THIS book offers to tickle your funny bone even while it imparts valuable life lessons. Its collection of 500 jokes as well as illustrations and cartoon drawings sneak in lessons on compassion, common sense and good values while readers are laughing at the hearty jokes mixed with a dash of spice. Laughter, they say, is the best medicine and there are even "laugh clubs" worldwide that gather members to laugh out loud and lower their blood pressure! If you can't get to a club, dip into this book daily for a dose of laughter.

Voice Of Islamic Moderation From The Malay World
Author: M. Kamal Hassan
Publisher: Emerging Market Innovative Research, 358 pages

"THE squeaky wheel gets the grease", goes the old saying. Similarly, it is the loud, militant voices of Islam that catch the world's attention through newspaper and TV news reports. Moderate voices are lost in the din, which is why independent Muslim Malay academic Prof Dr Mohd Kamal Hassan produced this book. Written with a mainly non-Muslim audience in mind, the book is aimed at those who are interested in the issue of the peaceful co-existence of the Muslim world and the rest of the globe.

The 11 essays hope to counter the tarnishing and demonising of Islam that has occurred since the 9/11 terror incidents in the United States in 2011 and to ease the heightened global tension between the Western and Muslim worlds.

Kaleidoscope: The Memoirs of P.G. Lim
Author: P.G. Lim
Publisher: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 376 pages

A REMARKABLE woman's life is recorded in memoirs that are as informative as they are engaging. Born into an important Penang family, Tan Sri P.G. Lim lived an eventful life that saw her make her mark after WWII, first as a fearless lawyer and labour rights champion, and then as a top diplomat representing Malaysia in many Western countries. She was also one of only two women (the other was Tan Sri Dr Aishah Ghani) on the National Consultative Council that was set up in the wake of the May 13 riots in 1969, and the suspension of the Malaysian Parliament. Indeed, Lim was well-known to all of independent Malaysia's prime ministers.

Kaleidoscope also shows off the more personal side of Lim, delving into her support for the arts and her voracious appetite for books.

You're Rich!
Author: Philip Wong with Melvin Goh
Publisher: Bumi Serasi, 214 pages

TAN Sri Datuk Sir Hiew King is the founder and chairman of the Rimbunan Hijau Group, a timber company founded in 1975 that has since diversified into other areas of business, including media (the group operates the Chinese language newspaper Sin Chiew Daily). This is the man that Forbes reported had a net worth of about US$1.2bil (RM3.649bil) in July 2012. And this is the man for whom the authors of You're Rich! had the opportunity to work. They observed and learned and put together chapters on what they feel are the billionaire's important philosophies in life and business. Learning from the master, the authors eventually ventured into setting up their own businesses and share their experiences in this book.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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