Jumaat, 10 Mei 2013

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Pakistan marks democratic milestone in close-fought election

Posted: 10 May 2013 08:35 PM PDT

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistanis began voting on Saturday in a landmark election that will bring the first transition between civilian governments in a country ruled by the military for more than half of its turbulent history.

Election workers prepares ballot boxes for transportation to polling stations, at the district court complex used as a storage area for election materials, in Lahore May 10, 2013. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

Election workers prepares ballot boxes for transportation to polling stations, at the district court complex used as a storage area for election materials, in Lahore May 10, 2013. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

The people of Pakistan hope the polls will deliver change and ease frustrations with a feeble economy, widespread corruption, chronic power cuts and crumbling infrastructure.

Disenchantment with the two mainstream parties appeared this week to have brought a late surge of support for former cricket star Imran Khan, who could end up holding the balance of power if there is no clear-cut winner.

If that happens, weeks of haggling to form a coalition will follow and raise the risk of an unstable government in a country ruled by the military for more than half of its history.

That would only make it more difficult to reverse the disgust with politicians felt among the country's 180 million people and drive through the reforms needed to revive its near-failed economy.

Power cuts can last more than 10 hours a day in some places, crippling key industries like textiles, and a new International Monetary Fund bailout may be needed soon.

Dozens of people have been killed in the run-up to the vote by the al-Qaeda-linked Pakistan Taliban, which regards the poll as un-Islamic and has vowed to disrupt the process with suicide bombings.

"The problems facing the new government will be immense, and this may be the last chance that the country's existing elites have to solve them," said Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College, London, and author of a book on Pakistan.

"If the lives of ordinary Pakistanis are not significantly improved over the next five years, a return to authoritarian solutions remains a possibility," Lieven wrote in a column in the Financial Times on Friday.

The army stayed out of politics during the five years of the last government, but it still sets the nuclear-armed country's foreign and security policy and will steer the thorny relationship with Washington as NATO troops withdraw from neighbouring Afghanistan next year.

The party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif looks set to win the most seats in the one-day vote, which gets under way across the country at 8 a.m. (0300 GMT).

However, Khan's dark-horse challenge could deprive Sharif of a majority and dash his hopes for a return to power 14 years after he was ousted in a military coup, jailed and later exiled.

Pakistan's best-known sportsman, who led a playboy lifestyle in his younger days, Khan is seen by many as a refreshing change from the dynastic politicians who long relied on a patronage system to win votes and are often accused of corruption.


Voters will elect 272 members of the National Assembly and to win a simple majority, a party would have to take 137 seats.

However, the election is complicated by the fact that a further 70 seats, most reserved for women and members of non- Muslim minorities, are allocated to parties on the basis of their performance in the contested constituencies. To have a majority of the total of 342, a party would need 172.

Khan appeals mostly to young, urban voters because of his calls for an end to corruption, a new political landscape and a halt to U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani soil.

The 60-year-old is in hospital after injuring himself in a fall at a party rally, which may also win him sympathy votes.

Early opinion polls had put the share of votes for his Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) party as low as single figures. However, a survey released on Wednesday showed 24.98 percent of voters nationally planned to vote for his party, just a whisker behind Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).

The Herald magazine poll showed Sharif's party remained the front-runner in Punjab, which, with the largest share of parliamentary seats, usually dictates the outcome of elections.

It also pointed to an upset for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which led the last government, placing it third. Pakistan's politics have long been dominated by the PML-N and the PPP, whose most prominent figure is President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto.

"The PPP didn't take care of the poor masses and always engages in corrupt practices whenever they come to power," said Sher Nabi, a banker from Peshawar.

"So we've decided to vote for the PTI candidate this time and test Imran Khan to see if he proves as honest as he claims."

Pakistan, which prides itself on its democratic credentials, ordered the New York Times bureau chief in Islamabad to leave the country on the eve of national elections, the newspaper said on Friday.

A two-sentence letter was delivered by police officers to the home of the bureau chief, Declan Walsh, at 12:30 a.m. local time on Thursday, it said.

"It is informed that your visa is hereby cancelled in view of your undesirable activities," the Times quoted the letter as saying. "You are therefore advised to leave the country within 72 hours."

In the violence ahead of the election, militants mostly targeted secular-leaning parties in the PPP's outgoing coalition and largely spared more conservative parties that question Pakistan's participation in the U.S.-led campaign against militancy, including those of both Khan and Sharif.

Many Pakistanis still plan to vote despite the bloodshed.

"I want to go out and vote but my parents are scared there will be a bomb or a shooting," said 21-year-old Nargis Fatima, a student in Quetta, one of Pakistan's most volatile cities.

"This is the first time I'm old enough to vote and I'll try my best to go out there and feel that I am part of whatever new set-up comes into place."

(Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik in ISLAMABAD, Gul Yousafzai in QUETTA, Mubasher Bukhari in LAHORE and Jibran Ahmed in PESHAWAR; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)

Related Stories:
New York Times reporter ordered to leave Pakistan

Copyright © 2013 Reuters

Former Guatemala dictator Rios Montt convicted of genocide

Posted: 10 May 2013 06:44 PM PDT

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was found guilty on Friday of genocide and crimes against humanity during the bloodiest phase of the country's 36-year civil war and was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt (C) arrives at the Supreme Court of Justice for his sentencing in Guatemala City May 10, 2013. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt (C) arrives at the Supreme Court of Justice for his sentencing in Guatemala City May 10, 2013. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Hundreds of people who were packed into the courtroom burst into applause, chanting, "Justice!" as Rios Montt received a 50-year term for the genocide charge and an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity.

It was the first time a former head of state had been found guilty of genocide in his or her own country.

Rios Montt, now 86, took power after a coup in 1982 and was accused of implementing a scorched-earth policy in which troops massacred thousands of indigenous villagers thought to be helping leftist rebels. He proclaimed his innocence in court.

"I feel happy. May no one else ever have to go through what I did. My community has been sad ever since this happened," said Elena de Paz, an ethnic Maya Ixil who was two years old in 1983 when soldiers stormed her village, killed her parents and burned her home.

Prosecutors say Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson to try to rid Guatemala of leftist rebels during his 1982-1983 rule, the most violent period of a 1960-1996 civil war in which as many as 250,000 people died.

He was tried over the killings of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil indigenous group, just a fraction of the number who died during his rule.

A throng outside the court chanted "Justice! Justice!" when the guilty verdicts were handed down on Friday.

"They convicted him, they convicted him. I can't believe it," said Marybel Bustamante, whose brother was 'disappeared,' a euphemism for kidnapped and murdered, the day that Rios Montt took power.

The human rights group Amnesty International hailed it as the trial of the decade.


"He had full knowledge of everything that was happening and did not stop it," Judge Yasmin Barrios, who presided over the trial, told a packed courtroom where Mayan women wearing colourful traditional clothes and head-dresses closely followed proceedings.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu was among them.

"Today we are happy, because for many years it was said that genocide was a lie, but today the court said it was true," she said.

Barrios called a hearing for Monday to discuss compensation for the victims of Rios Montt's rule.

Rios Montt's intelligence director, Jose Rodriguez Sanchez, also stood trial, but he was acquitted on both charges.

During the trial, which began on March 19, nearly 100 prosecution witnesses told of massacres, torture and rape by state forces. At one point, the trial hung in the balance when a dispute broke out between two judges over who should hear the case.

Rios Montt denied the charges in court on Thursday, saying he never ordered genocide and had no control over battlefield operations.

"I am innocent," he told the courtroom, sporting thick glasses and a gray moustache. "I never had the intent to destroy any national ethnic group.

"I have never ordered genocide," he added, saying he took over a "failing" Guatemala in 1982 that was completely bankrupt and full of "subversive guerrillas."

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan provided support for Rios Montt's government and said in late 1982 that the dictator was getting a "bum rap" from rights groups for his military campaign against left-wing guerrillas during the Cold War.

He also once called Rios Montt "a man of great personal integrity".

Defence attorneys said earlier they would appeal if Rios Montt was convicted. They argued that prosecution witnesses had no credibility, that specific ethnic groups were not targeted under Rios Montt's 17-month rule and that the war pitted belligerents of the same ethnic group against one another.


Rios Montt has been under house arrest for more than a year. The right-wing party that he founded changed its name this year to distance itself from its past.

Guatemala's civil war ended with peace accords signed in 1996 but the Central American nation remains a deeply divided society with very poor indigenous areas.

President Otto Perez, a former army general during the civil war, says he was part of a group of captains that stood up to Rios Montt.

Declassified U.S. documents from the civil war years suggest Perez was one of the Guatemalan army's most progressive officers and that he played a key role in an ensuing peace process.

But Perez was himself implicated in war crimes during the trial when one prosecution witness testified that soldiers under his command had burned down homes and executed civilians during Rios Montt's rule.

Perez has argued that genocide did not take place during the war, underlining the divisions that persist in Guatemala over the conflict, which pitted leftist insurgents against a string of right-wing governments.

Perez, who took office in 2012, is the first military man to run the country since the war ended, and rights groups were concerned he could interfere with human rights trials.

Courts in Guatemala have only recently begun prosecutions for atrocities committed during the conflict.

Until August 2011, when four soldiers received 6,060-year prison sentences for mass killings in the northern village of Dos Erres in 1982, no convictions had been handed down for massacres carried out during the war.

A judge who initially presided over pre-trial hearings cast a new shadow of doubt over the Rios Montt case on Friday when she confirmed a decision she had announced on April 18 to wind back proceedings to November 2011, and void all developments since then.

Prosecutors insist that decision is illegal and are preparing legal challenges to the ruling, while defence attorneys have argued that the decision is binding and the trial should never have proceeded.

(Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray, Peter Cooney and Paul Simao)

Copyright © 2013 Reuters

Pressure rises on White House over Benghazi talking points

Posted: 10 May 2013 05:08 PM PDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's administration fought back on Friday against Republican accusations that it covered up details of last year's deadly assault on a U.S. mission in Libya, after a news report that memos on the incident were edited to omit a CIA warning of a threat posed by al Qaeda.

White House spokesman Jay Carney speaks during a news conference at the White House in Washington May 10, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

White House spokesman Jay Carney speaks during a news conference at the White House in Washington May 10, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The report by ABC News gave new momentum to the highly partisan flap over whether the administration tried to avoid casting the September 11, 2012, attack as terrorism at a time when the presidential election was less than two months away.

ABC released 12 versions of the administration's "talking points" on Benghazi that appeared to show how various agencies - particularly the State Department and the CIA - shaped what became the Obama's administration's initial playbook for explaining how four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the attack.

The report came two days after a hearing in a House of Representatives committee in which Gregory Hicks, a former U.S. diplomat in Libya, gave a dramatic account of the night of the attack and what he described as a poorly handled response to it.

The report prompted a flurry of inter-agency finger-pointing and a hastily scheduled White House background briefing for reporters, as officials tried to defuse any political fallout.

Republicans have stepped up efforts to criticize the administration's response to the attack by suspected Islamist militants, with an increasing focus on the role of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a possible Democratic presidential contender in 2016.


The "talking point" memos were used to prepare Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, before she appeared on television talk shows a few days after the attack.

The ABC report on the emails between the White House, State Department and intelligence agencies about the attack showed the final talking points went through a series of revisions that scrubbed them of references to previous terror warnings.

In one email exchange, the State Department's spokeswoman at the time, Victoria Nuland, objected to including the CIA's reference to intelligence about the threat from al Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya.

That "could be abused by members (of Congress) to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either? Concerned," Nuland wrote in the email.

A source familiar with the Benghazi memos said Nuland was concerned that the talking points went further than what she was allowed to say during her briefings and that "the CIA was attempting to exonerate itself at the State Department's expense."

But the source said the deletion of references to al Qaeda and the CIA's warnings came after a White House meeting on the day before Rice appeared on five Sunday morning TV talk shows, and that Nuland was not at the meeting.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Friday that the changes were part of a broad effort to ensure that Rice was talking about facts and not speculation. The final talking points were approved by a CIA official the day before Rice's appearances on the talk shows, he said.

"The overriding concern of everyone involved in that circumstance is always to make sure that we are not giving to those who speak in public about these issues information that cannot be confirmed, speculation about who was responsible," Carney said.

He said the White House made stylistic changes to the talking points to clarify that the Benghazi mission was not a consulate.

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said critics were "cherry-picking" details from the memos but that "what was clear throughout was that extremists were involved in the attack."

A national security official with direct knowledge of the talking point process said the State Department had objected to a draft produced by the CIA because it made it seem as if State had ignored previous intelligence warnings about the dangers in Benghazi.

The tension between government agencies revealed in the documents offered an unusual peek into the Obama administration's internal rivalries and displayed a rare crack in its usual discipline about messaging and public image.


Democrats have dismissed the Republican attacks as politically motivated, and they had not gained much public momentum until this week.

"It's a tragedy, but I hate to see it turned into a pure, prolonged, political process that really doesn't tell us anything new about the facts," Secretary of State John Kerry, who replaced Clinton, said in a Google+ Hangout chat.

During the House hearing on Wednesday, Republicans renewed their months-old claims that the email traffic shows that the administration tried to play down the Benghazi assault because it came at the height of the U.S. presidential campaign and might have made Obama look weak on national security.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner demanded on Thursday that the administration release emails on its handling of the attack. The emails reported by ABC had been shown to members of Congress, but lawmakers and staff were not given copies, officials said.

Meanwhile, Republican advocacy groups entered the fray.

The pro-Republican group American Crossroads released a web video that raises questions about Clinton's role in a possible "cover-up" over the White House's evolving explanations for the incident.

In the days after the attack the administration - citing intelligence reports - essentially claimed that it had been a demonstration that turned violent. The story soon changed to an acknowledgement that Islamist militants were behind the assault.

"Americans deserve the truth," the American Crossroads video says.

The Republican National Committee sent out portions of the ABC report in an email headlined "Obama's Bungled Benghazi Response."

Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat on the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the Republican accusations were an attempt to damage Clinton in case she decides to run for president in 2016.

"It is so much an effort ... to harm her before she even makes a decision and then to make sure they've got some material after she decides to run for president, assuming she does," he told MSNBC.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Mark Felsenthal; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by David Lindsey and Christopher Wilson)

Related Stories:
Factbox - Benghazi attacks and U.S. politics

Copyright © 2013 Reuters

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Positive outlook for O&G firms

Posted: 10 May 2013 04:33 PM PDT

PETALING JAYA: Buoyed by the bullish sentiment in the oil and gas (O&G) sector, small and mid-caps are seeing a further share price rally on anticipation of more aggressive contract flows, going forward.

In a report, Kenanga Research said: "Our bullish outlook for the (O&G) companies is premised on clearer contract flows, as the sector goes full throttle on the back of Petroliam Nasional Bhd's (Petronas) continued aggressive capital expenditure spending, and the Government's resumption of plans under the Economic Transformation Programme to encourage domestic economic activities."

To recap, RM2.1bil worth of contracts were awarded to locally-listed O&G companies in April, putting the total value of contracts awarded for the first four months of 2013 to over RM11bil, according to a separate report by MIDF Research.

Among those that made it to the top gainers yesterday were Wah Seong Corp Bhd, which jumped 25 sen or 15.06% to RM1.91, and Deleum Bhd, which rose 19 sen or 6.76% to RM3.00.

Petra Energy Bhd, in which Wah Seong Corp has a 26.9% stake, was last done at RM2.07, 20 sen or 10.7% higher than the closing price a day ago, with 9.7 million shares changing hands.

Petra Energy, an integrated brownfield services provider, also announced that its wholly-owned subsidiary, Petra Resources Sdn Bhd, had accepted a contract from Sarawak Shell Bhd/Sabah Shell Petroleum Co Ltd (SSB/SSPC) to provide offshore crane operations and maintenance services to the latter from May 1, 2013 to April 30, 2016, with an extension option of one year subject to the approval of SSB/SSPC's management and Petronas.

Hook-up, commissioning and topside major maintenance services provider Dayang Enterprise Holdings Bhd, meanwhile, added 21 sen or 5.02% to RM4.39, with 5.1 million shares traded.

Kenanga Research preferred Alam Maritim Resources Bhd among small-to-mid-caps, with a target price of RM1.39 on the back of its better vessel utilisation and improving prospects of other divisions. The stock closed unchanged at RM1.16, with 4.9 million shares done.

The research house also pointed out that counters like Coastal Contracts Bhd and Pantech Group Holdings Bhd seemed to be laggards in the current bull market, pegging their target prices at RM2.90 and RM1.18, respectively, with "outperform" ratings.

Coastal Contracts was up one sen to RM2.19, while Pantech rose 11 sen to 91.5 sen.

Fears of CPO prices being dragged down further

Posted: 10 May 2013 04:28 PM PDT

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia's palm oil inventory finally eased to 1.93 million tonnes in April after staying above the 2 million-tonne threshold for the past 10 months, which had led to concerns that crude palm oil (CPO) prices would likely be dragged down further.

Palm oil stocks fell by 11.4% in April from 2.17 million tonnes in March, said the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) in its latest monthly release.

As at end-December 2012, local palm oil stocks had soared to an all-time high of 2.63 million tonnes.

A trader told StarBizWeek that the imposition of the Government's new CPO export tax structure early this year, which saw a tax cut in the range of between 4.5% and 8.5% from 23% previously (unchanged since 1970s), was a good measure to curb the rising record palm oil stocks.

In January and February, zero duty was imposed on local palm oil exports, but this was raised to 4.5% in March and April. The CPO export duty for June is expected to be announced on Wednesday.

On another note, MPOB said exports declined 5.6% to 1.45 million tonnes in April from 1.54 million tonnes a month earlier.

"The April export figure is one of the lowest monthly figures this year and is likely to remain weak in the following months, as the stronger ringgit makes local CPO pricier, especially to price-sensitive major export markets like China and India," said the trader.

Bloomberg reported yesterday that China Cereals & Oils Business Net said palm oil inventories in China, the second-biggest importer, rose to a record, as inbound shipments outpaced consumption.

Stockpiles at coastal ports exceeded 1.5 million tonnes, compared with 1.46 million tonnes a month ago.

High inventories may begin to slow China's purchases and weigh down prices, which have fallen 4.8% on Bursa Malaysia Derivatives this year, after slumping 23% in 2012.

Industry observers opined that the latest high palm oil inventories in China and India may put pressure on both CPO prices and exports in the coming months.

CPO production for the month under review, meanwhile, increased marginally by 3.12% to 1.37 million tonnes from 1.33 million tonnes in March.

"The higher production in April is within expectations, following the end of the low CPO production season in the first quarter and the start of the traditional high production season in the second quarter," said analysts.

JF Apex Securities in its latest plantation sector report said positive news on the lower palm oil inventory in April had failed to excite the palm oil market, as concerns over lower soybean prices continued to cloud the pricing for the oil.

"Yet, data of the palm oil inventory falling below the 2 million-tonne threshold and stronger demand in the month of Ramadan (in July) shall provide momentum to CPO prices," it added.

Plantation companies, incidentally, are due to report their quarterly results by the end of this month.

The research unit expects weaker earnings on a sequential quarterly basis, as "planters are suffering from weaker CPO production in the first quarter of 2013".

It said planters could also report slightly negative results on a year-on-year (y-o-y) basis, as the significant lower CPO price, down by 27% y-o-y, may more than offset the recovery in CPO production.

MBSB to focus on asset quality

Posted: 10 May 2013 07:08 PM PDT

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia Building Society Bhd (MBSB) will train its attention this year on managing asset quality and delinquent loans, which are higher than in traditional banks, according to president and chief executive officer Datuk Ahmad Zaini Othman.

While he did not reveal the non-bank lender's target for reducing non-performing loans (NPL), Zaini said MBSB would focus on booking quality receivables, and not just on enlarging its loan base.

This means the firm would actively manage its impaired loans by strengthening actual collections, and not "lend for the sake of lending," Zaini explained after its AGM yesterday.

"We are coming out with very specific programmes to collect retail NPLs, for instance, by increasing our agents. We will mobilise our resources, especially on defaulted property loans," he said, adding that these efforts had led to the writebacks seen in its first-quarter results.

For the three months to March, the civil servant financier doubled its net profit to RM166mil against the same period a year ago, due to lower impairment losses and robust growth in Islamic personal loans.

In terms of asset quality, MBSB's gross and net NPLs improved to 10.3% and 3.5%, respectively, while loan loss coverage inched up to a more comfortable 92.2%.

Zaini also said MBSB was in discussions with its advisers on an RM3bil to RM4bil capital-raising plan to address its relatively low core capital ratio, which stood at 6.3% as at end-December.

The exercise may involve a dividend reinvestment plan as well as a bonds and rights issue. While the firm had yet to decide on when to carry out the proposals, they had been earmarked for this and next year, said Zaini.

Analysts had indicated that the lender, which has shareholder's funds in excess of RM2bil at present, needed some RM500mil in additional capital to meet the minimum requirements under Basel III. Zaini did not comment on this figure when asked.

"The timing of the exercises would depend on our numbers. We cannot confirm these plans until we know exactly the components of our capital structure. We also do not wish to be overcapitalised," he said.

An analyst who spoke to StarBizWeek suggested that MBSB might also be keen on raising funds so that it could ramp up lending activities, given that its loans had already exceeded deposits at 107.3%.

For 2013, MBSB aims to bring its loan-to-deposit ratio down to 95%, while a 20% target has been set for loan and deposit growth.

The lender beat expectations when it posted a 33% annualised growth in loans for the first quarter. Its return on equity of 38% was above the industry average, which Zaini believes is sustainable.

On its personal loans segment, Zaini said the exempt finance company was targeting at least RM1bil a month in gross receivables, with a net conversion rate of 70%.

"The momentum is there. We have put in a strategy to attract new applicants as opposed to getting existing customers to refinance their portfolios.

"I think we can achieve the numbers we are projecting," he said, adding that MBSB had more than 200,000 clients.

Asked about the possibility of mergers and acquisitions (M&As), Zaini replied: "As a steward of the company, I'm trying to build value, that's all. Of course, we realise that we have to operate as a bank at some point.

"By virtue of the (soon-to-be-gazetted) Financial Services Act, we would have no choice but to operate like a bank. Our aspiration to become a full-fledged bank has always been there.

"But how we get there is at the discretion of the shareholders. It can be on a standalone basis, a merger with RHB, or even acquisitions on both sides either RHB buys MBSB, or MBSB buys RHB. It can take many forms.

"This is best left to the shareholders. Whatever the exercise, the important thing is for us to create value for shareholders."

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Racing: Style Vendome looks to give Clement first Guineas

Posted: 10 May 2013 06:33 PM PDT

PARIS: Classy French colt Style Vendome can confirm his connections' high opinion of him and land the French 2000 Guineas at Longchamp on Sunday and give trainer Nicolas Clement his first win in the classic.

Style Vendome - winner of four of his five starts - won the influential Guineas trial the Prix Djebel last time out and has importantly got a low draw of three in the 18 runner field.

In contrast his likely main rival, Olympic Glory, is drawn 12.

The English raider is trained by veteran Richard Hannon who is looking to add the French 2000 Guineas to the English 1000 Guineas he won with Sky Lantern last Sunday.

Clement, who won Europe's most prestigious race the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe with Saumarez in 1990 also at Longchamp, believes that Style Vendome has matured nicely for what will be a major test of his temperament and class.

"I fear it might be a real cat and mouse race," he told AFP earlier in the week.

"However, Style Vendome is an ideal horse to train for a race with a big field as he can settle and he can also race up with the pace.

"He has five runs under his belt and he showed he was a real man in his last race. He grew some hair on his chest," added the 49-year-old.

Olympic Glory's Qatari owner Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad al Thani will be hoping he fares better here than the disappointing fourth place that his highly-fancied Toronado took in the English 2000 Guineas last Saturday.

The colt warmed up for his French trip by winning his prep race, the Greenham Stakes, at Newbury.

Despite winning that in rather laboured style he is returning to the course where he recorded his greatest success last October, the Group One Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere, and his jockey Richard Hughes believes he can repeat his victory.

"Olympic Glory is a lovely horse, and we are lucky in that he has the same owner as Toronado, so that we can keep them apart," said the 40-year-old Irishman, whose win on Sky Lantern was his first in a British classic.

"Longchamp will suit Olympic Glory so much better than Newmarket - he has already won a Group 1 there - and he might also get softer ground which would be a plus.

"He was still a bit big at Newbury. He will be a big player in France and he looks to be crying out for that mile now."

Irish training great Aidan O'Brien runs Flying the Flag and Gale Force Ten, ridden by former British champion jockey Ryan Moore in the saddle.

He will have to show a huge amount of improvement from a win in a mediocre race at Dundalk last time if he is to give his handler his first classic win of the campaign.

Longchamp racegoers will be spoilt on Sunday as they also get the French 1000 Guineas on the same card and here too home hopes are high of retaining the fillies mile prize with last year's Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Flotilla.

Trainer Mikel Delzangles, no stranger to winning big races abroad having won the 2011 Melbourne Cup with Dunaden, has admitted she has taken time to show she was ready for the Guineas.

"Flotilla has just had a harder winter than I would have liked, she's just taken time to come to herself," said the 42-year-old.

"Little by little she is getting there, though, and she is coming back to herself now, I think.

"It was always the plan to aim her at the French Guineas but we hoped she would have wintered better."

Delzangles will have been relieved she got a low draw in what is a maximum 20 runner field. Her main opposition could well come from the sole Godolphin runner in either race, the Andre Fabre-trained Tasaday, winner of three of her four starts. - AFP

Cricket: Kirsten to quit as South Africa coach

Posted: 10 May 2013 06:25 PM PDT

JOHANNESBURG: Gary Kirsten will not renew his contract as South Africa coach when it expires at the end of July because he wants to spend more time with his family, the national cricket body said Friday.

Kirsten, who guided hosts India to the 2011 World Cup title, signed a two-year contract with the Proteas the same year, and had the option of a two-year renewal.

However, the coach told Cricket South Africa (CSA) officials he would quit his post at the end of July having established the Proteas as the top-ranked cricket Test nation.

"Gary has a young family and it is understandable that he wishes to spend more time at home," CSA president and board chairman Chris Nenzani said in a statement.

"It is obvious to all of us - whether we have been close to the Proteas or simply fans watching from the stands - the standard of excellence he has brought to our national team.

"We will certainly endeavour to retain his services in some capacity as his experience as a player, coach and mentor is not something we want to lose in its entirety."

Kirsten thanked CSA for giving him the responsibility of growing the team and for allowing him the flexibility to combine his coaching role with his family life.

"From the outset of my contract it was a concern how I was going to manage spending a lot of time apart from my family," said the coach, who was away from home for more than 200 days last year.

"My wife was quite surprised by it (the decision to quit), but that is how strongly I feel about the institution of family," added the Cape Town-born coach.

"There have been many highlights over the past two years which have been well documented and I have every confidence that the Proteas will continue to go from strength to strength.

"I like to think that the senior player base is very strong in South African cricket. I will miss the team and players - we became very close - and the camaraderie."

Kirsten will lead South Africa at the Champions Trophy during June in England and Wales, where the AB de Villiers-skippered side hope to ditch the long-held tag of 'chokers' after numerous tournament flops.

"It will be wonderful if Gary can complete his tenure by bringing home the Champions Trophy next month," said Nenzani of the one-day international event staged every four years between World Cup tournaments.

South Africa lost only two of 19 Tests under Kirsten, who led them to series victories against Sri Lanka, New Zealand, England, arch-rivals Australia, and Pakistan.

The 45-year-old former Test opening batsman was less successful with the limited-over teams, winning 13 of 24 one-day internationals and nine of 18 Twenty20 matches.

South Africa are away to Sri Lanka during July and August and Pakistan during November before hosting India - who draw the biggest crowds among teams touring the republic - and Australia next season. - AFP

Cycling: UCI to appeal Puerto blood bags decision

Posted: 10 May 2013 06:22 PM PDT

MADRID: The International Cycling Union (UCI) confirmed on Friday they will appeal against the decision by a Spanish court to refuse access to more than 200 sachets of blood that were seized in the Operation Puerto case against disgraced Dr Eufemiano Fuentes.

"The UCI can confirm that it will appeal the decision of the Madrid court of 29 April not to release to the UCI and other anti-doping organisations the more than 200 bags of blood and other evidence gathered in police raids in 2006, which were presented in the trial of Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes," read a statement published by the UCI.

In appealing, cycling's world governing body are following in the footsteps of the Spanish anti-doping agency (AEA), who had already announced their intention to appeal against judge Julia Patricia Santamaria's decision to ring fence the evidence.

"I have to ask the judge to give me whatever documentary or natural evidence there is, along with the blood bags, so that the proven facts that she herself considers as administrative infractions can be judged by the competent authorities," said the then-head of the AEA, Ana Munoz.

A Madrid court last month handed Fuentes a one year suspended sentence for endangering public health in the way he performed blood extractions and transfusions on a number of high-profile cyclists before the doping ring was dismantled in 2006.

In addition, trainer Ignacio Labarta was condemned to four months in prison, while three other co-accused - Eufemiano's sister Yolanda Fuentes, Vicente Belda and Manolo Saiz - were cleared.

However, judge Santamaria refused access to the 211 blood and plasma bags that were found in Fuentes' apartments in 2006.

Instead, she ruled that they should be destroyed. - AFP

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Umno must not sideline youth and middle-class Malays, says political analyst

Posted: 10 May 2013 08:10 AM PDT

KUALA LUMPUR: As Umno celebrates its 67th anniversary tomorrow, the party must take new steps to ensure that it will stay relevant, especially in the aftermath of the 13th general election, according to political analyst Prof Datuk Dr Mohamed Mustafa Ishak.

The National Professors' Council politics, security and international affairs cluster chief said one of the most important steps that should be taken by Umno was to give extra focus on the aspirations and needs of middle-class Malays.

For that, he said, Umno should prepare a more inclusive framework for the group.

"Umno is close to the hearts of the people in rural areas and Umno still managed to defend rural seats in the 13th polls, but the number of middle-class Malays are increasing and they mustn't be sidelined by Umno.

"The aspirations and expectations of these middle-class Malays also differ from the aspirations and expectations of the rural community and other groups," he said.

Mohamed Mustafa said Umno must have an interesting package to offer the group and efforts to reach out to the young people - especially the Y generation - must be intensified.

"If not, the Umno rejuvenation process will be hampered because these two groups, the Gen Y below the age of 40 and the middle-class Malays, are very important," he said.

At the same time, he said Umno must also continue reaching out to other races, including the Chinese, so that it won't be seen as an unfriendly Malay party.

"Umno must find ways to maintain racial harmony in the country," he said.

The professor said as long as Umno continued to take good care of the Malays and the Bumiputeras in Sabah and Sarawak, uphold Islam, ensure justice and combat all forms of corruption, Umno would continue to get the people's support.

"Don't let Umno's image be smeared by corruption or as a party for the rich or for certain groups of Malays.

"Umno must take an inclusive stand and approach by protecting the interests of the Malays, Malay rulers and Islam, while at the same time be fair to all Malaysians. That way, Umno will continue to be appreciated," he added. - Bernama

Malaysian higher education sector rating moves up 9 rungs in U21 report

Posted: 10 May 2013 08:02 AM PDT

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's higher education sector moved up nine rungs in a Universitas 21 (U21) report, and is now ranked 27th from a field of 50 countries, with an overall score of 52.4%.

Malaysia was ranked 36th out of 48 countries surveyed, with an overall score of 50.5%, last year.

U21 made its study based on the elements of resources, environment, connectivity and output said the Higher Education Ministry in a statement here Friday.

The Ministry felt the U21 ranking was commendable as it showed the Government was committed in the development of the higher education sector.

Malaysia is also listed as the second best in Southeast Asia after Singapore, which placed ninth with an overall score of 76.6%.

For the resource criteria, which looks at expenditure in the sector, Malaysia obtained a score of 70.9% which was better than Australia, Korea, Japan, England and Germany.

In the environment element, Malaysia scored 87.2%, surpassing countries like China, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Korea, Switzerland and Chile while the output of research and commercialisation saw Malaysia getting a score of 19.2%.

Malaysia also recorded 40.4% in connectivity and international relations, which depended on the number of foreign students in local institutions of higher learning and production of journals, in the cooperation with international scholars.

U21 is a network of the world's leading universities with an emphasis on research, and is based on research by the Institute of Social and Applied Economics Studies of the Melbourne University, Australia. - Bernama

#AzminReveals tops Malaysian Twitter trends

Posted: 10 May 2013 07:04 AM PDT

PETALING JAYA: Massive online interest in PKR deputy president Azmin Ali's 'reveal all' press conference made the Star Online-initiated #AzminReveals hashtag the top Malaysian trend on social media website Twitter on Friday.

The Gombak MP and Bukit Antarabangsa assemblyman had promised to reveal everything about the party's state of affairs, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at what happened after the Permatang Pauh by-elections in 2008.

The #AzminReveals hashtag was initiated as part of The Star Online's live Storify coverage of the press conference.

Excitement over Azmin's revelation had been building up even before the tell-all press conference, leading an early-morning tweet by @shusshshussh which said; "He gets his own hashtag! #AzminReveals. This better be good, sir. Malaysia's watching/reading :) @AzminAli"

Some tweeters like @iskandar38 shared their hopes for the announcement, saying "#azminreveals better have substance; statement, reports lodged, picture, videos etc instead of 'he says she says'".

Many had a field day taking guesses at what #AzminReveals would be.

@danielkhoo tweeted "If you're looking for some Friday morning entertainment, read #azminreveals :)".

Pop culture references also took centrestage, with @sudut_kiri tweeting; "#AzminReveals what was in the Pulp Fiction briefcase", while @1Obefiend joked "#AzminReveals that he is team Edward" and @rebelrhyming said "#AzminReveals whether the top falls or keeps spinning after Inception ends".

Some sought fixes for long-standing problems, such as @gogzta who tweeted: "AzminAliReveals the solution to #kltraffic".

Others alluded to the existence of urban legends, such as @zhiQ who tweeted: "#AzminReveals Loch Ness sighted at Teluk Gong. 15 years cover-up!"

Many clamoured for the reveal of secret formulas, such as @amir_n9 who wished for "#AzminReveals KFC's original recipes", and Spongebob Squarepants fan @GrrrrrRazzi who called for "#AzminReveals Krabby Patty recipe".

Even his crowning glory did not escape scrutiny, as Kota Belud MP Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan tweeted: "@PhilipGolingai Bro, I notice @AzminAli is sporting a new hairdo. Hair split on the side. Sign of new political life? #AzminReveals".

However, Azmin's much-anticipated press conference, which was covered by live tweets from The Star journalists TASHNY SUKUMARAN and PHILIP GOLINGAI, left many wanting more after it concluded.

Most tweeters voiced their displeasure over the one-hour delay to the start of the press conference and the lack of any actual surprise, such as @adaminkk2 who tweeted; "So the #azminreveals PC was anti climatic at best. Explains some details, deny some rumours, reiterate his loyalty to the party."

Others like @DinaNurhana tweeted: "#AzminReveals. Yes, there's nothing much, but people, why are you guys so negative? Aduhai Malaysian. Haha".

@Hugo_TanJianHao added: "Those who claimed to be #TeamAzmin also those who complain about the #AzminReveals now. Hard to please lah you guys! #gotcha #politics".

Amidst all the #AzminReveals excitement, one major question remained unanswered.

Kedah Gerakan Youth chief Tan Keng Liang said it best when he tweeted: "If YB @azminali don't want to be MB Selangor, then who his team choose to replace @khalid_ibrahim? #azminreveals".

And as @vader_roni tweeted, one thing is certain: "Malaysians have very little tolerance for political dramas #azminreveals".

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Benicio Del Toro joins 'Inherent Vice' cast

Posted: 10 May 2013 12:10 AM PDT

The Puerto Rican actor is likely to join the cast of Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, which is based on a recent Thomas Pynchon detective novel, reveals Hollywood and media news site TheWrap.com.

In the runup to the 66th Cannes Film Festival, Benicio Del Toro (pic) is angling for a supporting part in Inherent Vice.

He is looking to play the attorney of Doc Sportello, a pot-smoking private eye to be played by Joaquin Phoenix who criss-crosses Los Angeles in 1970 investigating a missing person case.

Crowned with success for his 2012 drama The Master (also starring Joaquin Phoenix), Paul Thomas Anderson will start shooting Inherent Vice at the end of May.


Movies coming soon

Posted: 10 May 2013 02:07 AM PDT

The Great Gatsby

AN adaption of the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel by director Baz Luhrmann. It revolves around millionaire Jay Gatsby, who lives a lavish life, attracting the attention of his neighbour, war veteran and would-be writer Nick Carraway. Gatsby is also a man with a mysterious past. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher and Amitabh Bachchan.

Star Trek Into Darkness

WHY and how is Benedict Cumberbatch's character better at everything? And what exactly does Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) mean when he says that he knows what he can do and not what he's supposed to do. Well, we are about to find out next week when the crew of the Enterprise flies into battle against the forces that threaten their 23rd-century way of life.

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Rest in peace, Damian Wayne

Posted: 10 May 2013 07:20 AM PDT

The death of Damian Wayne a.k.a. Robin gives the character of Batman an extra, poignant dimension.

A COUPLE of months ago (Feb 27 to be exact), Damian Wayne a.k.a. Robin died at the hands of his artificially aged clone, the Heretic, in Batman Incorporated #8.

Why are we only talking about this now? Well, after recently watching Johnny Storm, Winter Soldier and Bruce Wayne resurrected in record time after their "deaths", you'll have to forgive us if we are a bit more cautious when reporting comic book deaths.

Besides, we are dealing with the grandson of Ra's Al Ghul here, who has been resurrected quite a number of times via his Lazarus Pits before. To further justify my scepticism about Damian's death, his mother, Talia Al Ghul, previously saved him from certain death (in Batman #655-658) via the transplant of "harvested organs".

In case your Batman diet is limited to the Christian Bale flicks, Damian is the son of Bruce and Talia, daughter of Ra's Al Ghul. While such a union between Gotham City's protector and an international megalomaniac's daughter may seem unlikely, it actually happened in the 1987 graphic novel Batman: Son Of The Demon.

Following that unholy union, Talia gave our hero an offspring – a son he did not know existed until two decades later, our time (Batman #655).

Throughout this period, there have been signs of Damian's rise to prominence and future inheritance of the Bat-mantle, but after his untimely death, it will probably take another Flashpoint-like reboot to reverse his passing.

Anyway, now that the dust has settled (hopefully finally), let us pay tribute to Damian Wayne – probably the most eccentric Boy Wonder ever!

Batman & Robin Annual #1

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi

Artist: Ardian Syaf, Vicente Cifuentes

DAMIAN stood out from the other Robins (Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake and even the only female one thus far, Carrie Kelley) mainly because of his birthright as a Wayne.

Trained by the League of Assassins and possessing advanced engineering prowess (the flying Batmobile is testament to that!), Damian arrived at Wayne Mansion with excessive emotional baggage encased in a violent ego.

While his early years in the Bat-family were overshadowed by his bickering with Tim Drake a.k.a. Red Robin, not to mention the ruthless manner in which he delivered justice, he showed tremendous improvement under the tutelage of Dick Grayson (who took over the Batman cowl in Bruce's absence) and over the past year with his dad.

Batman & Robin Annual #1 completed Damian's ascension into a more humane, likable character, offering an offbeat adventure for the Waynes as Damian put his father's detective skills to the ultimate test via a three-day global scavenger hunt.

While Damian's ultimate objective was to prove to his dad that he has been learning about his birthright, he also wanted to give Bruce a gift in the form of reconnecting with his non-crimefighting past.

The hunt takes Bruce to London, Barcelona and Athens – places where significant milestones occurred during Thomas and Martha Wayne's early years together.

While these are moments that Bruce and Talia never shared, Damian's success in reconstructing the moments is not only touching, but offers a rare look behind the Dark Knight's grim fa├žade.

Batman Incorporated #8

Writer: Grant Morrison

Artist: Chris Burnham

IF you read Batman & Robin Annual #1 before Damian's death, you would have cried out at the injustice of his subsequent death in Batman Incorporated #8.

Here, his preference for his father's cause is viewed as traitorous by his mother Talia, who is so peeved by her son's betrayal that she puts a bounty on Damian's head and "replaces" him with an artificially aged clone called the Heretic.

Fearing for his son's safety, Batman fakes his son's death, but Damian's persistence in addressing the problem directly leads to a duel to the death with his clone.

There were two moments in this issue that I would deem as milestones in the Batman mythos.

Firstly, his final conversation with Nightwing, in which he says, "So far, I'd say you've been my favourite partner. We were the best, Richard. No matter what anyone thinks."

Then there was his final battle with the Heretic, where he was forced to go into "kill mode", while pleading to his mother to turn on the Heretic's "kill-save".

Batman & Robin #18

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi

Artist: Patrick Gleason

AFTER Damian's death, Batman & Robin #18 captures the impact of his passing on Batman. The almost entirely wordless issue is a beautifully moving way of capturing just how both sides of Bruce Wayne's character cope with the loss of Damian.

Interestingly, Bruce Wayne and Batman cope with the loss of a son and sidekick in contrasting fashion. As a father, he allows himself that rare moment to mourn, but when in crimefighting mode, he returns with a vengeance and takes out his grief on criminals in an extra brutal manner.

But what makes this issue even more poignant are Damian's last words in his final message, "I want you to know that Mother may have given me life, but you taught me how to live."

While we know that comic book deaths are only permanent when it comes to Uncle Ben and Thomas & Martha Wayne, for now, we shall play along with this epic Batman run which offered a new dimension to the character, that of a grieving father.

Initially, I was sceptical about seeing the Dark Knight share his death-defying encounters with a 10-year-old egoistical punk, but the last year of reading about the change in Damian's behaviour certainly changed my mind about the character.

Rest in peace, Damian Wayne.

> Comics courtesy of Earth 638 (2nd Floor, Kelana Mall, Jalan SS6/12, Kelana Jaya, Petaling Jaya, tel: 03-78048380, e-mail: earth638@yahoo.com)

Faint echoes of 1984 in The Disappeared

Posted: 10 May 2013 07:17 AM PDT

What do you do when your world disappears from under your feet and no one knows your name any more?

The Disappeared

Author: C.J. Harper

Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 376 pages

THE cover photo and blurbs for this book are compelling. The cover, as you can see, is the image of a teenage boy's face – protagonist John Jackson, one presumes – made out of dozens of small mugshots, apparently sent in by the public.

It is accompanied by a blurb that reads: "Deleted from the system, taken from everything you know, how would you survive?"

I mean, who wouldn't be drawn in by that? So, kudos to the team that put it all together.

However, the story itself was rather a letdown, in particular, the characterisation of Jackson, as well as the plot twist.

Now, for those who like fast-paced stories, you might be interested to know that the action pretty much starts in the first few chapters. Jackson and his best friend, Wilson – both 16-year-old students at an elite school – have been sent to a factory block by one of their teachers, known as facilitators, to deliver a package. By the end of page 15, Jackson has been badly beaten up by two anonymous men and Wilson is dead.

By page 32, we discover that Jackson's records have been deleted from his school's system, and the staff there claim they don't know him at all.

In a social system where everyone has a place to fill and a job to do, Jackson, now known as Blake Jones, is dumped in an academy, a place where those with the lowest potential scores are sent to be trained as factory workers.

Where brains and potential scores once mattered the most, now only a fight ranking and the colour of your hair indicate social status. Where food was once abundant and gourmet, now there each student is fed goop through dirty nozzles and, worse, sedatives every breakfast and lunch.

Facilitators teach from behind the bars of a cage, and students are hooked up to EMDs that deliver electrical shocks whenever they displease their facilitators.

Jackson naturally doesn't take any of this well and faces the expected problems fitting in.

This is where first-time author C.J. Harper's lack of experience can be seen. It takes a very fine balancing act to allow a character to be arrogant and irritating yet still elicit the reader's sympathy. Harper doesn't walk this tightrope very well: Most of the time, I found Jackson to be immature, irritating and condescending, even when people were trying to help him. While he wasn't all bad, he didn't make me totally root for him either.

Fortunately, Harper's creation of Kay, a tough girl who winds up befriending and helping Jackson, does much better and manages to balance some of Jackson's shortcomings.

The dystopian future the story is set in is actually quite intriguing although rather underdeveloped despite Harper's decent efforts at providing relevant historical background.

The social and political system actually brought to mind George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Not that you could even begin to compare the two books, but there are definitely echoes of the totalitarian ideology from that classic novel in The Disappeared.

There is a revelation, of course, related to why anyone would want to "disappear" Jackson in the first place. Experienced readers might be able to make a fairly educated guess early on in the novel; certainly, for me, the twist just kind of fell flat.

Similarly, a poignant moment involving a character who is obviously meant to be the plucky adorable one just didn't come off as well as it could and should have.

The ending itself hangs a little because, yes, my friends, there is a sequel: The Wilderness, expected out next February. I won't be holding my breath waiting for it, though.

I am going to make a rather strange recommendation, however. I think The Disappeared would actually make a decent, more entertaining and less heavy-going read for youths to prepare and introduce them to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. So, teachers and parents, you might want to take note of this book for that purpose.

Otherwise, I feel there are better choices of dystopian future young adult books out there.

Walk the mean streets on Hong Kong

Posted: 10 May 2013 07:22 AM PDT

Dive into this unique perspective on a hard-boiled city.

Hong Kong Noir

Author: Feng Chi-shun

Publisher: Blacksmith Books, 216 pages

THE after-dark shot into a Kowloon City street from the lobby of a dilapidated old apartment block looks like a still from a 1970s grindhouse movie. Gratifyingly, Hong Kong Noir delivers on its cover's promise of pulpish thrills and chills. And much more – this collection of true-life yarns is written with verve and some very dark humour. Indeed, its most powerful sections recalls mid-period Stephen King.

Through these "15 true tales from the dark side of the city", Feng Chi-shun demonstrates a keen sense of the macabre and a strong command of pacing, akin to the New England horror meister, and with more than a nod to the "dirty realism" and visceral intensity of another American-writer legend, the late short storyist Raymond Carver. In fact, Feng explained in a recent interview that he'd read a number of Carver titles in preparation for undertaking the writing of this collection.

Hong Kong Noir has been a permanent resident of Hong Kong's top five bestsellers list of English-language titles since its December release, and so represents a second triumph for the writer, a native son of the city he depicts so vividly.

Feng's previous bestseller was the marvellous Diamond Hill, a warm, sepia-tinted memoir of his formative years in a New Territories shanty town, where, in his words, "people were poor but life was rich". With his latest release, Feng has altered tonality – more shadow, less light in the chiaroscuro mix – without losing his story-telling chops or mastery of the confluence of time, place and mood.

The writer is well-qualified to delve into the murk, and into the realm of real-life gore, having served for many years as one of the city's most senior pathologists. Overdose cases, murders, suicides, tragic accidents – he's seen it all. His current post-retirement occupation – he's a self-confessed bar fly – also clearly provided inspiration, insights and authenticity for this work.

The common thread of Hong Kong Noir is failure – often so interesting in other people's lives, not so much in one's own – and Feng is evidently a keen observer of those spiralling downwards. Moreover he is adept at illuminating the factors that lead to the luckless – or just plain evil – low lifes, as they crash and burn, often inflicting horrific collateral damage on their way straight to hell.

The stories here are divided into three sections: "Losers And Boozers", "Beyond Villains And Victims" and "Sex And The City". Some, as Feng explains in the Foreword, concern people he has personally known, others involve nefarious individuals whose crimes received such sensational and extensive local coverage that, with some informed conjecture, Feng is able to present plausible "how it probably unfolded"-style narratives.

An example of the former is also one of the most moving. "Leaving Chungking Mansions" is the real story of "Clive" (not his real name), who was one of Hong Kong's expat pre-Handover civil servants. He enjoyed a pampered, moneyed lifestyle before Beijing replaced London in the scheme of things in 1997, but who swiftly afterwards went into an unstoppable decline – financially, medically, and spiritually.

Feng gives the reader plenty of food for thought as he explains how Clive's mid-life decisions were his unmaking and how they ultimately led him to a Tsim Sha Tsui flophouse where "he checked in, and he never checked out". It's a morality tale of reduced circumstances, perhaps too close to home for many of Hong Kong's ageing Brits going to seed in the sub-tropics.

"The World According To Ron" concerns another Hard-Luck Club member, whose life that could have unfolded rather less messily, again with some half-decent planning. The trouble with the perennially needy Ron is that he never really makes it out of adolescence. Although lazy, feckless, and irresponsible, however, there's something about the guy that keeps on making people want to help him. We've all known a Ron, and that's the beauty of this yarn.

The real-crime narratives, such as "The Taxi-Diver From Hell", are truly nightmarish, reflecting the reality of the cases revisited. But they're treated in a manner that provides at least blurry insights into the banality of evil. Feng has conducted some deft connecting of the dots where there were gaps in the media coverage and public-domain records.

It's also worth praising the neat sequencing of yarns. The stories of Hong Kong Noir ebb and flow and surge like the tracks on a classic 1960s rock'n'roll album. If Diamond Hill was Feng's Rubber Soul, this is his Let It Bleed.

Finally: what an excellent title for this intriguing collection. Malaysia's cinematic neighbour across the South China Sea is one hard-boiled city. The rewards are magnificent as long as you don't lose the plot. But if you do, it's as suffocating as the Kowloon petrochemical smog during a heatwave.

> Nick Walker is a Hong Kong-based author, literary critic and travel writer who covers this part of the world extensively.

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