Jumaat, 14 Jun 2013

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Moderate cleric Rohani leads early Iran election results

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 08:56 PM PDT

DUBAI (Reuters) - Moderate cleric Hassan Rohani took a commanding lead ahead of conservative rivals in Iran's presidential election, according to initial results, but his tally appeared narrowly insufficient to avoid a second round run-off on June 21.

With about 5 percent of the votes counted, the former nuclear negotiator appeared to have benefited from a late surge in support among liberal Iranians attracted by his progressive policies.

Presidential candidate Hassan Rohani casts his ballot during the Iranian presidential election in Tehran June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Yalda Moayeri

Presidential candidate Hassan Rohani casts his ballot during the Iranian presidential election in Tehran June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Yalda Moayeri

Under the election rules, a candidate has to win more than 50 percent of the total votes cast to win outright. A first round winner gaining less than that must compete with the runner-up in a second round a week later.

Rohani has about 45 percent of the votes so far.

Voting was extended by several hours at polling stations across the country on Friday as millions of Iranians turned out to cast their ballot in the first presidential race since a disputed 2009 contest led to months of political unrest.

Of the 1,819,984 votes counted so far, Rohani received 834,859, with his closest competitor, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, getting 320,562 votes, an election official announced live on state television.

In third place was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, with 257,822 votes, followed closely by Mohsen Rezaie, a former head of the elite Revolutionary Guard, with 214,368 votes.

Trailing the field were former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati with 106,144 votes, and little-known former minister Mohammad Gharazi with 25,324 votes.

The election is unlikely to radically alter ties between the West and the OPEC member nation of 75 million, but could tone down the confrontational style favoured by current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

World powers in talks with Iran over its nuclear programme are looking for any signs of a readjustment of its negotiating stance after eight years of intransigence.

Security has been tight and campaigns subdued compared to the euphoric rallies that preceded the last presidential election in 2009, when reformist supporters thought they scented victory and the prospect of change in Iran.

Those hopes were dashed when rapid announcements gave Ahmadinejad 63 percent of the vote, returning him to office and starting a series of deadly protests that lasted for months.

Rohani received significant boosts earlier this week when reformist candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, withdrew in his favour. His campaign was also endorsed by former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In contrast, Iran's big-hitting conservatives failed to organise themselves around a unity candidate, suffering what appeared a decisive split in their support base as a result.

(Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati and writing by Marcus George in Dubai; Editing by Peter Cooney and William Maclean)


Related Stories:
Voters split but turnout high in Iran election

Copyright © 2013 Reuters

How Obama crossed his own line on Syria after months of debate

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 06:44 PM PDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Obama's decision to arm Syrian rebels for the first time follows an intense, nearly two-year debate within the White House in which the president and his closest advisers consistently expressed scepticism about U.S. intervention in a Middle East civil war, current and former officials said.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden in Washington, May 16, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden in Washington, May 16, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The two deciding factors in the decision to change course, they said, were growing military gains by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, aided by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia, and harder intelligence that the Syrian military had used chemical weapons in the form of sarin nerve gas.

Which of the developments played a greater role in tipping the balance was unclear. Publicly, the Obama administration pointed to the evidence of chemical weapons use, which one senior administration official said had "ripened" in the last two weeks.

Some of the U.S. officials said on Friday that the real game-changer in Obama's calculus on Syria was not the chemical weapons issue - which had been known about for months - but the growing role of Lebanese-based Hezbollah.

The battlefield advances by Hezbollah have raised the prospect that Assad could stay in power for some time. The Shiite militia's decision to get more directly involved in the conflict against mostly Sunni rebels has also heightened the war's sectarian divide, and increased Sunni-Shiite tensions in neighbouring Lebanon.

U.S. officials and European diplomats also cited as a factor in Obama's decision a looming meeting next week with G8 allies - especially France and Britain - in which Syria will be a major issue.

"Had they not made the beginnings of a move on the issue, the G8 meeting would have been pretty hard on the president," said a European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Obama was roundly criticized by Syria hawks in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere for first suggesting in April that chemical weapons may have been used in the Syrian civil war, crossing a "red line" he set last year, but not then following up with actions against the Damascus government.

But in an interview 10 days ago, well before the White House announced Obama's decision on Thursday, a senior aide insisted that the chemical weapons question had never been dropped.

There are "clear instructions from the president that we are not walking back from the red line," the senior administration official said at the time. "The intelligence community is all over this."

The White House on Thursday announced that it had concluded that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons, and said Obama had decided to supply direct military assistance to the opposition.

While Obama crossed a line of his own in making the move - the White House had for more than a year resisted calls to arm the rebels - he appears determined to keep the United States from getting sucked too deeply into Syria's sectarian civil war.

European officials and others with close knowledge of the situation said the United States would supply the Western-backed Syrian Military Council with automatic weapons, light mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

While significant, the weaponry will not include shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles known as MANPADs that could bring down Syrian military planes and helicopters, officials said.

And for now, Washington is not backing the establishment of a "no-fly zone" over Syria, which would involve a major commitment of U.S. and European air power to counter Syria's extensive air defences, they said, in part because there is no international consensus on the step.

"This is, in a way, a low-cost option," a former U.S. official with extensive contacts in the region said of the White House's new steps, worrying that the U.S. military aid was months too late.

The White House and State Department declined to publicly detail what sorts of weaponry and other materiel will be sent to the rebels, or how quickly it will arrive.

CAUTION AND DIVISION

While Obama has been consistently cautious about U.S. involvement in Syria, his team has been at times less than unified.

Obama's original decision, in August 2011, to call on Assad to leave power, was preceded by intense debate in Washington, London and other capitals, according to diplomats and former officials.

The Pentagon has been consistent in opposing deep U.S. military involvement, such as a no-fly zone.

Last fall, however, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA chief David Petraeus presented a joint proposal for the United States to arm the rebels. The White House turned down the idea.

In the current situation, Secretary of State John Kerry is said to have been active in pressing Obama on the need to do more.

"The constituency within the administration for doing more is much more significant that it was in the past," said Dennis Ross, who was a senior Middle East adviser to Obama. "But the hesitancy remains, I believe."

Ross, who left government in December 2011, said that during his time at the White House, Obama would closely question the wisdom and consequences of Syria options presented by his advisers.

"What's fair to say, he wanted to be very cautious about the kinds of commitments we would make, he wanted to know even then, look if we're going to take steps, I want to hear, tell me where that leads to," Ross said in an interview this week. "Tell me what's the consequence of doing 'X'. And tell me how that is going to improve the situation and make an outcome that we favour more likely."

Ross said that during his time at the Obama White House, the U.S. experience in recent wars, which highlighted the difficulty in changing conditions in Islamic countries, weighed heavily in the president's thinking.

"I don't think you can look at it independently from Iraq and Afghanistan. And particularly the sense that these are easy to get into and hard to get out of," Ross said.

Obama's calculus would have been different, he added, if there had been a "more coherent, more credible and more compelling" opposition in Syria.

A senior Western diplomatic source gave a similar account, saying Obama essentially tells his aides to prove to him that American intervention would improve the situation.

"It's a legitimate position," this source said. "I don't see at this point the Americans authorizing the delivery of heavy weapons."

It remains to be seen whether the aid will change a military picture that has seen Assad's forces, backed by Hezbollah fighters, steadily regain ground against the rebels, capturing the key city of Qusair and preparing for an assault on rebel-held areas of northern Syria.

"We believe that we can make a difference," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said, when asked if the U.S. aid was too little. He noted that Arab nations and Turkey are also supporting the Syrian opposition.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Obama's decision was made some days ago, but would not be more specific.

"This has been something that the national security team and the president has been discussing for weeks. I know the White House said the president decided long before this week," Psaki said.

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wrouhgton, Mark Hosenball, Susan Cornwell in Washington, Lou Charbonneau in New York and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Alistair Bell and Tim Dobbyn)

Copyright © 2013 Reuters

'Yes we can' to 'Yes we scan', Obama returns to Berlin

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 06:23 PM PDT

BERLIN (Reuters) - Cheered like a rock star when he passed through Berlin five years ago on his way to the White House, Barack Obama faces a cooler reception and tough questions about U.S. spying methods when he returns next week for talks with Angela Merkel and a speech at the Brandenburg Gate.

Tourists look at the remaining parts of the Berlin Wall placed in front of the Ritz Carlton Hotel (C), where U.S. President Barack Obama will stay during his upcoming visit in Berlin June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Tourists look at the remaining parts of the Berlin Wall placed in front of the Ritz Carlton Hotel (C), where U.S. President Barack Obama will stay during his upcoming visit in Berlin June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

The visit comes nearly 50 years to the day after President John F. Kennedy landed in a divided Berlin at the depth of the Cold War and, in a powerful message of American solidarity, told encircled westerners in the city: "Ich bin ein Berliner"

Kennedy is the U.S. leader Obama was most often compared with during his run for the presidency, when supporters chanted "Yes we can" at campaign rallies. Young, charismatic and inspirational, he represented hope, renewal and the clean break from George W. Bush that Europeans craved.

"Germany meets the superstar" was the headline on the cover of Der Spiegel weekly before his visit during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. His speech in Berlin's Tiergarten park attracted 200,000 fans who cheered wildly as he acknowledged policy mistakes under Bush and declared: "America has no better partner than Europe".

This week's Der Spiegel cover on the Obama visit was headlined "The Lost Friend".

Obama remains popular with Germans: a poll last week showed that 82 percent of them believe he has done a good job.

But the magic has gone, replaced by questions about Obama's failure to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison, his use of drones to kill al Qaeda militants and, above all, the "big brother" scanning of the Internet and communications that Europeans thought had ended with the Bush era.

Many Germans still recall blanket surveillance under the communist Stasi secret police, and when news of Washington's covert spying programme Prism broke last week, the newspaper headline of choice was "Yes we scan".

"He is still popular but not like he was," said Henning Riecke, who heads the transatlantic relations programme at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

"There's disappointment in Germany that he hasn't been able to close Guantanamo and there are concerns about his tactics in fighting terrorism. People have realised he's not a saint and he's not all-powerful."

After a U.S.-Germany cyber meeting in Washington this week, Germany "noted its concern" about the Obama administration's surveillance programs, the two countries said in a joint statement released on Friday.

According to the statement, the administration stressed that the programs were designed to protect the United States and other countries from terrorist and other threats.

ELECTION BOOST

Chancellor Merkel has owed Obama an appearance at the Brandenburg Gate, which once stood next to the Berlin Wall between the communist East and capitalist West of the city, ever since she rebuffed a request from the junior senator from Illinois to speak there in 2008.

This time he is due to address roughly 4,000 invited guests on the eastern side of the Gate, in the enclosed Pariser Platz square. U.S. officials were apparently reluctant to have him speak on the western side, next to the park, because they feared unfavourable comparisons with the turnout in 2008.

The hope in Merkel's camp has been that the visit can give her a boost in the run-up to an election in September when she will be fighting for a third term.

It will also give the two leaders an opportunity to trumpet a free trade initiative between the United States and European Union that both sides hope will boost economic growth, create jobs and give new meaning to a relationship that has lost its emotional grounding since the end of the Cold War.

For Obama, who grew up in Hawaii and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, Europe has sometimes seemed an after-thought. The signature foreign policy initiative of his first term was his "pivot" to Asia.

German media have made much of the fact that it has taken 4-1/2 years for Obama to make his first presidential trip to Berlin.

"For Obama, the relationship with Europe has been close to a cost-benefit analysis. It's not in his gut," said Jackson Janes, head of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

For her part, Merkel has been preoccupied for the past three years with Europe's financial turmoil. She has come under heavy pressure from the Obama administration to take bolder steps to resolve the crisis and to stimulate growth in Europe.

Merkel's aides, while describing the ties between the two leaders as good and respectful, also concede to strains.

At a G20 summit in Cannes in late 2011, they say Obama tried to persuade the French and Italian leaders at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi, to gang up on Merkel and her euro policies. In 2012 at a G8 summit he hosted at Camp David, Obama embraced new French President Francois Hollande and his pro-growth message, leaving Merkel looking isolated and vulnerable as she pressed the case for austerity and reform.

When discussing Obama, advisers to the chancellor can sound nostalgic for Bush, who held regular videoconferences with Merkel, invited her to his ranch in Texas, and spent countless dinners quizzing her on her youth behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany.

SNOOPING AND SYRIA

Still, the similarities between Obama and Merkel are hard to ignore. Both are outsiders - the first black U.S. president and Germany's first woman leader, who grew up under communism.

Both are pragmatic, tactical leaders with a mastery of detail. When they met in Dresden on Obama's first visit to Germany as president, aides say a discussion on climate change turned into a competition over who knew more about carbon permits.

Talks in Berlin will also be watched for signs of tension. Merkel's spokesman has said she will press Obama for answers on the U.S. surveillance programme. Berlin wants assurances from Obama that the online exchanges of its own citizens are not being monitored from Washington.

Another major topic will be Syria, after the White House said the government in Damascus had crossed a "red line" by using nerve gas and that Obama had authorised sending U.S. weapons to rebels in the country for the first time.

On Friday, a spokesman for the German foreign ministry said the government had "learned of the American decision with respect" but was sticking with its position that it would not arm the rebels.

Merkel and Obama may try to shift the focus to their free trade initiative. An EU-commissioned study estimates the deal could generate economic benefits of roughly 100 billion euros ($130 billion) per year on either side of the Atlantic.

"Despite the pivot to Asia it's the transatlantic marketplace that is galvanizing Washington's attention at the moment," said Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University. "American and European elites are desperate for growth and jobs and they don't have many arrows left in their quiver."

(Additonal reporting by Jeff Mason, Andreas Rinke and Rachelle Younglai; Editing by David Stamp and Eric Walsh)

Copyright © 2013 Reuters

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The Star Online: Sports

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Tennis: Murray downs Becker to make Queen's semis

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 06:31 PM PDT

LONDON: Andy Murray remains on track for a third Queen's Club title after the world number two booked his semi-final place with a 6-4, 7-6 (7/3) victory against Germany's Benjamin Becker on Friday.

Murray last won the pre-Wimbledon warm-up event in 2011 and the US Open champion is eyeing another morale-boosting triumph as he prepares for his latest assault on the All England Club.

The 26-year-old is playing in his first tournament since mid-May when he suffered a lower back injury that forced him to withdraw from the French Open.

Murray had no signs of rust when he swept aside both Nicolas Mahut and Marinko Matosevic on Thursday and this was another encouraging outing against the gritty Becker.

Next up for Murray is the winner of Friday's last quarter-final between French fourth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and America's Denis Kudla.

The top seed had never faced Becker in competitive action before, but still knew plenty about the 31-year-old after practising regularly with him during his winter training camp in Miami.

Murray's superiority was clear as he broke in the opening game and a sloppy smash from Becker on break point in the fifth game gifted the Scot as 4-1 lead.

A brief lapse from Murray handed a break back to Becker in the next game, but the Olympic gold medallist held serve to close out the set.

Murray looked certain for a routine win when he broke at the start of the second set.

But his concentration wavered and Becker, who suddenly started to unload some searing groundstrokes, hit back with two breaks to take a 4-2 lead.

That sparked Murray back into action and he broke to force a tie-break, which he won in no-nonsense fashion.

Lleyton Hewitt rolled back the years as the Australian moved into the last four with a surprise 6-2, 2-6, 6-2 victory over Argentine third seed Juan Martin del Potro.

Hewitt is a four-time Queen's champion and this year he is bidding to become the oldest man to win the event, surpassing American legend Jimmy Connors, who lifted the trophy aged 30 years and 284 days in 1983.

He will fancy his chances after seeing off world number eight del Potro to claim his first win over a top 10 player since he defeated Juan Monaco in Valencia last October.

"I'm still hanging in there. The last four or five years have been tough with surgeries, but mentally I feel fresh," Hewitt said.

"I'm enjoying competing with the best players in the world. I played really well, I've got better with each match this week."

The former world number one, who made his first appearance at Queen's as a 17-year-old in 1998, is well into the twilight of his career and his lowly spot at 82 in the world rankings reflects his diminished status.

But the 32-year-old former Wimbledon champion enjoyed notable victories over highly-regarded Grigor Dimitrov and former Queen's champion Sam Querrey en route to the last eight and his success against del Potro earned a first last four appearance since his run to the final in Newport, also on grass, last July.

Hewitt celebrated the win by inviting his son Cruz onto the court with him.

His semi-final opponent is Marin Cilic, who hopes to retain the Queen's title after the defending champion defeated Czech second seed Tomas Berdych 7-5, 7-6 (7/4).

The Croatian fifth seed is now just two wins away from becoming the first player to retain the trophy since Andy Roddick in 2005 after a dominant display against world number six Berdych. - AFP

Golf: Iceman Dinwiddie shares St Omer lead

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 06:25 PM PDT

ST OMER, France: South Africa's Tjaart van der Walt and Briton Robert Dinwiddie, making light of a bad back, shared the lead at four under par after the second round of the St Omer Open on Friday.

Overnight leader van der Walt was set to go into the weekend heading the pack only for three bogeys in the closing seven holes to bring him back level with Dinwoodie.

The Londoner put himself in contention with a faultess five under par 66 for a combined total of 138.

"Considering I didn't think I would be teeing it up, after taking a bad step on Tuesday morning and damaging a bad disc in my back, it was great," the 30-year-old said.

"I couldn't hit a ball on Wednesday so I honestly thought I had no chance but I just iced it and took a lot of anti-inflammatories and recovered so it was great."

One shot behind the leading pair were British duo Simon Wakefield and Chris Hanson and France's Victor Rui. - AFP

Leading second round scores at the St Omer Open on Friday (GBR & IRL unless stated, par 71):

138 - Tjaart Van Der Walt (Rsa) 67 71, Robert Dinwiddie 72 66

139 - Chris Hanson 71 68, Victor Riu (FRA) 68 71, Simon Wakefield 71 68

140 - Daniel Vancsik (ARG) 73 67, Jeppe Huldahl (DEN) 73 67, Daniel Gaunt (AUS) 70 70, Baptiste Chapellan (FRA) 72 68, Daniel Brooks 69 71, Justin Walters (RSA) 71 69, Seve Benson 75 65

141 - Jordi Garcia Pinto (ESP) 73 68, Scott Henry 72 69, Chris Lloyd 73 68

142 - Tyrrell Hatton 75 67, Andrew Marshall 74 68, Richard McEvoy 71 71, Thomas Fournier (FRA) 71 71, Luke Goddard 75 67, Benjamin Hebert (FRA) 74 68, Max Glauert (GER) 77 65 - AFP

Cycling: Da Costa powers to victory in Tour of Switzerland

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 06:21 PM PDT

LA PUNT, Switzerland: Defending champion Rui Da Costa of Portugal boosted his hopes of retaining his Tour of Switzerland title as he powered to victory on a gruelling seventh stage to close the gap on overall leader Mathias Frank to 13 seconds.

Da Costa was in a leading group of three riders alongside Dutchman Bauke Mollema and American Tejay van Garderen entering the final stages, but the pair were unable to match the Portuguese as he sprinted across the line.

"Our goal today was taking some seconds off the riders ahead of us in the overall (standings) and we didn't just do that, we also won the stage," said Da Costa.

"I am super happy although it was shame about the banner," added the Movistar rider, referring to a distance marker that fell onto the road just prior to the finish and briefly delayed the leaders.

"We lost around 10 seconds there which could be decisive, but the important thing is that I showed that I am in good form for (the concluding individual time-trial on) Sunday."

Mollema edged Van Garderen to second with Frenchman Thibaut Pinot, who took the points at the summit of the HC Albula Pass, dropped as the quartet tackled the final descent.

The 206km route from Meilen to La Punt featured four rated climbs, including a brutal 30km climb of the Albula Pass that peaked at 2,315m just inside the final 10km.

Switzerland's Frank came in ninth at 22sec, having been left behind by BMC teammate Van Garderen on the climb up the Albula, but remains in yellow with Da Costa breathing down his neck ahead of Saturday's eighth stage, a hilly 180.5km route from Zernez to Bad Ragaz. - AFP

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The Star Online: Business

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New management team takes over in Maxis

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 06:04 PM PDT

WHEN the CEO of a company leaves, people take notice. When the top management of one of the largest companies on Bursa Malaysia undergoes a management overhaul, people will stand up and wonder what's wrong.

Questions of a similar vein are being asked of Maxis Bhd as the company recently appointed two joint chief operating officers (COOs) Nasution Mohamed and Suren J. Amarasekera and ripped up the old management structure for something new and lean.

Such changes do not happen overnight but when they do, it goes to show that the boss is unhappy with performance.

Last year Maxis saw a drop in net profit to RM1.86bil from RM2.53bil a year earlier. Maxis for years had enjoyed the highest EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) margins in the country, possibly the highest in the region too, of about 50%. But last year, that fell to 47.2%.

Naturally, any shareholder will wonder if that is just a one-off or a trend.

Based on the statement by Maxis chairman Raja Tan Sri Arshad Raja Tun Uda when announcing the new management structure and line-up this week, the company is obviously worried.

He said: "Efforts towards creating this structure have been made in response to evolving market dynamics and changing consumer demands and will enable Maxis to compete more effectively."

An analyst says Maxis' growth has been flattish and revenue is not growing while at the same time it is spending money on its network.

"It has not got its revenues up and the issue at Maxis now is really about performance," he adds.

On area which analysts felt Maxis was behind the curve was convergence. It was something talked about 13 years ago and have celcos like Maxis morphed into players that offer consumers a whole suite of products and services in the digital era.

A report says globally, IT consumerisation has redefined the business models for players in the communications, media and high-tech ecosystem, with a significant competitive advantage going to companies that position themselves optimally in the digital services revenue stream.

It adds that IT consumerisation trend means that the workforce is engaging almost continuously with content-rich digital services video, social content, calendar, convenience applications and others that are accessible through those devices.

When Maxis returned to Bursa Malaysia in 2009 it spelt out its ambitions to become an integrated services player. Has it achieved what it set out to do or has that picture blurred over the years?

Much as it has the ambition of being an integrated player, the jury is out on whether it has achieved that. For much of what it does still revolves around the making and receiving of phones calls. Only now it is venturing into other services like broadband and IPTV.

Flat structure

At the point of its return to Bursa Malaysia, Maxis hired "many expatriates with impressive CVs" with an idea to push the company forward. Though it is natural for a company in the technology/telecoms space to hire expatriates due to lack of local expertise, these people also bring their teams along with them and add to the workforce.

All this might have led to surpluses and duplication. Silos are created to protect managerial turf, and its a commonplace in any large organisation. That's what happened at Maxis. Eight core units which breaks into 24 smaller units but none seemed to focus very intently on end to end solutions for the consumer or enterprise.

"Over the years Maxis become very bureaucratic and decision making became difficult because of the layers of people at the top," says someone in the know.

This makes it difficult to respond to market changes in an industry that is evolving fast.

Celcom Axiata Bhd had the same problem some years back but Datuk Seri Shazalli Ramly has reorganised things. Today its "pulse is on the customer."

Though Celcom is still having the most number of staff at 4,000 in the industry, it made more money than Maxis in 2012 with a net profit of RM2.2bil versus Maxis RM1.86bil and DiGi.Com Bhd's RM1.20bil. Maxis has 3,500 staff and DiGi about 2,000.

Revenue wise, Celcom earned RM7.7bil versus RM8.9bil by Maxis. DiGi chalked RM6.36bil in sales last year.

Maxis has the most number of mobile subscribers at 14.9 million as at end last year versus Celcom's 12.07 million and DiGi's 10.49 million.

Nasution says "our guide for top line is mid-single digit. Ebidta 48%." He is talking about RM1bil in capex spending this year and Maxis has free cash flow of RM2.3bil. Last year the capex was RM899mil.

The new team

When the new team was announced this week, many were surprised that Maxis had an all Malaysian team to lead its business units. Furthermore, the number of business units was halved to four.

The reorganisation taking place will remove silos, duplication and surpluses. Five heads have left and some more are expected to leave. But for now, Maxis is saying there will be no voluntary separation scheme.

It is a flat structure and it will be nimble, Nasution says.

The average age of the top team of Maxis is between 35 to 48 but none of its units have young people which are necessary to cater for the important demographic.

Another question on the lips of investors is whether the management shake up is it an admission that all is not well at Maxis?

"It is an enhancement, an evolution, to refine to do things better," says Nasution in an interview with StarBizWeek.

Suren adds "whenever you are a market leader you tend to get roadbumps ahead of others. We are sharpening our focus like sharpening the pencil,"

All this reorganisation will result in savings however Nasution will not say how much because the entire process of the reorganisation will take a few more weeks.

"Once the structure is finalised we will be guiding the market on the savings. The structure will remove duplication," Nasution says.

Sharpen it may be, but some bad decisions have been made in the past especially its fixed line strategy, says an analyst.

That will not be repeated because the four heads are now responsible end to end. The new theme within is about empowering the workforce and making everyone responsible for what they do, align them to the right jobs.

Four units have been created customer, enterprise, sales and services and digital. The heads are Shanti Jusnita Johari, Dushyanthan Vaithiyanathan, Tan Lay Han and Kugan Thirunavakarasu respectively.

Nasution said each head will create their own organisation structure and pick their team. That will cascade downwards, making everyone responsible for what they do.

Digital is the frontier facing Maxis. The company is not immersed into it as much as it wants but in the era of convergence and digital, they need to be entrenched because there is where value creation will be.

Analysts say that if Maxis wants to increase its revenue steams, it has to source what else it can do for the customer as voice revenues gradually fall.

Does the new team have what it takes to make Maxis tick?

"We believe we have a good structure to meet our mission of becoming an integrated services player," says Nasution.

Shanti was from Telekom Malaysia and she is the right person to push for enterprise value, Dushyanthan has moved around the industry, he knows the stuff and is savvy.

Tan is a marketing person and Kugan, has been with Maxis for a long time but one expert feels that creating the new things that brings in revenues from music and videos is a role apt for him.

Suren feels Maxis is ready to capitalise on its network. "We have always been ahead of the curve. We are really equipped in terms of network to support the explosive data growth. With all that it speaks of our preparedness and our focus is the customer."

The final word execution

While the search for the CEO continues, the position of chief financial officer has also become vacant because the current CFO Nasution is now the JCOO.

The reorganisation may be Maxis inflection point as to where it is on the curve of becoming an integrated services player. A flatten structure means it removes duplication and surpluses but it has to be sensitive to the surplus staff.

"It may have all the products but it has to fix its management structure then address its performance issue," said an analyst.

Although Maxis is fixing its organisation structure, aligning the people to the right jobs, it still has to look into improving the quality of services.

Analysts say prices have come off and but can drop more. "Maxis has to get its fixed line strategy right, it cannot just rely on the Astro partnership to push for broadband growth. Broadband is a key growth area in the future especially for its enterprise business and it needs to bring to market more enterprise solutions," says an analyst.

"Though they are on a learning curve where broadband is concerned, it is the area which will drive earnings as voice revenues come down."

Maxis says that its new team will address and execute its strategy for growth. The question is just how much time will the new team be given to do their job.

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Telecoms industry seen headed for consolidation

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 05:41 PM PDT

THERE will come a time when the market is so saturated with a type of service or product that the provider industry will have to, inevitably, slow down, like a giant impeded by its own inertia.

The telecoms industry in Malaysia is currently that giant, its gazelle pace from a few years back moderating into a steady march.

With maturity as the backdrop, analysts are now mostly "neutral" on the sector which is trading at a rich premium compared with the regional peers and has no immediate re-rating catalysts in sight.

One analyst described the telecoms market in Malaysia as "crowded", having achieved a 140% penetration rate with 38 million mobile phone users, shared out by eight players.

A Hong Leong Investment Bank analyst says the telecoms market, which has been slowing down in the past two years and moving towards data service, is slated for consolidation.

While data usage has doubled, its pricing has fallen, neutralising the sector's growth potential, he says.

"In light of this, we expect the telcos to consolidate going forward," he says, adding that they should be exploring collaborations and sharing infrastructure and spectrum, as well as focus on the sale and marketing of their products.

"Telcos need to move towards outsourcing parts of their operation. India and Indonesia players are already doing that," he points out. Local telcos, with Huawei Technologies Co Ltd as a supplier or partner, for example, was one step towards this.

He also believes local telcos need to change their capital expenditure (capex)-heavy business model to a operating expenditure (opex)-focused one.

"With a capex model, regardless if you have business or not, the cost is there but with an opex model, the cost becomes variable if business is good, the cost is higher and vice versa," he says.

Also, he thinks that it would not be a bad idea for telcos to consider listing their assets, mainly the telecom towers. Companies that provide infrastructure solutions for cellular operators include Instacom Group Bhd and OCK Group Bhd, the latter also provides network services.

"Take for example KPJ Healthcare selling their asset to another company to manage, much like entrusting it to a real estate investment trust," he says, "That sale would provide the money to expand, or they could squeeze more dividend from the cashflow."

Another analyst covering the sector attests to the difficulty in getting attractive margins from data services. He reveals telcos are expecting about 5% revenue growth rate this year.

"Malaysian telcos are looking at how to increase data growth but the margins for data service is not that high (compared with the traditional voice and message services)," he says, adding that players are selling bundle packages now to protect their revenue. Handset sales have been the notable driver of revenue growth of late.

Although the ballooning pool of smart phone users suggests that data is the way forward, he believes "wherever the telcos are not doing as well in, they should continue to improve to gain market share".

He believes telcos are "mostly rather rational" and would not wage price wars.

While major cellular operators Maxis and DiGi have sizeable local businesses, Axiata has leverage in the regional arena. In stark contrast, TM's core business is in the fixed line and fibre broadband segments.

That said, the sector remains attractive as a dividend play and if there is any downside to the stocks, it would be limited.

Maybank Investment Bank Research says in a note this week that although valuations of wireless operators are at a premium to regional peers, "we do not expect substantial downside to telecom stocks due to the trapped domestic liquidity within the local equities market and attractive dividend support of between 4% and 6% net yield the stocks provide".

Maybank analyst Tan Chi Wei adds that bond yields across the region have climbed and telecom stocks, often perceived to be yield plays, have corrected.

"Concerns over the premature ending of the US quantitative easing programme have re-emerged and further yield compression thus appears unlikely in the near term," he says. Comparing apple to apple within the region, Malaysian telecom stocks have fallen less than regional peers which Tan believes is consequent of the trapped domestic liquidity.

Another analyst from a foreign-based brokerage however believes there could be a re-rating of the industry that has been trading on the high side.

"There is a risk from the equity market perspective as the companies are trading at more than 20 times price-to-earnings ratio which is very high already," he says. He opines that investors who need not be invested in telcos will find better alternatives.

"Typically, people pay more for a company with good growth. But if growth is slowing, they may want to invest elsewhere because while the telecoms industry will sustain its growth, it will not be growing fast," he says, noting that Malaysian investors are also more confident now that the election overhang has dissipated and economic growth is decent.

"They may want to look at more cyclical stocks."

He notes that a growth slowdown in a matured industry is very difficult to overcome. Instead of spending unnecessarily for expansion, telcos should protect their business stability because any minute loss or gain in market share will be magnified and starkly reflected in their earnings.

On the other hand, an analyst with local bank-backed brokerage thinks that telecoms counters will not suffer as big funds like the Employees Provident Fund and Permodalan Nasional Bhd would support the share prices.

"The share prices could fall a little but I don't see the big funds selling down as telcos are good dividend stocks," he says, adding that the stocks will continue to outperform their regional peers.

Going forward after makeover

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 03:48 PM PDT

Nasution Mohamed and Suren J. Amarasekera are executives in the spotlight. They, as joint COOs of Maxis Bhd, appear to have the right chemistry to work together. Their collective ability and resolve will, however, be put to the test as together with a new management team, they are tasked to ensure the revamped Maxis delivers what shareholders and consumers expect of them.

In an interview, they shared their thoughts with StarBizWeek business editor (news) B.K. Sidhu on the revamp and the way forward.

Here are excerpts of the interview:

Was there a major problem to shake up management?

Suren: Whenever you are a market leader you tend to get roadbumps ahead of others. We have come up with our vision/mission some years ago to be the only integrated player and we know that could not be achieved overnight. We have built access; mobility and wireless has always been our forte. We complemented the high speed broadband (HSBB) with a tie-up with Telekom Malaysia. We went further ahead to forge a partnership with Tenaga Nasional Bhd if indeed we need to deploy fibre beyond HSBB. Last year we formed a partnership with Astro and the content piece has been stitched together. So now that all the pieces are lined up, it is about seizing the opportunities by going to the market effectively.

But what was the problem

Nasution: I think it is going to be quite easy for me and Suren to be sitting here today and start blaming what the previous people have been doing. But what we rather do is focus on the new structure to move forward.

When you have RM9bil in revenue and when you do business in real time, we do not have the luxury of time to sit back and look and evaluate the structure. Since we are becoming an integrated player, internally the structure at the every start needs to be flat and integrated and we have to address the consumer and enterprise needs from end to end.

So we have chosen the organisational structure and the four business heads. They have to now define their own operational structure and how that cascades downwards. We will see where it ends. There is obvious duplication built in for a company that is growing aggressively. When we did the operations structure it was essential to make sure we can compete better.

How many units are there now?

Nasution: When we look at the structure and if you don't take into account the support services, we used to have eight. There is now four.

How did you select the four people to head the four divisions?

Suren: We did not look at people, we looked at our vision, mission, values and how we can reach customers. We have mainly a consumer and enterprise segment – the B2B and B2C. We organised the structure around that.

Then we looked at our future in the medium- to long-term. You have people like Google getting into music streaming and find companies out of China coming with games like Nintendo does. So digital is obviously our future.

If you look at the regional and global telcos, they are organised around the structure. So we have consumer, enterprise, digital and sales and services to support our entire line-up.

Why did you not organise it earlier?

Suren: It is a journey. It is not done overnight but it has been talked about over a period of time. There is always a time to implement it.

Is this the best structure?

Nasution: We have the right structure. The main objective of the reorganisation is essentially to realign the mission. When we went back to the market (via a re-listing) in 2009 we said of our mission of becoming an integrated player and today we are still the only integrated player out there. This is a good structure to address the needs of customers and enterprises, end to end.

How important is digital since you created a unit for that?

Suren: If you look at the future, it is largely painted by a digital landscape. The consumer of the future is going to want to consume more digital channels. Telcos globally have made digital a formidable piece of their business.

Nasution: As an integrated player, there are a few components that need to be in place – network, devices and with integration defined, we will provide any device anytime, anywhere. Then it is about getting the content that is meaningful for consumers of today and in the future. There was no emphasis on it earlier?

Suren: Earlier, it was done among other things. Now we have brought it into focus and streamlined it to fully exploit the opportunities around it.

Nasution: It is about feeding to consumers and enterprises. Say the consumer wants the best music, we will find it. It will be more and more important and at some stage, we will have a standalone PNL (profit and loss) and sell it to non-Maxis customers too.

Why did Maxis hire a number of expats?

Nasution: The industry is evolving and there is certain expertise we do not have locally. But with the new structure, the four heads are all locals. Across the board we only have Malaysians. It is a Malaysian team.

There are a couple of boxes we are looking to fill in the short- or medium-term.

It's said to have a bloated workforce. Will there be cuts?

Nasution: In line with our mission we have cut duplication, silos and steamlined decision-making so that there is a quicker way of getting things done. We are looking at the structure of meetings. We are looking at all the things that need to be done and some are being implemented. Then it will cascade downwards and at the end of the process, we will see what the numbers are.

Ideally it is not a numbers game. It is about having the right people manning and driving the business. We may need new talents.

Suren: Whatever we have done is for the sake of the reorganisation. We are just sharpening the pencil to get our focus right.

Is there disruption with several senior people leaving?

Nasution: Not really. We have new heads. It's business as usual and we will just enhance it. We are not pausing anything. There will be no disruptions.

Suren: One thing we have observed is that Maxis is a formidable company and we have quite a strong pool of talent. So there is no disruption. With the new structure, it is more attuned to market dynamics and we are able to respond better and are more agile.

Nasution: Internally, people are re-energised and that is a positive on efficiency.

What impact has the management vacuum had on the company?

Suren: Whatever you may call it but we know the job and we need to deliver on performance.

With a joint COO team, does Maxis still need a CEO?

Nasution: It is the board's prerogative. We are here to provide leadership, direction and deliver the results shareholders want.

Is the change in management an admission that all's not well at Maxis?

Nasution: It is an enhancement, an evolution, refined to do things better.

Suren: If you look at the progress, the company has been transparent.

What's in store where dividends are concerned?

Nasution: The intention is to maintain RM3bil for this year.

Even players like Google are now your competitors. How will you manage that?

Suren: Gone are the days when people compete. The new thing is "coopetition" - compete and cooperate.

Our entire philosophy is about relationships with consumers and the local nuances is not known by global players. We are fortunate if they consider us as partners. But it has to be a win-win for all; the customers, us and our partners. And partnerships must be sustainable.

How much pressure is there on both of you fixing things?

Suren: Pressure is nothing new in our environment. The pressure is to address the consumer's wants, demands and dreams. With our new structure, we will be able to address that better than the recent past.

Between both of you, who has the final say? Have both of you proven you can work together?

Suren: Two years and we are alive and kicking. It is complimenting, we bring a combination of skill sets.

Nasution: We both report to the board and we make joint decisions.

Suren: What we are meant to do is service the structure well and do exactly what a CEO will do. We have a symbiotic way of working so we can do things fast and make decisions. We are held accountable for everything and accountability stops with us.

What's your first priority?

Suren: The most important is customer, everything evolves around the customer.

Does that mean Maxis has failed to look after its customers?

Suren: That is not a fair statement. There are various ways and now we are looking at it from a holistic way.

Nasution: Market dynamics are changing and it is essential to give customers meaningful services. It is a strategy to refine to achieve the mission better.

What's the short. medium and long-term goals and how has that changed with the new management team?

Suren: The structure is in place and the first priority is to bond as a team and be formidable in our pursuit of our promise to the market and the customer.

In the long term we want to be an unparellel integrated services provider and benchmark against players in the region.

What has the major shareholder communicated to you all in his brief?

Suren: We are briefed by the board and chairman. The brief is to put the customer at the centre and deliver on performance and keep with what we have committed.

The talk is that your shareholders are interfering in the running of Maxis.

Suren: I don't think there is any truth in that. In my years at Maxis, it is one of the most professionally-run companies. We have a brief from the CEO and the board and we do not imagine that will change.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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Eddie Redmayne to play Stephen Hawking in biopic

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 12:35 AM PDT

Marius from Tom Hooper's Les Misérables will be topping the billing for Theory Of Everything, a biopic about the younger years of genius physicist Stephen Hawking, reveals Deadline.com.

Eddie Redmayne,31, will take the place of his compatriot Benedict Cumberbatch (in BBC TV film Hawking) portraying the physicist who wrote A Brief History Of Time: From The Big Bank To Black Holes, now 71 years old and severely handicapped by a debilitating disease he's been grappling with for decades.

Working Title, which made Les Mis, too, will be producing and James Marsh directing the biopic. Marsh, the director of the award-winning documentary Man On Wire (2008) and the drama Shadow Dancer (2012), will be zooming in on Hawking's younger years, particularly his studies at Cambridge in the 1960s, marked by meeting his first wife, Jane Wilde, and the onset of the first symptoms of ALS (aka Lou Gehrig's Disease).

Theory Of Everything will start shooting in the fall.

(Relaxnews)

'300: Rise Of An Empire' trailer shows Greeks battling Persians

Posted: 13 Jun 2013 09:00 PM PDT

The first trailer is out for the sequel to the 2006 epic blockbuster 300.

This is a 2'30'' summing up of 300: Rise Of An Empire, which is due out in March 2014. The polished digital aesthetics of the first episode are clearly preserved in this outsize -- even grandiloquent -- spectacle.

The sneak peek Warner Bros. has dropped on YouTube leads us into the decisive naval battle in which the Greek fleet fought off the second Persian invasion.

Evil Persian King Xerxes and vengeful Spartan Queen Gorgo, played by Rodrigo Santoro and Lean Headey, figure prominently in the trailer.

Eva Green and Sullivan Stapleton as Artemisia and Themistokles make their grand entry into the violent historical fantasy world adapted from Frank Miller's latest graphic novel.

Directed by Noam Murro, 300: Rise Of An Empire will be released in North American movie theaters on March 7, 2014.

(Relaxnews)

Coming Soon

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 02:56 AM PDT

Monsters University – Remember best buds Mike and Sulley, the two Monsters, Inc. employees? Well, this is sort of a prequel that shows how the two fellas became pals. Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan meet when they arrive at Monsters University; and as it turns out they can't stand each other. Voice talents include John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Nathan Fillion and Sean Hayes.

World War Z – Based on the bestseller by Max Brooks, this movie tells the tale of a United Nations employee who travels to different locations, bearing witness to a world that is crumbling under the spread of a zombie pandemic and desperately searching for a solution. Starring Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos and James Badge Dale.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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Penang freak storm: Some 4,000 households without power supply

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 08:55 AM PDT

GEORGE TOWN: Some 4,000 households were without power supply after the freak storm, which saw damage to the poles and overhead cables of Tenaga Nasional Berhad.

Among the areas affected were George Town, Air Itam, Air Putih, Batu Uban, Tanjung Bungah and Balik Pulau on the island and Tasek Gelugor, Penaga and Seberang Jaya on the mainland.

Its distribution division (Penang) general manager Mohandass S. Nair said the poles and overhead cables in 374 places were damaged.

He said the damage was caused by uprooted trees, which fell onto the overhead cables and poles were either snapped or blown off by the strong wind as among the reasons.

He said 35 teams of engineers and technicians, including those from Kedah and Perak, have repaired the damaged poles and overhead lines in 272 places.

Related Stories:
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We will look after you, Nazri tells artistes

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 08:49 AM PDT

KUALA LUMPUR: Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Abdul Aziz has promised to look out for Malaysia's artistes and is determined to take care of their welfare.

"Believe in me. You, the artistes have a friend," he said at the Majlis Mesra Seniman Malaysia 2013 in conjunction Hari Seniman at Saloma Bistro.

"I will always keep a lookout and see to your needs. Don't worry, I'll help you the best that I can," said the newly-appointed minister.

Nazri made references to Tan Sri P Ramlee, adding that Ramlee had contributed much to local art.

"He (Ramlee) did not use his art as a way to get rich, but he wanted to teach (others) through his works which have now become national treasures," he said.

Nazri later presented tokens of appreciation to the heirs of Latifah Omar and S Shamsudin, both of whom passed away recently.

V. Elango is Perak Mentri Besar's special officer on Indian affairs

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 07:50 AM PDT

IPOH: Perak Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abd Kadir has named his special adviser and special officer on Indian affairs.

In an SMS statement issued on Friday, Dr Zambry has named Lumut MIC chairman V. Elango as the adviser to the Mentri Besar and Buntong state seat general election candidate C. Sivaraajh as his special officer.

Their appointment will take effect on June 17.

Elango, 48, born in Kampung Acheh, Sitiawan, was a former teacher and has a Bachelor in Political Science.

Sivaraajh, 37, born in Ipoh, has a degree in Political Science and was the former national MIC Youth secretary-general.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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Slaved by the bell at Morning Glories Academy

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 08:21 AM PDT

Think you have it tough at school? Be thankful you don't go to the Morning Glories Academy.

ALL-AMERICAN girl Casey Blevins thinks she has made it big, after being accepted at one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country, the Morning Glory Academy.

Waving goodbye to her family, Casey travels all the way to the academy, where she meets five other students – mean girl Zoe, geeky but sincere Hunter, spoilt rich kid Ike, emo kid Jade, and Jun, the jock of few words.

She soon discovers, amazingly, that all of them share the same birthday, which proves to be the least of the mysteries at this school.

Soon Casey and her friends, the "Glories", will find themselves fighting for their lives and freedom as they face a neverending ride of family secrets, time travel and sinister conspiracies which include a mysterious group conducting human sacrifices, revolutionaries from other schools launching attacks, and mysterious disappearances at night.

The academy claims that everything happening here is for the creation of a better future. But a future for whom, and at what cost?

Published by Image Comics, Morning Glories is written by Nick Spencer (Action Comics, Iron Man 2.0, Ultimate Comics: X-Men), with art by Joe Eisma (Dynamo 5, Notorious), and cover art by Rodin Esquejo (Avengers Academy, Iron Man). The first 25 issues of the series have been compiled into four trade paperback collections – For A Better Future (Vol.1), All Will be Free (Vol.2), P.E. (Vol.3), and Truants (Vol.4).

Morning Glories is a gripping series, packed with twists and turns at every corner, and more mysteries than the dark side of the moon. The series has been described as The Prisoner set in a boarding school, and Runaways meets Lost.

It is also ridiculously addictive. Anything and everything can happen in Morning Glories Academy. Readers face exploding booby traps, murderous ghosts, sinister conspiracies and cold-blooded murder – all this in only the first issue.

Spencer definitely has a gift for storytelling, as every issue is filled with sharp writing, hilarious dialogue and intriguing plot complications.

The strongest part of Morning Glories, however, is undoubtedly its characters. Spencer takes classic high school archetypes and turns then into compelling personalities with fascinating backstories.

The socially inept Hunter is endearing, while Zoe, who will do anything she can to succeed, is a brilliant character.

Pampered brat Ike is particularly enjoyable to read about – indeed, we reckon he even deserves his own spin-off series. How can you not love a kid who shows up at the funeral of a loved one on a party bus filled with strippers?

Morning Glories is also not averse to killing off characters – a major fan favourite bites it before the first 20 issues, in a rather visceral twist ending.

Eisma's art is striking and visually pleasing, although his female characters tend to be a little bland. Some of his characters can also be difficult to tell apart (Irina and Aikiko could pass for twins), and one main character, Zoe, is supposed to be Indian-American, but you'd never be able to tell from the way he draws her.

For all its similarities to Lost, it is perhaps fitting that Morning Glories' main weakness is the same as the cult TV show's, which was occasionally weighed down by its own mysteries. The ongoing series is into its 27th issue already, and the students (and the readers) are still no closer to figuring out what the heck is going on at the academy than they were in the first issue.

Thankfully, Spencer does seem to be consistently moving the series towards a definite conclusion (unlike Lost, where it often felt as if the show was making things up as it went along). The journey there can sometimes be frustrating though, owing to the dozens of mysteries that spring up along the way. Biblical imagery seems to play a huge role in the story as well, so it will be interesting to see how it all comes together in the end.

Morning Glories certainly starts strong, and does a great job keeping readers hooked. With the series set to eventually end with its 100th issue, here's hoping it manages to keep the momentum going all the way to the end.

The graphic novels reviewed today, Morning Glories and The Initiates, are available at Kinokuniya bookstore, Suria KLCC. For further enquiries, call 03-21648133 / e-mail ebd3kbm@kinokuniya.co.jp /visit kinokuniya.com/my.

All about kids action in House of Secrets

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 08:23 AM PDT

Three siblings get sucked into a fictional world of mashed-up books where they must find a tome of great power in order to get back home.

House of Secrets
Authors: Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini
Publisher: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, 490 pages

IT'S kind of hard to escape cinematic comparisons when one of the co-authors of this book is a well-known Hollywood director and producer.

Co-written by Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Harry Potter movies (which probably explains the "rah-rah" blurb by Potter author J.K. Rowling), and young adult fiction author and television writer Ned Vizzini, the House of Secrets reminded me in passing of the movies Jumanji (1995) and Zathura (2005) – both coincidentally also based on children's books.

It has the classic "group of young kids getting thrown into a fantastical situation" plot, while having to battle an evil presence, which forces them into moral dilemmas that they have to overcome (or not).

Come to think of it, Columbus also wrote the screenplay for the popular 1985 kid's action adventure comedy The Goonies, which exudes a similar vibe, storywise.

Now, if this sounds a bit too "been there, done that" to you, then let me assure you that the book is really quite an entertaining and absorbing read, due to its fast-paced action.

We meet the Walker family as they are about to view a potential new home. The family isn't in the best of circumstances after father and surgeon Dr Jake Walker recently lost his job and is being sued for blacking out and carving a strange symbol on his patient's abdomen one day during surgery. With most of their money going to their father's legal defence, the Walkers have to downsize from their comfortable upper middle-class lifestyle, which includes finding a new place to live.

So, things seem almost too good to be true when they are informed that the magnificent and historical Kristoff House, situated in an exclusive neighbourhood overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge (in San Francisco) is for sale, lock, stock and barrel, for a fraction of its worth.

Never mind that the Walker children – 15-year-old Cordelia, 12-year-old Brendan and Eleanor, eight – all experience a rather eerie moment when they first enter the grounds, and Brendan actually has a frightening encounter with a threatening old crone.

Naturally, the Walkers buy the house and move in straight away.

A bad move, I hear you say?

Definitely, because on their very first night, the old crone, who turns out to be the evil Wind Witch, as well as the daughter of mysterious writer and original owner of the house Denver Kristoff, shows up and tries to destroy them all. In the process, the Walker siblings get thrown into an alternate world that seems to be a mash-up of some of Kristoff's books.

The only way out is for them to fulfil the Wind Witch's command to find and give her The Book of Doom and Desire – a seductive tome of great power. It doesn't help that the main way to find the book is by giving in to their "selfish desires" (can you say "moral dilemma"?).

Along the way, they encounter several of Kristoff's fictional characters, including World War I fighter pilot Will Draper, a gang of ruthless warriors and a ship of evil pirates. They also discover more about Kristoff House, which is transported with them into the alternate fictional world.

Now, the best thing about this book is the fast-paced action and realistic sibling dynamic between the three young Walkers. The short chapters and good descriptions are also likely to make it a more appealing read to tweens and teens with shorter attention spans.

There are however, some rather vividly scary descriptions in the story, including one of a room full of bones that come alive, so parents of kids with overactive imaginations might want be aware of this.

It might come as no surprise to find out that this book actually started life as a movie script. For some reason, the authors also made the characters do some quite stupid things, like, for example, Brendan blowing up a grenade "just because". And the ending was just a bit too neat for belief.

I was also not a fan of the book's deckle-edge.

But these are mere eye-rolling minor annoyances than full-blown thorns-under-the-skin irritants in my opinion.

House of Secrets is by no means a great read but it is an entertaining one. I would recommend it for younger readers (tweens upwards) who enjoy action-filled adventure stories.

And for those who really enjoy it, you will be glad to know that it is the first in a planned series, so you will be reading more about the Walker siblings.

Fine wine, fine lines

Posted: 14 Jun 2013 03:03 AM PDT

STOP me if you've heard this one: a cartoonist and a winemaker walk into a room and decide to exchange jobs…

Actually, this isn't a joke. This is the premise of The Initiates, a book by French cartoonist √Čtienne Davodeau.

Davodeau is a cartoonist who doesn't know much about the world of winemaking, while Richard Leroy is an artisanal winemaker who has never read a single comic book or graphic novel in his 50 years of life.

One day, Davodeau decides to approach Leroy to propose an experiment to see how different (or similar) their chosen industries are, and to see what it is about each man's chosen profession that makes him want to devote his entire life to it.

So it is that Davodeau goes to work in Leroy's vineyards and cellar, and in return the winemaker explores the world of comics – and over the course of slightly more than a year, the two manage to get in each other's way, open and sample a lot of wine, prune many vines, draw a few lines, read a lot of comic books, visit art exhibitions, and travel around meeting famous winemakers and comic artists.

The result is a fascinating representation of both professions, one that is both educational yet entertaining, and which ultimately proves that even though they are in different indistries, their passion, aspirations and goals may not be so different after all.

Now, although it says, "A comic artist and a wine artisan exchange jobs" on the cover, this description is rather misleading. Although it would have been pretty amusing to read about a clueless comic artist taking over operations at a vinery and screwing up an entire season's harvest while an artistically-challenged winemaker documented the process in a comic populated with stick figures, The Initiates isn't about that at all.

In fact, their so-called "exchanging of jobs" is more like an mutual internship, with one man guiding the other along and educating him about the virtues and processes of his chosen field.

It was the wine-making part of the book that fascinated me the most – after all, since I live in a country where wine-making is not exactly a common occupation, it was fascinating to learn about how wine is made, especially in such an easy-to-understand format.

Davodeau's venture into Leroy's wine-making business gives a comprehensive yet remarkably simple insight into how Leroy makes his wine. Granted, this is from the point of view of a small artisanal winemaker (as opposed to a larger producer), but if anything, this gave the winemaking part of the book a lot more charm and character.

Davodeau also manages to capture the personality and character of the winemaker perfectly – from the many times Leroy scoffs at an inferior bottle of wine (at one point he decides to drink water rather than spoil his appetite with a bad wine), to the way he orders the artist around in the vineyard, this is as much a character analysis of the winemaker himself as the wine he makes.

At the same time, the French artist's attempts to educate Leroy on the virtues of comics are equally fascinating, though reading about the duo going to printing presses and art exhibitions somehow paled in comparison to their excursions to the beautiful vineyards so beautifully sketched by Davodeau.

To his credit, Davodeau does his best to express the virtues of his chosen profession – Moebius, Watchmen, Maus and The Photographer are some of the critically acclaimed names and titles he brings up, and the two of them even pay visits to some famous French comic artists such as Emmanuel Guibert (The Photographer) and Marc-Antoine Matthieu (Museum Vaults) so Leroy can learn more about how the comic artist's mind ticks.

That The Initiates works so well is all thanks to Davodeau's beautifully simple yet remarkably detailed black-and-white artwork. He is not only adept at turning otherwise wordy technical expositions into wonderful gems of information, he also manages to weave his characters' personalities and eccentricities (yes, even his own!) into the story in such a way that the reader is never bored, even when the book delves into the more technical subjects such as biodynamic wine or printing press proofs.

The Initiates is a rare breed of graphic novel – categorised under "graphic novel/nonfiction/wine making/comic art", it takes a unique approach in introducing the reader to two vastly different professions, and is a fascinatingly entertaining yet educational read that goes a long way towards proving that even the most technical and maybe boring subjects can be rendered fun and entertaining when depicted in a graphic novel format.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my
 

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