- India votes in world's biggest election
- Baby Prince George lands in New Zealand for first tour
- More Singaporeans go abroad for drug fix
Posted: 06 Apr 2014 05:02 PM PDT
Dibrugarh, India (AFP) - The first Indian voters head to the polls Monday for the world's biggest election, set to sweep the opposition Hindu nationalists to power at a time of low growth, anger about corruption and warnings about religious unrest.
India's 814-million-strong electorate are forecast to inflict a heavy defeat on the ruling Congress party, in power for 10 years and led by India's famous Gandhi dynasty, after a bad-tempered campaign.
"Wherever these people (the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party) go they create fights. They'll pit Hindus and Muslims against each other," Rahul Gandhi warned on the eve of balloting, which begins in the remote northeast of the country.
Religious tensions, an undercurrent to the contest which has mostly focused on development until now, burst into the open on Friday when an aide of hardline opposition leader Narendra Modi was accused of inciting sentiments.
Amit Shah faces a judicial investigation after he told supporters to see the election as "revenge" against a "government that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Hindus."
Prime ministerial front-runner Modi, the hawkish son of a tea seller whose rise has split his party, has a polarising effect on the public due to his links to anti-Muslim religious riots in 2002.
He urged voters on Sunday to give him a majority in the 543-seat parliament in defiance of surveys which repeatedly show the BJP likely to need coalition partners.
"I need your blessings for a strong government and strong government means that not less than 300 Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) seats," he said Sunday.
Nine phases until May 12
Monday's vote will take place in tea-growing and insurgency-wracked parts of the northeast, an often neglected part of the country wedged between Bangladesh, China and Myanmar.
After these first six constituencies in the states of Assam and Tripura cast their ballots, voting will take place in a further eight phases, and only finish on May 12. Results are due four days later.
In Assam, a Congress stronghold, some disgruntled voters told AFP they had been swayed by Modi's promises of better infrastructure, strong leadership, jobs and a clean administration.
Despite a decade under Congress when growth has averaged 7.6 percent per year, a sharp slowdown since 2012 has crippled the public finances and led investment to crash.
Coupled with a widespread perception that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's second term was largely lost to indecision and scandal, Modi has tapped into a groundswell of discontent.
"My wife is a graduate, she is sitting at home without a job. The Congress has given us no benefit," 42-year-old car repair shop worker Nirmal Pal told AFP in Dibrugarh.
The small town in Assam near the mighty Brahmaputra river is surrounded by tea plantations, where India's famous export is picked by lowly paid workers who will be a decisive factor in the local result.
Boycotted but undeterred
The election will be the biggest in history and is a mind-boggling feat of organisation as voters travel to nearly a million polling stations.
In 2009, officials walked for four days through snow to deliver voting machines in the Himalayas, while yaks, camels and even elephants were pressed into action elsewhere in the vast country.
Such is India's population growth that 100 million people have joined the electoral rolls since the last vote five years ago. More than half of the country is aged under 25.
Modi, 20 years older than Gandhi at 63, is expected to score strongly among the young thanks to his message of aspiration and skills over the left-leaning Congress's pitch of welfare and equitable development.
"Overall, they (voters) certainly think things will improve under Modi," Sanjay Kumar, director of Delhi-based think tank the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, told AFP before the vote.
India under Modi, an unabashed nationalist, would likely result in a more muscular foreign policy at a time when the country is emerging as a defender of the developing world on issues from climate change to global trade.
But many observers worry about his domestic impact in an officially secular country.
Modi is steeped in the ideology of Hindu nationalism, which is often antagonistic towards Muslims, and he remains tainted by religious riots in Gujarat in 2002.
More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in a spasm of violence shortly after he became chief minister, leading the United States and European powers to boycott him for more than a decade.
He has never been found guilty of wrong-doing despite multiple investigations, but a woman he appointed as a minister was jailed for life in 2012 for orchestrating some of the worst of the killing.
Posted: 06 Apr 2014 05:44 PM PDT
WELLINGTON, April 7, 2014 (AFP) - Britain's baby Prince George arrived in New Zealand with parents Prince William and Catherine on Monday for the eight-month-old's first ever official tour, an AFP reporter said.
Strong winds, rain and poor visibility greeted the royals in Wellington at the start of a three-week tour of New Zealand and Australia.
It will be one of the first times George, who is third in line to the throne, has been seen in public since his birth on July 22 last year.
The baby will only be taken to a few specific engagements throughout the trip, the family's Kensington Palace residence said.
For Kate, who stepped off the Royal New Zealand Air Force plane in a buttoned-up red coat and pill-box hat, it's a first visit to either country, but William, second in line to the throne, has visited New Zealand and Australia several times.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana took him on their tour in March and April 1983 and his most recent trip was in 2011, when he comforted victims of the Christchurch earthquake and devastating floods in Australia.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were treated like celebrities when they visited Canada soon after their wedding in 2011, while last year they toured Singapore, Malaysia, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu as representatives of Queen Elizabeth II on her Diamond Jubilee.
Their visit has already sparked intense interest in New Zealand, with discussion ranging from whether George's baby car seat has been correctly installed to whether the country should retain the monarchy.
Former deputy prime minister Don McKinnon said over the weekend that it was "inevitable" New Zealand would become a republic, even though people still felt great respect for the royals.
Prime Minister John Key said he did not believe change would happen any time soon, saying there was "robust support" for the monarchy in New Zealand which had increased in recent years.
"If you go back... maybe a decade and asked the question whether New Zealanders want to become a republic then I think the numbers would have been sixty-forty opposed," he told public radio.
"If you asked that question today I think it would be eighty-twenty opposed."
Posted: 06 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT
THE club's dance floor was filled with partygoers, some of whom were lying in pools of vomit, too drugged to notice.
In the karaoke rooms, tables were turned into display counters for a host of party drugs, including Ecstasy and ketamine – all for sale. All Lynne had to do was pick her poison, pay, then shoot up for another temporary high.
The next day, a short trip across the Causeway brought her home to Singapore. The club, after all, was in Johor.
Since being sentenced to five years in jail for trafficking ketamine, 29-year-old Lynne, now an administrative assistant, has cleaned up.
But more Singaporeans are going abroad – to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and even Japan – for an easy fix, according to social workers and drug addiction counsellors. This is despite the threat of being caught when they pass through Customs upon returning to Singapore.
"Over there nobody knows you, and it's also cheaper," said counsellor Janet Wee, who works at the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association.
In the last two years, drug abusers here have been getting younger and more affluent, she said.
"It is becoming more common to see young executives organise drug parties abroad – they can be lawyers, doctors, businessmen."
Last month, 26-year-old Chua Wen Hu died in Jakarta from a suspected drug-related incident after attending a trance music performance.
The same weekend, two 27-year-old Singaporeans were arrested on drug charges by Kuala Lumpur police during a music event at the Bukit Jalil Stadium. A further 11 Singaporeans were hospitalised after taking drugs. Six Malaysians died.
The news did not come as a surprise for Lynne and three other former addicts The Sunday Times spoke to.
"They have everything there in Malaysia. You can just ask them, and they will offer you," said Lynne, who experimented with ketamine when she was 13 after "some friends told me if I took it, I could dance a lot and get happy".
"You can choose any brand you want and pay as little as S$3 (RM8) for one Ecstasy pill which in Singapore can cost 10 times as much. Even if you get caught, you can bribe the police," she said.
Pushers in Malaysia tend to market drugs adulterated with glass powder and even rat poison to raise their profits, the four former addicts said. They suspect poorly mixed drugs could be behind the recent deaths.
"There are a lot of such cases in Malaysia and we know what is happening. We know the risks, but when you are young you just want to enjoy yourself," said Ann, who is now 42 and unemployed.
Formerly a part-time model and waitress, she used to drive to Johor three times a month to take drugs in empty rented houses and cemeteries before heading out to party.
Ex-addict Carl, a 38-year-old driver, said Malaysia was the drug haunt he "loved best" . It was close to home and "about 70% of the people we met at drug parties were from Singapore".
But he also frequented Indonesia and Thailand when he was a sales executive in his early 20s, spending a chunk of his monthly salary on drugs.
Instead of having to sneak tiny sachets of substances around in Singapore, drugs are often consumed openly in these other countries.
He could simply hail a tuk-tuk (motorised rickshaw), tell the driver what drugs he wanted and be taken straight to the suppliers. After getting high, he would hit the discos.
"Nobody there cares that you are taking drugs," said Carl.
The former addicts also said some organisers of drug parties hand out pills and drinks, claiming that these can flush out the drugs before the users return to Singapore.
The seeming lack of enforcement overseas means some Singaporeans "would rather face the risks of low-quality drugs than the heavy punishments and the social stigma here," said Wee.
"The strict laws here are, in a way, driving people overseas."
Helping Hands social worker Raymond Choo, who has worked with drug addicts for more than five years, said the belief that police in these other countries can be bribed also gives abusers the misconception that consuming drugs overseas is easier and safer.
But there is always a price to pay.
Lynne said her long-term memory was badly affected. Her skin became yellow and she grew paranoid.
"I was like a crazy woman, and my habits hurt my family too.
"If you're not so lucky, taking drugs overseas can also cost you your life. It's just not worth it." — The Straits Times / Asia News Network
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