Isnin, 7 April 2014

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ICA working on portable device to verify passports of ship passengers

Posted: 07 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

THE Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore (ICA) is working on a portable electronic device which could be used to check the passports of ship passengers and make the current system more efficient.

The present clearance-on-board system involves ICA officers physically checking cruise passengers' documents on the ship before they reach Singapore Cruise Centre or Marina Bay Cruise Centre, where passports are then checked electronically.

Tentatively named the Relocatable Clearance System, the machine is in the prototype stage.

If successful, it would be able to wirelessly verify the authenticity and validity of a passport against an electronic database, which can currently be done only at the various land, sea and air checkpoints.

An ICA spokesman said: "We break down immigration clearance into various portions and what we can do on board will speed up the process of certain functions."

The authority is working on ensuring that the device will be able to communicate reliably with its central database, and that encryption of sensitive, personal information will be robust enough to prevent information theft.

The ICA is also looking at extending automated clearance to cruise passengers on ships that dock here overnight or longer.

Currently, only residents and pass holders can use the automated system which lets them get on and off the ship, while foreign passengers use manned checkpoints.

The Singapore Tourism Board is trying to grow the market of visitors on "floating hotels" and its director of cruise Annie Chang said: "With our city's plethora of lifestyle and leisure options, visitors can have exciting, multiple-day shore excursions whenever cruise ships dock here."

A handful of luxury liners operated by Celebrity Cruises and Crystal Cruises already stay here overnight. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network

Australia defends security deal with Japan

Posted: 07 Apr 2014 10:23 PM PDT

SYDNEY, April 08, 2014 (AFP) - Closer defence ties between Japan and Australia should not raise concerns in regional superpower China, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Tuesday, after sealing a major free trade and security deal with Tokyo.

Canberra and Tokyo struck the agreement Monday to enhance trade and security ties, including joint development of defence equipment, elevating the bilateral relationship to a new level.

Abbott told national radio in Australia that he was taking no side in territorial disputes between China and other nations, and the growing relationship with Japan did not target anyone else.

"It's not against any specific country and as far as I am concerned - as far as just about every country is concerned - what we want to see is more democracy, more freedom, more respect for the rule of law," he said when asked about China.

"We say there should be no change to the status quo, which is brought about by force or by the threat of force," he said.

Abbott noted there was already a high degree of defence cooperation between Australia and Japan, which is embroiled in territorial disputes with China.

Australian and Japanese defence forces hold exercises together and Japan has previously purchased some Australian defence equipment, including Bushmaster armoured infantry transport vehicles, he said.

"We want to see more inter-operability between our militaries, we want to see more exercises between our militaries, we want to see over time more significant intelligence co-operation," the prime minister told ABC.

On Tuesday Australia was also set to sign a free trade pact with South Korea following four years of negotiations. After Seoul, Abbott will head to China on Wednesday. 

Long-awaited trade deal

Monday's agreement to boost security cooperation came after Japan last week loosened a self-imposed ban on weapons exports in a move which unnerved China.

Japan and Australia announced Monday a "substantive agreement" on a long-awaited free-trade deal, in a rare opening of Japan's protected markets.

In Tokyo, Abbott said it was the first time Japan had negotiated a comprehensive economic partnership agreement or free trade deal with a major economy.

He said the deal marked "truly an historic occasion for both of our countries", with the security deal including joint development of defence equipment.

In Japan, the mass-selling Yomiuri Shimbun welcomed the security deal, saying it would dovetail well with the recent relaxation of strict rules banning arms exports and "would lead to progress in defence technology and the curbing of development costs".

It made no specific reference to tensions between Tokyo and Beijing, which have been high for almost two years, but said "the agreement between... two allies of the United States will contribute to the stability of the Asia Pacific region as a whole".

Australian media hailed the overall agreement as a trade breakthrough, but some highlighted the sensitivities involved in defence matters.

The Australian Financial Review noted that the defence deal had been embarked on "under the radar of a trade deal".

"Closer security ties have been the real growth area in the relationship during the long seven years of trade negotiations," the daily noted.

Peter Hartcher writing in the Sydney Morning Herald said China's assertiveness was driving US allies in the region nearer to Washington and to each other.

"Even on a trip where Abbott visits China, he is working with the other two nations on his itinerary in a search for a common security against the rising China risk. It's a jungle out there."

Myanmar loans ancient treasures to New York

Posted: 07 Apr 2014 08:40 PM PDT

New York (AFP) - A landmark exhibition opens in New York next week exploring the ancient kingdoms of Southeast Asia and introducing to the outside world the first treasures from Myanmar seen abroad.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art spent five years preparing the exhibition of Hindu-Buddhist sculptures from a region and ancient culture little known in the United States.

It features 160 stone, terracotta and bronze sculptures of which 22 are from Myanmar, the first pieces of art loaned by Yangon after emerging from decades of international isolation.

The rest from Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Britain, France and elsewhere in the United States complete an exhibition that only the vast resources of the Metropolitan could pull off.

"Most of these powerful works of art have rarely if ever been on view outside their home countries," said the Met's British director Thomas Campbell.

"We are especially honored that the government of Myanmar has signed its first-ever international loan agreement in order to lend their national treasures to this exhibition."

The beautifully presented and painstakingly curated "Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia 5th to 8th Century," opens next Monday and runs until July 27.

The museum hopes that it will attract culture vultures keen to bone up on a little-known field, and backpackers and gap-year students who have enjoyed the beaches of Thailand and Vietnam.

Ganesha from Vietnam form part of the exhibit "Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century," on display on April 7, 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

Around 6.2 million people visited the Met in each of the last two years, a new audience for these ancient treasures and for Myanmar, which only emerged from international sanctions in 2012.

Curator John Guy said Southeast Asia was dismissed by ancient geographers as "that place beyond India and before China," but produced some of the greatest Hindu and Buddhist art to survive.

The exhibition tracks the period when both faiths took root in the region from India, absorbed into local belief systems and giving rise to the nation states of today.

-'An enormous act of faith'-

It took two years -- a "long and rigorous process" -- to negotiate the loans from all the countries, Guy told AFP.

The entrance of the exhibit "Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, April 7, 2014

"Myanmar is new at this and I have to say they behaved in an extraordinarily professional manner," he added.

Before coming to New York, some objects had traveled only once: by cart from the ancient city of Sri Ksetra where they were excavated in 1924-26 to the local museum.

As in the case of several other countries, cabinet-level approval was required.

"It's appropriate," Guy said.

"We're asking to borrow their national treasures and bring them half way around the world. This is an enormous act of faith on their part."

Southeast Asian countries are emerging economies and Myanmar has embarked upon wide-ranging reforms since turning the page on five decades of junta rule that kept the country impoverished.

Guy said the region could expect spin-off benefits such as enhanced tourism and cultural cooperation.

When the exhibits return to Myanmar in August, for example, two conservators will go to work on objects that in the end were deemed too fragile to travel to New York.

"As important as the exhibition is, we would never put a single object at risk," said Guy, an expert with 20 years' experience and contacts in the region.

While many of the masterpieces come from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, the standout contribution from Myanmar is a sixth century sandstone slab that covered a relic chamber in Sri Ksetra.

Guy described it as an "extraordinary object, beautiful in its own right and the way it functioned, offering almost magical protection to the chamber, makes it a very potent object."


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Two foreign U.N. workers killed in Somalia

Posted: 07 Apr 2014 09:00 PM PDT

BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) - A Briton and a Frenchman working for the United Nations were shot dead on Monday at an airport in north-central Somalia, officials said.

A U.N. mission spokesman said it was not clear who was behind the killings. But one witness said the pair were attacked by a man in a police uniform while they sat in their car at Galkayo airport.

Abdi Idris, an official in the semi-autonomous Puntland region which administers the airport, gave the nationalities of the two men and said they worked as consultants for the U.N. anti-drugs agency.

The United Nations, which has spent billions of dollars in Somalia since the outbreak of civil war in 1991, has often been targeted by warring clan factions, most recently by al Qaeda-aligned Islamist group al Shabaab.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Security Council both strongly condemned the attack on Monday and called on Somali authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.

"The members of the Security Council are appalled that individuals working to support the people of Somalia have been killed as they sought to help Somalia progress towards peace and prosperity," the 15-member council said in a statement.

Somalia's Puntland region has traditionally been more stable than the rest of the country but in recent months attacks there by al Shabaab militants have increased.

The Islamist group "welcomed the killing" but declined to comment when asked if it was responsible. "We urge all Somalis to target the U.N.," a spokesman for the group, Ali Mohamud Rage, told Reuters.

Local resident Cali Faratol, who was at Galkayo airport when the workers were attacked, said a man wearing a police uniform shot them.

"Both men were in a car when he was shooting," Faratol said.

Nicholas Kay, the U.N. special representative for Somalia, condemned the "callous" killing but said the organisation remained "committed to continuing our vital support to the Somali people as they emerge from decades of conflict."

Al Shabaab gunmen in the capital Mogadishu used a car bomb to blow a hole in the U.N. compound's wall in June and 22 people, including U.N. staff, were killed in the ensuing firefight.

In February, al Shabaab attacked a U.N. convoy with a remote-controlled bomb, killing at least seven Somalis. No U.N. staff were hurt in that attack.

(Additional Reporting by Michelle Nichols and Drazen Jorgic, writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by James Macharia, John Stonestreet)

UK summons Myanmar envoy, calls for aid group access to Rakhine state

Posted: 07 Apr 2014 08:10 PM PDT

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain summoned Myanmar's ambassador on Monday to call on the southeast Asian nation to allow aid agencies to resume their work in violence-torn Rakhine state, Britain's Foreign Office said.

Aid agencies were forced to halt operations in Rakhine last month when hundreds of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists destroyed staff homes, offices and warehouses as well as boats used to transport supplies.

Parts of the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist community have accused aid groups of favouring the mainly Muslim Rohingya people, who make up the vast majority of victims of ethnic and religious violence that has displaced more than 140,000 since June 2012.

A spokeswoman for Britain's Foreign office said Hugo Swire, a junior minister responsible for Asia, had summoned the ambassador for Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.

"We continue to be gravely concerned by the situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine State," she said.

"(Swire) called on the Burmese government urgently to restore humanitarian access to all communities in need, and to ensure the security of humanitarian aid workers and all communities in Rakhine State."

Swire said on Twitter that Britain also had deep concerns about the conduct of a planned census in Myanmar.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Assad 'says fighting largely over by end of year' - former Russian PM

Posted: 07 Apr 2014 08:09 PM PDT

MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad has forecast that much of the fighting in the Syrian civil war will be over by the end of the year, a former Russian prime minister was quoted on Monday as saying.

"This is what he told me: 'This year the active phase of military action in Syria will be ended. After that we will have to shift to what we have been doing all the time - fighting terrorists'," Itar-Tass news agency quoted Sergei Stepashin as saying.

Stepashin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and former head of Russia's FSB security service, portrayed Assad as secure, in control and in "excellent athletic shape" after a meeting in Damascus last week.

"'Tell Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) that I am not Yanukovich, I'm not going anywhere'," Stepashin quoted Assad as saying during their meeting, state-run news agency RIA reported.

Yanukovich fled to Russia in February after he was pushed from power by protests that followed his decision to spurn closer ties with the European Union and turn to Moscow. Russian leaders have criticised him for losing control of his country.

Stepashin suggested Assad faced no such threat and was likely to win a presidential election this year.

"There is not a shadow of a doubt that he knows what he's doing," RIA quoted Stepashin as saying.

"Assad's strength now lies in the fact that, unlike Yanukovich, he has practically no internal enemies. He has a consolidated, cleansed team.

"Moreover, his relatives are not bargaining and stealing from the cash register but are fighting," he said, appearing to draw a contrast with Yanukovich and his family.


Stepashin, who served as prime minister in 1999 under President Boris Yeltsin and now heads a charitable organisation called the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, added that "the fighting spirit of the Syrian army is extremely high".

Russia has been Assad's most powerful supporter during the three-year-old conflict that activists say has killed more than 150,000 people in Syria, blocking Western and Arab efforts to drive him from power.

Russia and the United States organised peace talks that began in January between Assad's government and its foes. But no agreement was reached and a resumption appears unlikely soon, in part because of high tension between Russia and the West over Ukraine.

Russian officials say Moscow is not trying to prop up Assad and but that his exit from power cannot be a precondition for a political solution. Their assessments of his future have varied with the fortunes of his military.

Assad has lost control of large swathes of northern and eastern Syria to Islamist rebels and foreign jihadis. But his forces, backed by militant group Hezbollah and other allies, have driven rebels back from around Damascus and secured most of central Syria.

The head of Hezbollah said in an interview published on Monday Assad no longer faced a threat of being overthrown, and would stand for re-election this year.

Stepashin predicted Assad would win.

"The majority of the Syrian population will vote for him," Itar-Tass quoted him as saying.


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Maybulk a 'buy' on POSH factor

Posted: 07 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT


By RHB Research

Rating: Buy

Target Price: RM2.48

RHB understands that Maybulk's 21%-owned offshore unit, PACC Offshore Services Holdings (POSH), is slated for listing soon that could potentially raise up to US$400mil (RM1.3bil) according to Reuters. The investor education marketing has already started and will last two weeks.

POSH is a leading operator in South-East Asia and operates a fleet of more than 50 vessels, with another 50 to be delivered over the next three years.

We have no confirmation on whether Maybulk will divest its stake in the unit through this listing.

Should this be the case, gains could be paid out as dividends or utilised for more vessel acquisitions in the future.

We think this catalyst has, to a certain extent, re-rated Maybulk's valuation of late.

Putting POSH against a comparable Singapore peer like Ezra, which trades at 15x FY14 price to earnings, will provide the valuation lift for Maybulk.

We see an indicative market cap of RM4.85bil on POSH's upcoming listing. We see further upside to POSH's valuations, as more disclosures on the company and its outlook are made.

We upgrade our call on Maybulk to a buy from neutral. As a cross check to our SOP, assuming a 20% discount to the market value on Maybulk's vessels will derive a comparable FV of RM2.23 per share.


By AM Research

Rating: Buy

Target Price: RM3.00

AmResearch re-affirms its high conviction buy on Berjaya Auto (BAuto) following recent meeting sessions with management as well as a plant visit.

Its fair value is raised to RM3.00 from RM2.50 after raising its earnings projections and rolling over its valuation to the calendar year 2015 forecast earnings.

BAuto's energy efficient vehicle (EEV) incentive application for the completely knocked down (CKD) CX5 was approved last quarter. This raises the excise duty rebates it is enjoying by 25% from the existing base. Duty cost is huge, at up to 40%-45% of operating costs.

We estimate the CX5's cost to drop by 10%-11% post-incentive, mainly from the fourth quarter of the financial year 2014 as CKD production recovery becomes more pronounced.

Management targets CKDs to account for 75% of TIV in FY15F (vs. our FY14F: 44%, FY15F: 67%, FY16F: 83%) mainly due to the deviation in Mazda 3 projection. Any higher than expected sales of the Mazda 3 means upside to both our volume and margin forecasts.

We raise our projections by 4%-18% over FY15-16F (and FY14 forecast by 1%) to factor in higher duty savings gained from EEV incentives and Mazda 6 exports at a rate of 4,000 units per year from the fourth quarter of FY15 (f).


By Maybank Research

Rating: Hold

Target Price: RM23.50

PetGas released further details of the new gas processing and transportation agreements (GPTA) from Petroliam Nasional Bhd (Petronas) in a briefing last Friday.

Specifically on gas processing, the higher reservation charge is offset by lower fees for liquid by-products. A larger portion of the revenue is now fixed. From the initial headlines, it appeared the new reservation charge was significantly higher than the previous. Nevertheless, with full details now revealed, the higher reservation charge is largely offset by lower fees for liquid by-products.

Overall, we estimate only a 5% increase in annual processing revenue.

The increase in reservation charge means a larger proportion of the processing revenue is now fixed. In addition, a single transportation tariff now applies to Peninsular Malaysia (from zonal rates previously).

There is now less volatility in PetGas' revenue.

We revise our earnings forecasts -1% for FY14, while FY15-16 a +0.7-3.7%. Our new target price of RM23.50 (from RM20.20 previously) is based on the discounted cash flow basis, assuming the 6.3% weighted average cost of capital and a 2% long-term growth.

Samsung profits fall for second straight quarter

Posted: 07 Apr 2014 07:01 PM PDT

SEOUL: Samsung Electronics on Tuesday posted estimated first quarter operating profits of 8.4 trillion won (US$7.96bil), marking a second straight year-on-year decline as growth in smartphone sales slow.

The estimate was in line with market expectations.

Analysts had forecast that operating profit for the world's largest mobile phone maker would be somewhere between 8.14 and 8.63 trillion won for the January-March period.

"The operating profits fell for two straight quarters year-on-year as profit margins in smartphones were falling and the growth rate in smartphone sales was decreasing due to growing competition," analyst Young Park of Hyundai Securities told AFP.

The figure was down 4.3% from the first quarter of 2013, when the South Korean giant recorded operating profits of 8.78 trillion won.

But compared with the previous quarter, it marked a 1.08% increase.

In January Samsung had posted a operating profits of 8.3 trillion won for the last quarter of 2013 – a 6% decline on the previous year – due to a one-off bonus, a strong won and slowing smartphone sales.

First-quarter sales were estimated at 53 trillion won, up 0.24% from the 52.87 trillion won a year earlier.

Profits for the company's IT and mobile operations grew to 6.2 trillion won, up from 5.5 trillion won the previous quarter, Park said.

Earnings for the mobile division improved, following the earlier-than-expected release of its latest smartphone in South Korea, analysts said.

The Galaxy S5 – which Samsung hopes will cement its lead in the global smartphone market – came out at home on March 27, two weeks earlier than the global launch slated for April 11.

But the company's television division fell into the red due to falling global prices.

Operating profits for the company's semiconductor division were estimated to be about the same level as the September-December period at two trillion won, Park said.

For the whole of 2014, Samsung's operating profit is likely to be around 37 trillion won, about the same as last year's, he added.

But Greg Roh of HMC Investment Securities said Samsung's overall 2014 operating profit was likely to fall to 35 trillion won because of the slowing demand for smartphones.

Samsung plans to announce its fixed first-quarter earnings later this month. – AFP

Public Bank, CIMB drag KLCI into the red

Posted: 07 Apr 2014 06:55 PM PDT

KUALA LUMPUR: Shares of Public Bank and CIMB were among the top losers early Tuesday as investors took profit after the recent surge in their share prices, dragging the FBM KLCI down nearly nine points.

At 9.34am, the KLCI was down 8.8 point to 1,854.1. Turnover was 373.14 million shares valued at RM207.38mil. There were 181 gainers, 246 losers and 246 counters unchanged.

Public Bank foreign fell the most, down 36 sen to RM19.94 while the local shares lost 28 sen to RM20. Hong Leong Capital shed 18 sen to RM12 and CIMB was down 11 sen to RM7.39.

A foreign research house said it expected Public bank's consumer segment to come under pressure.

"Consumer loans account for about 57% of total loans book, which is larger than CIMB (on a group basis, it accounts for 42%). Industry consumer loans growth is expected to decelerate to around 10% from 12% currently.

"CIMB on the other hand is partly insulated by the slowdown given its large exposure to corporate loans which accounts for 58% of its loans book. We have seen a pick- up in industry-wide corporate loans growth from 5% middle of last year to 9% currently.

"Margins will be under pressure for Public Bank while the pressure on CIMB will be there but to a lesser extent. Another overhang for Public Bank is the possibility of a rights issue given its CET 1 ratio of 8.3%, which is the lowest among the large caps," it said.


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Lee in Malaysia for leaders’ retreat

Posted: 06 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

PUTRAJAYA: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has arrived to attend the fifth Malaysia-Singapore Leaders' Retreat. Lee and his delegation were welcomed by Deputy Foreign Minister Datuk Hamzah Zainuddin at the KL International Airport at 2.20pm yesterday.

He was accompanied by his wife Ho Ching, several Singaporean Cabinet ministers and senior officials for the two-day working visit. He is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak in the Prime Minister's office today.

According to a Wisma Putra statement, the retreat was a platform for leaders of both countries to take stock of their bilateral co-operation. It also provides an avenue to explore and discuss further collaboration. Both Lee and Najib are expected to issue a joint statement at the end of the retreat. — Bernama

Cops among four nabbed during drug party

Posted: 06 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

GEORGE TOWN: Two policemen, a man and a woman were nabbed for holding a "drug party" at a budget hotel in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah here.

When a state narcotics team found them, the four were high on methamphetamine, also known as ice, during the 3pm raid on Saturday.

The four were in a semi-conscious state when police stormed the room.

Initial probe revealed that the two policemen, aged 26 and 30, had been in the force for more than four years.

Penang police chief Senior Deputy Comm Datuk Wira Abdul Rahim Hanafi said the case had been classified under Section 15(1)(a) of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952 after they all tested positive for drugs.

He said police would not tolerate any wrongdoing by its personnel as it would tarnish the image of the force.

"The two policemen have been remanded to facilitate investigations," SDCP Abdul Rahim said. "We have also suspended them."

We took a stand based on law, MCA tells Perkasa

Posted: 06 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

KUALA LUMPUR: MCA Youth has hit back at Perkasa over allegations that the party was meddling in the country's Islamic affairs.

Its Legal Bureau chief Eric Choo Wei Sern stressed that neither the bureau nor the MCA did this.

He said all the party did was to take a stand based on the existing laws of the country.

He said PAS' hudud law was inconsistent with what had been entrenc­hed in the Federal Constitution.

"Furthermore, the PAS administration has a track record of imposing Islam law on non-Muslims," Choo said.

"Therefore, it is MCA's responsibility and duty to oppose and stop any attempts by PAS that will jeopardise the peace and harmony of the country," he said, calling on Perkasa to respect Malaysia's law and judicial system.

Last week, Kelantan announced that it would table a private Bill in Parliament that would seek a declaration to implement hudud law in the state.

Choo also refuted Perkasa's claims that MCA was biased and silent over the use of the word "Allah".

He urged all parties to be patient over the issue pending the Federal Court's judgment.

"We not only did not remain silent, a group of MCA lawyers also held a watching brief in court," Choo pointed out. "This shows the sincerity and persistence of the party to find a legal solution based on the law through the justice system — unlike Perkasa which only demonstrated outside the court during the case."


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India votes in world's biggest election

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.

Baby Prince George lands in New Zealand for first tour

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."


The Star Online: Entertainment: Music

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Talented guy sings Let It Go as multiple Disney and Pixar characters

Posted: 04 Apr 2014 01:05 AM PDT

You'll never listen to the song the same way again. Maybe.

What does one do when one has a wicked talent of mimicking voices? Sing the now world-famous song Let It Go in the voices of famous Disney and Pixar characters, of course.

And then post a video of your epic performance on YouTube for everyone to marvel at your talent.

The talented guy is Brian Hull, whose video "Disney And Pixar Sings (sic) Let It Go" (recorded and produced by Seth O'Neal) has close to 10 million viewers since it was uploaded on March 14.

Hull's impersonation of some of the characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Dug (from Up), Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates Of The Caribbean), Sebastian (The Little Mermaid), Roz (Monsters Inc.), Cogsworth (Beauty & The Beast) and Pumbaa (The Lion King) is spot on. 

He also adds a few personal touches to his performance, which makes the video that much more interesting. 

You can also watch the video here

Shila Amzah is singing through the storm

Posted: 02 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Shila Amzah will perform on the finals of I Am A Singer 2 tomorrow despite backlash from China's netizens.

IT is a trying time for Malaysian singer Shila Amzah.

Not only is the 23-year-old vocalist fighting to defend her spot in the reality singing competition, I Am A Singer 2, Shila and fellow Malaysian competitor Gary Chaw Ge are among the homegrown talents who have been lambasted by netizens in China in relation to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

"Both you (Chaw) and Shila are the enemies of our country now. Although you should not be held responsible, your country is ill-treating our countrymen. Don't you feel ashamed to stay on?" wrote a netizen.

Fish Leong, Datuk Michelle Yeoh, Ah Niu, Victor Wong and Lee Sin-jie are other Malaysian celebrities who have also become subjects of scorn.

"MH370 is not my fault … I'm really sorry ... please," Shila responded in an Instagram post that has garnered over 15,000 likes so far.

"Precious (fans), Thank you for the hugssss.. Im deeling (feeling) so much better today.. No matter what happened, I will remain strong and do all the best i can! I love Malaysia and china.. We will work this out.. Spread the love not hatred.. You are my forever love..:* #shilalashugs," she followed up with another.

Her posts have been met with largely encouraging comments on the photo- and video-sharing service.

Star2 reached out to her for further comments on this matter, but the Malaysian singer did not respond.

However, we spoke to her about the highs and lows of her journey on I Am A Singer 2 in an e-mail interview prior to the uproar by China's netizens.

"I love competitions because they drive me to work and push myself harder. Through competitions, I found that I can actually do things that I thought I can't, reach the high notes that I couldn't reach before," said Nur Shahila Amir Amzah or Shila when asked about being on a total of three reality singing competitions to date.

Before I Am A Singer 2, Shila – who is the daughter of popular 1980s singer ND Lala – has taken part inOne In A Million and Asian Wave, and mind you, coming in a close second on the former and emerging as champion on the latter. And from the looks of her performances since joining Season Two of I Am A Singer about a month-and-a-half ago, it's clear she loves a good competition.

The singer has been taking on one big, sweeping ballad after another such as Guan Zhe's Xiang Ni De Ye, Jay Chou's Zui Chang De Dian Ying and Beyonce's Listen to rave reviews.

And each time she takes the stage, her gait, her piercing eyes, her dramatic gestures speak of the eagerness of a woman who's knee-deep in the trenches in war – a musical one, that is.

"I felt like I've been too comfortable in the Malay market. So I decided to give myself a new challenge that can improve my singing and performance ability. I get bored easily when I'm stuck in only one place in my life.

"The Chinese market is bigger and there are more opportunities for me to develop my career," she recalled her decision to join Asian Wave in 2012, marking her foray into China's entertainment industry.

But I Am A Singer is a whole different ball game. Unlike her previous competitions, the singer is up against some of the region's most established artistes: Hong Kong's G.E.M, China's Han Lei, Zhang Jie, Zhou Bichang, Taiwan's Phil Chang Yu besides fellow Malaysian singer Gary Chaw Ge. "Getting all these experiences with these great and talented superstars, I feel honoured to be here," she said.

Shila also spoke affectionately about her countrymen Chaw: "He's not my competitor, he's like a big brother to me in this competition. We support each other."


Shila Amzah receiving the Anugerah Kembara at last year's AIM 20 awards. 

But a star-studded competition like this makes clinching the top spot week after week that much more difficult. Since entering the competition, Shila has found herself placed second or third consistently. Unfortunately, in a surprising result announcement last week, the singer fell to sixth place (out of seven contestants).

No doubt, part of the challenge lies in learning to sing in Mandarin. "I used to need more than a week to learn a new Chinese song. But being in a competition, I have time limitations. So I've trained myself to fully learn a new Chinese song in four days," she revealed.

Asked if the shock value of being a non-Chinese singer delivering Chinese songs works to her advantage, she replied: "Not really, I think the chances are fair and square."

However, she added that there is one thing that sets her apart: "They have no other singer to compare me with when it comes to my appearance." The Muslim singer was referring to her hijab.

Speaking of her appearance, the fresh-faced beauty has donned some glamorous outfits on the show including a shimmery black and gold ensemble as well as an arresting cape-like red sequined dress that added pomp and drama to her performance.

Shila shared that her decision on what to wear depends on the songs she will be delivering on the show; the singer works closely with Malaysian designer Raffiey Nasir throughout the competition.

She also spoke fondly about her most memorable moment on the competition so far: "I think the best moment was when I got to sing my very own rendition of (Adele's) Rolling In The Deep. The sight of the musicians and the audience on their feet singing with me … it was simply breathtaking." Like a surge of energy, the performance had audiences clapping and dancing along.

Tomorrow, Shila will step on the I Am A Singer stage for one last time on the series finale. "I do get nervous each time before I go on stage. I don't have any special rituals but I will usually warm myself up for around 15 minutes and pray," she said of her pre-show routine.

But as avid a competitor she is, Shila believes it is ultimately not about winning or losing.

"I don't give myself pressure to win this competition. Honestly, the most important thing for me is getting the experience and cherishing every moment in this competition.

"Being able to work with the great production team from Hunan TV, great musicians, great competitors, great audience is already more than enough for me," she said.

See how Malaysian contenders Shila Amzah and Gary Chaw Ge fare on the finals of I Am A Singer 2 at 8pm on April 4 on Now Mango (HyppTV Ch 205).

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The Star eCentral: TV Tracks

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'Hell On Wheels' tackles the dark and dirty side of history

Posted: 06 Apr 2014 04:52 PM PDT

Western saga Hell On Wheels examines racism, greed and politics.

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Chinese craze for My Love From The Star

Posted: 06 Apr 2014 04:52 PM PDT

South Korean hit TV drama spawns big business in China.

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now


The Star Online: Lifestyle: Parenting

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Dear Thelma: He refuses to erase the past

Posted: 05 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

I discovered my husband's infidelity with a young Vietnamese woman more than a year ago. I tried very hard to salvage our marriage though the idea of divorce kept cropping up.

I've tried to forgive my husband's infidelity as I still love him, though I feel much resentment. I've gone through tears and sleepless nights for the past year and have tried to move on.

The crux of the problem is my husband's reluctance to delete hundreds of photos of his many "pleasure trips" with his mistress though I've talked to him about it countless times.

He has deleted the photos with his mistress in them, but not the scenery photos. I told him that the photos with the labelling of the places and dates stored in the computer evoked painful memories for me.

He replied that I was being "too sensitive" as they were only scenery. I told him that even without opening the photo folder, seeing the labels and dates taken for the trips were enough to cause me much heartache.

Is it wrong for me to ask him to delete them or at least keep them in a folder for his private use instead of the common computer which everybody has access to?

He knows that the photos are tormenting me and yet he still wants to keep them. In fact, I can easily delete them on my own, but I want him to do it himself.

To him, it is trivial and I'm making too much of a fuss over it. Is my husband being selfish for not considering my feelings? Why is he still adamant in keeping the photos when he stopped the affair ages ago?

Are they more important than my well-being? I don't understand why he still wants to keep those memories although he knows that they hurt me.

Feeling much resentment

The issue is not whether the photos are more important than your well-being, but its effect on your relationship. It looks like he's using it as a psychological tool to impress upon you who the dominant one in your relationship is. He seems to be saying that he can do whatever he wants because he can and will.

Obviously, the photos are going to act as a reminder of his affair. And, if he says you are being too sensitive, it is a blatant example of him being not only dismissive of your feelings but also laying the blame on you for any discord that may arise because of these photos.

Your husband is the one who cheated on you and your marriage. It is his responsibility to return trust into the relationship. If he is serious about it, he should be willing to do pretty much anything reasonable and within his means to ensure that the relationship becomes one based on trust again.

Many men think that they can be unfaithful in their marriage as they believe that it is a man's right and also because men's sexual needs are a priority. This may sound chauvinistic and it is. So is the attitude of wanting to assert power and dominance over you, reminding you of your place when he leaves in plain sight the reminders of his infidelity.

Chances are, this kind of behaviour and attitude has been present in your marriage for a long time. Take a hard and honest look at your relationship.

Has it been fair and have you been treated as an equal?

Most likely, you accepted all these things in your marriage because you probably believed that this is acceptable behaviour. True enough, our culture teaches women that they have to regard and treat their husbands like little gods and that women have to endure. It is better to be with an unfaithful husband than not be with one at all, women are taught.

It is now up to you to assert yourself in your relationship. Demand the respect you deserve – not because you are married to your husband but because it is your right as a human being.

And perhaps you have to be honest about where you see this marriage going and where you want it to head. Are they one and the same? If not, do you think this will change?

You do have some big decisions to make. His indiscretions are something to think about. But the bigger question is, how much respect do you think is your due?

Write in

IS something bothering you? Do you need a listening ear or a shoulder to lean on? Thelma
is here to help . Write to Dear Thelma, c/o Star2, Menara Star, 15, Jalan 16/11, 46350 Petaling Jaya, Selangor or e-mail: Please include your full name and address, and a pseudonym. No private correspondence will be entertained . The
Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, usefu lness, fi tness for a ny particular purpose or other assurances as to the opinions and views expressed in this   column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses suffered d irectly or indirectly arising from reliance on such opinions and views.

Celeb vocabulary: 'Conscious uncoupling'

Posted: 03 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin are getting a divorce but saying theirs is different, more evolved.

EVERY once in a while, something comes along that is so jaw-droppingly awesome that it changes everything. Last week, we got exactly that in the separation of former People's Magazine most beautiful woman in the world Gwyneth Paltrow and brooding rock star Chris Martin of Coldplay.

Celebrity marriages ending are something we have all seen before and have, honestly, become a little blasé about.

These days, we give celebrity break-ups approximately the same attention as celebrities gaining or losing weight. That means women have now condensed their opinions on such matters down to about 10 seconds ("Oh, what a pity" or "I knew it would never last"), while men have maintained their interest in this topic at a steady zero ("They were together?").

It is often more shocking to learn that a celebrity couple have been together for a long time. Women are able to sustain a conversation on this for way longer, dissecting whether there are any trends to be gleaned from it ("It feels like comedians seem to have longer marriages"), while men may be able to rouse a little interest depending on how attractive the woman is ("She is together with who?").

Paltrow and Martin's break-up changed all that because they didn't get a divorce like everyone else. They engaged in a "conscious uncoupling".

What is that, you ask? And does it imply it is possible to unconsciously uncouple as well as consciously or unconsciously couple? If I have a drunken one night stand, can I tell my friends the next day that I unconsciously coupled?

Nobody knows the answer.

That is why when the two posted an announcement of their "conscious uncoupling" online, they accompanied it with a post from a pair of New Age-type therapists explaining what it was. They also included a loving picture of them together, which really gave the whole divorce announcement the feel of a wedding invite.

Most of the time, the explanations for divorce are fairly brief – "the scumbag cheated on me with my best friend's sister", "We just hated each other's guts and could no longer tolerate to be in the same room" or "the smell was very strong".

This one had hundreds and hundreds of words that included statistics about human lifespan.

I am going to quote just a few bits of it to you because if you attempt to read the whole thing, you might gouge your eyes out.

It starts with the classic words everyone expects when about to read an explanation for divorce: "During the upper Paleolithic period of human history (roughly 50,000BC to 10,000BC) the average human life expectancy at birth was 33".

The unsaid implication being that it is unnatural to stay committed to someone beyond your early 30s.

It should come as no surprise that this explanation includes footnotes.

Several hundred words later, we get to the part where the therapists get down to the business of explaining conscious uncoupling: "A conscious uncoupling is the ability to understand that every irritation and argument was a signal to look inside ourselves and identify a negative internal object that needed healing. Because present events always trigger pain from a past event, it's never the current situation that needs the real fixing."

Everyone clear now? No, OK, let me try and decode the jargon for you.

Basically, the message Paltrow and Martin are trying to convey in about 2,000 words is this: "We did not do anything wrong. We are still better than you."

Like it or not, society has sort of attached the stigma of failure on the end of a marriage. Most people look at it as either as a couple having given up or having made some very bad decisions over the course of marriage.

It is a painful, messy affair that often leaves the parties involved scarred in some profound ways.

Paltrow and Martin, however, are determined not to have any of that fallout. It's almost certain that the reason they are getting divorced is no different from the reasons other normal people get divorced, but they are determined to justify to someone, perhaps themselves, that this is different.

They are more self-actualised and evolved. They are better and more wholesome than that. Divorce is for little souls.

The operative word here is "conscious". What they are trying to say is: "We could stay married if we wanted to and be perfectly happy. We still love each other very much. But we realised that if we were to separate it would be more in line with our human auras and global feng shui so we went ahead and did that.

"But let us be clear that this is not like one of your lousy civilian divorces where it is just two idiots who couldn't make it work. We can, we simply consciously chose to take the enlightened path and fulfil our biological destinies. If two beautiful, successful people cannot make this work, it must mean that there is something wrong with marriage and not us. Anyone still married is not fully self-actualised or living in a loveless union."

In other words, you know how when you screw up massively, you try and tell yourself that it really was not your fault. The circumstances at the time meant that this was the best decision for you to make and it will be better in the long run. And if you lost something you wanted, you try and convince yourself that you are better off without it and then try and convince everyone else that they shouldn't want it either.

But maybe they have done a big favour to the institution of marriage, despite all attempts to suggest that it is flawed. With the idea now getting criticised and mocked by all and sundry, maybe more couples will be determined to stay together, lest they too get accused of consciously uncoupling. – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network


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