Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Singapore refutes Gen Sonthi's remarks

SINGAPORE has strongly refuted Thai General Sonthi Boonyaratglin's suggestion that telephone lines in Thailand could be tapped in the Republic.

'We do not know what Gen Sonthi's remarks meant,' a spokesman of the Foreign Affairs Ministry here said in response to media queries yesterday.

'Domestic calls are not routed through Singapore. It does not make business or technical sense to route domestic calls via another country.

'Doing so will incur additional and unnecessary network resources (including costly international bandwidth) and degrade the quality of service.'

Addressing a forum last week, Gen Sonthi, who heads the Council for National Security (CNS), had said foreign ownership of the telecoms industry could jeopardise national security.

'The armed forces are currently experiencing a problem,' he told the forum.

'We pick up the phone, and the line runs to Singapore. We can talk about confidential official matters, but it goes to Singapore.

'National security is an important matter for the nation, one that is entirely domestic.'

It was not immediately clear what he had meant, and neither did he elaborate on what he meant.

But a day later, Thai leaders warned telecom companies that their licences could be revoked if they were caught bugging conversations.

The message was seen as aimed at two Thai telcos in which Temasek Holdings has a controlling stake.

Both companies - Advanced Info Service and Shin Satellite - denied the charges.

Yesterday, the MFA spokesman here reiterated that strict professional standards are adhered to safeguard the integrity of all communications in the Republic.

'As an international telecommunication hub, Singapore maintains a strict and professional operating environment to safeguard the integrity of all communications which terminate in or transit through Singapore,' a statement issued yesterday said.

'In this age of globalised and extensively networked economies, many countries have fully liberalised their telecommunication markets and allowed foreign operators in their markets.

'Appropriate licensing requirements and regulatory safeguards put in place by the host countries have effectively been able to address the national security concerns arising from foreign ownership of local telephone operators.

'We believe this would have been effectively achieved in Thailand as well.'

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Stackhouse stems Miami rally with late surge

MIAMI - JERRY Stackhouse regained his scoring touch at the right time for Dallas, helping them to stave off a Miami comeback on Sunday.

The Mavericks won 99-93 in the first match-up between the National Basketball Association finalists.

Stackhouse, who is working his way back after spraining his left ankle last month, scored 16 of his 23 points in the final quarter.

Josh Howard added 25 points, Dirk Nowitzki 22, and Jason Terry 11 points and 11 assists.

Dallas, who have lost only once in 21 games, improved their NBA-best record to 34-8.

Plus, they got some tiny measure of revenge over the Heat, who lost the first two games of last year's Finals before rallying to triumph 4-2.

'We just had to keep grinding,' Stackhouse said. 'It was a great game, which had some great players making great plays.'

Dwyane Wade, who suffered a left-ankle injury after stepping on Nowitzki's foot in the first quarter, returned and played 44 minutes.

'A stupid play,' he said.

The guard finished with 31 points, six rebounds and six assists for Miami.

But he missed a three-pointer that would have tied the game with 5.8 seconds left.

Jason Williams added 17 points, Udonis Haslem 15, who missed his first eight shots, and Antoine Walker 11.

Miami were without centre Shaquille O'Neal for the 34th straight game following knee surgery.

Down by 13 points early in the second half, they pulled to within one - 75-76 - on Wade's three-point play with 10min 44sec left.

But Stackhouse scored seven straight points to quell the rally to restore some breathing space.

He landed another jumper with 5:34 left to push the advantage to 90-84.

Miami responded with the next six points, with Wade tying it with a jumper.

'They're the world champions. You knew they were going to come back with a champion's heart,' Stackhouse said.

But his team scored the next six points, with baskets from Nowitzki and Howard 26 seconds apart to put them back on top.

Miami got back to within 93-96 on a Wade lay-up with 57 seconds left. But they would fail to score again.

It turned out to be their 10th home loss of the season, matching the total from all of last year.

'We gave up a big lead, they tied it up. But we didn't give up either,' Mavs coach Avery Johnson said.

'They didn't give up. We didn't give up. That's what I think championship teams and championship organisations are all about.'

Dallas never trailed in the game, which was tied only once after the tip-off.

They held a 16-5 rebounding edge - 48-35 in total - in the first quarter. Nowitzki had six of his 11 boards in that period alone.

They disrupted Miami's attack so much that the hosts managed just three assists in the opening half.

And, while Miami clearly improved after half-time, the Mavs' edge in rebounding and second-chance points (19-5) proved to be crucial.

'That's the bottom line,' Miami interim coach Ron Rothstein said.

'If we held our ground there, I think I would be sitting up here really happy with a win.'


M1 dishes out cash bonanza on surprise 2.2% income rise

M1 SHAREHOLDERS had much to cheer about after the telco announced a bumper cash payout and a surprise rise in its annual profits yesterday.

The mobile operator, the smallest in Singapore, is paying out a larger-than-expected $296 million in cash to its shareholders - yielding an investor holding 1,000 shares a $297 bonanza.

It also managed to surprise, somewhat, with a 2.2 per cent improvement in its bottom line, which clocked in at $164.6 million for the year ended Dec 31.

Revenues, however, slipped 0.7 per cent to $773 million.

The latest payout is the largest by M1 so far.

The telco is distributing a final dividend of 7.5 cents per share.

It is also conducting a capital reduction exercise in which it will buy back and cancel about 10 per cent of its share capital at $2.22 apiece.

In all, M1's total cash distribution for last year will amount to $353 million, including an interim dividend of 5.8 cents a share paid out earlier.

Analysts had expected a big cash distribution from M1, whose shares continue to find favour among investors banking on good dividend returns, rather than capital gains.

But they were caught out this time around as many were predicting a total distribution of 20 cents a share, or $200 million in aggregate.

The experts were also surprised by M1's resilient performance after the telco's own predictions of flat earnings.

After a weak showing in the first nine months of the year, the telco sprung back to life in the final quarter, registering a 7.6 per cent rise in quarterly profit to $39.8 million.

The telco added 88,000 customers in the quarter and saw its market share inch up to 28.5 per cent, from 28.4 per cent at end-August.

It also lost fewer customers as the churn rate fell to 1.3 per cent, from 1.5 per cent in the third quarter.

Looking ahead, M1 said operations should remain stable but declined to give specific guidance for the top line and the bottom line.

Chief executive Neil Montefiore said he is first waiting to see if the rapid uptake of M1's mobile broadband service will be sustained into the first quarter of this year.

The telco has signed up 10,000 customers for the new service, launched last month.

M1 is expecting to spend between $70 million and $100 million on its network while it continues to pledge that it will pay out at least 80 per cent of its profits in dividends.

Earnings per share were 16.6 cents, up from 16.4 cents the previous year. Net asset value per share fell to 38.6 cents from 47.1 cents a year ago.

M1 shares rose three cents yesterday to close at $2.29.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Water woes for Jakarta as dry spell persists

JAKARTA - A PROLONGED dry spell in Jakarta is leaving the city authorities hard-pressed to maintain normal water supplies.

The city's water company PAM Jaya has turned on all 17 of its water pumps - it normally operates 11 - to maintain normal production.

Water tankers are also doing the rounds in areas where supplies have been disrupted for the past 10 days, said the company's top official, Mr Haryadi Priyohutomo.

And in a cruel twist, Indonesian scientists predicted this week that rains may arrive by the end of the month and trigger floods in the capital.

Dry weather has caused water levels to fall from 105m to below 85m in the Jatiluhur dam, an important source of water for Jakarta. Consequently, several parts of the Indonesian capital, mainly the northern, central and eastern areas, have been experiencing water shortages.

January is usually a rainy month and meteorologists had predicted higher-than-normal rainfall for this month. But they revised their forecast last week after temperatures in Jakarta and the outlying areas soared to 36 deg C.

The weathermen warned that a drought could hit the city, evoking memories of the severe droughts of 1997 that caused serious crop failures and major forest fires.

Currently, about one-fifth or 192,000 of the 720,000 customers of PAM Jaya and its two foreign partners face water supply disruptions. Although the company has turned on all its water pumps, it warned that shortages may be unavoidable.

Mr Haryadi said the company was planning to obtain more water from Cirata dam, which is located near Jatiluhur dam.

Water shortage has been compounded by the irrigation needs of farmland on the outskirts of the capital. Farms that lie between the Tarum Barat river and the Bekasi river are known to draw water from the Jatiluhur dam.

A resident at the housing estate of Kelapa Gading in North Jakarta told the Jakarta Post that the flow of water from her tap has been erratic for the past week.

'The tap water in my house doesn't flow well, especially between 6am and 8am,' said Ms Sarah, who pays 130,000 rupiah (S$22) a month to PAM Jaya.

Meanwhile, a team of scientists from the Bandung Institute of Technology said that average rainfall of 16mm an hour is expected at the end of the month.

But it would hardly be a blessing, they added. 'We are particularly worried about the ability of the soil to absorb run-off water. If the rain continues for more than two hours, a number of areas will be flooded,' said Mr The Houw Liong, one of the scientists.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

New hopes for India's gateway to S-E Asia

NEW DELHI - INSURGENCY and infrastructural bottlenecks have hampered the progress of India's north-east, described as the gateway to South-east Asia.

But analysts say that the region is changing with the insurgents losing their popular appeal.

India, taking a page from what China has done in Tibet, has been undertaking development projects, including road construction in far-flung frontiers.

Analysts say that if the trend is sustained, the region could hope to benefit soon from India's increasing engagement with South-east Asian nations.

An India-Asean car rally two years ago from Assam's capital Guwahati to Indonesia's Batam, traversing nine countries and 8,000km, had raised visions of highways and rail lines linking India's north-east with South-east Asia.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said while flagging off the car rally: 'Our north-eastern states are India's gateway to Asean. Our growing interaction with Asean is critical to fulfilling the promise of the 21st century being an Asian Century.

'We want our north-eastern states to be in the forefront of these interactions and to reap the benefits of enhanced peace and prosperity.'

But that has not happened, says Mr Sanjoy Hazarika, an expert on the region.

'The car rally was a one-off thing. There has to be a sustained effort to bring about trade and economic integration of the north-east with South-east Asia,' said Mr Hazarika, who is a director of the Centre of North East and Policy Research, a think-tank.

'We have had visits by experts from both sides to discuss follow-up measures but they remain to be translated into action,' he said.

Despite the problem of insurgency, brought into the spotlight within a few days of the New Year when 70 migrant workers were gunned down in Assam, the largest among the eight north-eastern states, the outlook for the region looks promising, analysts said. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which is campaigning for independence of Assam from India, like many other separatist outfits in the region, has been blamed for the carnage.

Mr Hazarika reflected the disillusionment of the people with the rebel groups when he said: 'The conflicts in the north-east, in terms of armed revolts, ethnic struggles or fights against the Indian state, no longer draw on the romanticism and idealism that sustained fighting groups and communities for decades.

'Dreams have degenerated into nightmares; the fighters have turned on each other and on the people in whose name they claim to speak. The entire network of cadres, recruits, informers and political leaders is based on extortion and extraction: extortion from business houses and petty traders, from professionals, contractors and politicians. Few are spared.'

The ULFA, Mr Hazarika says, is the clearest manifestation of this development.

Analysts said the growing number of people from the region migrating to other parts of India for educational and employment opportunities had also contributed to the erosion of the alienation they felt in the past and the separatist movements losing their popular appeal.

It was not surprising, therefore, that Prime Minister Singh, on a visit to Assam last Tuesday to meet the relatives of the victims of the bombings, questioned the ULFA's support base.

An official report had listed 24 active insurgent groups in the region and several dormant ones. The government has declared four states - Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh - as 'disturbed areas' and deployed troops to quell the groups.

Son molested by captor, say parents

THE parents of an American boy, who was held by a kidnapper for more than four years, say they believe their son was molested during the time he was missing.

The news came on Thursday, the same day the man suspected of kidnapping 15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck in 2002 pleaded not guilty to charges of capturing another boy on Jan 8.

Michael Devlin, a 41-year-old pizzeria manager, was accused of abducting 13-year-old Ben Ownby, who was found with Shawn.

Shawn disappeared at the age of 11 while riding his bicycle in St Louis, Missouri. Prosecutors say Devlin is also charged with kidnapping Shawn.

During an interview with Oprah Winfrey on a show aired on Thursday, Shawn's parents nodded when asked if they believed he was sexually abused.

His grandmother, Ms Anna Quinn, said Shawn told his family that at times during his captivity, he would be awakened every 45 minutes by his captor to deprive him of sleep.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Organ trading OK with checks and balances in place

I REFER to Mdm Lim Chiong Luan's comment ('Will this day come? 'O $ Pay $, No $ Sell Kidney''; ST, Jan 18) on Dr Lee Wei Ling's call to allow organ trading.

It is not easy to be objective when we are thinking about issues that evoke basic human emotions like love and fear. Mdm Lim is quite right to say that if we allow the sale of human organs in Singapore, the rich will buy and the poor will sell. That is the nature of demand and supply in a free market, so why are we suddenly so shocked and fearful that money can do quite a bit of magic? In fact, Singaporeans are already buying organs from outside Singapore because we can afford it and it is an option.

However, I do not think that's the spirit of Dr Lee's argument for legalising the sale of human organs in Singapore. Someone has to be objective. If a good person like Mdm Lim could point out the possible evil consequences of such a proposal, then I am infinitely grateful that there is another person such as Dr Lee, who's both objective and brave enough to point out the obvious good in such a proposal: It will save lives, and each life is precious.

I am sure that any competent government would have the ability to put in place checks and balances to prevent abuse and to stop the poor from being further disadvantaged, and implement them well enough for real benefits to be seen.

Jim Chow Wen Kah