Malaysia's Anwar suffers setback in sodomy trial

KUALA LUMPUR, June 25, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim suffered a blow in his sodomy trial Friday after he was denied access to statements by his accuser which he hoped would force the case to collapse.

Anwar, a former deputy premier who was sacked and jailed on separate sex and corruption counts a decade ago, is accused of illicit sex with 25-year-old Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan, who was an aide in his office.

His lawyers have applied for all statements that Saiful has made about the alleged incidents, but the bid was denied by High Court in May and the decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal Friday.

"This is a serious miscarriage of justice. My client will suffer serious injustice," Anwar's lawyer Sankara Nair told AFP.

"The statements would have shown clear contradictions (in Saiful's testimony)," he said, adding that they could see Saiful impeached and force the entire case to collapse.

The lawyer said the defence will appeal against the ruling.

Anwar has lost a series of legal manoeuvres, including efforts to get access to medical reports and clinical notes on his accuser and the defence has said this would hamper their cross-examination.

Anwar's sodomy trial, which began in February, has been punctuated by lengthy delays and is set to resume on July 14, for a session due to run until July 23, pending the appeal.

Saiful has accused Anwar, a 62-year-old father of six, of propositioning him for sex when he met him at a Kuala Lumpur apartment in June 2008.

Sodomy, even among consenting adults, is illegal in Malaysia -- a conservative Muslim-majority country. If convicted, Anwar could face up to 20 years imprisonment.

Anwar has said he is the victim of a plot to prevent him from taking power, after the opposition made huge strides in 2008 elections, stunning the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition which has been in power for half a century.

Swiss train vandal to be caned and jailed in Singapore

SINGAPORE, June 25, 2010 (AFP) - A Singaporean court sentenced a Swiss man to five months' jail and three strokes of a cane Friday for breaking into a metro depot and spray-painting a train, a punishment that could scar him for life.

Oliver Fricker, a 32-year-old expatriate winding up a posting in Singapore as a software consultant, had pleaded guilty to trespass and vandalism, which are considered serious offences in the city-state.

Fricker was sent immediately to jail but his lawyer Derek Kang said he intended to appeal the sentence, which comprises consecutive terms of three months for vandalism and two months for trespass.

"Obviously he thinks it's too high," Kang told journalists, adding that Fricker would make "full restitution" to the metro operator for the damage he caused.

A minimum three strokes of the cane is mandatory for vandalism, according to the written judgement.

The punishment entails being struck with a wooden stick on the back of the thigh below the buttocks, which can split the skin and leave lasting scars.

An Amnesty International researcher described caning as "barbaric" but Singaporean officials were indignant at the intrusion into the MRT subway system, which is classified as a potential terrorist target.

Judge See Kee Oon said in a written ruling that "the incident has reinforced the need for vigilance and adequate security measures," particularly in locations declared protected areas.

Fricker, who was arrested on May 25, eight days after the incident and two days before he was to leave for a new job in Switzerland, showed no emotion as he was led from the courtroom by policemen.

Lance Lattig, a London-based researcher with Amnesty International, said:   "Caning is tantamount to torture.

"It's a punishment that shouldn't be used for any crime," he told AFP.

"Singapore presents itself as a modern society, yet at the same time it is using this barbaric punishment which is completely contrary to standards held around the world."

Vandalism is punishable by up to three years in jail or a maximum fine of 2,000 Singapore dollars (1,440 US dollars), plus three to eight strokes of a cane, a penalty dating back to British colonial rule. For trespass in a protected area, Fricker faced up to two years in jail.

Prosecutors said Fricker and a British friend visiting Singapore broke into a subway depot and spray-painted two carriages before dawn on May 17 as part of a pre-meditated prank.

Singapore has launched an international hunt for the 29-year-old Briton, Lloyd Dane Alexander, who allegedly planned the act but left the city-state before he could be caught, leaving Fricker to face the consequences.

Prosecutors said the pair spray-painted the words "McKoy" and "Banos" -- the signature of train vandals whose elaborate works are celebrated in YouTube videos and websites that regard graffiti as an art form.

"These were not impulsive displays of youthful bravado. They were committed by a 32-year-old software consultant who was in Singapore ostensibly for employment purposes, with full consciousness that what he was doing was illegal," the judge said in his ruling.

But he noted that Fricker was a first-time offender who was unlikely to commit another crime.

"It is also clear that there is no evidence of any other sinister agenda."

Singapore, a close US ally in a predominantly Muslim region, says its MRT subway system is believed to be a target of Islamic extremists.

"There are security implications for this, that somebody was able to penetrate a depot unnoticed and then commit damage," John Harrison, a homeland security expert with Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said after Fricker's arrest was made public.

Singapore's vandalism laws first became global news in 1994 when an American teenager, Michael Fay, was caned for damaging cars and public property despite appeals for clemency from the US government.

Porn steps closer to .xxx web addresses

BRUSSELS, June 25, 2010 (AFP) - Porn moved tantalisingly close to being housed on dedicated .xxx web addresses on Friday, as Internet regulators admitted past mistakes and greenlighted an online revolution also extending to Chinese-script domain names.

The chairman of the global body that manages domain names, Peter Dengate Thrush, said that the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) "voted to begin contract negotiations" over the coming weeks.

The decision "does not mean that the .xxx application has been approved... it means we are returning to negotiations with the applicant."

ICM Registry, a company which registers domain names, applied for the .xxx domain in 2004 as a home for the adult entertainment industry, but saw its application rejected by ICANN in 2007.

Dengate Thrush said that the "board accepted" now that it had "got it wrong" after just two abstentions among its 15 voters.

The application was rejected on the grounds it did not meet requirements that the domain name was for "sponsored community" websites, not, he insisted, on any issues of public order or morality.

"We're not in the content business, that is up to governments and others," he said.
"We're about providing a safe arena," he said, adding that: "As long as they don't damage relations with the Internet, our job is done."

The decision to reject the original ICM application was overturned in February by an independent review panel.

ICM Registry's chairman, Stuart Lawley, told AFP after the ruling that he would now engage in "a couple of weeks of due diligence," checking up on technical and financial promises, then spend "another few weeks" negotiating the contract.

Once Lawley obtains the .xxx domain names, he will sell them at 60 dollars a time -- he says he has 112,000 buyers already pre-registered, almost exclusively existing Internet porn providers, and expects to sell "up to half a million" in total.

He predicted annual revenue of "30 million dollars a year."

Among conditions he says he will meet is a promise to "fund child protection initiatives," and ensure buyers "adhere to a published code of conduct with better filtering to police child access."

Although ICANN was not addressing these arguments directly, those who have opposed the move in the past, namely US authorities amid lobbying from conservative groups and church organisations, feared it will accelerate a rush to normalise porn usage.

Supporters of the .xxx domain name have argued that grouping the adult entertainment industry under a single banner will make it easier to police and market porn sites that conform to legal standards across different regulatory regimes.

The other main change voted through in Brussels was to give millions of Chinese language users Internet access using Chinese script.

"One fifth of the world speaks Chinese and that means we just increased the potential online accessibility for roughly a billion people," added Rod Beckstrom, ICANN chief executive officer.

Three new Chinese country code top-level domains for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan were agreed, and should be up and running "typically within a window of two-to-three months," he said.

Others "in the pipeline" include the Palestinian territories among a clutch of Arabic applicants, plus Singapore and Thailand.

A separate system for a new category of geographically-based domain names, including .scot for Scotland, which does not automatically obtain a United Nations classification despite heavy devolution from Britain, is due to be granted approval "by the end of the year," Dengate Thrush also told AFP afterwards.

A California-based non-profit corporation, ICANN manages the Domain Name System and Internet Protocol addresses that form the technical backbone of the web. It next meets in Colombia in December.


Caution in Taiwan as China trade pact sealed - Analysis

TAIPEI, June 25, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwan says a new trade deal with China is a "milestone" but analysts warn the pact is no economic panacea and will only give Beijing more political clout over the breakaway island.

The two sides have agreed on a list of industries that will benefit first from the deal, known as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which is due to be signed in China on Tuesday.

"It's a milestone in cross-strait economic exchanges and a big step forward but it's doesn't cover everything yet," said Taiwan's top negotiator Chiang Pin-kung.

The agreement is widely hailed as the most sweeping economic agreement between the two sides since they split after a civil war in 1949, and also a boost to Taiwan's Beijing-friendly president, Ma Ying-jeou.

"ECFA is a major accomplishment for Ma's government and it will transform Taiwan's economy in the long term," said Philip Hsu, a professor at National Taiwan University's Center for China Studies.

Ma argues that Taiwan's economic future lies in seizing upon the opportunities offered by the far larger hinterland of mainland China, with annual two-way trade now worth 87 billion dollars and growing fast.

But opponents argue that stronger competition from China will cost jobs and the accord will make the island more dependent on the mainland.

Taiwan and China have been governed separately since the civil war ended but Beijing considers the island part of its territory and has vowed to get it back, by force if necessary.

Taiwan's main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favours formal independence from the mainland, has vowed to rally 100,000 people on Saturday to protest against the pact.

"China is hoping that it can have more political influence by boosting Taiwan's economic reliance on the mainland, but the realisation of such hope hinges on a host of factors," Hsu said.

The deal will confer preferential tariffs on 539 Taiwanese products from petrochemicals and auto parts to machinery, representing 16 percent of the island's total export value to China.

A small number of products that at present receive an import tariff of five percent or less will get immediate relief, while for the rest the tariff will gradually fall to zero over the next two years.

About 267 Chinese items, or 10.5 percent of China's export value to Taiwan, will be placed on the "early harvest" list enjoying zero or falling tariffs.

President Ma's administration says the pact will create 260,000 jobs and boost economic growth by up to 1.7 percentage points.

The more cautious Chinese side has warned against expecting too much from ECFA.

"We have agreed to gradually reduce and remove trade and investment barriers ... so we can draw on each other's strength," Zheng Lizhong, the head of China's delegation, said after negotiators agreed the package on Thursday.

"However, it can't solve all the problems at once," he said.

The pact will ease restrictions on Taiwanese banks and insurance companies hoping to set up subsidiaries in China, in a step that could boost cross-strait financial integration.

It also will help the island's regional integration. Along with North Korea, Taiwan is the only Asian economy standing on the sidelines while the rest of the region has spun a web of free-trade agreements.

"It is urgent for Taiwan to sign ECFA so it won't be marginalised in the region and Taiwan can have a level playing field to compete with other countries in China," said Hsu of National Taiwan University.

However, economists said the immediate impact of ECFA on Taiwan's economy was likely to be limited.

"We believe Taiwan firms and businesses are unlikely to substantially increase capital expenditure immediately after the signing of the proposed bilateral trade pact," said Tony Phoo, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank.

China sets strongest yuan rate in years, ahead of G20

BEIJING, June 25, 2010 (AFP) - China's central bank set the strongest yuan exchange rate in years on Friday, as international pressure builds for a stronger currency ahead of the weekend Group of 20 summit in Canada.

The People's Bank of China said it set the central parity rate -- the centre point of the currency's allowed trading band -- at 6.7896 to the dollar, 0.3 percent stronger than Thursday's 6.8100.

That marks the strongest level since China freed the currency from an 11-year-old peg in July 2005 and moved to a tightly managed floating exchange rate.

On Friday, the yuan stayed around the central parity rate on China's main foreign exchange market, a Beijing-based forex trader told AFP.

"Today's trading is quite balanced -- there were no especially large buys and sales were not very heavy either," he said.

China has tweaked the rate up and down this week ahead of the G20 summit and has a history of letting the yuan strengthen slightly before sensitive events, apparently to defuse criticism that it keeps the currency too low.

Policymakers pledged last weekend to let the yuan trade more freely against the dollar but ruled out dramatic moves in the currency or a one-off appreciation.

In a vaguely worded statement, the central bank said the yuan would remain "basically stable" -- official code for keeping the currency on a tight leash.    

The action was widely seen as a bid to head off rancour at the G20 meeting following intense pressure on Beijing to embrace currency reform as part of efforts to enhance a global economic recovery.

US President Barack Obama said Thursday it was too early to determine the impact of China's limited currency reform although he viewed the move as "positive."

Speaking ahead of his meeting Saturday with Chinese leader Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Toronto, Obama maintained that the "undervalued" yuan provided China "with an unfair trade advantage."

Some experts say the yuan is undervalued against the dollar by up to 40 percent.
Traders have reported this week that Chinese state-owned banks were buying the dollar, thereby weakening the yuan.

They said it was an apparent attempt by authorities to show its critics that currency flexibility could cut both ways.

Unmoved by Beijing's action, US lawmakers have threatened to press ahead with legislation they said would treat "currency manipulation" as an illegal subsidy and enable US authorities to impose tariffs on Chinese goods.

On Thursday, China again warned against "protectionist" retaliation over its currency policy, saying an appreciation in the yuan would not solve the Chinese trade surplus with the United States, a source of tension between the two.

Analysts say China's yuan pledge does not presage the sort of significant revaluation that many are calling for, and they expect only a limited appreciation over the next 12 months, if any.

However, the currency's limited moves this week might be enough to deflect criticism at the G20, said Brian Jackson, a senior analyst at Royal Bank of Canada in Hong Kong.

"This is not a big move, but it is significant. President Hu can point to it as evidence that China is serious about making its currency more flexible when he meets other G20 leaders in Toronto," he said.

China had effectively pegged the yuan at about 6.8 to the dollar for the past two years to prop up exporters during the global financial crisis. Critics say the policy gives Chinese producers an unfair advantage.

Protests as Hong Kong adopts democratic reforms

HONG KONG, June 25, 2010 (AFP) - Hong Kong on Friday agreed a political shake-up that stops far short of universal suffrage for China's freewheeling financial hub, provoking cries of betrayal from pro-democracy hardliners.

Lawmakers voted to add 10 directly elected seats to the semi-autonomous territory's legislature in 2012, after a bitter split emerged between moderates and hardliners in the pro-democracy camp.

Scores of police officers surrounded the British colonial-era Legislative Council building behind layers of barricades, after vuvuzela-blaring pro-democracy activists tried to break through a cordon on Thursday.

Radicals condemned moderates in the Democratic Party, whose votes allowed the government's reforms to pass, claiming they had betrayed Hong Kong by giving up on a fight for one person, one vote by 2012.

"Today is the darkest day for the democratic development of Hong Kong," Albert Chan of the League of Social Democrats shouted in the chamber.

The League's leader Raymond Wong said history would "hold the Democratic Party accountable".

"The party no longer has a place in the pro-democracy camp. We are now on separate paths," he told reporters.

Several democracy campaigners who staged a sit-down protest on a main road in the central business district were carried away by police.

The creation of the 10 new seats was agreed a day after the legislature voted to enlarge the Beijing-backed election committee that chooses Hong Kong's chief executive, from 800 to 1,200 members in 2012.

The reforms will still leave the legislature dominated by pro-Beijing business elites, which are not subject to a popular vote, while the chief executive will remain reliant on backing from the central government.

The former British colony, which was returned to China in 1997, has a legal and administrative system independent of mainland China's but its constitutional development falls under Beijing's control.

Pro-democracy radicals have been growing increasingly militant in recent years, frustrated at what they see as the compliance of Hong Kong's government to the reluctance of communist Beijing to embrace faster change.

But Stephen Lam, secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, said lawmakers should be content with gradual change. That echoed the Democratic Party, which backed the reforms after a deal with Beijing.

"To arrive at where we are today is not easy," Lam told lawmakers, reminding them of their vote against a similar political reform plan introduced by the government in 2005, which triggered a constitutional crisis.

Only half of the current 60-seat legislature is popularly elected, with the rest picked by "functional constituencies" based on professions and mainly comprising pro-Beijing factions.

Observers believe the split in the democracy camp could usher in a new era of party politics for Hong Kong, with a major realignment of factions that could herald a more combative tone and possibly foment social unrest.

Any instability would be anathema to China's communist government, which says that at the earliest universal suffrage could be introduced to elect Hong Kong's chief executive in 2017 and for the legislature in 2020.

The Democratic Party -- the city's oldest opposition group -- urged the rest of the democracy camp to be patient.

"Time will tell that we are trustworthy and that we are truly dedicated to our common goal of obtaining universal suffrage for Hong Kong," party chairman Albert Ho told a news conference.

"It is indeed the case that the vast majority of our voters want to see some real progress, and do not want to stay mired in a pool of stagnant water. We cannot just talk about our ideals forever," he said.

Sino-Canadian ties of 'growing strategic importance': Hu

OTTAWA, June 24, 2010 (AFP) - Chinese President Hu Jintao kicked off a state visit to Canada on Thursday, dining with Queen Elizabeth II's representative and later meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

At a state luncheon hosted by Governor General Michaelle Jean, Hu emphasized the "growing strategic importance" of Sino-Canadian relations.

"China values its relations with Canada and sees in Canada an important partner of cooperation," he said, according to a Parliamentary Press Gallery pool report.

"China wishes to join Canada in a concerted effort to treat and develop our relations from a strategic and long-term perspective, strengthen our friendly exchanges, expand win-win cooperation and further advance our strategic partnership from a new starting point."

The Chinese leader had arrived Wednesday just hours after a 5.0-magnitude earthquake rattled Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. The temblor prompted evacuations of many downtown office buildings, shattered windows at Ottawa city hall and reportedly damaged stretches of road north of the capital.

On Thursday, Hu awoke to a ruckus outside his hotel as hundreds of rights activists protested for religious freedoms in China.

Jean also addressed the luncheon gathering, which included Canada's chief justice of the Supreme Court, central bank governor and trade minister, as well as US Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson.

Jean paid homage to China's efforts to emerge from the global economic crisis, saying: "Canada is impressed with China's remarkable ability to recover, thanks to the people of China's relentless work ethic and ingenuity."

Earlier, Jean said she looked forward to an upcoming trip to China and the "opportunity to continue the discussion with President Hu that I began here, and to strengthen the important, historical ties that unite our two countries."

Hu was accompanied by "one of the highest-level delegations ever to come to Canada," she noted. Hu brought with him four deputy premiers and five ministers.

Before his arrival, remarks by Canada's spy chief that foreign powers, such as Beijing, are heavily influencing some Canadian politicians caused a domestic uproar.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) director Richard Fadden said in an interview with public broadcaster CBC that municipal officials and cabinet ministers from two Canadian provinces were under the control of foreign governments, including Beijing.

Tung Chan, a former Vancouver city councilor and head of an immigrant services organization, said the remarks "cast shadows and cast doubts on the loyalty of a whole group of people, particularly those committed to serve the public."

"It's not helpful to what we're trying to do in creating multicultural harmony," he told CBC. He was echoed by several members of the Chinese-Canadian community, as well as provincial premiers and city mayors.

Later, Hu was to discuss with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper a range of issues of mutual interest and address opportunities to strengthen bilateral ties.

In the evening, both Hu and Harper will speak at a dinner.

On Saturday and Sunday Hu attends the Group of 20 summit of top industrial and emerging economies, where he is expected to address two major issues of international interest: China's policy shift on its currency, which many nations believe is undervalued, and Beijing's stance on North Korea.

A senior US official said Wednesday that President Barack Obama will hold talks with key Asian leaders, including Hu, on the sidelines of the summit.

YouTube video views hit record high in US

SAN FRANCISCO, June 24, 2010 (AFP) - Google-owned YouTube served up a record-high 14.6 billion online videos in May to US Internet users who, on average, watched nearly 200 videos per person, comScore said Thursday.

Approximately 183 million people in the United States tuned into nearly 34 billion online videos during the month, an average of 186 videos per person, according to the industry tracking firm's Video Metrix service.

Google websites, predominately YouTube, were the top online video venues, handling 43.1 percent of the viewings, comScore reported.

Hulu ranked second, serving up 1.2 billion videos, while Microsoft was third with 642 million viewings.

Hong Kong passes democratic reform package

HONG KONG, June 25, 2010 (AFP) - Hong Kong on Friday passed a package of democratic reforms that stops well short of a one person, one vote system for the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

Lawmakers voted in favour of the more contentious part of the package, which will see 10 directly-elected seats added to the legislature in 2012, after an unprecedented split between moderates and hardliners in the pro-democracy camp.

Radical democrats condemned moderates in the Democratic Party -- which held the swing vote on the reform -- claiming they had betrayed Hong Kong by giving up on their fight for universal suffrage in 2012.

"Today is the darkest day for the democratic development of Hong Kong," Albert Chan, lawmaker of the more radical League of Social Democrats, shouted in the legislature chambers after the passage was announced.

Scores of police officers surrounded the Legislative Council building behind layers of barricades, after some angry pro-democracy activists tried to break through the cordon on Thursday.

Stephen Lam, secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, told lawmakers the passage of the package was a big but difficult step for Hong Kong.

"To arrive at where we are today is not easy," he said.

In a U-turn on Monday, the government -- with the endorsement of Beijing -- said all 10 new seats that it proposes to add to the Legislative Council would be directly elected, a concession that won over the Democratic Party.

But the reforms will still leave the legislature dominated by pro-Beijing business elites, while the chief executive will remain reliant on backing from the central government.

Only half of the current 60-seat legislature is popularly elected, with the rest picked by "functional constituencies" based on professions and mainly comprising pro-Beijing factions.

On Thursday, the legislature voted for the first part of the reform plan to enlarge the chief executive's election committee from the current 800 to 1,200 members in 2012.

Singapore's factory output sees record rise in May

SINGAPORE, June 25, 2010 (AFP) - Singapore said Friday that manufacturing output surged a record 58.6 percent year on year in May as factories raced to meet robust foreign orders for electronics and pharmaceuticals.

Last month's factory production, which eclipsed the previous record high of 49.7 percent posted in April, was almost double the 32.1 percent forecast in a Dow Jones Newswires' poll of analysts.

The monthly data from the Economic Development Board (EDB) said factory production in May was boosted by electronics and biomedical which includes pharmaceuticals.

Electronics output rose an annual 51.8 percent while biomedical manufacturing expanded 117 percent with the main boost coming from a 121.8 percent jump in pharmaceuticals, the EDB said.

For the other sectors, chemicals surged 19.6 percent, precision engineering rose 40.5 percent and transport engineering increased 0.3 percent.

Overall manufacturing output was up 45.1 percent in the January-May period, the EDB said.

Economists said the latest data suggested the government may have to revise its 2010 growth targets of 7.0-9.0 percent amid signs the economy is recovering strongly from last year's slump.

"Another revision is on the cards despite the uncertainties in Europe and whether the US enters into a period of jobless recovery," said Song Seng Wun, a regional economist with CIMB equity research house.

"The lion (Singapore economy) is charging ahead... Nine percent will be an underachievement with the kind of numbers we have got," he told AFP.

Singapore's monthly factory data is a barometer of how its economy is doing as the bulk of output from the sector is shipped out either as final goods or as components to foreign factories.

The economy shrank 1.3 percent last year as exports declined sharply amid the global downturn, which hit Singapore's major markets, particularly the US, hard.

Swiss man admits vandalism, faces caning in Singapore

SINGAPORE, June 25, 2010 (AFP) - A Swiss expatriate pleaded guilty on Friday to vandalism and trespass after he was arrested for spray-painting a Singapore metro train, a crime which carries a sentence of caning and jail.

Oliver Fricker, 32, is to be sentenced later for the two crimes, which alarmed Singapore officials because he was able to break into a subway system that is believed to be a potential terrorist target.

Fricker, a business consultant, is out on a bail of 100,000 Singapore dollars (71,000 US) although his passport has been impounded after prosecutors argued there is a risk he may abscond.

His employer, Zurich-based Comit AG, which specialises in software for the financial industry, confirmed he had been suspended from work pending the outcome of the trial.

Fricker was about to return to Switzerland from his Singapore posting when he was arrested for the May 17 incident. A Briton who has left Singapore is also being sought as an alleged accomplice in the incident with the help of the global law-enforcement group Interpol.

Vandalism is punishable by up to three years in jail or a maximum fine of 2,000 Singapore dollars (1,440 US dollars), plus three to eight strokes of a wooden cane, a punishment dating from British colonial rule.

For trespassing into a protected area, Fricker faces two years in jail or a fine of 1,000 dollars, or both.

Singapore considers the intrusion a serious offence because its metro system is believed to be the target of Southeast Asian Islamic extremists, and the graffiti incident exposed security lapses.

Singapore's vandalism laws became global news in 1994 when an American teenager, Michael Fay, was caned for damaging cars and public property despite appeals for clemency from the US government.


Over 160,000 Android devices sold every day: Google CEO

NEW YORK, June 23, 2010 (AFP) - More than 160,000 mobile phones powered by Google's Android operating system are being sold every day, the Internet giant said Wednesday on the eve of the launch of the new iPhone from rival Apple.

Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, speaking to the CNBC television network at the unveiling of a new Android phone from Motorola, the "Droid X," said his company was engaged in a "battle over the next set of mobile platforms."

"Everybody is going to be on mobile devices all the time, every day, unless they're asleep," Schmidt said. "Everything is moving to mobile and we're participating in it.

"We have more than 160,000 of these things shipping globally every day," Schmdit said of Android-powered devices. "The momentum is phenomenal."

Just a month ago, at Google's annual shareholders meeting, Schmidt had said that at least 65,000 Android-powered phones were shipping every day, although he also warned at the time that the number may actually be far higher.

Google makes its Android software available to handset manufacturers and also sells its own smartphone, the Nexus One.

The spectacular sales figures cited by Schmidt would have Android handsets far surpassing those of Apple, which reported sales of 8.75 million iPhones last quarter.

According to industry research firm NPD, US sales of smartphones running Android actually surged past those of Apple in the first quarter of the year.

Android-powered smartphones accounted for 28 percent of US consumer sales compared with 21 percent for the iPhone, NPD said.

Canada's Research in Motion, maker of the popular Blackberry, retained the top spot with 36 percent of US smartphone sales in the quarter.

Apple has sold more than 50 million iPhones since launching the touchscreen smartphone in 2007.

The latest model iPhone, the iPhone 4, goes on sale on Thursday in Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the United States.

Deutsche Bank said it expects Apple to sell 44 million iPhones this year.

Angry US lawmakers target China currency

WASHINGTON, June 23, 2010 (AFP) - Unmoved by Beijing's pledge of limited currency reform, US lawmakers angrily accused China Wednesday of holding down its yuan to get an unfair edge in global trade and called for retaliation.

Democratic and Republican representatives pushed legislation they said would treat currency manipulation as an illegal subsidy and enable US authorities to impose tariffs on Chinese goods -- and let fly with bitter charges at Beijing.

"For decades, China has spied on us, shipped weapons to our enemies in the Middle East, stolen our patents, counterfeited American products," Republican Tim Murphy said behind a lectern with a small sign warning "CHINA CHEATS."

Murphy said policymakers in Beijing -- which pledged limited currency reform over the weekend -- undercut US goods by as much as 40 percent in price by keeping the yuan artificially low against the dollar.

Democratic Representative Tim Ryan said that, if China wants to be part of global trade, then "you've got to play by the same rules as everybody else, and right now they are not."

Amid deep voter anger at the sour US economy months before key November elections, Ryan warned in cataclysmic terms that the United States "will not have a middle class again" unless it tackles the currency issue.

Democratic Representative Betty Sutton described the struggle over China's currency as "a fight that has to be fought, and won, in the near term."

US lawmakers have unfurled a series of bills taking aim at China on a range of issues, from currency values, to intellectual property rights, to Beijing's preferential treatment for Chinese goods and services in government contracts.

In 2005, China made its currency slightly flexible and allowed the yuan to appreciate about 20 percent against the dollar.

But three years later, it began to effectively peg the yuan at 6.8 to the dollar to support its exporters reeling from the global financial crisis.

China has been accused of using its undervalued yuan to boost exports and help boost its foreign reserves, now at a massive 2.4 trillion dollars.


China expect to sign trade pact next week:

TAIPEI, June 23, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwan and China are expected to sign a major trade pact when their top envoys meet on the mainland next week, a source said Wednesday.

Taiwan's top negotiator Chiang Pin-kung will seal the deal with his Chinese counterpart Chen Yunlin in the city of Chongqing in southwest China from June 28 to 30, a well-placed source told AFP.

This will be the fifth meeting between the two since Taiwan's Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008 vowing to boost ties with China during his four-year term.

The two sides have been struggling to meet a June deadline for signing the pact, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, which will mainly cover a list of industries that will benefit from preferential tariffs.

Senior officials from both sides are expected to finalise the list when they meet on Thursday in Taipei for preparatory talks to ready the agreement for signing, said Maa Shaw-chang, a spokesman for Taiwan's semi-official Straits Exchange Foundation.

"Things are going on as planned following our previous negotiations," Maa said, dismissing criticism that the two sides are rushing into the deal.

Zheng Lizhong, vice president of China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, flew to the island on Wednesday to lead the Chinese side in the discussions set to start Thursday at 0100 GMT, the foundation said.

A media briefing is scheduled for 0830 GMT following the talks, it said.

The two sides use semi-official bodies to negotiate with each other in the absence of formal relations.

About 530 industrial items from Taiwan are expected to be allowed preferential tariffs as part of the deal, Taiwan's United Evening News said, citing unnamed sources.

The items will cover industries ranging from petrochemical and textiles to machinery and car parts worth some 13.6 billion US dollars, the report said.

Beijing meanwhile will demand about 270 Chinese items worth some three billion US dollars be placed on the early harvest list, it said.

Taiwan's Beijing-friendly government has been pushing for the pact, saying it will boost growth and employment.

But opponents argue that stronger competition from China will cost jobs and the accord will make the island more dependent on the mainland.

Taiwan's main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favours independence from the mainland, has vowed to rally 100,000 people on Saturday to protest against the pact.

"The government is doing whatever it can to meet the self-imposed deadline and we have to wonder why is it in such a hurry to sign the pact," asked DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen in a statement.

"We have to guess that this is a deadline set up for Ma's re-election. This is not a deadline approved by the public."

Tsai demanded that the government allow the public to decided whether to sign the pact via a referendum.

Taiwan and China have been governed separately since a civil war ended in 1949, but Beijing considers the island part of its territory and has vowed to get it back, by force if necessary.

China's Hu heads to G20 amid pressure over yuan, N.Korea

BEIJING, June 23, 2010 (AFP) - China's President Hu Jintao left Wednesday for the Group of 20 summit in Canada where he could face new pressure over Beijing's currency controls and world efforts to rein in ally North Korea.

Hu will pay a three-day state visit to Canada before attending the weekend G20 meeting in Toronto, accompanied by central bank head Zhou Xiaochuan, commerce minister Chen Deming and others, the foreign ministry said.

It will be his first international appearance since the central bank at the weekend pledged further reform of the yuan and also comes after a report in May blamed North Korea for the deadly sinking of a South Korean ship.

The People's Bank of China's announcement on the yuan Saturday fuelled expectations that Beijing would loosen its grip on the currency.

However, Beijing has doused hopes for a large revaluation sought by trading partners such as the United States, and Hu could face calls for a further commitment to free up the currency.

World leaders "are going to want more reassurance and more details on what China has in mind", said Patrick Chovanec, an economist at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

"They will want reassurances that this is a genuine commitment on China's part."

Critics, especially in the US, say China keeps the yuan undervalued as much as 40 percent to protect exporters, costing Americans jobs.

Members of Congress -- facing mid-term elections in November -- have threatened trade sanctions against China and have pushed for action at the G20.

However, China's foreign ministry warned Tuesday against bringing the yuan up at the G20.

Summit participants should avoid "playing the blame game and imposing pressure" over foreign exchange rates, ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

The yuan pledge initially was seen as reducing the chances of a G20 clash but China has already triggered renewed complaints by ruling out large swings in the currency or a one-off revaluation.

On Tuesday, Beijing slightly adjusted its tightly controlled yuan trading band to allow the currency to strengthen against the dollar, in the first concrete step to deliver on the flexibility promise.

But on Wednesday it went the other way, setting a weaker trading level.

China has also been under pressure to join efforts to punish North Korea after the rogue communist state was accused of torpedoing the South Korean warship in March, killing 46 seamen.

Seoul and Washington, citing a multinational probe last month that blamed the North, are seeking a UN resolution condemning Pyongyang.

China, however, has refused to denounce North Korea -- which Beijing helps sustain through trade, economic aid and diplomatic support -- issuing only mild calls for restraint and giving no indication it would support UN action.

Experts say China fears siding against Kim Jong-Il's government could destabilise it, potentially leading to regime collapse and a refugee crisis on its doorstep.

China's position "exposes the hypocrisy" of its calls for world peace and good-neighbourliness, security experts Bonnie Glaser and Brad Glosserman wrote in a recent analysis.

This position "will only encourage North Korean provocations and jeopardise the peace and security that China and other nations in Northeast Asia seek".

But China has shown it is not immune to foreign pressure, voting this month for new UN Security Council sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme.

Western nations suspect Tehran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, which it denies. China, Iran's key trade ally, had long resisted Western calls to back punishing Tehran, advocating negotiations instead.

Qin would not confirm whether a meeting with US President Barack Obama would take place at the G20 in which Obama could press his demands.

Hu, meanwhile, will likely meet Japan's new Prime Minister Naoto Kan and new British Prime Minister David Cameron for the first time.

Before the summit, Hu will meet Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Qin said.

Billions spent to protect world water: study

HANOI, June 23, 2010 (AFP) - Billions of dollars -- mainly from China -- are being poured into a fast-growing global system of rewards for people who protect endangered water resources, according to a study released Wednesday.

The programmes, implemented by governments as well as the private sector and community groups, "could help avert a looming global water quality crisis," according to the report by Ecosystem Marketplace, a project of US-based non-profit organisation Forest Trends.

It said the "emerging marketplace" of watershed payments and trading in pollution reduction credits was still dwarfed by the system of carbon trading aimed at limiting damaging greenhouse gases, but was expected to rise.

The study focused on two main instruments, Payments for Watershed Services (PWS), in which farmers and forest communities are compensated for maintaining water quality, and Water Quality Trading (WQT) where industry buys and sells pollution reduction "credits".

Transactions support a range of activities including adjusting land management practices, technical assistance, and improving water quality, according to the report funded by the United States and The Netherlands.

The report conservatively estimated the total transaction value of active PWS and WQT initiatives at 9.3 billion dollars worldwide in 2008.

This included about 7.8 billion dollars, all of it in PWS schemes, from China where the central government has called for development of "eco-compensation mechanisms".

Much of these Chinese payments -- which compare with a figure of just over one billion dollars in 2000 -- go to farmers to reduce their pollution around forested areas, the report added.

"The number and variety of PWS schemes in China have escalated in recent years, from around eight in 1999 to more than 47 in 2008... impacting some 290 million hectares (716 million acres)," it said.

"The picture in the rest of Asia is much less robust," it added.

In the United States, PWS payments doubled to 1.35 billion dollars in 2008 from 629 million dollars in 2002, said Ecosystem Marketplace.

After China, Latin America had the largest number of active PWS programmes in 2008, with 36, it said.

Water Quality Trading is found mostly in the United States, and accounted for less than 11 million dollars globally in 2008, it added.

Among the threats to global water supply are years of unchecked fertilizer runoff that have led to oxygen-starved "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico, the researchers said in a statement.

Asian gaming demand greater than five Las Vegases: US tycoon

SINGAPORE, June 23, 2010 (AFP) - Asians' love of gambling is so strong that the equivalent of five Las Vegases in the region will not be enough to satisfy demand, US gaming tycoon Sheldon Adelson said Wednesday.

The chairman of Las Vegas Sands said at a press conference at the company's massive Singapore casino complex, Marina Bay Sands, that the "propensity" to gamble was part of Asian culture.

"I believe we can put the equivalent of five plus Las Vegases, with 140,000 hotel rooms each in five different locations in Asia, and it still won't saturate the demand," he said.

Marina Bay Sands will primarily target customers from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, with an eye on other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam, Adelson added.

"In my opinion there's more than enough business for us to succeed within a two, two and a half hours' flight from here. I think there's more than enough business and that's not counting large volumes of people from China or Hong Kong."

Adelson was speaking at an event marking the opening of all the Marina Bay Sands 2,560 hotel rooms, plus shops, restaurants and exhibition facilities. The casino and part of the hotel started operating in April.

Marina Bay Sands chief executive officer Thomas Arasi said the casino had already attracted close to 500,000 people in June alone.

"We're very happy with where we're at," Arasi said.

Adelson said Sands expects to attract between 125,000 and 150,000 people a day when it is fully open, adding that the project would help dispel Singapore's lingering image as a staid place.

"It's going to change Singapore by providing entertainment amenities that were not here before," he said.

"This will be for the Asian people a very major attraction, and will change the conservative perception of what Singapore has in the night time."

On competition with Macau, where Las Vegas Sands also has a huge presence,  Adelson said it was still unclear if Singapore had stolen some business from the Chinese territory but stressed that they were aiming at different markets.

"Macau is serving Hong Kong, Taiwan and southeast China... They are two different markets and they appeal to two different constituencies."

Despite concerns over its social impact, Singapore gave the green light for casino gambling in 2005 in a bid to increase tourist arrivals and cash in on a growing trend in Asia.

The Singapore Tourism Board says visitor arrivals this year could range from 11.5 million to 12.5 million, compared to 9.7 million in 2009, thanks in part to the casinos and the economic recovery in the region.

The target is 17 million arrivals by 2015 -- more than three times the current population of Singapore.

Asia-Pacific millionaires worth more than Europeans: study

SINGAPORE, June 23, 2010 (AFP) - Asia-Pacific millionaires are collectively worth more than their European counterparts for the first time, with the rich in China and India leading the way, a study said Wednesday.

The report on high-net worth individuals (HNWIs) -- defined as anyone with investible assets of at least one million US dollars -- was issued by Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management and consultancy firm Capgemini.

The world's population of HNWIs returned to 10 million in 2009 after the global recession, with the largest concentrations still found in the United States, Japan and Germany.

"The Asia-Pacific HNWI population rose 25.8 percent overall to three million, catching up with Europe for the first time, after falling 14.2 percent in 2008," the World Wealth Report said.

They saw their total wealth grow nearly a third to 9.7 trillion dollars, more than erasing 2008 losses and surpassing the 9.5 trillion dollars held by their European counterparts, it added.

In 2009, eight of the 10 economies with the highest growth in HNWI population were from the Asia-Pacific region, led by Hong Kong where their numbers doubled as the stock exchange climbed 73.5 percent, the report said.

The other Asia-Pacific economies on the global top 10 list are India, Taiwan, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam, in that order.

Israel, the third highest gainer globally, and Norway, which was in ninth place, were the only countries outside the region on the top 10 growth list.

Ong Yeng Fang, a managing director at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, told reporters the number of millionaires in the Asia-Pacific region is likely to rise further as it leads the world in economic growth.

In a separate study by Forbes Magazine, China has passed India in having the most number of billionaires, but India remains home to the region's wealthiest individuals.

Ten of Asia's top 25 billionaires are from India, led by oil and gas tycoon Mukesh Ambani with an estimated wealth of 29 billion dollars and steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal with 28.7 billion dollars.

Hong Kong, led by business mogul Li Ka-shing, has five billionaires in the Forbes top 25 list -- the same number as Japan.

China has only one -- beverage king Zong Qinghou, who is worth seven billion dollars.

The World Wealth Report said the wealthy have nearly recouped the losses of 2008 and total assets are now approaching levels last seen in 2007, before a US housing crisis triggered the global recession.

"The rebound has been, and will continue to be, driven by emerging markets -- especially India and China, as well as Brazil," said Bertrand Lavayssiere, managing director for global financial services at Capgemini.

Following massive losses during the 2008-2009 crisis, the world's rich have become more cautious in their investments and are now more engaged in their financial affairs, the report said.

"However, their investment decisions are driven much more from emotional than intellectual factors," said Foong Lai Kun, Asia-Pacific director for financial services at Capgemini.

Many are also diversifying away from their home regions, with the Asia-Pacific becoming a key destination.

While the world's rich have regained their trust in advisers and wealth management firms, a "large majority" of them remain wary of financial regulatory bodies, the report added.

The world's rich also favoured luxury collectibles like private jets, cars and yachts as "passion investments."

This was followed by jewellery, gems and watches, art pieces and other items like coins, wine and antiques.

Buzz is back in Singapore convention and expo business

SINGAPORE, June 23, 2010 (AFP) - The buzz is back in Singapore's convention and exhibition industry as Asia-Pacific economies rebound and new casinos attract more visitors to one of the region's favourite meeting destinations.

From telecom and hotel trade shows to Christian prayer meetings and home-decor fairs, conference centres are enjoying robust demand from event organisers along with rising attendance numbers.

Convention centres have already sealed contracts for events in 2011 and 2012, with Singapore Expo, located close to Changi Airport, hosting a tenth of all business-related events.

"The big conventions and exhibitions sector is starting to bounce back," said its deputy general manager Chandran Nair. "A significant number of associations and organisations have stopped playing a wait-and-see game."

Singapore hosts some 6,000 business events annually, accounting for a quarter of such meetings held in Asia in 2008, according to official figures, but the global recession hit the industry in 2009.

In 2008, Singapore welcomed three million business travellers including convention participants, said Melissa Ow, assistant chief executive at the Singapore Tourism Board in charge of business travel and conventions.

The segment contributed six billion Singapore dollars (4.4 billion US) or about 40 percent of total tourism revenues in 2008, Ow said.

Total visitor arrivals including tourists and business travellers slipped 4.3 percent to 9.7 million in 2009, but the STB forecasts visitor arrivals for 2010 could range from 11.5 to 12.5 million.

The target is 17 million arrivals by 2015 -- more than three times the current population of Singapore.

The turnaround of the local economy despite lingering US weaknesses and the recent financial shocks in Europe is also boosting demand for meetings and display space at convention centres.

Economists expect Singapore's output to expand 9.0 percent in 2010 after contracting 1.3 percent last year, and the government has been pushing service industries to reduce dependence on manufacturing in the long term.

Chua Chor Hoon, the head of research for Southeast Asia at realty consultancy DTZ Debenham Tie Leung, told AFP that growing the convention industry is key to achieving the target.

"With the global economies recovering from last year's recession, the outlook for (the business meetings industry) in 2010 is good as companies are more willing to spend again," Chua said.

For conventioneers, Singapore offers a central location and extensive airline connections as well as a safe, business-friendly and English-speaking environment.

All convention centres are connected to the mass transit system, and many offer integrated hotel, entertainment and dining facilities, with accommodation generally cheaper than in Hong Kong, its arch rival.

"What is unique to Singapore is our user-centricity, which means that experiences are built around the visitor, with the visitor's needs and preferences in mind," said the tourism board's Ow.

The addition of two massive casino complexes earlier this year -- one on Sentosa island, the other right next to the banking district -- is another incentive to hold regional and world conferences in Singapore

Both properties began operations earlier this year and have already signed close to 200 events contracts each, according to company officials.

Malaysia to probe killing of tiger

KUALA LUMPUR, June 23, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysian wildlife authorities said Wednesday they are investigating the killing of a three-year-old tiger as the country battles to double the population of the endangered species.

The tiger was killed in northern Perak state Tuesday after a villager claimed it attacked his poultry and asked a member of the government's volunteer force to shoot the animal, The Star newspaper reported.

The killing comes as Malaysia tries to double its tiger population to 1,000 by 2020. There are only 500 wild tigers left in peninsula Malaysia, a sharp decline from an estimated 3,000 in the 1950s.

"We have lodged a police report. The man should have informed us and let us set up a trap to capture the tiger alive," said Shabrina Shariff, state wildlife department director.

"We don't want to kill our tigers, we are supposed to preserve and conserve them," she told AFP, adding the department is carrying out its own probe and will prosecute if the investigation shows any wrongdoing.

In February, a tiger that injured a tribesman in the same state was found dead with gunshot, spear and snare wounds.

Under Malaysian law, poachers face up to five years in jail. Tiger skins and body parts are in demand across Asia where they are used in traditional medicines.

Google Voice telecom service opens to all in US

SAN FRANCISCO, June 22, 2010 (AFP) - Internet giant Google has opened its Google Voice telecommunications service to anyone in the United States interested in using a single telephone number for all of their phones.

Google Voice reportedly attracted more than a million users during an invitation-only test phase and Google was bracing for a flood of interest on Tuesday as it made the service public.

"Today, after lots of testing and tweaking, we're excited to open up Google Voice to the public, no invitation required," product managers Craig Walker and Vincent Paquet said in a joint blog post.

"We're proud of the progress we've made with Google Voice over the last few years, and we're still just scratching the surface of what's possible when you combine your regular phone service with the latest Web technology."

Along with letting users have one phone number that rings at all of their telephones, the service converts voice mail or text messages into email and allows for toll-free calls to the United States and Canada.

In an online video describing Voice, Google promised "less annoyances and more awesomeness -- for free." Voice threatens to challenge global Internet telephony star Skype.

People in the United States can sign up for the service online at google.com/voice.
Google promises that the service works "no matter what kind of phone you have or which carrier you use."

Apple iPad sales hit three million

SAN FRANCISCO, June 22, 2010 (AFP) - Three million iPads have been sold in the 80 days since the touchscreen tablet computer hit stores in the United States, Apple said Tuesday.

"People are loving iPad as it becomes a part of their daily lives," Apple chief executive Steve Jobs said in a statement.

The iPad went on sale in the United States on April 3 and in Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain and Switzerland at the end of May.

"We're working hard to get this magical product into the hands of even more people around the world, including those in nine more countries next month," Jobs said.

Apple said it sold its three millionth iPad on Monday.

Sex education debate heats up in Philippines

MANILA, June 21, 2010 (AFP) - A new sex education campaign in Philippine schools has sparked widespread debate in Asia's bedrock of Catholicism, where the high birth rate is blamed for desperate poverty.

The United Nations-backed programme, which is being piloted this month in primary and high schools, aims to promote safe sex, limit the spread of HIV-AIDS and prevent unwanted pregnancies.

However, the Catholic Church and powerful conservative crusaders have struck back with a high-profile campaign to shut down the project, saying it breaks the nation's religion-based moral codes.

"Sex education in schools is not the answer to our population problem and poverty," Eric Manalang, head of the conservative political party Ang Kapatiran (The Brotherhood), told AFP on Monday.

"It promotes promiscuity among children... it does not promote the proper values that we want our children to receive in schools and we believe sex education should strictly remain a family affair."

Manalang said his party and church had filed a petition in court on Monday requesting an injunction to stop the programme.

He said the chances of the legal bid succeeding were high with the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, as well as various parent groups, supporting the fight.

Their legal bid claims the programme impinges on parents' constitutional right to educate their children based on their religious beliefs.

"Issues that are not for children should not be taught in schools," the bishops' conference said in a statement.

While Ang Kapatiran is only a small political party, conservative religious forces led by the Church hold a lot of sway in the Philippines, where more than 80 percent of the nation's 90-million people are Catholic.

The bishops last year succeeded in blocking a proposed law in parliament that would have made it easier for the public to access state-funded contraceptives.

Nevertheless, the education department has so far held firm.

It says the programme is aimed at curbing a population growth rate of over two percent, among the highest in Asia, and does not promote out-of-marriage sex.

The scheme covers topics such as reproductive systems and cycles, hygiene, pre-marital sex, teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, according to the education department.

Education Secretary Mona Valisno said the teaching modules were designed by professionals, including psychologists, who made sure the discussions would be educational.

"Sex education will be integrated in other subjects such as science and they are designed to be scientific and informative," she said.

"They are not designed to titillate prurient interests."

The United Nations has become embroiled in the controversy because it partly funded the project, and issued a statement last week rejecting the Church's position.

Manalang hit out at the United Nations Population Fund, the body involved in the project, saying it was interfering with internal Philippine issues.

But the fund's Philippine director, Suneeta Mukherjee, said opponents of the programme had nothing to fear.

"We are not encouraging people, or children, to have sexual relationships, we are only helping students handle their sexuality as part of the process of growing up," Mukherjee told AFP.

"Children at this age are very sensitive and must be taught by people in authority."

She pointed out that HIV was on the rise among young Filipinos, and many of the nation's poor -- a third of the population lives on less than a dollar a day -- did not have access to sound education on sexual matters.

"We just want the children to make responsible decisions," Mukherjee said.

Indonesian rock star surrenders over web sex clips

JAKARTA, June 22, 2010 (AFP) - An Indonesian rock star surrendered to police Tuesday over celebrity sex videos that appeared online, as Islamist protestors demanded he be stoned to death in a backlash against Internet freedoms.

Singer Nazril Ariel, 28, has been at the centre of the "Peterporn" scandal, named after his band Peterpan, since the two grainy but explicit videos went viral on Indonesian websites earlier this month.

"Ariel surrendered today at 3:00 am (2000 GMT Monday) after police named him a suspect for breaching the anti-pornography law. If he hadn't surrendered we would have arrested him," police deputy spokesman Zainuri Lubis said.

Indonesia's first celebrity sex video scandal has exposed the widening gulf between traditional -- often Islamic -- values and modern Internet-driven youth culture in the Southeast Asian archipelago.

As the videos continued to circulate online, hundreds of radical Islamists rallied in Jakarta to demand adulterers be put to death by stoning.

As a divorcee, Ariel should be stoned along with married television celebrity Cut Tari, 32, who allegedly appears with him in one of the X-rated videos, an Islamist spokesman said.

"Those people who have sex before marriage should be caned with a stick 100 times in public. Adulterers should be half-buried and stoned to death," said protest coordinator Fadilah Karimah, a 32-year-old woman.

"The more people who see it the better."

The other video appears to show Ariel having sex with his current girlfriend Luna Maya, 26.

The celebrities deny uploading the clips but could still face up to 12 years in jail for breaches of the country's 2008 anti-pornography law. Tari and Ariel could also face up to nine months in prison for adultery.

Calls for Taliban-style sharia law have little traction in mainly moderate Indonesia, but President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said the videos underline the need for tougher controls on the Internet.

"We have increasingly realised that our nation should not stay naked and be crushed by the information technology frenzy, because there will be many victims," he told reporters on Friday.

Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring, from a conservative Islamic party, has jumped on the scandal to revive his project -- shelved due to broad opposition earlier this year -- to filter the Internet for "negative" content.

Sembiring has promised to issue a ministerial decree by the end of the year to "save the young" from Internet porn, despite concerns it will trample on civil liberties and encourage Islamist vigilantism.

The minister was forced to issue an apology on social networking websites after linking the scandal to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in comments to reporters last week.

He also linked pornography to HIV-AIDS and said funding to fight the disease was a waste of money.

The country's blogosphere has lit up over the Peterporn debate, with some backing tighter controls on pornographic content on the Internet and others expressing support for the celebrities.

A "Support Ariel" feed on micro-blogging site Twitter included this comment from a fan: "The police are always champions when it comes to arresting people in cases like this. Try getting them to arrest corruptors..."

IT researcher and free-speech advocate Donny Budi Utoyo said plans to filter the Internet for porn were doomed to backfire.

"Internet filtering is not effective and has the potential to be misused by people to stifle freedom of expression in the new media," he said.

Indonesia has about 40 million Internet users out of a total population of 240 million, according to official figures.


Malaysia's Proton keen to manufacture cars in India

KUALA LUMPUR, June 22, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysian carmaker Proton said Tuesday it was in talks with an Indian automaker to manufacture Proton cars in a bid to break into the sub-continent's booming small-car market.

Proton also said it will partner Lotus, the UK high-end sports and racing car maker, to manufacture a small, five-door car for Asia and the Middle East.

Proton managing director Syed Zainal Abidin Syed Mohamad Tahir told reporters: "India is a very important market. Yes, we are talking to one party. I can't tell you who they are.

"Yes, we are looking for an Indian partner to manufacture Proton cars," he added.

Syed Zainal said Proton will colloborate with Lotus, which it owns, to manufacture a new "small car," powered by a 1.0- to 1.5-litre engine.

"Hopefully we can produce the car in less than two years. It will be hybrid and combustion models," he said.

Syed Zainal denied reports in India's media that Proton was in talks with India's Mahindra & Mahindra about a possible joint venture.

"There was a discussion with Mahindra & Mahindra several years ago," he said.
Proton previously sought to form a pact with Volkswagen but Europe's biggest automaker scrapped talks about an alliance.

Proton has been searching for a collaborator in a bid to penetrate foreign markets and develop attractive models to compete with growing competition from Japanese, European and Korean carmakers in its domestic market.

Proton was formed in 1983 by then-premier Mahathir Mohamad as part of an ambitious national industrialisation plan. But it has suffered from a reputation for unimaginative models and poor quality.

Proton's net profit for the three months to the end of March stood at 22.8 million ringgit (6.87 million dollars), compared with a loss of 323 million ringgit in the same period a year ago.

Taiwan politician pays fine for pushing Chinese envoy

TAIPEI, June 22, 2010 (AFP) - A Taiwanese politician was fined 122,000 Taiwan dollars (3,812 US) Tuesday after he was convicted of pushing a Chinese envoy to the ground in an incident that irked Beijing, court officials said.

Wang Ting-yu, a city councillor from the southern Tainan city, was convicted in September last year and sentenced to a four-month jail term for assaulting in 2008 the Chinese official Zhang Mingqing.

Wang had pleaded not guilty but his appeal was rejected by the High Court last month. Yet he was allowed, as an alternative to jail, to pay a fine of 1,000 Taiwan dollars daily for four months.

He paid the fine Tuesday to close the case.

The incident happened when Zhang, an official of China's quasi-official Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, was visiting Tainan, a stronghold of the anti-China opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to which Wang is affiliated.

The incident was caught on camera and triggered fury in Beijing, with the Chinese government calling for "severe punishment" for those found guilty.

The incident came at a time when Taiwan, under the leadership of Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou, is seeking to improve relations with China.

In the absence of official contacts between the two sides, Zhang's semi-official association is authorised by Beijing to handle civilian exchanges with Taiwan.

China and Taiwan split in 1949 following a civil war, but Beijing regards the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

Malaysia and Singapore to finalise land deal in September

KUALA LUMPUR, June 22, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysia and Singapore said Tuesday they expect to agree a land swap deal in the next three months to resolve a decades-old territorial problem.

Visiting Singapore Premier Lee Hsien Loong said both countries would finalise the deal as part of an agreement to relocate a railway station from downtown Singapore to the border with Malaysia by 2011.

"We look forward to settling the matter in three months, it's something we want to clear expeditiously," he told reporters.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said his country was looking to resolve the long-standing dispute quickly and that he would be going down to Singapore for a "final resolution" on the issue.

Singapore was ejected from the Malaysian federation in 1965, but Malaysia still occupies railway land in Singapore leading to Malaysian territory, including the station on the fringes of Singapore's banking district.

Under the latest plan, Malaysia's state railway -- KTM -- will move its Singapore terminal to an industrial zone just across a narrow strait from southern Malaysia's Johore state by July 1, 2011.

Last month, the two leaders announced plans to jointly redevelop the railway's valuable real estate in the city-state, and Lee's visit to Kuala Lumpur Tuesday was to provide a proposal for swapping the railway land for other choice parcels.

"The overall concept is to swap the three plus three pieces of the (Malaysian railway) land with parcels of land in Marina South and or (the) Ophir-Rochor (area)," Lee added.

A company to be known as M-S Pte Ltd will be set up to take ownership of the vacated area, with 60 percent of the equity held by Malaysian investment agency Khazanah Nasional Berhad and 40 percent by Singapore's Temasek Holdings.

Toyota's China production hit again by labour unrest: report

SHANGHAI, June 22, 2010 (AFP) - Japanese car giant Toyota said it had halted production at an assembly plant in southern China Tuesday due to a strike affecting an affiliated auto parts manufacturer, Dow Jones Newswires reported.

The walkout at Denso (Guangzhou Nansha), a unit of Toyota-affiliated parts maker Denso Corp, is the latest in a spate of labour disputes to hit foreign companies in China, highlighting discontent among millions of workers.

It has forced Toyota to idle two assembly lines at its plant in the city of Guangzhou due to a shortage of fuel-injectors and other components, said the report, which cited Beijing-based Toyota spokesman Hitoshi Yokoyama.

The suspension comes just days after operations resumed at assembly lines of Tianjin FAW Toyota in the northern city of Tianjin.

Production had been stopped there briefly due to a three-day walkout at a plant run by Toyota-affiliated Tianjin Toyoda Gosei.

Denso (Guangzhou Nansha) in Guangdong province, China's manufacturing hub, also supplies parts to Toyota's rival Honda Motor Co and other carmakers, according to Dow Jones.

China-based spokesmen at Toyota and Guangqi Toyota, its Guangzhou-based joint venture with a Chinese partner, either declined to comment or were unavailable when contacted by AFP.

A Beijing-based Honda spokeswoman told AFP that the company's car production in China "is not affected by the incident at the moment."

Honda had been hit earlier by recent strikes that have put a spotlight on complaints about low pay and long hours for the masses of migrant workers who have fuelled the Chinese manufacturing and export miracle.

Honda offered a 24 percent pay rise to staff at its main parts factory to end a strike, while employees at a plant making locks and key sets agreed to go back to work last week as negotiations on wages continues.

Toyota also has assembly plants jointly run with Chinese partners in Sichuan province in the southwest.

Taiwan, China to meet Thursday on trade pact

TAIPEI, June 22, 2010 (AFP) - Senior officials from Taiwan and China will hold talks Thursday in Taipei, as the two sides struggle to meet a self-imposed June deadline for signing a proposed trade pact, officials said.

Zheng Lizhong, vice president of China's quasi-official Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, will arrive on the island Wednesday, a staff member at Taiwan's equally semi-official Strait Exchange Foundation said.

Zheng and his Taiwanese counterpart, Kao Koong-lian, will centre their discussions on the proposed trade pact, known as Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, as well as the protection of intellectual property rights.

The two sides use semi-official bodies to negotiate with each other in the absence of formal relations.

Although negotiators from Taiwan and China said they had made "substantial progress" on the trade pact during a third round of negotiations held in Beijing last week, the agreement is still stuck on some items.

But officials say they hope the trade pact would be signed when top envoys of the two sides -- Chiang Pin-kung from Taiwan and Chen Yunlin from China -- meet before the end of this month.

Taiwan's Beijing-friendly government, which says the deal will boost growth and employment, has been pushing to sign the agreement by late June.

The pact is controversial as opponents of the pact in Taiwan say stronger competition from China will cost jobs and the accord will make the island more dependent on the mainland.

The island's major opposition Democratic Progressive Party has planned a mass rally on Saturday to protest against the trade pact, which it says will weaken the island.

Taiwan and China have been governed separately since a civil war ended in 1949, but Beijing considers the island part of its territory and has vowed to get it back, by force if necessary.

China to expand yuan cross-border trade trial

BEIJING, June 22, 2010 (AFP) - China's central bank said Tuesday it would expand a trial programme on yuan-denominated cross-border trade to encompass 20 cities and provinces and cover trade with any country.

The statement from the People's Bank of China marks the latest step towards making the Chinese unit an international currency and follows a weekend pledge by policymakers to make the yuan more flexible.

The trial is designed to increase use of the currency in international transactions and possibly make it fully convertible one day.

Previously the trial was restricted to 365 firms in Shanghai and four cities in the southern province of Guangdong that were allowed to use the yuan to settle transactions with the Chinese territories of Hong Kong, Macau and countries in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The central bank said the programme would expand to cities including Beijing and Tianjin and to several provinces such as Sichuan in the southwest and Zhejiang in the east.

It was not clear from the statement when the expansion would start or how many companies would be involved.

The central bank had said previously it would eventually expand the trial to cover the entire country.

The move comes after the central bank pledged to increase the "flexibility" of the yuan against the dollar, which analysts saw as sign Beijing may be ready to scrap the dollar peg and let the currency appreciate.

China's quake mothers torn between grief and joy - Feature

SHIHUA, June 22, 2010 (AFP) - Shattered by the death of her daughter in China's 2008 Sichuan earthquake, it took Ren Yunhui six months to even think about having another child, but she is now the proud mother of a baby girl.

"I'm slowly recovering from the pain, but you can't recover all at once," said Ren, 38, one of thousands of women who have conceived again after they lost their only children in the devastating 8.0-magnitude quake.

"I will never be able to forget the first child. I think of her all the time," she added as she bathed nine-month-old Wang Renyue in her flat in remote Shihua village in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

Her daughter Wang Mengyao, 14, was one of more than 5,300 children who died when their shoddily-built schools crumbled in the May 2008 quake that left nearly 87,000 people dead or missing and thousands of parents childless.

Since then, a government programme that includes artificial insemination and free medical treatment has seen more than 3,100 women impregnated and 2,000 babies born to mothers who had lost children in the quake.

The sheer number of children who died is a source of controversy in China, with activists jailed for raising the issue of poor school construction and some angry mothers put under surveillance by authorities who fear unrest.

But Ren and other mothers in the village who lost children are focused on coping with a tragedy made all the more poignant in China, where population control policies limit most families to one child.

Authorities relaxed that policy for parents who lost children in the quake or whose kids were disabled, leading to thousands of natural and medically-assisted pregnancies.

But the new bundles of joy can stir up bittersweet feelings, said Xu Rong, project director for Rural Women, an NGO that provides post-quake counselling to stricken residents.

She said even those mothers who have managed to conceive again are haunted by the spectre of their lost child.

"At times, when the women are pregnant, they won't dare go to the tomb of the child they lost, as they're scared that the sorrow will make them miscarry," she says.

Some new mothers carry feelings of guilt towards their lost child and Xu fears the second-borns may bear an extra burden of shouldering the hopes and demands of parents.

"It's easy to compare the existing child to their lost brother or sister... The second-born can think that parents don't consider them as good, and some might not be willing to stay with their parents (as a result)."

But those are problems that someone like Jia Yiqin would love to have.

She has been unable to conceive, and the joy of other mothers serves only as a reminder of her own inability to replace her lost daughter.

"People need their own child for their whole lives," the 38-year-old whispers, her voice frail and quivering as she sits sewing in her bare living room in Shihua.

The pain is etched onto her face as she stares with sad eyes at a picture of her daughter kneeling with her classmates, taken two years before their school collapsed.

Despite the lingering grief, most mothers are desperate to conceive again in a country where the elderly rely on their offspring to support them in old age.

"Chinese people are quite realistic. For them, no matter how much they miss their kid, they still want a new one," Xu said.

Yet even for Ren, the arrival of her baby -- whose chubby, smiley face reminds her of her first child -- has still not erased the shock of the day when the ground shook, taking away 43 children in Shihua village alone.

"I just ran to the school, and saw it had collapsed. There were a dozen lucky ones -- those children who skipped class didn't die, but those studying were killed," she said.

"Having raised her for so long, it's tough, I miss her."

Taiwan, China in largest ever joint police operation

TAIPEI, June 22, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwan and China have arrested a total of 122 people on charges of phone fraud in the largest ever joint police operation carried out by the two sides, law enforcers on the island said.

The two sides together mobilised more than 1,000 officers for raids launched simultaneously against a number of criminal groups in Taiwan and China Monday, Taiwan's Criminal Investigation Bureau said in a statement.

"The joint operation has set a new example for the two sides' efforts to crack down on crimes," the bureau said, adding Taiwan police arrested 66 suspects from various gangs, while their Chinese counterparts rounded up 56.

The arrest of the suspects came as greater interaction between Taiwan and China has also made illegal cooperation across the Taiwan Strait easier.

According to the statement, criminals in Taiwan call people in China and trick their victims into revealing their ID and bank account numbers, which they then use to empty the accounts.

Similarly, Chinese criminals target people in Taiwan, thinking the fraud is harder to detect than if they made domestic calls.

The bureau said criminal groups managed to con more than 1,300 people out of at least 1.5 billion Taiwan dollars (47 million US dollars).

Taiwan and China, which split in 1949 after a civil war, signed a joint crime-fighting and judicial assistance agreement last year amid improving ties.

Beijing still sees the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

China takes first step to honour yuan pledge

BEIJING, June 22, 2010 (AFP) - China took the first step Tuesday towards honouring a vow to let its currency float more freely, as US complaints that Beijing is stealing an unfair trade edge intensify heading into a G20 summit.

But analysts warned that China would still prevent any large appreciation in the yuan that might curb the ferocious growth of its export-led economy, despite US calls for a hefty revaluation.

The People's Bank of China set the central parity rate -- the centre point of the currency's official trading band -- at 6.7980 to the dollar, 0.43 percent stronger than Monday's rate of 6.8275.

The central bank vowed at the weekend to make the yuan more flexible but ruled out any sharp fluctuations in the currency or a one-off adjustment.

The move was widely seen as a bid to head off rancour at this weekend's Group of 20 summit in Canada, amid mounting accusations abroad that China's currency controls give its exporters an undeserved competitive advantage.

"China has backed up all the talk with action," said Brian Jackson, a senior analyst at Royal Bank of Canada in Hong Kong.

"President Hu (Jintao) will arrive in Toronto later with tangible evidence that China is serious about increasing the flexibility of its exchange rate."

But in the coming months there would only be "limited" gains against the dollar, Jackson added.

In early trading on Tuesday, the yuan strengthened to 6.7968 on China's main foreign exchange market before weakening to 6.8200 on domestic demand for the dollar, Dow Jones Newswires said.

Traders said several Chinese banks were buying the greenback, amid speculation the central bank could be encouraging dollar purchases to reinforce the perception that a more flexible system cuts both ways.

"We saw buying from Chinese banks, mainly mid-sized ones," said a Shanghai-based forex trader.

The 6.7968 level was the yuan's strongest since policymakers unpegged the currency from the dollar in mid-2005 and moved to a managed floating exchange rate.

But Tuesday's level was still within Beijing's tight trading band and analysts said China's pledge did not presage a major revaluation.
The new trading band signalled that the government was making good on its promise for greater flexibility, said Mitul Kotecha, head of global forex strategy at Credit Agricole in Hong Kong.

"It was a further reflection of the reform of the yuan, the change and the depegging announced at the weekend," said Kotecha.

"We think we are going to see some further appreciation, but we are not looking for any aggressive move by the end of this year."

Policymakers revalued the yuan in July 2005 before reimposing a de facto peg at about 6.8 to the dollar three years later during the financial crisis to protect exporters, which have been the backbone of China's economic boom.

Critics, not least in the US Congress, say that has left the yuan undervalued by as much as 40 percent and has cost US jobs.

Prior to making its weekend promise of reform, Beijing had insisted that the currency's rate was not up for discussion at the G20, when presidents Hu Jintao and Barack Obama will meet other world leaders.

The currency issue has been a constant strain on US-China ties, with members of Congress -- facing mid-term elections in November -- threatening trade sanctions on China and pushing for action at the G20.

Senior Democratic Senator Charles Schumer on Sunday expressed disappointment at China's rejection of big fluctuations in the yuan and said US lawmakers would press ahead with plans to introduce retaliatory legislation.

Hong Kong political reform likely to go ahead

HONG KONG, June 22, 2010 (AFP) - The Hong Kong government's plan to introduce limited political reforms appeared Tuesday almost certain to be approved after it won the support of a group of pro-democracy lawmakers.

The Democratic Party, which holds the swing vote on the issue and is the city's largest opposition party, agreed to endorse the reform package, which will raise the number of directly elected officials in the city's legislature.

The former British colony, which was returned to China in 1997, has a legal and administrative system independent of mainland China's but its constitutional development falls under Beijing's control.

Only half of the current 60-seat legislature are directly elected, with the remainder picked by "functional constituencies" based on professions and mainly comprising pro-Beijing elites.

The government's reform plan is due to be put to the vote on Wednesday. It had floundered after pro-democracy legislators threatened to kill a version rolled out earlier this year.

On Tuesday the Democratic Party's chairman, Albert Ho, said the majority of its members had now agreed that their nine lawmakers should support the revised plan, which incorporates modifications put forward by the party.

"We understand there will be different opinions on our decision. We will shoulder the responsibility for our decision," Ho told reporters.

The party and some critics consider the latest development a breakthrough, opening for the first time a channel of communication between Beijing and the city's democrats, many of whom are banned from travelling to mainland China.

However, the latest blueprint has deeply divided the pro-democracy camp, with the hardliners vowing to block it.

Martin Lee, the city's democracy figurehead, has warned he may quit the Democratic Party, which he helped found, in protest at the compromise.

Andrew Cheng, one of the party's nine lawmakers, said he had decided to vote against the proposal and would also consider quitting the party.

The League of Social Democrats, a more radical pro-democracy faction, accused the Democratic Party of betraying Hong Kong's democratic progress for political interests and said they would end their cooperation with the group.

"They have betrayed democracy by striking under-table deals with Beijing," maverick lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung told AFP.

Critics argue that the latest plan does nothing to clarify how and when Hong Kong will achieve universal suffrage, a process dictated largely by Beijing.

Under the original plan, the government proposed expanding the number of seats in the legislature to 70, with the new seats equally divided between directly elected and functional constituency seats.

However, the Democratic Party proposed that the five new functional constituency seats also be directly elected by 3.2 million eligible voters, who currently do not pick any functional constituency lawmakers.

Beijing has said that, at the earliest, universal suffrage can be ushered in for the election of Hong Kong's chief executive in 2017 and for the legislative assembly in 2020.

The city's leader is chosen by an electoral body whose members are handpicked by Beijing.

Malaysia Airlines mulls cancelling A380 orders over delays

KUALA LUMPUR, June 21, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysia Airlines on Monday indicated it may cancel an order for six A380 superjumbos from Airbus over the European aircraft maker's long delays which it said were hurting route expansion plans.

The carrier in April said Airbus had pushed back the delivery of its first A380 superjumbos for the second time.

"We do not rule out anything," managing director and chief executive Azmil Zahruddin was quoted as saying by state news agency Bernama when asked if it may cancel the order.

The airline has plans to dispose some aircraft before the arrival of the A380s, "and it is frustrating to plan with the delays by Airbus," he added.

It was reported last month that Airbus had paid 30 million dollars to Malaysian Airlines as partial compensation for the late delivery of its planes.

The carrier had placed an order for six of the double-decker aircraft which were initially to be delivered from January 2007 but which was put back to late 2011.

Malaysian Airlines announced in December last year that it will buy up to 25 A330-300s wide-body aircraft worth five billion dollars to serve its growing markets.

The aircraft have been slated for delivery from 2011 to 2016.

The carrier recorded a net profit at 310 million ringgit (96 million dollars) in the three months to the end of March due to the compensation from Airbus and an increase in traffic.

Malaysia targets seven percent exports growth in 2010

KUALA LUMPUR, June 21, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysia on Monday said its exports are expected to grow between six to seven percent in 2010 as demand improves due to global economic recovery.

"Growth rates in major economies such as the USA, Europe and Japan are expected to recover at moderate levels," the Ministry of International Trade and Industry said in its 2009 annual report.

Malaysia, Southeast Asia's third-largest economy, said its exports dipped 16.6 percent in 2009, attributed to the downturn in the global economy.

It said Malaysia hopes to woo 27.5 billion ringgit (8.6 billion dollars) of approved investments in the manufacturing sector and 45.8 billion in the services sector in 2010.

"The government will ensure that the investment environment remains conducive and competitive," it said, adding that it hopes to attract investors in the areas of aerospace, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

Early June it unveiled a 69-billion-dollar plan intended to spur growth and attract much-needed foreign investment as it faces increasing competition from regional neighbours.

The country is aiming to become a high-income economy by 2020 rather than continuing to rely on its low-cost structure to make it attractive.

Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed later told reporters that Malaysia was targeting 40 billion ringgit in approved manufacturing investments in 2010.

Malaysia approved a total of 766 manufacturing projects worth 32.6 billion ringgit in 2009, compared with 919 projects with investments totaling 62.8 billion in 2008.

Foreign investment accounted for 22.1 billion ringgit, or 67.8 percent, of total investments in 2009, while domestic investments represented 32.2 percent, or 10.5 billion.

Investment in the services sector in 2009 totaled 36.3 billion ringgit in 2,720 approved projects, compared with 50.1 billion in 2,779 approved projects in 2008.