N.Korea helping to probe crash in Singapore brothel district

SINGAPORE, August 28, 2010 (AFP) - The North Korean embassy is helping with investigations into a traffic incident involving one of its vehicles in the city-state's brothel district, Singaporean officials said.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been in touch with the DPRK ambassador  on this matter," a ministry spokesman said in a statement issued late Friday.

"The DPRK ambassador has assured us that the DPRK embassy respected  Singapore's laws and would extend its full cooperation with the authorities in resolving the issue."

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is the North's official name.

Singapore police told AFP Saturday an investigation into the incident was still ongoing.

The traffic incident took place in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday in Geylang when a parked car was hit by the embassy vehicle, according to an earlier police statement.

"No one was in the stationary car, which suffered a slight dent at the rear," the police statement said.

Geylang is Singapore's red light district, where prostitutes openly offer their services on pavements and in licensed brothels, with short-time motels scattered along the neighbourhood's narrow streets and lanes.

The incident follows a fatal hit-and-run case involving a former Romanian diplomat, Silviu Ionescu, who allegedly rammed an embassy car into three pedestrians last December, killing one of them, after a drinking binge.

The Ionescu case caused a furore in the city-state, which demanded that he be brought to justice after fleeing Singapore.

He is currently in detention in Romania, and will face trial in October after strong diplomatic pressure from Singapore.

Patent suits filed against Facebook, Apple, Google

SAN FRANCISCO, August 27, 2010 (AFP) - A company owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen on Friday blasted Apple, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Yahoo! and others with a patent infringement lawsuit filed in a US court.

Seattle-based Interval Licensing, an Allen company, accused 11 online commerce and Internet search firms with infringing patents on fundamental Web technologies Interval developed in the 1990s.

"Interval Research was an early, ground-breaking contributor to the development of the Internet economy," said Allen spokesman David Postman.

"This lawsuit is necessary to protect our investment in innovation."

Postman stressed that the technology at issue was created by Interval Research, a company founded by Allen and David Liddle in 1992, and not patents acquired from other firms.

The list of defendants in the lawsuit included AOL and Internet auction house eBay as well as online movie rental firm Netflix and retail chains Office Depot, OfficeMax, and Staples.

"We believe this suit is completely without merit and we will fight it vigorously," Facebook said in response to an AFP inquiry.

Google also slammed the lawsuit.

"This lawsuit against some of America's most innovative companies reflects an unfortunate trend of people trying to compete in the courtroom instead of the marketplace," a Google spokesman told AFP.

"Innovation -- not litigation -- is the way to bring to market the kinds of products and services that benefit millions of people around the world."

Microsoft, which Allen founded with Bill Gates in 1975, was not named in the suit.

Patents at issue involved using Web browsers to find information; alerting computer users to items of interest, and an "Attention Manager for occupying the peripheral attention of a person in the vicinity of a display device."

China urgently needs to reverse coal dependency: Greenpeace

BEIJING, August 27, 2010 (AFP) - Greenpeace said Friday that China "urgently" needed to reduce its dependency on coal, saying the emissions produced by its use posed a major threat to public health in the fast-growing Asian nation.

"If China cannot swiftly reverse this dependency on coal and other fossil fuels in the near future... then it will be unable to solve the grave problem of air pollution threatening people's health," the environmental group said.

"China urgently needs to pursue a low-carbon sustainable development model," it added in a report released with the nation's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

The world's second-largest economy -- which overtook Japan in the second quarter -- relies on coal for 70 percent of its fast-growing energy needs, and coal combustion has become one of the nation's main sources of air pollution.

It is the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world.

According to the report, coal combustion is the source of 70 percent of China's soot emissions and 80 percent of its world-leading carbon dioxide emissions.

The geographic reach of air pollution is also considerable, it added. Mercury pollution, for example, can travel more than 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from its emissions source, usually coal-fired power plants.

The report also found that air pollution from coal combustion could cause serious, long-term health problems, especially when pollutants are stored in the body's organs and build up over a period of time.

One case study in Tongliang township in the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing found that the concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) increased by 3.5 times whenever the coal power station was operating.

Exposure to PAHs has been linked to lung cancer and also to an increase in the incidence of babies born with poorly developed nervous systems, the report said.

The economic costs of pollution from coal combustion in China are also substantial. In 2005, every tonne of coal burned cost nearly 45 yuan (6.6 dollars) in health costs, it added.

The environmental group urged the government to widen the range of pollutants monitored and improve basic research on the links between public health and air pollution.

Floods kill eight on China-N. Korea border

BEIJING, August 27, 2010 (AFP) - At least eight people were killed and one was left missing as heavy rains triggered fresh floods in northeast China on the border with North Korea, state media reported Friday.

Nearly 1,200 houses were toppled and 170,000 people evacuated after the border city of Dandong in Liaoning province received 78 millimetres (three inches) of rain between Thursday and Friday, Xinhua news agency said.

The latest deluge follows floods last week in which four people were killed in Dandong after the Yalu river flooded, Xinhua news agency said. The river forms the border with North Korea.

The fresh floods left at least eight dead, one missing and 136 injured, Xinhua said, quoting a report from the Dandong city government.

Shipping has been at a standstill on the Yalu river since August 19 as water levels remain dangerously high, Lu Xiusheng, deputy head of the flood control headquarters in Dandong, told Xinhua.

Water levels would remain high Friday due to a surging high tide from the Yellow Sea, he said.
The fresh floods are likely to frustrate efforts to clean mud and debris left in the city from last week's deluge.

Parts of North Korea near the border were submerged by the floods last week, the state Korean Central News Agency reported at the time, with thousands evacuated.

The impoverished state has been hit by widespread flooding this summer which has washed away homes, roads, railways and farmland, causing an unspecified number of deaths, according to North Korean state media reports.

After decades of deforestation, North Korea is particularly vulnerable to flooding. In 2007, it reported at least 600 people dead or missing from devastating floods.

China has for months been battling its worst flooding in a decade. So far, nearly 3,900 have been killed or left missing in flood-related incidents, according to official figures.

Chinese anger as Philippine flag draped over gunman's coffin

MANILA, August 27, 2010 (AFP) - The Chinese government expressed outrage on Friday after television footage showed a Philippine flag draped over the coffin of a gunman who hijacked a busload of Hong Kong tourists.

"The person who deserves a national flag at (their) funeral should be someone of heroism, decency and integrity, not someone who inflicts atrocity on innocent lives," the Chinese embassy in Manila said in a statement.

"This is nothing but a smear on the dignity of the Philippine national flag."

Sacked policeman Rolando Mendoza hijacked a bus that was carrying a group of Hong Kong tourists in Manila on Monday in a bid to be cleared of extortion charges and get his job back.

Eight of the tourists on board the bus were killed in the final stages of the 12-hour siege, which finally ended when police shot Mendoza dead.

Police said they believed Mendoza killed all eight of the victims but are carrying out tests to ensure the rescuers did not shoot any of the captives.

The Chinese government has expressed anger over the Philippine government's handling of the hostage crisis, and the flag issue is likely to stoke tensions.

"The Chinese embassy in the Philippines condemns the brutality of the criminal and expresses its strong indignation over this irritating act," the statement said.

The flag was draped over Mendoza's coffin on Friday during his wake at his family's home in Tuanauan town, about two hours' drive south of Manila.

Following the Chinese embassy statement, the government moved quickly to have the flag removed and police said his family likely draped it over the coffin. Mendoza's funeral will be held on Saturday.


Kim Jong-Il may meet China's Hu: report

SEOUL, August 27, 2010 (AFP) - North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Il may meet Chinese President Hu Jintao in northeastern China, where Kim arrived earlier, news reports said Friday.

A 30-vehicle convoy believed to be carrying Kim pulled up at a hotel in the city of Changchun after driving some 90 minutes from Jilin City, where the reclusive leader had stayed overnight, Yonhap news agency said.

Hotel officials said all guest rooms and meeting rooms at the Changchun hotel had been "fully booked," with one saying "national-level meetings" were being held there.

The officials said they did not know if Kim was there.

Yonhap quoted diplomatic sources as saying that Hu, who was also believed to be in northeastern China, may hold talks with Kim in Changchun.

Kim might be accompanied in northeastern China by his son, Kim Jong-Un, who is widely expected to be named to the North Korean communist leadership at a party meeting early next month, analysts in Seoul said.

Singapore company bars top management from local casinos

SINGAPORE, August 27, 2010 (AFP) - A Singapore company has banned its  management from the country's two new casinos following reports a local businessman lost a fortune at the gaming tables, its founder said Friday.

Mohamed Salleh, chief executive officer of retail and property firm Second Chance, said he had applied for casino exclusion orders for himself and six of his top personnel using a system designed to keep gambling addicts out.

"A few days ago I read about this Henry Quek... that lost 26 million (19.2 million US) dollars at this casino, so I was thinking, why not I include all my top executives and my finance people?" he told AFP.

Media reports said Quek, a local seafood industry magnate, had squadered the amount over a three-day gambling spree at the Resorts World Sentosa casino.

Mohamed said his decision was also prompted by a case in which one of his managers stole gold items from the firm to pay off gambling debts before the local casinos opened the doors.
"It's better to be safe than sorry," said Mohamed.

Financial group DBS said Thursday that Singapore's two casino resorts are expected to contribute two billion Singapore dollars (1.5 billion US) to the country's economy this year.

After church and civic groups raised concern over the social impact of legalising casinos, Singapore is allowing individuals or their families to apply for exclusion orders on "problem gamblers" barring them from even entering the casinos.

Singapore probes NKorean car in brothel district crash

SINGAPORE, August 27, 2010 (AFP) - A North Korean embassy vehicle crashed into a parked car in Singapore's brothel district and fled the scene, triggering a police investigation, local media reports said Friday.

A police statement said they were informed by a member of the public in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday that "an embassy car had hit a stationary car parked along Lorong 21 Geylang".

"No one was in the car, which suffered a slight dent at the rear. Investigations are ongoing," it added.

A police spokeman declined to name the embassy but a report in the Straits Times said the vehicle -- a silver Toyota -- displayed diplomatic plates and the North Korean flag.

Geylang is Singapore's red light district where prostitutes openly offer their services on pavements and in licensed brothels, with short-time motels scattered along the neighbourhood's narrow streets and lanes.

Witnesses quoted by the daily said they saw the vehicle's driver hurriedly reversing from the damaged car and almost hitting two female pedestrians before speeding off.

Calls to the North Korean embassy by AFP went unanswered on Friday.

The incident follows a fatal hit-and-run case involving a former Romanian diplomat, Silviu Ionescu, who allegedly rammed an embassy car into three pedestrians last December, killing one of them, after a drinking binge.

The Ionescu case caused a furore in the city-state, which demanded that he be brought to justice after fleeing Singapore.

He is currently in detention in Romania, and will face trial in October after strong diplomatic pressure from Singapore.

India-China relations hit by defence row: report

NEW DELHI, August 27, 2010 (AFP) - India has cancelled defence exchanges with China in a new flare-up in relations between the two Asian giants, reports said Friday.

The Times of India said the move by New Delhi was retaliation after Beijing refused a visa to a leading Indian general who oversees operations in Kashmir.

B.S. Jaswal, an Indian lieutenant general responsible for the volatile and disputed area of Jammu and Kashmir, intended to travel to China in August for a high-level defence exchange between the countries.

Beijing responded by saying he was not welcome because he controlled a disputed area, which China claims in part, the Times of India said in a front-page story.

"An angry New Delhi shot off a strongly-worded demarche to Beijing, protesting its decision," the newspaper said, without quoting sources.

"Soon thereafter, Delhi refused permission to two Chinese defence officials to come to India... A subsequent visit by Indian military officials to China was also cancelled by India," it said.

The NDTV news channel, quoting unnamed foreign ministry sources, also reported the cancellations and escalation in tensions.

China-India ties are wracked by suspicion and mistrust, largely due to unresolved border disputes in India's northwest and northeast, a short war in 1962 and the presence of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in India.

China is also a close ally of Pakistan -- India's regional foe -- supplying investment, industry know-how and weapons, including missile technology, according to New Delhi.

China hits back at US decision on Taiwan sales

BEIJING, August 27, 2010 (AFP) - China on Friday called on the United States to revoke export licences granted to US firms selling radar equipment to Taiwan, warning the move could hurt ties between the two countries.

US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said this week the move would "allow the commercial export to Taiwan of defence services, technical data, and defence articles to support Taiwan's existing air defence radar system".

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu responded: "China firmly opposes the United States selling weapons and relevant technical assistance to Taiwan."

"We urge the United States... to revoke their wrong decision and put an end to arms sales to Taiwan and military ties with Taiwan to avoid causing new harm to Sino-US ties," she said in a statement faxed to AFP.

China as a rule opposes arms sales to Taiwan, which it considers a part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary. The two sides split in 1949 after a civil war and have since been governed separately.

Beijing angrily suspended military and security contacts with the United States earlier this year when Washington announced an arms package for Taiwan that included missiles, helicopters and equipment for the island's F-16 jets.

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou last week renewed calls to Washington to sell the island an upgraded version of the F16 fighter, following a Pentagon report warning of China's growing military might.

Beijing said the report was "not beneficial" to military ties, and reiterated that it did not pose a military threat to any country.

US officials in Taiwan on ex-leader Chen's probe

TAIPEI, August 27, 2010 (AFP) - US officials have visited Taiwan to probe money laundering claims against former president Chen Shui-bian, as part of efforts to expropriate his properties in the United States, a prosecutor said Friday.

A federal prosecutor from Washington DC and three agents from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement were in Taiwan last week for Chen's case, said Honda Chen, spokesman for a special prosecutor's unit on high-level graft.

"They stayed for three days to obtain information and exchange opinions with us on Chen's case," the spokesman told AFP.

In court proceedings that began last month the US government is seeking to expropriate two properties owned by Chen and his wife, allegedly bought with bribe money the couple received while in power.

According to a civil forfeiture complaint filed in New York and Virginia, former first lady Wu Shu-chen was paid six million dollars to prevent her husband's government from interfering in a company's takeover bid for a rival firm in Taiwan.

Chen's office has said that the properties were acquired with legitimate funds from political donations.

Chen and his wife were convicted last year in Taiwan of embezzling state funds, laundering money, accepting bribes and committing forgery and were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Taiwan's High Court in June reduced the couple's sentences to 20 years in prison after concluding that less money was embezzled than previously assumed.

Chen has blasted his trial as a vendetta carried out by Taiwan's current Beijing-friendly government in retaliation for his pro-independence stance during his 2000-2008 term.

Google launches search page for real-time online posts

Google launches search page for real-time online posts

SAN FRANCISCO, August 26, 2010 (AFP) - Google on Thursday further embraced the world of tweets, status updates, and on-the-fly posts with a website devoted to finding "real-time" content as it hits the Internet.

A search engine being rolled out in 40 countries at google.com/realtime builds on features that the Internet powerhouse has been adding incrementally to its online query service.

"Real time content is often one of the best sources of information about what is happening right now," Google product manager Dylan Casey told AFP while introducing the new real-time search home page.

"We are giving people more tools to drill down into these results."

In the same manner that Google has search pages devoted to pictures or videos, the new one is tailored to comments, images or other public content fired off at online social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, or MySpace.

"With the advent of these platforms it is easier for people to publish content, and there is more content on the Web," Casey said.

"These tools make it easy for people to get fast access to that. Whether it is a movie that just opened or you see helicopters flying over, this shows what people are saying about that right now."
Google began meshing real-time content with its main search engine results in December and will continue to do so.

The real-time home page adds features including being able to search based on location and being able to get "alerts" when anyone blogs, tweets, or otherwise comments online about selected topics, brands, or names.

"Over time, I think users will want to go directly to real-time search as opposed to standard search," Casey said. "We are going to balance those two very carefully."

Google real-time search features include being able to follow public conversations in online forums and being able to "playback" exchanges dating back to nearly the start of the year.

Google is working with Twitter to make its entire public archive available in a way that remains in synch with people deleting tweets or changing privacy settings on accounts at the microblogging service, according to Casey.

ASEAN chief downplays US absence from key trade talks

DANANG, August 26, 2010 (AFP) - The head of ASEAN on Thursday downplayed the absence of US officials from annual trade talks, arguing their no-show does not detract from the US re-engagement with Southeast Asia.

"We are disappointed that they are not showing up," said Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

But he described Washington's commitment to the region as "quite strong".

Surin told reporters there are "many levels of engagement", and economic ministers from the 10-member bloc had already visited the United States in March.

He said issues remaining from those talks will be followed up this week with the US-ASEAN Business Council, a private-sector group which he said works closely with Washington, and which is attending the Vietnam meetings.

Since taking office last year, the administration of President Barack Obama has sought to pay more attention to the region, which felt neglected by former president George W. Bush's government as it focused on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At a July meeting in Vietnam with ASEAN foreign ministers, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her country is "committed to being an active partner" with the bloc.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior officials have also visited the region.

"Clearly, it's a political-security engagement that is leading" rather than other aspects of the relationship such as trade, said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Another analyst, Washington-based Ernest Bower, faulted the US' absence from this week's meetings, which are attended by ministers from Japan, China, the European Union and other ASEAN partners.

Bower, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, blamed domestic politics, saying the administration's trade officials are "being held hostage by the White House and its focus on US midterm elections in November".

Obama has struggled to agree on a trade policy with members of his own Democratic Party while a weak economy causes political challenges.

Tay said that although the US does not seem ready to seriously discuss free trade, it has made its presence felt in Southeast Asia over issues such as Myanmar's military rulers and disputes over the South China Sea.

"I think, overall, the engagement between the US and ASEAN has become more serious than before," Tay said by telephone.

On her visit to Vietnam, Clinton said the ASEAN region of nearly 600 million people is America's sixth-largest export market and hosts more US business investment than China.

She said Obama will invite Southeast Asian leaders to a summit in Washington later this year, to follow up an inaugural meeting last year in Singapore.

"We are now looking forward to the second summit" but a date has not yet been finalised, Surin said Thursday.

China's Commerce Minister Chen Deming said on the sidelines of the Vietnam talks, which conclude Friday, that he hoped for wider use of the yuan in trade with Southeast Asia.

"We are looking at the possibility of trade settlement in yuan or (ASEAN countries') own currencies" within the framework of a free trade deal that took effect this year, he said.

Japan pledged new aid to help narrow the development gap between the bloc's richest and poorest nations, but could not say how much money will be involved.

Economic ministers from Japan and the Mekong nations -- Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam -- agreed on a plan for infrastructure development and other initiatives in the area, said Kunihiko Shinoda, a senior official with Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

N.Korea leader 'makes visit to China'

SEOUL, August 26, 2010 (AFP) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il was believed to be visiting key ally China on Thursday, possibly with his youngest son and presumed successor, officials, media reports and Chinese residents said.

The apparent trip, which was not confirmed by either Beijing or Pyongyang, dashed hopes of a meeting with former US president Jimmy Carter who is on a mission to North Korea to try to win the release of a jailed American.

"Judging from circumstances, Chairman Kim might have left for China early Thursday morning," a senior South Korean official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Residents of Jilin in northeastern China said a delegation had visited the city Thursday amid tight security.

The trip -- which would be Kim's second to China this year -- comes amid increasing speculation about Kim's successor and efforts by Beijing to revive North Korean nuclear disarmament talks despite high tensions on the peninsula.

Analysts in South Korea said Kim was seeking to obtain China's blessing for his successor, widely expected to be his youngest son Kim Jong-Un, and gain desperately needed economic assistance from its main source of aid.

They also suggested that Kim's departure for China while Carter was in Pyongyang meant the North considered it too early to seek a breakthrough in tense relations with the United States.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency said Kim might be accompanied by Kim Jong-Un, 27, who is expected to be named to the ruling North Korean party leadership at a rare meeting next month.

The meeting would represent "a landmark of an epochal turn in strengthening the party," the North's ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said Thursday.

Speculation about the succession has intensified since Kim Jong-Il, now 68, suffered a stroke in August 2008, but he has since recovered sufficiently to work.

"Kim may have decided to tackle this issue in person as China has yet to reach an understanding about the succession at a time when the nuclear issue has not yet been resolved," Professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies told AFP.

Yonhap quoted an official at South Korea's presidential office as saying that Kim crossed into China at about midnight Wednesday on his personal train.

In Jilin, a resident said the group visited a school Thursday that had been attended by Kim's father and former North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung as a boy.

"They arrived in the morning. There were many police in the streets and the roads were blocked," a woman who works at a restaurant adjacent to the Yuwen Middle School told AFP by phone.

Yonhap quoted a diplomatic source in Beijing as saying the delegation was expected to stay at the five-star Crystal Hotel in Jilin. It was unclear whether they would travel to Beijing.

Pyongyang and Beijing have made it a rule not to confirm Kim's trips to China, which he last visited in May and met President Hu Jintao.

Chung Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute said Kim's visit underscored Pyongyang's desperate need for food aid and construction materials from China.

"Ahead of the party convention, Kim has to ease complaints over food shortages and stabilise people's livelihood," he said.

North Korean state media said Beijing has offered emergency aid following flooding which washed away homes, roads, railways and farmland in North Korea, causing an unknown number of deaths.

Beijing has also been stepping up efforts to resume six-party talks on disarming the North amid simmering tensions over the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, for which Pyongyang was blamed.

China's top nuclear envoy Wu Dawei met his South Korean counterpart Wi Sun-Lac on Thursday after travelling to Pyongyang last week, but said it was too early to discuss the outcome.

Wu said at the meeting that the North had reiterated its willingness to start preliminary talks, according to Yonhap, which cited a South Korean foreign ministry official.

Kim's departure means he is not likely to meet Carter, who was nevertheless treated as a VIP by Pyongyang, which staged a warm official welcoming ceremony  for the former US president.

Carter held a "cordial" meeting with the North's number two Kim Yong-Nam on Wednesday, KCNA said.

The Nobel peace laureate arrived on Wednesday in a bid to secure the release Aijalon Mahli Gomes, an African-American who was jailed in April for illegally crossing into the North from China.


China hopes for wider yuan use in Southeast Asia

DANANG, August 26, 2010 (AFP) - China said Thursday it hoped for wider use of its currency in trade with Southeast Asian nations, but the head of the regional bloc said countries would need time to gain confidence in the yuan.

"We are looking at the possibility of trade settlement in yuan or (ASEAN countries') own currencies" within the framework of a free trade deal that took effect this year, said Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming.

"We hope to settle trade with ASEAN countries in (their) own currencies or in yuan if everybody is willing to do so," he said on the sidelines of annual talks with his counterparts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN's secretary general, told reporters that a move to the yuan "cannot be just wished and happen" and would require a gradual process of establishing confidence.
"It took dollars a few years. It took yen a few years," he said.

Analysts say China is stepping up efforts to increase overseas use of the yuan as the nation seeks to reduce its exposure to the US dollar and allow its currency to take on a greater global role.

In the past two years, China has signed currency swap arrangements with several nations and launched trials for yuan trade settlement with a number of mainly Southeast Asian countries.

"We will organise a seminar specialising in the study of this issue at an appropriate time," Chen said. "It will facilitate our cooperation on regional currencies."

Despite the global success of Chinese exporters, the yuan plays only a minor international role because of restrictions on exchanging it for other currencies. Official controls make it difficult to move the yuan in and out of China.

The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, which took effect earlier this year, is the world's biggest by population, with a market of 1.7 billion consumers.

Gmail gets Voice with online telephone calls

SAN FRANCISCO, August 25, 2010 (AFP) - Google on Wednesday began adding Internet telephone capabilities to its free Web-based email service in the United States.

Gmail was infused with Voice, a Google telecommunications service that lets people use a single telephone number for all of their phones.

"Starting today, you can use Gmail to receive or place Google Voice calls," software engineer Nick Foster said in a blog post.

"We're rolling out this feature to US-based Gmail users over the next few days."

A "call phones" option in Gmail chat will enable people to make, screen or field Voice calls at their computers using Gmail, according to Foster.

The engineer said that Google "took great care to make sure that our rates are as low as possible" for outbound calls from Voice numbers.

Calls to landline numbers in France, Argentina, Britain, or Hong Kong cost two cents per minute, according to a Google rate chart.

Voice reportedly attracted more than a million users during an invitation-only test phase before Google made the service available to anyone in the United States in late June.

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.

Google promises that the service works "no matter what kind of phone you have or which carrier you use."

People in the United States can sign up for the service online at google.com/voice or visit gmail.com/call for information about tying it to their email accounts.

China steps up push for wider use of yuan overseas - Analysis

BEIJING, August 25, 2010 (AFP) - China is stepping up efforts to increase overseas use of the yuan as the nation seeks to reduce its exposure to the US dollar and allow its currency to take on a greater global role, analysts say.

Since the financial crisis, the world's largest holder of foreign exchange reserves has been diversifying its investments away from dollars and pushing both investors and companies to use the yuan to stem the inflow of greenbacks.

"The 2008 credit crisis ... underscored to China that settling in yuan would reduce the country's exposure to the type of US dollar-liquidity shock that was an important reason for the subsequent collapse in trade," Royal Bank of Scotland analysts Ben Simpfendorfer and Erik Lueth said in a note.

Despite the global success of Chinese exporters, the yuan plays only a minor international role because it cannot be freely exchanged for other currencies. And official controls make it difficult to move the yuan in and out of China.

While top leaders want to see the yuan adopted as a global reserve currency to reflect China's growing economic and political clout, analysts say they will stop short of relinquishing control amid fears that could destabilise the economy -- and result in the yuan strengthening against the dollar too quickly.

"They are petrified about inflows and outflows -- it's still the Asian financial crisis mentality," said a Beijing-based analyst who asked not to be named.

Simpfendorfer agreed. "I think (the reforms) are moving much faster than people expected but it will slow down at the point at which China believes it is producing volatile capital flows," he said.

In the past two years, China has pushed for greater use of the yuan abroad, signing currency swap arrangements with several nations and launching trials for yuan trade settlement with a number of mainly Southeast Asian countries.

In the latest move, authorities said last week they would further open China's interbank bond market to foreign investors, in the hope of encouraging more companies to use the yuan instead of the dollar to settle trade deals.

Analysts said the move would give overseas companies an incentive to accept yuan as payment for goods sold to China, and encourage the development of yuan-denominated financial products in Hong Kong.

China's "qualified foreign institutional investor" programme -- launched in 2003 to allow foreigners to invest in yuan-denominated equities -- has allowed limited access to the interbank bond market since 2005.

"The more yuan you get outside the country and the more the yuan is issued as a settlement currency, the more you can talk about reducing your currency risk and your dependence on any individual currency," said the Beijing analyst.

Earlier this year, China announced that banks based in Hong Kong -- the laboratory for Beijing's experiments in freeing up the currency -- would be allowed to transfer yuan among themselves for corporate customers, opening the door to the sale of yuan-denominated financial products.

Fast food giant McDonald's has become the first non-financial firm to take advantage of this measure, announcing last week that it would issue almost 30 million dollars' worth of yuan-denominated bonds in Hong Kong.

But while China is stepping up yuan reforms, the measures "stop short of full liberalisation and are not the 'big bang' reforms often argued (for)", Simpfendorfer and Lueth said.

Obstacles stand in the way of the yuan becoming an international currency to rival the dollar, euro or yen -- most notably Beijing's reluctance to give a freer hand to speculators by letting the yuan become fully convertible.

Another hurdle is the yuan's scarcity overseas owing to China's ballooning trade surplus with the world.

"It is very difficult to accumulate a position in the yuan -- it is very difficult to earn enough of it because it is constantly being sucked back into China," said Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing.

China has the world's largest foreign currency reserves, worth 2.45 trillion dollars, including 843.7 billion dollars invested in US Treasury debt at the end of June, US data show.

But China has more than doubled its holdings of South Korean government bonds in the past six months, and is acquiring more Japanese debt.

Safety questions raised after China plane crash

BEIJING, August 25, 2010 (AFP) - Investigators Wednesday sifted through the charred wreckage of a Brazilian-made Chinese airliner for clues on why it crashed while trying to land in heavy fog, killing 42 people and injuring 54.

Following the crash President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao called for sweeping inspections throughout the country's passenger air network to "eliminate any safety risks", Xinhua news agency reported.

The government promised a thorough but speedy probe into China's first major air disaster in nearly six years, amid reports of past technical problems with the model of jet involved -- a twin-engine ERJ-190 made by Brazil's Embraer.

Survivors of the crash in a remote part of northeast China late Tuesday described terrifying jolts before the Henan Airlines domestic flight slammed into the ground, leaving a long trail of crumpled metal burning in the dark.

The black box flight data recorders were recovered near Lindu airport in the northeast city of Yichun where the Henan ERJ-190, which was carrying 91 passengers and five crew, crashed.

The Beijing Youth Daily reported that a bigger airline, China Southern, suspended all night flights in and out of Lindu airport in September 2009 -- just days after the facility opened for business -- because of safety concerns.

An official from the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) said the black boxes would be sent to Beijing for analysis, but added it was "hard to say" when the results would be available.

Officials were hoping to glean information from the recorders and from the plane's captain, who survived the crash but was so far unable to speak due to severe facial injuries, Xinhua news agency reported.

The city's Communist party chief Xu Zhaojun said the captain had communicated with air traffic controllers shortly before the crash, saying he could "see lights on the runway and was ready for landing," Xinhua reported.

Lindu airport -- located in a forested area about nine kilometres (five miles) outside Yichun -- was closed on Wednesday and all Henan Airlines flights grounded for the day, Xinhua said.

"The plane really started to jolt in a scary way -- the plane jolted five or six times very strongly," one male survivor told China Central Television from his hospital bed, describing scenes of panic as passengers tried to escape.

A second male survivor interviewed by CCTV -- his head bandaged and his nose bloodied -- also said he felt a "big jolt" as the plane was coming in to land and heard "big crashes -- bam bam bam".

Rescuers on Wednesday transferred the victims' bodies wrapped in silver bags to funeral homes for identification, Xinhua said.

Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang visited the survivors in local hospitals, many of whom reportedly suffered broken bones, and "demanded a quick investigation" into the cause of the crash, Xinhua said.

State television said a preliminary probe had ruled out any intentional wrongdoing, as well as any mid-air explosions or fires.

Provincial police said visibility was less than 300 metres (yards) at the time of the crash due to heavy fog.
Xinhua said Chinese carriers using ERJ-190s had previously reported technical problems, and that the CAAC called a workshop in June 2009 to discuss the issues.

Notes from the meeting -- which involved Kunpeng Airlines, as Henan Airlines was previously known -- showed that broken turbine plates and flight control system errors were among the problems, Xinhua said.

Henan Airlines has grounded three of the four other ERJ-190s it operates on other routes until further notice, China National Radio said, adding that the crashed plane was only two years old.
Embraer offered its condolences to the victims' families and said it had sent a team of technicians to help with the investigation.

The crash occurred just after 9:30 pm (1330 GMT) on Tuesday, around 40 minutes after the plane took off from Harbin, the capital of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.

Henan Airlines, which mainly operates in north and northeast China, had only launched the Harbin-Yichun route two weeks ago, Xinhua said.

The Zhengzhou-based airline's general manager Li Qiang was sacked on Wednesday, Xinhua said, citing CAAC sources.

Among those on board the crashed jet were 18 officials from China's Ministry of Human Resources including vice-minister Sun Baoshu, who was in a serious condition.

A passenger from Taiwan suffered minor injuries with burns to his back but was recovering, officials from the island said.

It was China's first major air disaster since a China Eastern Airlines jet crashed in Inner Mongolia in November 2004, killing 53 people on board and two on the ground.


Despite challenges, S.E. Asia grows with China: ASEAN

DANANG, August 25, 2010 (AFP) - Southeast Asian economies will grow along with China despite challenges faced by some countries in adjusting to a new ASEAN-China free trade deal, the head of the regional bloc said Wednesday.

"Some ASEAN countries have more problems than others in adjusting to the free trade agreement," Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), told a news conference at the close of an annual meeting of the bloc's trade and commerce ministers.

But he said all 10 members of ASEAN are committed to the agreement and their attitude is: "When China grows, ASEAN grows with it."

The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, which took effect earlier this year, is the world's biggest by population, with a market of 1.7 billion consumers.

Some Indonesian industry groups complained that they would not be able to compete with cheap Chinese imports and called for a delay in the elimination of protective tariffs.

Malaysian businesses made a similar call but government officials have said there will be no backtracking on the free trade deal.

Surin said the agreement allows for "flexibility" and discussions are continuing on how to help various sectors to adjust.

China and six founding ASEAN states -- Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand -- eliminated barriers to investment and trade on 90 percent of products on January 1.

Less developed ASEAN members, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, have until 2015 to follow.

China plans to merge 1,000 broadcasters: state media

BEIJING, August 25, 2010 (AFP) - China plans to merge about 1,000 regional radio and television networks into a single national cable television network company, state media reported Wednesday.

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, or SARFT, said the new company would be formed by year's end and would expand into mobile TV and online videos, the China Daily newspaper reported.

"The nation's radio and television networks need to be consolidated under one roof as currently they are individually run and have not developed into large-scale entities," senior SARFT official Tao Shiming was quoted as saying.

Bringing 1,000 networks together under a single operator and administration will increase -- not reduce -- competitiveness and opportunities as the new company will be better equipped to harness new technology, the report said.

"All networks in the nation are likely to be integrated in three years," the deputy secretary-general of the cable TV committee of the China Radio and Television Association, Zeng Huiming, was quoted as saying.

The new company would have a start-up investment of around 80 billion yuan (11.8 billion dollars), with contributions from the government and broadcasters, the report said.

The consolidation would start at the provincial level before moving on to the national level, Tao was cited as saying.

The report made no mention of state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) and whether it would be part of the plan.

China's media is tightly controlled by the state, which seeks to censor news that places the nation and the ruling Communist Party in a bad light.

That control has extended to Internet and mobile phone companies as Beijing pushes state-run firms to expand their online operations.

Singaporean arrested after Facebook attack on govt

SINGAPORE, August 25, 2010 (AFP) - A Singaporean man who attacked the ruling party on Facebook and urge people to "burn" a cabinet minister has been arrested on charges of inciting violence, police said Wednesday.

In a statement, police said they had arrested a "man in his late 20s" on Tuesday "in connection with investigations into offences related to incitement of violence".

The statement did not name the man or give details of the offence, but said that he was released on bail pending further investigation.

Local media identified him as Abdul Malik Ghazali, 27, who posted a series of comments on the social networking site critical of how Singapore is hosting the inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG).

The August 14-26 event, held for competitors aged from 14 to 18, has generated limited public interest, with many events blighted by empty seats and the host country's athletes faring badly.

Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister for community development, youth and sports, has come under particular fire from online critics over the games.

Abdul Malik's postings on his own Facebook page and on a separate group account called "I hate the Youth Olympic Games Organising Committee" are also critical of Singapore's ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

Abdul Malik, who works for a company specialising in wood and flooring, said on his Facebook page that he was arrested "due to my involvement in anti-YOG and anti-PAP Facebook pages".

One of his postings highlighted recent floods in Singapore, the escape of detained terror suspect Mas Selamat Kastari, the amount of money spent to host the games and reports of the poor standard of food served for games volunteers.

He said it was time to "burn" the sports minister and the PAP.

"Rally together and vote them out!!!" he wrote.

Abdul Malik said in comments published Wednesday by The New Paper that "the comment is a metaphor".

"I did not intend for it to be taken literally. I did not mean for someone to actually burn," he said.

In another posting, Abdul Malik referred to a version of the communist anthem The Internationale on YouTube and wrote: "This song is a call to rise against tyranny and oppression... Very suited to what is happening now in Singapore."

Prosperous Singapore -- which is spending close to 300 million US dollars to host the games, more than three times original projections -- follows a hardline policy on political dissent.

Public protests are banned without a police permit and anti-government critics in the political opposition and media have been successfully sued for defamation by top officials.
Some in cyberspace rallied to Abdul Malik's defence.

One Facebook poster calling himself "Kok Meng" wrote "seems like even metaphors are forbidden these days".

"Police should get a grip and let loose. We are a democracy."

Model city Singapore shows symptoms of urban stress - Feature

Model city Singapore shows symptoms of urban stress - Feature

SINGAPORE, August 25, 2010 (AFP) - Flash floods along posh Orchard Road. Packed subway trains. Traffic gridlock in the morning and evening rush hours. Intensifying competition for public flats.

What happened to squeaky-clean, smooth-flowing Singapore?

Widely acclaimed as one of the world's most "liveable" cities, Singapore is now experiencing urban growth woes as it moves to expand its population to 6.5 million in 20 years, up 30 percent from the current level of five million.

The target was first cited in 2007 as an optimal population size for long-term economic competitiveness, but strains are already beginning to show as more immigrants and guest workers jostle for space with the locals.

Not to mention an invasion of tourists, with arrivals surpassing the one million mark in a single month for the first time in July, thanks to two new massive casino resorts that opened a few months ago.

Singapore, one of the world's richest cities, has a land area of just 710 square kilometres (274 square miles) but until recent years, it had avoided the congested feeling of places like Hong Kong and Tokyo.

"It's crowded, very crowded," commuter Anthony Chua, a 47-year-old accountant, said after getting off a train near the banking district.

Despite increased train frequency during peak demand periods, Chua felt trains were more cramped than before.

"There's a certain level of frustration but I suppose we learn to accept it," he added.

The government was left red-faced in June and July after an unprecedented three flash floods inundated houses, drowned cars and damaged shops, with insurers estimating 23 million Singapore dollars (17 million US) in claims.

The Public Utilities Board attributed the freak floods to regional squalls and clogged drainage, but questions remained over whether Singapore was equipped to handle the side effects of rapid urbanization.

The city-state's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, shocked many when he said occasional floods were inevitable in constantly rain-drenched Singapore because it could not afford to convert roads into canals.

Insurance companies subsequently said premiums might be raised in flood-prone areas including the shopping belt around Orchard Road.

But the floods formed just part of Singaporeans' urban gripes.

Traffic has slowed amid an explosion in car ownership even though Singapore is one of the costliest places in the world to own a vehicle due to high taxes and quotas.

As of July, there were 936,311 vehicles plying the roads of Singapore, with cars accounting for 61.5 percent of the total, compared to 755,000 vehicles just five years ago.

The Land Transport Authority said daily journeys on private vehicles and public transport were expected to increase by 60 percent from the current 8.9 million to 14.3 million by 2020.

Demand for homes in Singapore's public housing blocks, where 80 percent of the population reside, is also straining supply.

National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan said there was an "imbalance" in supply and demand in July, with many first-time flat-buyers such as newlywed couples unable to find affordable homes.

Resale prices of four- and five-room flats, the most popular among Singaporeans, ranged from 331,500 to 682,500 Singapore dollars (243,190 to 500,773 US) in the second quarter.

Foreigners who enjoy permanent residency and are eligible to purchase public housing totalled 533,000 in 2009, a 37.8 percent increase from 2005.

Singapore's total population numbered 4.99 million last year, a 17 percent increase from 2005, according to the latest government data.

Urban expert Seetharam Kallidaikurichi said Singaporeans should be prepared to pay more for public services if they expect the government to meet their expectations.

"It's like you live in a five-star hotel. What happens? You just check in, you get your bed ready, new linen given to you, you come down, breakfast is served for you... (but) you pay for it," said the professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority, the agency in charge of city planning, said it was devising new methods of maximising Singapore's land space.

They include utilising underground space, building new commercial hubs away from the city centre and doubling the train network.

"As Singapore is a small city-state with limited land resources, the scarcity of land has been and will continue to be a challenge we face," it said in reply to queries from AFP.

"The challenge of balancing growth with liveability is not an easy one, but we are confident that this can be done for Singapore." it said.

Kallidaikurichi said Singapore was still leagues ahead of many other cities in terms of living conditions, and particularly praised the emphasis on greening the dense landscape.

"Many other cities including the big cities in the US and others, they have ended up as concrete jungles because they put so much roads and buildings and so on that they forgot about real life in terms of living," he said.


Huge China traffic jam strands thousands of vehicles

BEIJING, August 23, 2010 (AFP) - Thousands of vehicles were bogged down Monday in a more than 100-kilometre (62-mile) traffic jam leading to Beijing that has lasted nine days and highlights China's growing road congestion woes.

The Beijing-Tibet expressway slowed to a crawl on August 14 due to a spike in traffic by cargo-bearing heavy trucks heading to the capital, and compounded by road maintenance work that began five days later, the Global Times said.

The state-run newspaper said the jam between Beijing and Jining city had given birth to a mini-economy with local merchants capitalising on the stranded drivers' predicament by selling them water and food at inflated prices.

That stretch of highway linking Beijing with the northern province of Hebei and the Inner Mongolia region has become increasingly prone to massive jams as the capital of more than 20 million people sucks in huge shipments of goods.

Traffic slowed to a snail's pace in June and July for nearly a month, according to earlier press reports.

The latest clog has been worsened by the road improvement project, made necessary by highway damage caused by a steady increase in cargo traffic, the Global Times said.

China has embarked in recent years on a huge expansion of its national road system but soaring traffic periodically overwhelms the grid.

The congestion was expected to last into mid-September as the road project will not be finished until then, the newspaper said.

The roadway is a major artery for the supply of produce, coal and other goods to Beijing.

Ancient ghost festival thrives in modern Singapore

SINGAPORE, August 24, 2010 (AFP) - As the dry-ice machine emitted a gust of mist, two female singers in glittering, form-fitting dresses belted out a line from an old Hokkien song atop a makeshift stage.

Wreathed by smoke, they wove in and out of view as they performed a song and dance routine in front of a 400-strong audience under the shadow of high-rise public flats just 10 minutes' drive from Singapore's banking district.

The otherworldly ambience at the recent show in a car park was appropriate -- it's now the middle of the Hungry Ghost Festival in Singapore, a rich, cosmopolitan city with a deeply entrenched Chinese heritage.

Amid skyscrapers and high tech trappings of modernity, superstition persists and comes to the fore in the seventh lunar month, when the gates of the underworld are believed to be open and spirits roam the mortal realm.

Investment decisions grind to a crawl, particulary in the property market, and elaborate altars stacked with food offerings for the spirits are found across the island of five million people.

Fake paper money and effigies representing material wealth such as bungalows and luxury cars are also burnt throughout the month in the belief that they will provide succour for wandering spirits.

"Most Chinese buyers don't like to make purchases or move into homes during the hungry ghost month," said Chua Yang Liang, property consultancy Jones Lang Lasalle's head of research for Southeast Asia and Singapore.

"It's no good for the family or person to make such life-changing decisions during the hungry ghost month."

Data provided by Jones Lang LaSalle showed a dive in private residential sales during the hungry ghost festivals in August 2008 and 2009 compared to July.

"I think the social taboo still carries on," Chua said.

The festival, lasting from August 10 to September 7 this year, also impacts marriage rates, which plummet because ethnic Chinese, who comprise 74 percent of the local population, believe it is an inauspicious month.

Taoist high priest Chung Kwang Tong said he asks followers to do more good deeds for the living and the dead during the period.

"Helping extends to even the spiritual world, to give offerings to them and also to try to help them in whatever form we can like performing rituals."

Singaporeans' fear of the dead has also given rise to more unorthodox habits.

Some avoid swimming for fear of being dragged underwater by unseen forces, while others refrain from staying out too late at night to avoid close encounters of the ghostly kind.

In order to entertain the spirits, temples, market stallholders and residents' associations sponsor boisterous roadside shows called getais.

"For this year, I'm doing getais every day, that means 29 days non-stop," said Aaron Tan, director of Lex(s) Entertainment, which specializes in setting up such shows.

"The highest number of getais I have in a single night is six shows," he said.

Featuring local as well as regional talents, getais -- which means "singing stages" in Mandarin --  are held with dinner banquets and auction sessions for household goods and consumables like liquor to commemorate the festival.

The fiercest bidding battles are usually fought over religious items such as gold-plated deity statues and "black gold" -- a lump of charcoal with gold-plated casing -- said to bring prosperity and wealth to the owner.

Bids for "black gold" have exceeded 100,000 Singapore dollars (73,000 US) in the past, said Tony Chan, a member of a residents' group which organises banquets and auctions.

Google buys shopping comparison site Like.com

SAN FRANCISCO, August 23, 2010 (AFP) - Search giant Google has bought the shopping comparison website Like.com, the two companies said on Monday.

Like.com specializes in visual search technology that lets people hunt online for bargains using pictures of clothing, handbags, shoes or other items they might desire.

"We're pleased and excited to welcome Like.com to Google, where they'll work closely with our commerce team," Google spokesman Andrew Pederson said in an email response to an AFP inquiry.

"We're excited about the technology they've built and the domain expertise they'll bring to Google as we continue to work on building great e-commerce experiences for our users, advertisers and partners."

Like.com websites will continue to operate separately from Google operations, according to Pederson.

Google's acquisition of Like.com, launched in November of 2006 by startup Riya, was seen by some as a competitive response to Bing, the Microsoft search engine touted as a "decision engine" for shoppers.

"We were the first to bring visual search to shopping; the first to build an automated cross-matching system for clothing, and more," Riya chief executive Munjal Shah said in a message at the Like.com home page.

"We see joining Google as a way to supersize our vision and supercharge our passion."

Financial details of the deal were not disclosed.

Bing last week started powering Internet searches at Yahoo! web pages in North America as the technology firms combine forces to take on Google.

Yahoo! will control how results are presented and has vowed to give users relevant data customized to their tastes or interests.

Yahoo! and Microsoft unveiled a 10-year Web search and advertising partnership a year ago that set the stage for a joint offensive against Google.

Under the agreement, Yahoo! will use Microsoft's search engine on its own sites while providing the exclusive global sales force for premium advertisers.

Data released by industry tracker comScore showed that US search engine rankings changed slightly in July, with Google's dominant share slipping less than half a percent to 65.8 from 66.2 percent in June.

The comScore rankings were based on "explicit" searches in which people entered specific queries to scour the Internet for information.

Google's loss was apparently a gain for Yahoo!, which had a 17.1 percent share of the search market as compared to 16.7 percent the previous month, according to comScore.

Bing remained in third place with its search market share unchanged at 11 percent, according to comScore figures.


Smartphones to make up over half of Asian sales by 2015

SINGAPORE, August 23, 2010 (AFP) - Smartphones will make up over half of Asian mobile phone sales by 2015, with 477 million units likely to be sold, an industry report said Monday.

Consultancy Frost and Sullivan said smartphones would account for 54 percent of the Asia-Pacific mobile market in five years, up sharply from five percent in 2009.

The sharp take-up rate for smartphones will be a huge revenue boost for telecom operators as it means a surge in demand for data services, the consultancy said.

The consultancy said data usage from smartphones would generate over 38 billion US dollars for the region's telecom operators by 2015, from slightly over 1.3 billion dollars last year.

Smartphones are high-end mobile devices providing faster access to data connections such as e-mail and Internet browsing than so-called feature phones, which have less computing ability.

Subscribers usually pay more for mobile data services, translating into higher average revenue per user (ARPU) for operators keen to make up for flat or declining earnings growth from feature phones.

"Smartphones are critical to every operator's mobile broadband business case, as a smartphone user's ARPU typically increased by 25 to 100 percent after adoption depending on the market," said Marc Einstein, the consultancy's industry manager.

"The Asia-Pacific market is particularly interesting for smartphones as there has been significant uptake in emerging markets like China, India and Indonesia, even among prepaid users," he said in the report.

Apple's phenomenally popular iPhone and Research in Motion's BlackBerry, a favourite with corporate users, are largely credited with sparking consumer interest in smartphones in the last few years.

Despite the upbeat assessment, telecom operators still need to overcome a few hurdles, Frost and Sullivan said.

"Eighty percent of Asian mobile users use prepaid cards, and in fact in many markets are as high as 97 percent, making smartphone subsidies impossible for most users," said Einstein.

"Furthermore, there is a lack of public Wi-Fi, particularly in emerging markets, which has been a smartphone saviour in the US and other developed markets."

Malaysian Muslim prayer hall hit in fresh attack

KUALA LUMPUR, August 23, 2010 (AFP) - A Malaysian Muslim prayer hall was vandalised Monday, police said, in the first incident since a spate of assaults on places of worship earlier this year that heightened ethnic tensions.

Eleven churches and two Muslim prayer halls were pelted with Molotov cocktails, stones and paint in January, as a row raged over non-Muslims using the word "Allah" as a translation for "God".

In Monday's incident, red paint was hurled on to the wall and window of a new prayer hall in the central state of Negri Sembilan, state police chief Osman Salleh told AFP.

"We are still investigating the motive behind the incident," he said, adding that it may merely have been a case of vandalism by "naughty kids".

"It might not be religiously or politically linked. I want the people to remain calm and not to over-react to this," Osman said.

Opposition lawmakers who visited the scene of incident condemned the attack, and said they hoped it did not cause problems in the area, which has a mix of Muslim Malays as well as ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

"We hope it will not create any tension among the communities. This is something that we are worried about," said state opposition chief Anthony Loke from the Democratic Action Party.

"We hope the attack can be contained immediately," Loke added.

Religion and language are sensitive issues in multiracial Malaysia, which was hit by deadly race riots in 1969.

Some 60 percent of the 28 million population are Muslim Malays, living alongside large ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.

Two Muslim brothers were earlier this month sentenced to five years in prison for firebombing a church in suburban Kuala Lumpur, which was the first targeted in the spate of attacks that shocked the nation in January.

The trouble broke out after a court overturned a ban on non-Muslim Malaysians using the term "Allah" for "God".

The government argued that the use of the word by Christians, who make up nine percent of the population, could cause confusion and encourage religious conversion, which is illegal for Malaysian Muslims.

China may scrap death penalty for some economic crimes

BEIJING, August 23, 2010 (AFP) - China may eliminate capital punishment for some economic crimes as it moves to curb use of the death penalty in a country believed to execute more people than the rest of the world combined.

China's National People's Congress will this week consider an amendment to the nation's criminal law that will take 13 offences off the list of 68 crimes now punishable by death, state-run Xinhua news agency said Monday.

According to Amnesty International, China executes more people each year than the rest of the world put together, but the exact number remains a closely guarded state secret.

China has taken measures in recent years to rein in the use of capital punishment, including requiring the country's supreme court to review all such sentences before they are carried out.
Most executions are carried out for violent crimes such as murder and robbery, the China Daily reported last month, but drug trafficking and some corruption cases also are punishable by death.

Xinhua said crimes that may become exempt from capital punishment include tax fraud and "fraudulent activities involving financial bills".

Other offences including smuggling of cultural relics, precious metals and rare animals may also be wiped off the list.

"Considering China's current economic and social development reality, appropriately removing the death penalty from some economy-related non-violent offences will not negatively affect social stability nor public security," legislator Li Shishi was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

The move would "better protect human rights", the report said.

Of the 68 current capital crimes in China, 44 do not involve violent acts.

The draft amendment will also aim to forbid the death penalty against convicted criminals aged 75 years or more, the China News Service said.

In a report earlier this year, Amnesty said the number executed in China was "believed to be in the thousands", compared with 2009's second-ranked executioner Iran, which the rights group said carried out at least 388 last year.

Firing squads have traditionally been used in Chinese executions, however in recent years the state has increasingly adopted lethal injections.

The amendment will be read during this week's session of the parliament's standing committee, its key law-making body.

Draft laws are typically read several times before being adopted.

Shanghai new home sales halved in Jan-July: report

SHANGHAI, August 23, 2010 (AFP) - Sales of new homes in Shanghai dropped 48 percent in the first seven months of 2010 from a year earlier, as China's efforts to cool the property market began to bite, state media said Monday.

By the end of July sales in terms of floor space totalled 9.11 million square metres (98.1 million square feet), the Shanghai Daily reported, citing the city's statistics bureau. It did not provide comparative figures for 2009.

Chinese authorities have issued a slew of measures in recent months as they seek to prevent the property market overheating and causing a bubble that could derail the country's economy.

The government has tightened restrictions nationwide on advance sales of new developments, introduced curbs on loans for third home purchases and raised minimum down-payments for second homes.

The property price index for July was 10.3 percent higher than a year earlier, down from a record rise of 12.8 percent in April, the National Bureau of Statistics said earlier this month.

Prices in Beijing remained flat month-on-month in July, while they dipped 0.6 percent in Shanghai and 0.4 percent in the southern city of Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong.

At the weekend, vice premier Li Keqiang urged local governments to implement the central government's policies to curb speculation in the real estate sector and increase the supply of affordable housing, the Xinhua news agency reported.


Tens of thousands evacuated after floods in China, N.Korea

BEIJING, August 22, 2010 (AFP) - More than 120,000 people have been evacuated in northeast China following serious floods that have already left four dead and forced the relocation of thousands in neighbouring North Korea.

Heavy summer downpours have dangerously swollen the Yalu river, which forms the border between the two countries, and forecasters are warning of yet more torrential rain to come.

China's civil affairs ministry said late Saturday that 127,000 people had been evacuated in Liaoning province in just three days due to the rains, as the nation struggles with its worst floods in a decade.

In Dandong city alone, which borders North Korea, more than 94,000 residents were evacuated and some power and transport links were cut off, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

A couple in their 70s and a mother and son died in Kuandian county, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of Dandong, when flash floods swept away their homes, Xinhua said, citing a local flood control official.

A 60-year-old man was also missing in Kuandian after his house collapsed in a rain-triggered landslide.

According to the state-run Beijing Times, the floods in Dandong are the second most serious since 1949.

China's national meteorological centre warned Sunday that new downpours were expected in parts of Liaoning, including Dandong, for another 24 hours at least.

In neighbouring North Korea, more than 5,000 people have been moved to safety after parts of Sinuiju city and rural communities near the border were "completely inundated", the official Korean Central News Agency said.

The impoverished state has been hit by widespread flooding this summer, which has washed away homes, roads, railways and farmland, causing an unspecified number of deaths, according to state media reports from Pyongyang.

After decades of deforestation, North Korea is particularly vulnerable to flooding. In 2007, it reported at least 600 people dead or missing from devastating floods.

China has also been battered by heavy rains, and nearly 3,900 people have been killed or left missing this year in flood-related incidents, official figures show.

In the northwestern province of Gansu, a torrent of mud on August 7 slammed into homes in the remote town of Zhouqu, leaving at least 1,434 people dead and another 331 missing.

In the southwestern province of Yunnan, rescuers are still searching for 69 people who went missing in rain-triggered mudslides in a remote, mountainous area. Twenty-three people have been confirmed dead, Xinhua said.

China closes factories as green deadline looms - Focus

BEIJING, August 22, 2010 (AFP) - China, facing the risk of embarrassment if it misses a looming environmental deadline, has ordered thousands of companies to close high-polluting plants as its leadership vies to retool economic growth.

Beijing has pledged to slash China's energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product by 20 percent between 2006 and 2010, as the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter seeks to reduce pollution and clean up its environment.

Official data suggest China is likely to miss the year-end deadline -- potentially causing red faces for top leaders who have trumpeted efforts to curb emissions growth and develop renewable energy.

"It is a gesture to show that the country is trying its best to achieve the target," Andy Xie, an independent economist based in Shanghai, told AFP.

"The leaders need to save face."

Beijing this month ordered 2,087 firms producing steel, coal, cement, aluminium, glass and other materials to close their old and obsolete plants by the end of September -- or risk having bank loans frozen and power cut off.

Authorities in the eastern province of Anhui have reportedly already cut off electricity to more than 500 factories for a month after they failed to meet emission reduction targets.
But only about a dozen factories will be closed entirely, with the rest ordered to shut down specific production capacity, according to the government order.

Tianjin Tiangang Union Iron and Steel Co. in northern China, for example, has been told to close two furnaces while Chaofeng Construction Materials Co., also based in northern China, has been told to shutter two production lines.

The move comes after China in July scrapped preferential power rates for energy-intensive industries, which had reduced their electricity bills by an estimated 15 billion yuan (2.2 billion dollars), according to state media.

Leaders in Beijing have been keen to promote their green credentials.

Ahead of global climate talks in Copenhagen last year, they pledged to reduce China's carbon intensity -- the measure of greenhouse gas emitted per unit of economic activity -- by 40-45 percent by 2020 based on 2005 levels.

China has earmarked 738 billion dollars to invest in developing clean energy over the next decade as it seeks to meet a target of generating 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources -- mainly wind and water -- by 2020.

It will host an extra round of climate talks in October before a UN summit in Mexico at the end of the year, as nations attempt to devise a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, whose binding targets expire in 2012.

"If Beijing fails to hit the 2010 target by a wide margin, its credibility on climate change commitments will be subject to a great deal of international scepticism," said Damien Ma, an analyst with the New York-based Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm.

At the end of 2009, China had reduced its energy consumption per unit of GDP by 14 percent, analysts said. But in the first six months of this year, it rose 0.09 percent -- the first year-on-year increase since 2006.

Striking a balance between maintaining economic growth and reducing pollution is difficult, Australian academic Frank Jotzo told AFP.

"They have got a really big battle at hand with the very rapid expansion of the economy," said Jotzo, deputy director of the Climate Change Institute at Australian National University.

While previous attempts to close high-polluting factories have been less than successful -- new plants often rise from the ashes of the old ones -- the stakes are much higher this time, analysts say.

The central government has been "leaning hard" on local officials, threatening to rescind their promotions if they fail to meet energy reduction targets, said Ma.

"I think the government understands that if it misses the 20 percent target, it will reflect very badly on China's reputation," said Yang Ailun, climate and energy campaign manager at Greenpeace China.

Yang likened the closure of factories to putting a band-aid over China's pollution woes, which have been worsened by decades of rampant economic growth.

"These factories should be phased out but it would be much better for the government to send out a very clear and long-term (energy) pricing signal and then design effective policies in support of that," she said.

Jungle campaign nightmare for Malaysian opposition - Focus

MIRI, August 22, 2010 (AFP) - Harrison Ngau's description of dirty politics in the rainforest state of Sarawak on Borneo island reads like a chapter in a spy novel, complete with subterfuge, threats, and contraband.

The amiable one-time lawmaker says the challenges he had to overcome to score an unlikely election victory will again face Malaysia's opposition when it contests statewide polls expected within months.

A political earthquake in 2008 national elections, which shook the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition's half-century grip on power, has rendered timber-rich Sarawak and neighbouring Sabah state extremely strategic.

With Borneo now one of its last bastions of support, the coalition must fend off the resurgent opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim and retain its hold there in the next national elections if it wants to stay in office.

The upcoming Sarawak state polls will be a keenly watched bellwether with far-reaching implications for the multicultural, Muslim-majority nation which Barisan Nasional has ruled since independence in 1957.

But Harrison Ngau is quite sure that going on past performance, the coalition -- fronted in Sarawak by ageing chief minister Taib Mahmud, who has been in power for 29 years -- will put up a tough fight.

"It was a nightmare and still remains a nightmare for the opposition to win in Sarawak polls," said Ngau, who served one term in parliament in the 1990s and is now a leading lawyer campaigning for native land rights.

When he decided to stand for office as an independent, no one gave him a chance of winning as his constituency was so huge, with voters scattered across jungles reachable only by boat, four-wheel-drive vehicles and plane.

"We had to campaign in Bario (highlands district) but we could not get a flight nor send our election pamphlets. The order from BN was: 'Ngau should not set foot in Bario. His posters should not be seen here'," he said.

Facing defeat, he came up with the idea of smuggling his election posters by hiding them inside empty biscuit tins, and air freighting them secretly to Bario, where they were quietly intercepted by friends.

"The next morning my posters were hanging in Bario. It shocked my BN rival. To win elections in Sarawak one has to behave like a commando," said the 49-year-old in his offices in the coastal town of Miri.

Ngau says the state remains in thrall to powerful political masters and tycoons who control the timber and plantations industries that have plundered the state's natural resources.

The Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance has set its sights on capturing Sarawak, campaigning on land rights for indigenous people, poverty and allegations of rampant political corruption.

Prime Minister Najib Razak made a historic visit to the Sarawak interior last month, delivering multi-million-dollar development pledges and a promise to survey native lands to pave the way for ownership of ancestral territory.

But decades of exploitation that have stripped the forests and poisoned the waterways, together with their unsuccessful quest for land rights, have left a strong sense of frustration and betrayal among Sarawak's tribes.

"The trust has been damaged. Look, our longhouses are falling apart," said Richard Jengan, a 50-year-old member of the Penan tribe in the remote village of Long Lamai.

"The soil is no longer fertile. It is impossible to hunt or look for food in the jungle," said 45-year-old neighbour Connie Lingga. "I think this time we should vote the opposition."

Baru Bian, the new leader of Anwar's Keadilan party in Sarawak, said the opposition alliance will contest all 71 seats in the state parliament -- currently it holds just seven.

"I am confident that with the mood on the ground we can topple Taib provided vote-buying and threats are not used," Baru Bian said, but admitted their slim resources may be no match for the coalition's vast election machinery.

The state polls will provide Najib with an opportunity to gauge voter sentiment as he prepares for national elections expected to be held in 2011.

In 2008 the coalition was humbled with its worst results ever, losing control of five states and a third of parliamentary seats as ethnic Chinese and Indians swung to the opposition.

Currently, 54 of its 137 seats in parliament are Borneo electorates.

Political analyst Khoo Kay Peng predicted the opposition would do well in urban seats, but said they faced a much more difficult job in the interior, where there is a long-established system of patronage and vote-buying.

"I do not see a change in the state government. It will be tough for the opposition to win because the state is huge and it will need a lot of resources to campaign."