Singapore raises defence spending by 4.3%

SINGAPORE, February 17, 2012 (AFP) - Singapore will increase its defence budget by 4.3 percent over last year, data in the government's annual budget released Friday showed.

The Ministry of Defence's total expenditure in the financial year 2012 "is projected to be Sg$12.28 billion ($9.74 billion)", the budget report said.
This represented an increase of Sg$504 million or 4.3 percent over the previous year, it added.

The defence expenditure will constitute 24.4 percent of the government's total spending for 2012, making the ministry the biggest beneficiary of the budget allocation.

Most of the money will be spent on "the purchase of military equipment, maintenance of equipment and camps, and the salaries and allowances" of soldiers, the budget report stated.

Singapore's gross domestic product reached Sg$326.8 billion in 2011, with defence spending forming 3.6 percent of it.

The city-state's defence budget is expected to hit $12.32 billion by 2015, global research group IHS forecast earlier in the week.

"States like Singapore, have a strong current account and currency, and very sound public finances, so its defence spend looks stable in the near term," said Rajiv Biswas, Asia Pacific chief economist at IHS Global Insight.

Singapore has the biggest defence budget in Southeast Asia and the seventh largest in Asia, according to IHS.

Singapore to further curb foreign worker inflow

SINGAPORE, February 17, 2012 (AFP) - Singapore will further restrict the inflow of foreign workers as the nation's infrastructure comes under strain and its national identity risks being eroded, the government said Friday.

The high number of foreign workers was one of the hottest issues in last year's general elections in which the ruling People's Action Party suffered its worst showing of 52 years in power. The government then instituted curbs on the influx in August.

Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said the government would introduce a "calibrated reduction" in the ratio of foreign workers hired by companies in the manufacturing and services sectors to curb dependence on them.

"Our increasing dependence on foreign workers is not sustainable," Tharman, who is also the deputy prime minister, told parliament as he announced the government's 2012 budget.

"It will test the limits of our space and infrastructure, despite our efforts to build more housing and expand our public transport system," he added.
"A continued rapid infusion of foreign workers will also inevitably affect the Singaporean character of our society."

Tharman said economic factors were also considered when restricting the influx of foreign workers, following curbs introduced in August last year.

"There is also an important economic reason: the easy availability of foreign labour will reduce the incentives for our companies to upgrade, design better jobs and raise productivity," he said.

Singapore's population totalled 5.18 million in 2011, more than a quarter of whom are foreigners.


China blames foreign reporters for bad press abroad - Focus

BEIJING, February 17, 2012 (AFP) - Despite investing billions of dollars in "soft power" projects to improve its image abroad, China complains it is still getting a lot of bad press and is pointing the finger at foreign journalists.

Authorities routinely accuse China's 900 foreign reporters -- a record number, accredited to more than 400 media organisations -- of covering China in a negative way. The journalists, meanwhile, complain of regular hindrance to their work.

The issue came to the fore at a forum this week in Beijing, where media representatives from China -- which operates a vast censorship system over the press -- and France gathered to try and iron out their differing views.

"It is not that China is against critical reporting," said Wang Chen, minister in charge of the press office at the State Council, China's cabinet.

"What we don't accept are double standards based on a Cold War mentality," he told French ambassador Sylvie Bermann, who had just highlighted the importance of journalists being allowed to report stories on the ground.

Foreign reporters in China are sometimes blocked from going to breaking news spots, despite official regulations that allow them to travel freely and to interview anyone who gives their consent.

Earlier this month, for instance, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) -- an illegal organisation in the eyes of Chinese authorities -- complained about working conditions for reporters in Tibetan-inhabited areas.

Journalists trying to get to areas hit by deadly unrest in Sichuan province were repeatedly turned back by police, and authorities in those regions cut web and phone communications, making reporting on the issue near impossible.

On Thursday, the FCCC also issued a warning to journalists wanting to cover a revolt against local officials by villagers in east China after a Dutch reporter was beaten up by thugs who appeared to be plainclothes police.

Chinese authorities often complain to Western media of their "negative" coverage, pointing to too many stories on dissidents, protests, social unrest, pollution and not enough on China's economic and cultural achievements.

These concerns surfaced at the forum, organised by the China Institute -- a non-profit French organisation created in 2009 that says it aims to foster better understanding of China -- and by official Chinese partners.

"For the French media, China has become an autocratic country with strong economic growth," lamented Cui Hongjian of the China Institute of International Studies.

"We must provide more positive information to the public," added Wang Fang, deputy head of the international section of the People's Daily newspaper, the Communist Party mouthpiece.

Erik Izraelewicz, director of French newspaper Le Monde, retorted that a journalist "should not have to judge whether news is negative or positive, just whether there is any news".

"Our mission is to inform," he added.

The Chinese government is making efforts to push the nation's various ministries, administrations and local authorities to be more open and better respond to the needs of the foreign press.

"We have a project to train officials to talk to the media," said Cui.

Authorities in some sensitive areas of China such as the northwestern Xinjiang region, which is regularly hit by ethnic unrest, have let foreign journalists in under strict surveillance -- in stark contrast to Tibetan-inhabited areas.

These improvements come as China tries to better its image abroad -- particularly since 2008, when riots in Tibet and a crackdown on dissent in the run-up to the Olympic Games badly dented what could have been a public relations victory.

Beijing is spending billions of dollars to extend the reach of its state media -- such as the Xinhua news agency, CCTV television or the People's Daily -- and of its Confucius institutes, designed to promote Chinese language and culture.

And while China's 9,884 newspapers, 1,600 television channels and 2,000 radios operate under strict surveillance, some of the more liberal press and the hugely popular social media platforms push the limits of censorship day by day.

Large numbers of smart, young people graduate from journalism school in China every year, and many speak fluent English.

"There are 900 journalism schools in China that train between 50,000 and 60,000 young journalists every year," said Zhou Qing'an of Tsinghua University.

But foreign media organisations are not allowed to recruit them to work as reporters -- a regulation that forum participants said should change, as they could help promote better understanding of their nation.

China drapes Rio Carnival with its synthetic fabric - Focus

RIO DE JANEIRO, February 17, 2012 (AFP) - China is making its formidable presence felt at Rio's famed Carnival, supplying much of the synthetic fabric used to make the lavish costumes and accessories worn by samba dancers, musicians and revelers during the five-day extravaganza.

As the mega-event's prepares to start on Friday, local samba schools put the finishing touches to the glittering costumes they will show off during the parades at the Sambadrome, the "temple of Samba," Sunday and Monday.

Youths prepared accessories and costumes featuring colorful fabric adorned with sparkling sequins, beads and imitation diamonds.

Thousands more scrambled through the narrow streets of the central Rio garment district to buy mascara, disguises, hats, wings and sunglasses for use during the wild street parties that will attract hundreds of thousands of people.

Carnival costumes and disguises are hand-made and for the most part produced in Brazil, but the raw material comes from China, said Jonatan Schmidt, the president of Brazil's association of textile importers (ABITEX).

"In Brazil, we produce only 15 percent of the synthetic fabric needed for the Carnival, the rest is imported mainly from China," he told AFP.

"The number of imported ready-made costumes is negligible. What is important is the raw material that we import," he said.

In 2011, Brazil's textile production fell nearly 15 percent and imports shot up 53 percent to $1.085 billion compared with the previous year. The main supplier was China, according to Brazil's Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

China "has the biggest industrial park with competitive prices and good quality," Schmidt said, noting that Brazil has to rely on imports because it does not have major domestic synthetic fabric producers.

"There are just a few small factories with foreign capital that produce to meet their own demand," he said.

At Silmer, one of Rio's major Carnival costume stores, business is brisk. In the past days nearly 1,500 people have been coming in every day to buy, said employee Claudio Muniz.

"Fifty percent of our products are imported from China, and they are 20 to 25 percent cheaper than those from Brazil," Muniz said. "The other 50 percent are Brazilian."

The costumes are not imported, but "90 percent of them are made with Chinese-made fabric," he said.

"Brazilians want something cheap, disposable, light, which does not require washing or ironing. It has to be practical and material like cotton and silk won't do because they are expensive and not practical," Schmidt said.

Customers are not always happy with the prices, which like everything else in Brazil, are high.

A 28-year-old lawyer who said she will disguise herself as a fairy during Carnival bought some wings at Silmer for less than eight dollars, but found a costume, priced at 47 dollars, too expensive.

"I'll try to get one cheaper elsewhere," said the woman, who did not give her name.

Muniz said the surge in costume sales began two years ago when "street carnivals regained popularity."

According to Brazil's foreign trade association AEB, the country posted a $3.40 billion deficit in its textile trade between January and November 2011, $830 million more than the previous year.

In 2009, China dislodged the United States as Brazil's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching $77 billion last year.

Beijing is now also the largest investor in the South American nation, with Brazil enjoying a trade surplus of some $11.5 billion.

Iron ore and soybeans represent more than 80 percent of Brazil's exports to China, while China in turn sells mostly manufactured goods.

Brazilian manufacturers have been complaining about the influx of cheap Chinese imports, including shoes and automobiles, and Brasilia is pressing Beijing to open its doors wider to Brazilian manufactured goods.

HK leader candidate blames wife for 'underground palace'

HONG KONG, February 17, 2012 (AFP) - Hong Kong chief executive hopeful Henry Tang's campaign was in disarray Friday after he blamed his wife for what has been dubbed an illegal "underground palace" in one of the couple's homes.

Tang came under pressure to quit the race after local media revealed the illegal basement featuring a wine cellar, a Japanese-style bath, entertainment suite and a workout room at the upmarket residential property.

The 59-year-old heir of a textile fortune said the renovation which had not received approval was his wife's idea, after media descended on the house and hired cranes to get a bird's-eye view of a glass-bottomed swimming pool above the basement.

"I apologise to all Hong Kong people," an emotional Tang told a hastily convened press conference late Thursday.

"It was my wife's idea and I knew they were illegal. Since we were experiencing a low ebb in our marriage...I did not handle the matter swiftly. I take full responsibility for the incident."

The well-known wine lover however refused to quit the race, saying he should be judged by his business-friendly manifesto. Legal experts said he could face jail over the scandal, making him ineligible for office.

His comments -- taking responsibility while blaming his wife -- left many wondering if the man believed to be Beijing's favourite for the chief executive job has what it takes to lead the southern banking and trade centre.

A 1,200-member Electoral Committee packed with pro-Beijing elites will choose the next chief executive on March 25, replacing incumbent Donald Tsang whose mandate is ending.

"He has almost lost all his credibility in the whole thing, he lied every day," Chinese University of Hong Kong political scientist Ma Ngok told AFP, referring to Tang's earlier description of the area as a "storage" space.

"It appears that he's still trying to canvass Beijing's support, but based on his credibility it will be very difficult for him to lead Hong Kong for the next five years even if he is elected."

Tang has not yet formally nominated himself for the chief executive job. The deadline is February 29.

"I think Beijing is in a difficult situation since there are several days left before the close of the nomination period and it will be too short for them to find a replacement for Tang," Ma said.

Angry Hong Kongers hit out at Tang on government-run talk radio. One caller said his credibility was "bankrupt" and several politicians urged him to quit the race.

"Based on his conduct, his personality and his capability, he is not a suitable candidate for the next chief executive," said Regina Ip, former security minister and chairwoman of the pro-Beijing New People's Party.

Another chief executive hopeful, Albert Ho, from the pro-democracy camp, said: "He tried to conceal the facts. He has a very serious credibility problem."

The widely read main Chinese language newspaper Apple Daily said Tang's credibility had been "buried" in the "underground palace".

The controversy is the biggest setback so far for Tang's campaign, already beset by his frequent verbal gaffes to reporters and opinion polls putting him well behind his main rival, Leung Chun-ying.

Tang has the support of the city's powerful business tycoons but his campaign got off to a shaky start late last year when he publicly admitted to cheating on his wife of 27 years, Lisa Kuo Yu-chin.

A teary Kuo stood beside her husband then and again on Thursday as she admitted to arranging the excavations without Tang's knowledge.

"I just wanted to plan a comfy place for my family," she said in response to a barrage of questions from journalists.

"I greatly regret that I did it without considering the consequences. I'm very, very sorry."

Authorities confirmed the illegal basement was around 2,250 square feet (209 square metres) in area. Many of Hong Kong's seven million people live in spaces a quarter of that size.

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and authorities regularly prosecute residents for making illegal additions to their homes.

Israeli embassy confirms Barak visit but dismisses plot

SINGAPORE, February 17, 2012 (AFP) - The Israeli embassy in Singapore confirmed Friday that Defence Minister Ehud Barak had visited the city-state, but dismissed reports of an assassination plot targeting him.

"Minister Barak was in Singapore to attend the Airshow and open the Israeli Pavilion," the Israeli embassy's deputy chief of mission Michal Sarig-Kaduri told AFP in an email.

The Singapore Airshow is one of Asia's biggest aviation trade fairs in which Israel has a major exhibit of its commercial and defence aerospace industries. The event ends this weekend.

But Sarig-Kaduri dismissed a report in Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida that Barak had been targeted for assassination by three members of a Hezbollah-Iranian terror cell during his visit from February 12-15.

The report was widely picked up by Israeli media.

"The ministerial visit went according to plan and no unusual incident occurred. There are absolutely no grounds for this report," she stated.

The Singapore police and an Israeli defence official have also rebutted the report, which stated that the three culprits had been arrested by local authorities with the help of Israeli spy agency Mossad before they could carry out their attack.

Israeli security agencies are on alert worldwide after the Jewish state blamed Iran over a failed bomb plot in Bangkok, as well as attacks on Israeli embassy staff in India and Georgia.

Iranian officials have denied any involvement in the incidents in Thailand, India and Georgia this week, rejecting Israeli accusations that the Islamic republic has unleashed a terror campaign.

Australian sues Twitter over hate blog: report

SYDNEY, February 17, 2012 (AFP) - An Australian man is suing Twitter for defamation after he was wrongly named as the author of a hate blog, a report said Friday.

A lawyer for Melbourne man Joshua Meggitt served a legal notice on the US-based Twitter Inc on Thursday, the Sydney Morning Herald said.

The action arose after Australian writer and TV personality Marieke Hardy wrongly accused Meggitt of being the author of a hate blog about her to her more than 60,000 followers on the micro-blogging site in November.

"I name and shame my 'anonymous' internet bully. Liberating business! Join me," Hardy tweeted, posting a link to her blog in which she mistakenly named Meggitt as being behind the articles.

Hardy subsequently apologised to Meggitt on her blog and reportedly paid him Aus$13,000 (US$14,016) in damages as part of a confidential out-of-court settlement.

But because Hardy's tweet had appeared on Twitter's homepage, and was copied by some of her followers and other users during a worldwide campaign against online abuse, Meggitt's lawyer Stuart Gibson is pursuing the site, the Herald said.

"Twitter are a publisher, and at law anyone involved in the publication can be sued," Gibson told the newspaper.

"We're suing for the re-tweets and the original tweet -- and many of the re-tweets and comments are far worse."

Twitter itself, not individual users, were being sued for damages, he said.

The case is expected to test whether Twitter, which allows users to publish their thoughts in 140 characters or less, can be sued for defamation in Australia.

Twitter, which was championed as a tool of free expression during the Arab Spring for its uncensored comments, in January announced it could block tweets on a country-by-country basis if legally required to do so.

Court denies Japanese whalers' appeal over US group

LOS ANGELES, February 17, 2012 (AFP) - A US judge refused Thursday to restrain a US-based environmental group from disrupting the activities of Japanese whalers, allegedly with violence.

Judge Richard Jones denied a request for a preliminary injunction sought by Japanese whalers against the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which is based in northwestern state of Washington.

The whalers sought a court order preventing the Sea Shepherd and its founder Paul Watson "from engaging in physical attacks on plaintiffs' vessels in the Southern Ocean," referring to the ocean encircling Antarctica.

Plaintiffs included the Institute of Cetacean Research, Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha, Ltd., Tomoyuki Ogawa ("Captain Ogawa"), and Toshiyuki Miura ("Captain Miura").

"Over the past few years, defendants have engaged in repeated, relentless violent attacks against plaintiffs in the Southern Ocean," read the injunction request, filed in Seattle.

These range "from ramming vessels, attempting to disable plaintiffs' ships by dragging fouling ropes in their path, firing acid-filled glass projectiles at plaintiffs' vessels and their crew and launching incendiary devices against the vessels and crew, exposing them to risk of fire and explosion."

This conduct "endangers the safety of the vessels and the Masters, crew, and researchers on board and is in violation of international and domestic law, let alone any rational standard of human conduct," they said.

In their Seattle court submission, the whalers said they were "entitled to be free from attack by what are essentially self-proclaimed pirates with a base in the state of Washington."

But rejecting their request, the judge said: "The Court hears argument of counsel and makes a tentative ruling denying the motion for preliminary injunction," adding that a full judgment will be issued at a later date.

Last month Japan's Fisheries Agency said anti-whaling activists threw paint and foul smelling acid at a whaling ship in the Antarctic ocean in a fresh bid to halt the annual hunt, officials said.

Two boats belonging to Sea Shepherd approached the Japanese whaling vessel Yushin Maru No. 2 (YS2) and launched 40 bottles containing paint and butyric acid, the agency said.

The Japanese whaling fleet, led by the 720-tonne Yushin Maru, was seen leaving the Japanese port of Shimonoseki on December 6 for the annual hunt, with security measures beefed up after clashes in previous years.

Their mission is officially said to be for "scientific research," with the fleet aiming to catch around 900 minke and fin whales, according to a plan submitted by the government to the International Whaling Commission.

Taiwan's military fights battle of the bulge

TAOYUAN, February 17, 2012 (AFP) - On a military base in north Taiwan's Taoyuan county, hundreds of young men are battling one of the main obstacles to a robust and efficient defence force -- obesity.

They get up at dawn to jog, do calisthenics and throw mock hand grenades, all in a bid to achieve a level of fitness that can no longer be taken for granted in an increasingly sedentary society.

"The objective is to provide them with the basic training that will allow them to take up more special training after 37 days," said Shi Wen-lung, a colonel at the camp.

Across a narrow body of water, Taiwan faces a formidable foe -- the People's Liberation Army of China -- but at home it must tackle the collateral damage of the modern age: growing wastelines and deteriorating eyesight.

Taiwan's gross domestic product per capita grew from about US$200 in 1951 to roughly US$31,000 in 2009, according to data compiled by the University of Pennsylvania.

The lifestyle of its people has followed in step and childhoods full of fatty foods and endless hours in front of the computer have made the island's adolescents less fit for army life than perhaps any generation before.

"In boot camp, many have a hard time getting up to speed," said Stephen Sung, a 20-year-old conscript. "I guess they're too spoiled from home."

The issue is one of global significance, as most rich societies worldwide grapple with the challenge of maintaining a credible military with a young generation shielded from physical hardship since birth.

"Like their peers elsewhere in the world, Taiwan's young people are on the decline in terms of physical fitness compared with their fathers," said Lin Yu-fang, a lawmaker for the ruling Kuomintang party.

The average body mass index (BMI), a widely accepted measure for whether a person is overweight, of young Taiwanese people has been rising steadily in recent years.

Twenty years ago, the BMI of Taiwan's 18-year-olds was 21.95, 10 years ago it had risen to 22.15, and now it is estimated to be around 23, according to the island's ministry of defence. A value of 25 is considered overweight.

Lin attributes changing body shapes partly to social and economic advances in Taiwan's fast-developing economy.

"Among the causes is a lack of proper exercise as more and more people live in urban areas," he said.

"Maybe not everyone, but indeed lots of young people like to sit and play video games day and night. Fast food is another problem."

It's not just excess weight that's causing despair among Taiwan's military recruiters, it's also the eyes of their would-be soldiers.

Myopia or near-sightedness has increased from 46.9 percent of Taiwanese sixth-graders in 1996 to 65.0 percent in 2011, education ministry figures show. Scientists have blamed the trend on children spending more time indoors.

Maintaining a strong defensive force has been a main policy priority for Taiwan for decades, as the self-ruled island is claimed as sovereign territory by China, which has never ruled out attack.

Taiwan's military is currently about 275,000-strong, mostly conscripts, but the plan is to eventually make it a full professional force.

Observers have expressed concern that a professional military could worsen the recruitment problem, as the most talented young Taiwanese have traditionally shied away from careers in the armed forces.

While Taiwan's situation may be special, its problems are universal.

Throughout history, the armies of the world have had to deal with malnourished or undernourished recruits, but in recent decades, the opposite has been the case.

According to the US military, only one in four young Americans is fit to join up, with obesity cited as a main cause of ineligibility.

"When both our children's health and our national security are at stake, it is time for decisive action," a group of retired senior US military officials wrote in a report, Unfit to Fight, in November.

But it's not all bad news, and some observers point out that whether Taiwan's young are also unfit to fight to a large extent depends on what kind of battle they are preparing for.

A D-Day style invasion by China is just one scenario for how a conflict with the mainland could play out, along with other contingencies such as a blockade or a missile attack.

It may be that Taiwan's young are no match for the lean and mean infantrymen of China's PLA, but in a 21st century conflict it may matter less, according to Liu Fu-Kuo, a defence expert at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

"We are now moving towards a technological military which relies on knowledge and skills to operate sophisticated weaponry systems," he said.
"We need a slimmer, smaller but more technology-dependent military. We need more technicians and more skillful people to join the military."

Twitter revamps to connect the world

SAN FRANCISCO, February 17, 2012 (AFP) - Twitter on Thursday announced it has finished rolling out overhauled pages crafted to boost the appeal of the message-sharing service to users around the world.

"At the very core there are fewer places you have to click and less you have to learn," Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey said as he and other executives unveiled the changes at the startup's San Francisco headquarters in December.

"We've done a lot of user testing and it has proven to be much simpler," Dorsey added.

Overhauled navigation features take advantage of the fact that Twitter symbols such as @ and # are making their way into common culture, showing up anywhere from text messages to advertising billboards and television.

Twitter designed Connect navigation tools that essentially turn those symbols into new age URLs, or web addresses, to let people find all posts or other information being fired off about topics.

Twitter also expanded profile pages, letting users tell more about themselves or, in the case of companies, their brands.

Dorsey said revenue from "promoted tweet" style ads has been steadily growing and the startup is easing out a self-service advertising system.

Advertising revenues at Twitter grew 213% to $139.5 million in 2011, up from $45 million in 2010, according to eMarketer.

The market tracking firm predicted that Twitter will bring in $259.9 million in advertising revenue this year and that the global revenue would hit $540 million by the year 2014.

The Twitter overhaul completed on Thursday includes new Timeline that brings together all Twitter chatter or content related to a particular "tweet."

"There is a universe within every tweet," Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo said at the unveiling. "The 140 characters are a caption associated with a rich canvas that could be a song, a video, a photo or more."

The new Twitter design was described as a platform on which the service will build to reinforce its effort to "reach every person on the planet."

"Of course tweeting is still front and center," Dorsey said. "Any time you have something to tell the world you can do it instantly."

Robot seals heal hearts of Japan tsunami survivors

KESENNUMA, February 17, 2012 (AFP) - High-tech fluffy seals that respond to human touch are the latest weapon in the battle against depression for survivors of Japan's tsunami disaster.

"Paro" is being offered to people made homeless by the disaster and is offering a much-needed bit of affection with his burbling noises and the appreciative flapping of fins when he comes into contact with people.

"It's so cute. It coos when I rub it," said 10-year-old Kosei Oyama, "Because of the tsunami, we have fewer things to play with than before."

Tsuyako Kumagai, a 47-year-old housewife, said her friends in temporary houses are happy with Paro as a substitute for the pets that were swept away by the gigantic waves.

"Many of my neighbours don't want to have new pets because they don't want to remember," Kumagai said. "For them, pets used to be their family."

The seal robots have been made available to people living in temporary houses erected in a baseball stadium in the port town of Kesennuma, an area badly hit by the tsunami last March which killed 19,000 people on the coast.

For many, things now are a little better than they were, but a long way from perfect.

"I lost what I had built in my life," said Hiroshi Onodera, 51, whose nephew died and whose house was swept away.

Onodera is now living with his mother in a prefabricated house and feels isolated from his community.

"When we were in the emergency shelter, there were a lot of people staying together, but since we have moved to each of our temporary houses, we are separated and having a stressful time," he said.

"So, it's great to have this kind of place, where we can be healed mentally," Onodera said, referring to a community building where the robot creatures are available for short-term loan.

The seal, which is equipped with tactile and audio sensors, has already been used in hospitals and nursing homes as a therapeutic aid for older people suffering from depression or dementia.

Organisers of the scheme are also offering other fixes to disaster victims, including workout robots and a prototype of a high-tech head massager, and even have a reception desk staffed by an android.

"It's important for residents to maintain communication," said Kazuhiro Kojima, a researcher at Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, a public research institution, which developed Paro.

A huge jump in the number of people suffering depression and mental health difficulties was recorded in the wake of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, with the loss of homes identified as a key cause of suffering.

According to the government, some 325,000 people are still living in temporary housing, mainly in northern Japan, nearly a year on from the devastating earthquake-tsunami.

Many lost their homes in the catastrophe, while others were forced from their villages by radiation that leaked from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant when its reactors went into meltdown.

Researchers say technological solutions can help lessen the mental impact of the disaster.

"We hope robots will provide residents here with an opportunity to rebuild their community," Kojima said. "Mental support will become a very important issue here. I hope robots can help."

Facebook dabbles with validating user identity

SAN FRANCISCO, February 17, 2012 (AFP) - Facebook on Thursday began testing a way for celebrities, journalists, athletes and others with massive followings to have their identities validated at the globally popular online social network.

"The new process enables people to verify their identities by submitting a government issued ID," Facebook said in an email response to an AFP inquiry.

"Once verified, they'll also have the option to more prominently display an alternate name (nickname, maiden name, byline, etc.) on their timelines in addition to their real name."

The validation option was being rolled out as a minor update to the Subscribe feature at Facebook for people with large numbers of followers.

The benefits of confirming people's identities online have been touted by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg at the company's developers conferences.

Twitter has long validated accounts of high-profile users of the one-to-many text messaging service as a way to instill confidence in the reliability of "tweets."

Microsoft launches social news site

SAN FRANCISCO, February 16, 2012 (AFP) - Microsoft on Thursday launched an msnNOW website designed to deliver the "latest buzz" from Facebook, Twitter, Bing and BreakingNews.com.

The service at now.msn.com analyzes in real time Bing searches and updates at the popular online social networks to display hot topics and authoritative voices commenting about them.

Microsoft billed msnNOW as "the first service to surface the latest buzz from Facebook, Twitter, Bing and BreakingNews.com, all in one place."

"It cuts through the clutter of the web, providing an up-to-the-minute view of breaking trends and the hottest social conversations, what people are saying about them, and why they matter," Microsoft said in a statement.

China to surpass India as top gold buyer: industry

MUMBAI, February 16, 2012 (AFP) - China is set to overtake India as the world's largest gold buyer this year as demand for the metal for jewellery and as a safe-haven investment surges, the World Gold Council said Thursday.

Global demand hit 4,067.1 tonnes in 2011 -- edging up 0.4 percent year-on-year -- worth an estimated $205.5 billion, the first time demand has surpassed $200 billion, the WGC said in its latest annual report.

Gold prices rose to a record over $1,920 an ounce in September on frenzied buying by individuals, investment funds and central banks in the aftermath of a US credit rating downgrade and plunging global equity markets.

Prices have slipped since but still hover around $1,700 per ounce.

India, the largest gold consumer and importer, saw a 7.0-percent decline in demand year-on-year to 933.4 tonnes last year, while demand from China jumped 20.0 percent to 769.8 tonnes in the same period.

"There was a major boost to the overall demand from China, a trend we see continuing in the new year," said Marcus Grubb, WGC's investment managing director.

"It is likely that China will emerge as the largest gold market in the world for the first time in 2012."

India and China, which have been battled high inflation, combined account for more than half of the world's gold demand.

India, where gold is widely purchased for religious and ceremonial occasions, consumed less of the yellow metal in 2011 largely because of a weak rupee, which made imports of gold -- priced in dollars -- more expensive.

"The domestic currency fell precipitously in the second half of 2011, on foreign capital outflows. The rapid rise and fall in the rupee and resulting local gold price swings impacted gold buying," the report said.

India's gold demand was down 27.0 percent year-on-year in the second half of 2011.

The WGC said it expects global demand for gold to remain strong in 2012.

Despite the recent softening in demand, India is likely to record steady demand for gold this year, in-line with 2011 trends, analysts and the WGC said.

"The sentiment is likely to remain upbeat this year as inflation is moderating and various tax incentives are likely to support purchases," WGC's Middle East and India managing director Ajay Mitra told reporters.

Analyst Hareesh V. of research firm Geojit Comtrade expects India's gold demand to rise marginally by 2-3 percent this year.

"India could consume close to 965 tonnes in 2012, with the rupee rising against the dollar and inflationary pressures easing, which would boost the import of gold," Hareesh said.

Police deny reports of plot to kill Barak in Singapore

SINGAPORE, February 16, 2012 (AFP) - Singapore police on Thursday denied media reports that they had foiled a plot to assassinate Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak while he was in the city-state.

"The report is untrue. No such incident occurred in Singapore," the police said in a statement emailed to AFP.

In Jerusalem, an Israeli defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP: "We have no knowledge of this."

The Israeli press had published a report from Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida that Singaporean authorities had, together with Israeli spy agency Mossad, foiled an assassination plot against Barak.

He was in the city-state to attend the Singapore Airshow this week and hold talks with officials, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post.

The report added that three members of a Hezbollah-Iranian terror cell were arrested by Singapore authorities, and that they planned to try to assassinate Barak at his hotel.

The information on the plot was obtained by Mossad, which alerted Singapore before Barak's visit, according to the report.

AFP reporters who covered the airshow did not see Barak at the industry trade fair, which started on Tuesday, and security did not seem unusually tight.

The report comes as Israeli security agencies are on alert worldwide after the Jewish state blamed Iran over a failed bomb plot in Bangkok, as well as attacks on Israeli embassy staff in India and Georgia.

Iranian officials have denied any involvement in the incidents in Thailand, India and Georgia this week, rejecting Israeli accusations that the Islamic republic has unleashed a terror campaign.

Barak, who is currently in Tokyo, has said he spent several hours in Bangkok on Sunday, two days before the blasts. He then flew to Singapore before arriving in Japan on Wednesday.

Apple unveils preview of new Mac operating system

SAN FRANCISCO, February 16, 2012 (AFP) - Apple released a preview version of its new Macintosh operating system on Thursday, bringing some features of the iPad to the personal computer.

The Cupertino, California-based company said the updated operating system, called Mountain Lion, will be available to Macintosh developers immediately and Mac owners can upgrade to the new software in late summer.

Apple said Mountain Lion includes a new Messages application which replaces iChat and allows a user to send unlimited messages, photos and video from a Mac to another Mac or a device running iOS software such as the iPad or iPhone.

It also includes integration with Twitter allowing users to sign in and tweet directly from Safari, Photo Booth and third-party applications, Apple said.
Game Center allows for live multiplayer games to be played across iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch devices.

Mountain Lion is the first Mac operating system built with the Internet "cloud" in mind, Apple said.

"More than 100 million users have iCloud accounts, and Mountain Lion makes it easier than ever to set up iCloud and access documents across your devices," Apple said.

A new security feature called Gatekeeper protects the computer against malicious software by giving the user control over what applications can be installed and downloaded, Apple said.

With AirPlay Mirroring, a Mac user can wirelessly send video from a Mac to an HDTV using Apple TV.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook told The Wall Street Journal in an interview that the new Macintosh operating system takes advantage of features popular on the iPad and iPhone.

"We see that people are in love with a lot of apps and functionality here," Cook said of the iPhone. "Anywhere where that makes sense, we are going to move that over to Mac."

Apple sold 5.2 million Macs last quarter.

Social networks can't be forced to impose filters: EU court

LUXEMBOURG, February 16, 2012 (AFP) - Social networking websites cannot be forced to install filters preventing users from illegally sharing music and videos protected by copyright, the European Union's top court said on Thursday.

The EU Court of Justice ruled that such an obligation to monitor content would go against EU rules that ensure a "fair balance" between protecting copyright and defending personal data and the freedom to conduct business.

"The owner of an online social network cannot be obliged to install a general filtering system, covering all its users, in order to prevent the unlawful use of musical and audio-visual work," the court said in a statement.

The case stemmed from a complaint filed by SABAM, a Belgian management company responsible for authorising the use of music of authors, composers and editors, against Netlog NV, a website based in Flanders.

SABAM charged that Netlog enables users to post music and videos in SABAM's repertoire without the company's consent and without the website paying any fee.

The management company sought an injunction from a Belgian court to force Netlog to stop allowing users to post such material and pay a 1,000 euro ($1,300) penalty for each day it delays complying with the order.

Netlog countered that such an order would amount to imposing a general obligation to monitor content in violation of the EU's E-commerce directive. The Luxembourg-based top court sided with Netlog.

The EU Court of Justice issued a similar ruling in November, rejecting SABAM's bid to secure an injunction against Internet service provider Scarlet Extended SA.

The judges ruled that a national court cannot impose an injunction ordering an Internet provider to install a filtering system for all electronic communications, saying it is too expensive for the company and could infringe on people's fundamental rights.

The latest decision is another defeat for backers of web filters, including artists and the enterainment industry, who are fighting to protect their work from circulating freely on the Internet.


Sun journalists mull legal action as Murdoch flies in

LONDON, February 16, 2012 (AFP) - Journalists from Rupert Murdoch's The Sun have contacted a trade union to discuss suing the British tabloid's owners, the union said, after five staff members were arrested in a police bribery probe.

The news comes as Murdoch is due to visit London on Thursday or Friday to meet with journalists, after promising to continue publishing Britain's top-selling weekly despite the corruption row.

The Australian-born tycoon shut down The Sun's weekly stablemate, the News of the World, in July after it became embroiled in a phone-hacking scandal.

Police arrested five Sun journalists last weekend on suspicion of bribing public officials, after receiving information from a committee set up at Murdoch's News Corp. to investigate allegations of wrongdoing.

The arrests caused outrage in the newsroom and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said it was now looking at how to defend staff "against a management that seems prepared to throw them to the wolves".

"We have been approached by a group of journalists from the Sun. We are now exploring a number of ways to support them, including discussing legal redress," NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said in a statement.

She said the issue at stake was the protection of sources, and suggested the journalists might use European human rights laws.

"The protection of sources is an essential principle which has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the European Court of Human Rights as the cornerstone of press freedom and the NUJ shall defend it," Stanistreet said.

Murdoch's office said the tycoon was due to fly to Britain this week to manage the latest crisis in his media empire.

In a email to staff when the journalists were arrested on February 11, Murdoch executive Tom Mockridge said the proprietor had given him a "personal assurance... about his total commitment" to publishing The Sun.

China says World Bank head should be chosen on merit

BEIJING, February 16, 2012 (AFP) - China said Thursday it hoped the next head of the World Bank would be selected on "merit", amid calls for an end to US dominance at the global lender after Robert Zoellick steps down.

Zoellick, 58, said he would leave in June at the end of his five-year term, and his departure has set the scene for a battle over traditional US dominance of the global development lender, where all presidents have been American.

"China hopes that the World Bank will select the next president based on the principles of openness, competition and merit," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters.

Liu would not be drawn on whether China would prefer a non-American to lead the global lender, unlike Brazil, which has already urged the World Bank to give proper consideration to developing country candidates.

But he praised Zoellick's role in "enhancing the say and representation of developing countries in the World Bank."

Thanks to an unwritten pact between European powers and the United States dating back to 1945, all 11 Bank presidents have been Americans and all IMF managing directors have come from Europe.

But a number of emerging-market countries and non-governmental organisations have lobbied for years for an end to that tacit pact to better reflect today's global economy.

After former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's sudden resignation last May, China called for the selection of the next leader to better represent emerging markets.

In the end, though, Beijing pledged its support for French finance minister Christine Lagarde, who was eventually chosen to head the IMF over several non-Europeans.

During his tenure, Zoellick shepherded the Bank and its members through the financial crisis that had a heavy impact on many of the world's poorest countries.

Liu praised his role, saying he had helped mobilise "all kinds of resources to help developing countries face the challenges of the international financial crisis, promoting global poverty alleviation and development."

Malaysia Islamic clerics forbid forex trading

KUALA LUMPUR, February 16, 2012 (AFP) - Malaysia's highest Islamic body has issued an edict forbidding foreign exchange trading by Muslim individuals, saying such speculation violates Islamic law.

The National Fatwa Council ruled forex trading by money changers or between banks was allowable but trading by individuals "creates confusion" among the faithful, according to a report issued Wednesday by state news agency Bernama.

Council chairman Abdul Shukor Husin warned "there are many doubts about it (forex trading) and it involves individuals using the Internet, with uncertain outcomes," Bernama reported.

"A study by the committee found that such trading involved currency speculation, which contradicts Islamic law," he was quoted saying.
A council official confirmed the ruling to AFP but gave no further details.

Islam lays out a strict code of ethics for business that forbids speculation and usury.

While Malaysia's brand of Islam is more moderate than in much of the Muslim world, some 60 percent of its 28 million people are Muslim and remain subject to Islamic law in civil affairs.

In 2008, the National Fatwa Council banned yoga for Muslims, saying it could erode their faith.

That triggered an uproar from moderate Muslims, prompting then prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to wade in, saying Muslims could do yoga as long as it had no Hindu spiritual elements.

Singapore's economy grows 4.9% in 2011

SINGAPORE, February 16, 2012 (AFP) - Singapore's economy grew 4.9 percent last year, higher than earlier estimates as a surge in fourth-quarter pharmaceutical exports cushioned a drop in electronics, the government said Thursday.

However, the city-state kept its 2012 growth forecast at a weaker 1.0 to 3.0 percent, citing falling demand from key exports markets in debt-plagued Europe and a sluggish recovery in the United States.

Singapore's trade-dependent economy is considered a bellwether for Asia's exporters, which depend heavily on electronics and other manufactured shipments to the West as economic drivers.

The annual growth of 4.9 percent slightly outpaced preliminary estimates in January of a 4.8 percent expansion.

Advance estimates in January had indicated a 4.9 percent quarter-on-quarter drop in the final three months of 2011.

But Singapore's gross domestic product instead fell 2.5 percent in the October-December period, compared with the previous three months on a seasonally-adjusted annualised basis, the trade ministry said.

However, the government said its forecast for growth this year could still be affected by "downside risks" overseas.

"This does not factor in downside risks emanating from abroad. Specifically, a disorderly sovereign default in the eurozone could precipitate a global financial crisis, while an escalation of geopolitical tension in the Middle East could trigger a global oil price shock," the trade ministry said.

"Should any of the downside risks materialise, there could be further negative impact to Singapore's growth," it added.

DBS Group Research said the less severe fourth-quarter contraction was the result of a spike in the volatile bio-medical sector.

"The boost from the pharmaceutical segment has masked the downside risks facing the manufacturing sector," it said in a note.

Singapore's manufacturing sector grew 9.2 percent year-on-year in the fourth quarter, with the biomedical cluster surging 69.0 percent thanks to pharmaceuticals, according to the trade ministry.

But electronics manufacturing posted a 25.0 percent contraction due to weak export demand and supply-chain disruptions following the massive floods in Thailand, a key producer of electronic parts.

Other manufacturing clusters such as chemicals and precision engineering also posted falls.

"Demand from the developed economies has been sluggish while Asia's demand is also cooling. As long as global uncertainties continue to linger, small and open economies such as Singapore will be most affected," DBS warned.

In 2010, Singapore's GDP grew 14.5 percent, which was considered a freak number because the economy was bouncing off a recession.

Maid kills Singaporean widow after being called stupid

SINGAPORE, February 16, 2012 (AFP) - A teenage Indonesian maid is facing a long jail term after pleading guilty to hitting and strangling an 87-year-old Singaporean widow who called her stupid, a report said Thursday.

Now 19, Vitria Depsi Wahyuno had lied about her age in 2009, saying she was 23 to meet the minimum age requirement, and landed a job in Singapore working for Sng Gek Wah, the Straits Times said.

Wahyuno, who had been employed for only five days when the killing took place, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to culpable homicide and prosecutors have asked for a 20-year-jail term.

The defence, pleading for leniency, said Wahyuno was of low intelligence and could not cope with a demanding employer who called her hurtful names like "bodoh", an Indonesian and Malay word for "stupid".

Neighbours told the Straits Times that Sng was a "fierce" woman who could often be heard scolding Wahyuno.

Other local papers said Sng had gone through seven maids, including Wahyuno, since 2003.

Sng's daughter and granddaughter described her in a statement delivered in court as a strong, resourceful and meticulous woman who was kind-hearted but could be impatient at times, the Straits Times said.

The victim suffered fractured ribs, cuts and bruises after being hit with a vase and smothered with a pillow before her neck was squeezed, according to autopsy results.

Sentencing is scheduled for March 7.

More than 200,000 maids, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, work in wealthy Singapore.

Malaysia transsexuals targeted in attacks: report

KUALA LUMPUR, February 16, 2012 (AFP) - At least 13 transsexuals have been assaulted in a city in Muslim-majority Malaysia in recent months, stirring fears that a gay-bashing gang is on the loose, a report said Thursday.

The latest attack in Kuantan in eastern Malaysia occurred Wednesday, when a transsexual make-up artist was set upon by six men on motorcycles and beaten with chains, steel bars and crash helmets, The Star newspaper reported.

The victim, and a companion who tried to intervene, suffered cuts and bruises, it said.

The paper quoted another friend of the victim as saying transsexuals believe the assaults were carried out by the same group of assailants, noting that the targets have not been robbed, leaving the motive for the attacks unclear.

The gay and lesbian community in socially conservative Malaysia has slowly gained a higher profile in recent years, and transsexuals live openly in cities.

But many complain they continue to live in fear of persecution, especially amid a perceived growing Islamisation of the country.

Authorities periodically raid gay-friendly bars or massage parlours, and a prominent religious body in 2008 issued a fatwa, or Islamic religious ruling, against lesbian sex.

In the first reported Kuantan attack, a victim who was slashed on the neck with a sharp object in September managed to recover the dropped identification card of one of the assailants and turn it over to police, The Star said.

"But no one was arrested," the victim, identified as Mona, was quoted as saying.

"I feel scared now whenever I go out at night."

Xi sees new 'starting point' for US-China ties

WASHINGTON, February 16, 2012 (AFP) - Chinese heir apparent Xi Jinping heralded "a new historical starting point" for ties with the United States Wednesday, wooing US business leaders with a glimpse of a more cooperative future.

Speaking during a lavish ballroom luncheon with the upper crust of corporate America, Vice President Xi described deeper Sino-American ties as an "unstoppable river that keeps surging ahead."

Glossing over the tumultuous twists and turns in 30 years of Cold War-dominated relations, Xi said interests had become ever-more intertwined. "It is a course that cannot be stopped or reversed," he said.

Xi welcomed Washington's interest in the Asia Pacific region, and said cooperation was needed on a range of challenges from North Korea to Iran, so long as China's interests are also respected.

Xi is on his maiden visit to the United States as a top official, a trip many hope will help close a chapter in relations characterized by mistrust and mudslinging, particularly in the commercial sphere.

As the tectonic plates of global trade have shifted in recent decades, China and the United States -- the world's two largest economies -- have frequently collided, jutted and bumped against each other, sometimes to damaging effect for both.

With Xi widely tipped to lead China from 2013 and Obama in a November re-election battle, the visit is being seen as a dress rehearsal for the next generation of US-China relations.

During the trip, Xi has worked US constituencies key to the bilateral ties: official Washington, corporate leaders and, in Iowa, a return to small-town America which he visited more than two decades ago.

His stops in Washington have included the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, Congress and the US-China Business Council.

Throughout his trip Xi has received the trappings of a state visit -- even if he is only head of state in waiting.

In a broad-ranging speech that was short on specifics Wednesday, Xi told business leaders that increased understanding, mutual respect for core interests, trade and cooperation in international affairs should form the basis for relations.

"Over the past 33 years since the establishment of diplomatic ties, the friendship between our two peoples has deepened, mutually beneficial cooperation has expanded and our interests have become increasingly interconnected," he said.

At the luncheon Xi was introduced by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger whose secret trip to China in 1971 paved the way for the normalization of relations between Washington and Beijing.

The pair were flanked by a cadre of Chinese Communist Party officials, as well as executives from Coca Cola, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Procter & Gamble and Estee Lauder.

Coca Cola CEO Muhtar Kent expressed the cautious optimism felt in the US business community about future ties with China.

He described Xi's visit as "another important milestone toward building an enduring and constructive relationship between our two nations."

The Chinese vice president largely steered clear of specific policy pronouncements, but stressed the mutual benefits of trade, pointing out that 47 of 50 US states had seen their exports with China grow in the last decade.

Despite deepening ties, many Americans and their lawmakers angrily accuse Beijing of not playing by the rules.

They accuse China of keeping the value of its currency unfairly low to fuel inexpensive exports, which have catalyzed China's headlong dash toward becoming an economic superpower.

From June 2010, Beijing has allowed the yuan to rise 8.5 percent against the dollar, in part because of domestic inflation pressures -- making the yuan an increasingly dubious scapegoat for lopsided trade.

In the last decade, trade between the two countries has increased over 275 percent and is now worth half a trillion dollars a year.

But Chinese exports still make up 80 percent of bilateral trade, despite China joining the World Trade Organization a decade ago, leading to accusations of protectionism from US industry.

Xi, repeating a long standing gripe, said the US would need to reform its own trade restrictions on exports to China in order to right that imbalance.

"It is very important for addressing the China-US trade imbalance that the United States adjusts its economic policies and structure, including removing various restrictions on exports to China, in particular easing control on civilian high-tech exports to China as soon as possible," he said.

China has often blamed the US deficit on Washington's own rules on exporting sensitive equipment that could be adapted for military or intelligence use.

Small-town welcome, world concerns for China's Xi

MUSCATINE, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - Far from the global centers of power, the Iowa town of Muscatine gave a Midwestern-style welcome Wednesday to China's likely next leader, with residents offering a nuanced view of Beijing's rise.

One restaurant in this Mississippi River city of 23,000 fried up a special Xi Jinping burrito in honor of the Chinese vice president's visit, while chains such as McDonald's and Taco John's flashed greetings on their outdoor signs.

Xi, who is tipped to lead China for a decade starting next year, was paying a quick visit to Muscatine to sip tea at a Victorian house with Iowans he met in 1985 when he was a low-ranking farm official on an exchange.

"People are pretty excited to have a world leader come here. It's not every day that someone of that stature comes to a town our size," said Chris Steinbach, editor of the Muscatine Journal.

Some experts believe that Xi -- who will also visit the capital Des Moines -- was hoping that the state's "Iowa Nice" image would rub off on him, softening his image both to Americans and to Chinese television viewers.

But while Iowa's governor has likened the visit to that of a pope, Muscatine -- whose major industries include furniture and food processing -- is more than a small town enjoying its brief moment in the international spotlight.

Numerous residents said that they or their friends have been to China on business, sometimes on extended trips. The local high school, like a growing number in the United States, offers courses in Mandarin.

Iowa's exports to China shot up by nearly 1,300 percent from 2000-2010, led by the Chinese middle class's demand for pork, soybeans and other Iowa produce. But the manufacturing sector, while better off than in some states, has felt the pressure of China's emergence as the superpower in inexpensive exports.

"What's important is to preserve free and open trade, and politics often get in the way of that. So this visit is very consequential as opposed to in Washington where it's political theater," said Alan Palmer, a consulting engineer having a lunch of chili in downtown Muscatine.

Polls have consistently shown that most Americans see China as friendly, despite frequent criticism from Washington of Beijing's policies on issues including the value of its currency, which critics say is artificially low.

A recent survey conducted by Gallup found that nearly three-quarters of Americans believed it was important to develop strong relations with the rapidly growing Asian power.

But several residents in Muscatine said that they remained uneasy with aspects of China's rise, including its labor conditions and its human rights record.

"People often talk about China's economy but they forget what it is. It's communist and has more than a billion people and many of them are still poor," said John Morgan, who was visiting Muscatine for business from Cedar Rapids.

"On human rights issues, of course that's their business. But we can also say, hey, let them have a little girl without a penalty," Morgan said, referring to Chinese penalties for having more than one child in some areas.

Randy Richmond, an artist whose daughter is studying Mandarin at Muscatine High School, said that many Americans had a limited understanding of China and did not consider its thousands of years of history.

"People probably look at China with the Tibet issue and human rights, that type of thing. I hope people take this as an opportunity to learn all that's going on," he said, referring to Xi's visit.

"Certainly there are things they do that I don't agree with, but there is always hope for change," he said. "It's important that we understand China as, economically, it affects all the rest of the world."

Cisco appeals EU's Microsoft-Skype merger approval

WASHINGTON, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - US networking giant Cisco filed an appeal on Wednesday of the European Commission's approval of Microsoft's $8.5 billion takeover of Internet voice and video leader Skype.

Cisco senior vice president Marthin De Beer said in a blog post that Cisco does not oppose the merger but argued that the Commission should have required greater interoperability between video-calling systems.

Cisco is a leading provider of video conferencing technology.

Messagenet, a European Internet communications service provider, has joined Cisco in the appeal, De Beer said.

"This appeal is about one thing only: securing standards-based interoperability in the video calling space," he said. "Our goal is to make video calling as easy and seamless as  email is today."

"Cisco does not oppose the merger, but believes the European Commission should have placed conditions that would ensure greater standards-based interoperability, to avoid any one company from being able to seek to control the future of video communications," De Beer said.

"Making a video-to-video call should be as easy as dialing a phone number," he said. "Today, however, you can't make seamless video calls from one platform to another, much to the frustration of consumers and business users alike.

"Cisco believes that the right approach for the industry is to rally around open standards," he said.

"We believe standards-based interoperability will accelerate innovation, create economic value, and increase choice for users of video communications, entertainment, and services."

The European Commission approved Microsoft's takeover of Skype in October and the deal gained US approval in June.

Google tightens grip on smartphone wallets

SAN FRANCISCO, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - Google on Wednesday assured users of its smartphone wallets that the mobile-age technology thwarts thieves better than old-school cash or credit cards.

"Mobile payments are going to become more common in the coming years, and we will learn much more as we continue to develop Google Wallet," Google payments vice president Osama Bedier said in a blog post.

"In the meantime, you can be confident that the digital wallet you carry provides defenses that plastic and leather simply don't."

A Google Wallet feature that lets people load prepaid card information in smartphones for spending was re-activated this week after being shut off for a few days to fix a potential security vulnerability.

"While we're not aware of any abuse of prepaid cards or the Wallet PIN resulting from these recent reports, we took this step as a precaution to ensure the security of our Wallet customers," Bedier said.

The action from Google came after a Zvelo Labs researcher demonstrated software that quickly figures out a Wallet personal identification number (PIN), provided the crook has the smartphone.

The researcher dismissed the threat of hackers picking Google Wallets remotely, explaining that physical access is needed to get priority access to controls in a process called "rooting."

Security specialists advise Google Wallet to enable security features such as full-disk encryption and screen locks.

Google Wallet is available only on Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus smartphones. Google plans to expand the feature to more Android phones.

Google Wallet uses a near field communication chip embedded in a phone to allow a user to "tap-and-pay" for purchases at a checkout register equipped with the PayPass system from CitiMasterCard.

Customers can also use a Google Prepaid card to pay for purchases, topping up the Google card with any payment card, and take advantage of Google Offers, the Mountain View, California-based company's online discount coupon program.

In addition to allowing for mobile payments, Google Wallet allows consumers to pay using gift cards and to redeem promotions such as discounts or coupons.


Japan Airlines orders 10 new Boeing Dreamliners

TOKYO, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - Japan Airlines (JAL) on Wednesday said it had ordered 10 new Boeing Dreamliner aircraft as it looks to build on its recovery from bankruptcy and fight off the threat from an emerging budget sector.

The announcement, part of a five-year plan, is in addition to an existing order for 35 Boeing 787 planes and is part of a capital expenditure programme worth 478 billion yen ($6.1 billion). The total order includes JAL's exercising of an earlier option for 10 other Dreamliners.

JAL said it expects to introduce the new planes from fiscal 2015 on medium to long haul international routes.

"The overall purchase of the Dreamliner now stands at 25 firm orders of the 787-8, and 20 of the 787-9 with 20 options, raising the total order of 35 Dreamliners to 45," the airline said.

The Dreamliner made its first commercial flight in October -- with JAL's rival All Nippon Airways (ANA) -- after a string of technical mishaps and years of delays that cost US-based Boeing billions of dollars in lost or cancelled orders.

JAL, which is emerging from years of restructuring after filing for bankruptcy in 2010 in one of Japan's biggest ever corporate failures, said it "intends to maximise the competitiveness of the super-efficient Dreamliner".

The airline said it "acknowledges challenges posed by Japan's low economic growth rate, heightened competition from low cost carriers and the downside risks resulting from the European sovereign debt crisis".

JAL unveiled the plan after appointing new president Yoshiharu Ueki and new chairman Masaru Onishi last month.

"We will be able to further strengthen our international and domestic flight services," Ueki told reporters Wednesday, according to Dow Jones Newswires.

Japan's aviation market has long been dominated by JAL and ANA, but 2012 will see the launch of a number of new low cost carriers that are expected to provide competition to these established marques.

JAL has joined forces with Australia's Qantas and Mitsubishi Corp. to launch Jetstar Japan, with five routes slated to begin in July.

ANA last year set up budget airline Peach Aviation with a Hong Kong investment fund. Flights are scheduled to start in March.

AirAsia Japan, a tie-up between ANA and Malaysia's AirAsia, will begin flying in August.

JAL said it aims to save 50 billion yen in cost savings during the five-year period to March 2017.

The carrier also said in the business plan that it will launch non-stop flights between Tokyo's Narita airport and San Diego in December 2012 and to Helsinki in March 2013.

During its restructuring, the company cut unprofitable routes, reviewed its fleet, and reduced fuel expenses. It also started using a new revenue management system to improve productivity.

Earlier this month, JAL reported nine-month profit of 146 billion yen ($1.86 billion at the current exchange rate), saying the strong yen helped boost its bottom line as more Japanese people went on holiday abroad.

For the year to March 2012, JAL now expects a net profit of 160 billion yen and operating profit of 180 billion yen on sales of 1.19 trillion yen.

JAL last March exited bankruptcy, more than a year after a spectacular collapse that prompted a government bail-out of the once-venerable flag carrier.

It had gone bust in January 2010 with debts of about 2.32 trillion yen ($28 billion) but it continued flying during its rehabilitation process, which included massive job and route cuts.

Costs, IPR top concerns for US firms in China

SHANGHAI, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - US companies in China said rising costs and violations of intellectual property rights hurt their businesses last year, a survey showed Wednesday, despite repeated official pledges to stamp out piracy.

The survey of more than 300 firms by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai also found executives were less optimistic about their businesses in China than a year ago, despite nearly 80 percent saying they were profitable.

Executives said rising costs were the biggest challenge to doing business in China. More than 90 percent said higher costs for labour and materials were hindering their business, threatening China's competitive advantage.

The results of the annual survey were released as US President Barack Obama called on China to play by the "same rules" during a visit to Washington by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping.

About 51 percent of the respondents said infringements of their intellectual property rights had been a "hindrance" to their business, an issue foreign companies and governments have long-complained about in China.

"Despite continued concerns over IPR theft, piracy and other violations... China has made little improvement in IPR enforcement and protection," the chamber said in the report.

Nearly two-thirds of companies said enforcement of intellectual property rights did not improve over the past year.

China has repeatedly defended its efforts to crack down on piracy and copyright infringement in the vast country and regularly launches high-profile campaigns against fake products in a bid to silence critics.

Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Wednesday that the government had made efforts to crack down on violations of intellectual property.

"At the same time, we also hope foreign companies investing in China will recognise the fact that China is a vast country and it takes time to make greater achievements in this field," Liu told a regular briefing.

Hong Kong says Chinese professor's remarks 'abusive'

HONG KONG, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - A senior Hong Kong official Wednesday condemned a mainland Chinese professor for calling Hong Kongers "bastards" and "dogs" in an outburst that provoked outrage in the southern city.

Mainland affairs minister Raymond Tam told Hong Kong's legislative assembly that Peking University professor Kong Qingdong's comments, made to mainland media in January, were unacceptable.

"We consider that the relevant comments have gone beyond academic deliberation and there were abusive words and expressions," he said in response to a question from a lawmaker about the insults.

"We certainly cannot endorse or accept the outrageous comments made by that professor."

Kong, who says he is a descendent of Confucius, launched his tirade in response to a video of Hong Kongers scolding a mainland girl for breaking rules against eating on Hong Kong trains.

A group of Hong Kong residents retaliated by calling mainland Chinese "locusts" in a newspaper advertisement, highlighting the hostility some Hong Kongers feel towards their neighbours.

Tam said the government in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, a former British colony which enjoys freedoms not available to mainland Chinese, had no plan to contact the professor or take any action against him.

Hong Kong, a banking and trade centre of seven million people, was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under the "one country, two systems" arrangement.

Tensions between the two sides have soared recently, fuelled by growing concern among some Hong Kongers over the influence mainland China is having on the local economy and political scene.

Prosecutors 'summon editor' of liberal Russian radio

MOSCOW, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - Prosecutors Wednesday summoned the editor of Russia's top liberal radio station, the day after the state-controlled but independent outlet complained of pressure ahead of presidential elections.

The editor-in-chief of Moscow Echo, Alexei Venediktov, announced he had received the summons from prosecutors following a private complaint about its labour code.

The prosecutors later informed him they were withdrawing the summons but only after it had prompted new concerns that one of Russia's few bastions of free speech in the media faced harassment leading up to the March 4 polls.

Moscow Echo had said a day earlier that Gazprom-Media, a state holding company that owns 66 percent of its shares, had suddenly demanded early elections of its governing board and the removal of two independent directors.

"I have been invited to come to a prosecutor's office tomorrow to provide an explanation regarding a complaint from a resident of Tambov," said Venediktov, referring to a provincial town 450 kilometres (280 miles) southeast of Moscow.

"It's a double whammy" after Tuesday's news, the veteran editor wrote on his Twitter feed, adding that the man had complained that the radio station's charter violated Russia's labour code.

Later in the day, Venediktov wrote that the prosecutors had recalled the summons, prompting expressions of glee from his Twitter followers.

The complainant turned out to be Alexander Filsher, a Tambov-based activist from liberal party Yabloko who had apparently wanted to contest the radio station's decision banning its journalists from joining political parties.

Yabloko immediately distanced itself from the activist.

"I consider Filsher's complaint to be a provocation," Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin wrote on Twitter.  "We will exclude him from the party."

The head of the party's Tambov branch said the timing of the summons showed the free-wheeling radio station was now fair game for state officials.

"They've had this complaint for a month but they've set it in motion only now," Sergei Reznikov told AFP.

He said the local activist was acting on his initiative and described the complaint as "politically damaging" to both the radio and the party, whose veteran leader Grigory Yavlinsky was controversially excluded from the presidential race last month.

Venediktov said he had asked Yabloko not to punish the activist.

The unexpected reshuffle at the radio station comes as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seeks to return to the Kremlin for a third term in the elections despite an outburst of protests against his 12-year rule.

Media analysts said the government wants to tighten control over the free-wheeling outlet which is hugely popular with middle-class Muscovites, many of whom have turned their back on Putin.

Last month, Venediktov received a startling dressing-down from Putin who said the radio station was pouring "diarrhoea" over him from dawn to dusk and accused it of serving the interests of a foreign state.

The editor had at the time brushed off the criticism, saying Putin had always defended the station from officials' attacks in the past.

But as Putin wrestles with the worst legitimacy crisis of his rule, observers say officials will be increasingly tempted to tighten the screws over the few remaining liberal media outlets.

Top rights group Memorial said the reshuffle indicated authorities were not ready to conduct democratic reforms, including a re-run of disputed December parliamentary elections.

Malaysia arrests Iranian over Thai blasts: police

KUALA LUMPUR, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - Malaysian authorities on Wednesday arrested an Iranian suspected in an alleged bomb plot against Israeli diplomats in Thailand, Malaysia's police chief said.

The Iranian was among three suspects in the bombings that rattled the Thai capital Bangkok on Tuesday and have piled pressure on Tehran amid accusations of a terror campaign against the Jewish state.

A statement released by Malaysian police chief Ismail Omar late Wednesday said authorities arrested the suspect in the capital Kuala Lumpur at 3:30 pm (0730 GMT).

"The Iranian was arrested under the Immigration Act of Malaysia out of intelligence provided by Thai counterparts," the statement said.
"He is being investigated for terrorism activities in relation to bombings in Thailand."

The statement gave no further details, such as the suspect's name.

Malaysian police spokesman Ramli Yoosuf told AFP that Thai authorities had been informed of the arrest but he was as yet unaware of any Thai request for the suspect's extradition.

"I don't know how long the investigations will take," he said.

Tensions between Middle East arch-foes Iran and Israel have risen sharply following three bomb incidents in world capitals in less than 24 hours, but Iran has angrily rejected accusations that it was to blame.

On Monday, bombers targeted Israeli embassy staff in India and Georgia before escaping.

In Bangkok, two Iranians were detained over three blasts that occurred Tuesday. They were charged with causing an illegal explosion and other offences, Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said.

"We cannot say yet if it's a terrorist act," he told reporters, "but it's similar to the assassination attempt against a diplomat in India."

One of the men -- named as 28-year-old Saeid Morati -- had his legs blown off as he hurled an explosive device at Thai police while fleeing an earlier, apparently unintended, blast at a house in the Thai capital, officials said.

He was unconscious but in a stable condition, according to the Bangkok hospital where he was treated.

A second Iranian suspect was detained trying to board a flight out of the country while the third had fled to Malaysia, they said.

Singapore opposition MP sacked over alleged affairs

SINGAPORE, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - Singapore's main opposition party on Wednesday sacked one of its lawmakers after he refused to respond to allegations of extramarital affairs.

"The Workers' Party (WP) has expelled Yaw Shin Leong from the party with immediate effect," it said in a statement on its website.

"WP believes strongly in transparency and accountability, and expects no less from our party members, especially our Members of Parliament."

Any sitting MP expelled by his party loses his seat in parliament and has to be replaced in a by-election.

Allegations that Yaw, who is 35 and in his second marriage, had affairs with a married female party worker and a married neighbour have been published in local media and online forums in recent weeks.

The WP won only six seats in the 87-member parliament in the May 2011 general election but it was the best ever showing by the opposition in the wealthy city-state of some five million people.

The People's Action Party, which has never lost an election since taking power in 1959, saw its share of the vote fall to an all-time low of 60 percent.

Afghan TV presenters told 'more veil, less make-up'

KABUL, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - Afghanistan has instructed female TV presenters to stop appearing without a headscarf and to wear less make-up, officials said, raising fears about creeping restrictions on the fledgling media.

"All the TV networks are in seriousness asked to stop the female presenters from appearing on TV without a veil and with dense make-up," the information and culture ministry said.

"All the female newscasters on Afghan TV channels are also asked to respect Islamic and Afghan values," it added.

A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai told AFP Tuesday that the ministry took the decision after coming under pressure from the Ulema council, the country's highest religious body of Islamic scholars.

Afghan media, essentially non-existent under the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, have enjoyed enjoyed considerable freedom, with more than two dozen TV stations springing up in the decade since the 2001 US-led invasion.

As tentative steps are made towards peace talks between the United States and Taliban insurgents, Afghan women are worried about a possible return of the hardline Islamists to the capital Kabul.

Under the Taliban regime, women were subjected to brutal repression. Girls were not allowed to go to school and women were not allowed to work.

They were whipped in the street by the thugs of the religious police if they wore anything other than the all-enveloping blue or white burqa.

Asia picks up aircraft financing slack: Airbus

SINGAPORE, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - Financing for new aircraft orders remains robust as Asian financial institutions take up the slack left by Europe's debt crisis, the head of Airbus said Wednesday.

Thomas Enders, the aviation giant's chief executive, said there was "increasing appetite" from financial institutions in China, India and other Asian countries to fund aircraft purchases.

Asia-based institutions participated in "almost 20 percent" of the funding involved in Airbus deliveries last year, which Enders said is likely to rise as European banks slow down on lending amid the continent's debt woes.

"What is important is that all these institutions in Asia are not just working with the airlines from this region but on a global scale," Enders said at a news conference at the Singapore Airshow.

"This is good news for us and good news particularly for the airlines," he said, adding it would ensure "a more diverse and steady source of funding."

Asia Pacific accounted for half of the company's record orders -- or about $85 billion at list prices -- of 1,600 planes in 2011, it said.

Releasing its latest forecasts, Airbus also said Asia Pacific will take delivery of 9,370 new aircraft in the next 20 years valued at $1.3 trillion.

That will account for 34 percent of new planes with over 100 seats entering into service worldwide over that time, propelling Asia Pacific to overtake North America and Europe as the world's biggest aviation market, Airbus said.

The region's passenger growth is forecast to rise by 5.9 percent a year over two decades, outpacing the projected global average of 4.8 percent, it added.

"We are firmly anchored in this region. We are not re-orienting our business but we are focused on this region," Enders said.

"Our business is not moving East, it has moved East, in Asia already."

Hackers take aim at Nasdaq, Bats websites

WASHINGTON, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - Hackers have targeted the public websites of the operators of the Nasdaq and Bats stock exchanges over the past two days with cyberattacks that disrupted the sites but had no impact on trading.

The Nasdaq.com website was briefly inaccessible at times on Tuesday although it was back online and functioning normally late in the day.

Nasdaq did not immediately reply to an inquiry from AFP but The Wall Street Journal quoted a spokesman as saying that "during the past 24 hours, Nasdaq OMX has experienced intermittent service disruptions on our corporate websites."

The Kansas-based Bats, which operates the BZX and BYX exchanges, said the Bats public website, "along with other securities industry websites," was hit by a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack on Monday.

"Our trading systems were not affected and there were no Exchange customer disruptions associated with the incident," a Bats spokeswoman told AFP.

"Our website is used to display general information about our market activity for the casual user, and there are no critical functions supported through our general public site," she said.

"We worked with our Internet Service Provider and swiftly returned our website to a normal operating state," the Bats spokeswoman said. 
"Our trading systems continue to operate normally today."

In a DDoS attack, a large number of computers are commanded to simultaneously visit a website, overwhelming its servers and knocking it offline.

The hacker group Anonymous claimed Friday to have rendered the website of the Central Intelligence Agency briefly inaccessible with a DDoS attack.

Anonymous last month also briefly knocked the websites of the US Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation offline.

There was no immediate claim on Twitter feeds used by Anonymous for the attacks on the Nasdaq and Bats websites.

US Senate in new cybersecurity push

WASHINGTON, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - US senators, warning of potentially catastrophic cyberattacks, introduced a bill Tuesday aimed at protecting critical infrastructure such as power, water and transportation systems.

The Cybersecurity Act of 2012 is the latest attempt by the divided US Congress to pass legislation aimed at securing government and private sector networks from foreign cyber espionage, criminal hackers and terrorist threats.

"The nation responded after 9/11 to improve its security," said Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent who co-sponsored the long-awaited bill.

"Now we must respond to this challenge so that a cyber 9/11 attack on America never happens," Lieberman said.

"I can't think of a more urgent issue facing this country," said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democratic co-sponsor. "Hackers are stealing information from Fortune 500 companies, breaking into the networks of our government and security agencies and toying with the networks that power our economy.

"The new frontier in the war against terrorists is being fought online and this bill will level the playing field," Rockefeller said.

The Cybersecurity Act of 2012 would have the Department of Homeland Security determine what qualifies as critical infrastructure and require compliance with a set of security standards.

The legislation defines as critical infrastructure systems "whose disruption from a cyberattack would cause mass death, evacuation, or major damage to the economy, national security, or daily life."

The bill would encourage information-sharing about cyber threats between US government agencies and the private sector and consolidate Homeland Security cybersecurity programs under a unified National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications.

"This bill would begin to arm us for battle in a war against the cyber mayhem that is being waged against us by our nation's enemies, organized criminal gangs, and terrorists who would use the Internet against us as surely as they turned airliners into guided missiles," Lieberman said.

Republican co-sponsor Susan Collins said the legislation is needed to "achieve the goal of improving the security of critical cyber systems and protecting our national and economic security.

"Our nation's vulnerability has already been demonstrated by the daily attempts by nation-states, cyber criminals, and hackers to penetrate our systems," Collins said.

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs is to hold a hearing on the bill on Thursday.

James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, described the bill as a "really significant piece of legislation" but said "key sections of it have been diluted."

"The part that really counts is the ability to hold critical infrastructure to mandatory standards and that's under tremendous industry pressure to have it hollowed out," said Lewis, who is scheduled to testify before the committee.

Lewis said the bill "has the best chance of any I've seen" of passage but he was "not optimistic."

The introduction of the cybersecurity bill coincided with a visit to the United States by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed Chinese President Hu Jintao next year.

In an unusually blunt report issued in November, a US intelligence agency, the office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, said the Chinese are the world's "most active and persistent perpetrators" of economic espionage.

While acknowledging the difficulty of proving state sponsorship, the report said "US private sector firms and cybersecurity specialists have reported an onslaught of computer network intrusions that have originated in China."

China has repeatedly denied state involvement in cyber espionage against Western governments and companies, including well-publicized attacks on Internet giant Google that sparked a row between Washington and Beijing.

Apple chief says factory labor under scrutiny

SAN FRANCISCO, February 15, 2012 (AFP) - Apple chief executive Tim Cook said Tuesday that ensuring safe working conditions at plants making its coveted gadgets is a priority, as an audit of a key supplier continued in China.

"Apple takes working conditions very seriously and we have for a very long time," Cook said during an on-stage interview at a Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference in San Francisco.

"We know people have a high expectation of Apple; we have an even higher expectation of ourselves."

Cook's comments came a day after a labor watchdog group began sanctioned checks of working conditions at a massive Foxconn plant in southern China that makes products for the California-based gadget-maker.

Apple agreed last month to allow inspections by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) following reports that employees were overworked and underpaid at Foxconn factories in China.

The Taiwan-owned Foxconn is the largest manufacturer of Apple products.

FLA teams will also inspect factories owned by two other Taiwan-owned manufacturers, Quanta and Pegatron, which also make Apple products.

Apple said the FLA's findings and recommendations will be posted on its website, fairlabor.org, in early March.

"In terms of problems we are looking to fix, no one in our industry is doing more to improve working conditions than Apple," Cook said.

"We are constantly auditing facilities looking for problems, finding problems and fixing problems, and we report everything because we think transparency is incredibly important."

Apple has taken to micro-managing schedules at plants to safeguard against employees working more than 60 hours weekly and considers intentionally hiring underage labor a "firing offense," he added.

Apple reported blockbuster quarterly earnings last month with net profit more than doubling to a record $13.06 billion and revenue soaring to an all-time high of $46.33 billion.

Shares of Apple have been rising steadily on the release of a string of hit products starting with the iPod in 2001, followed by the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010.

Apple shares soared past $500 on Wall Street for the first time on Monday and closed at $509.46 on Tuesday, a gain of 1.36 percent on the day.

Cook said that despite an unprecedented 37 million iPhones sold in the last quarter, Apple has only begun to tap into the gargantuan, and growing, global mobile phone market.

"It was a decent quarter," Cook said in an understatement that prompted laughter from the audience. "This is a jaw-dropping industry; we see tremendous opportunity."

The annual smartphone market is projected to hit a billion units in the year 2015, with a quarter of that demand to come from China and Brazil, according to Apple's chief executive.

The global success of iPhones has put Apple products in the minds of hundreds of millions of people around the world getting online for the first time in the mobile age.

"Everyone in every country wants the best product, not a cheap version of the best product; that is the common thread that runs through," Cook said.

He was adamant that it is just a matter of time before the tablet market, set ablaze by the iPad, overtakes the market for desktop computers.

"It doesn't mean the PC (personal computer) is going to die," he said. "But I strongly believe the tablet market will surpass the PC market."

Cook said the Apple board of directors is having "very active discussions" regarding whether the whopping $98 billion in Apple's coffers means it is time to loosen purse strings and pay shareholders a dividend or buy-back stock.

"We spend our money like it is our last penny," Cook said of Apple.

"We are not going to go have a toga party here or do something outlandish," he said of Apple's frugality. "People don't need to worry that (the money) is burning a hole in our pocket."

Cook sidestepped a question regarding what mark he expected to leave on Apple, saying instead that he will maintain the winning formula cooked up by late co-founder Steve Jobs.

"Apple is this unique company, unique culture that you can't replicate," Cook said. "I'm not going to witness or permit the slow undoing of it."