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Here’s a summary of some of the major events that have shaped our world and our little island-state of Singapore in 2018.

But please note: this is NOT meant as a substitute for your own regular reading of newspapers/ news websites. If you hope to excel in GP, you must stay connected with the world. Don’t just read about the world – take a personal interest in it. General Paper is a subject in which engagement and passion are essential.


Singapore society has to find a way to deal with “labelling” or stereotyping students, Second Education Minister Indranee Rajah said, conceding that the streaming system in schools has had an “unintended side effect” on how pupils view themselves and are perceived by others. She was responding to a question about what the Government plans to do to alleviate the stigma of students in different streams and classes during a dialogue session. Ms Indranee said that the streaming system — which classifies students into the Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams in secondary schools — was started to deal with the “stark outcomes” when students of different abilities and foundations in subjects were made to progress at the same pace. It was a well-meaning move meant to help some students who learnt at a slower pace and needed time to understand concepts, allowing them to learn together as a group. While it has worked in arresting the dropout rates, the system did turn up unintended side effects, she added. “We do have to try to find a way to deal with this labelling,” she said. Ms Indranee stressed that Singaporeans can bridge the gaps by recognising the “intrinsic worth” of human beings, which is not measured by material possessions. She faced some criticism online for this comment, with some netizens suggesting it was hollow as she is part of the most highly paid government in the world.

British technology company Dyson announced that it would build its electric car in Singapore, with a new automotive manufacturing facility set for completion in 2020 ahead of the first vehicle launch a year later. The electric car plant is part of Dyson’s £2.5 billion global investment drive in new technology. Dyson, founded by the billionaire British inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner James Dyson, made known its plans to build an electric car a little over a year ago – a sector in which the company will face stiff competition from established players. The 71-year-old entrepreneur is looking to exploit his company’s expertise in solid-state battery technology and electric motors that are found in his innovative vacuum cleaners and other products like bladeless fans and air purifiers. Electric vehicles are increasing in popularity as governments worldwide drive forward plans to gradually phase out polluting petrol and diesel cars. It is designing the technology and building a test track in Wiltshire, western England, but said the decision to make the car in Singapore reflected the international nature of its operations. According to Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong, Mr Dyson’s decision was influenced by Singapore’s expertise in advanced manufacturing, global and regional connectivity, as well as the quality of its research scientists and engineers. More here

Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote articles for the Washington Post critical of the Saudi government, went missing after a visit to the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Turkish officials leaked to news outlets that police had found evidence in the consulate building that Khashoggi had been killed there. They also alleged that he was interrogated, tortured amd murdered by a 15-man hit squad sent from Riyadh – and that his body was dismembered after the killing. As international condemnation mounted, US President Donald Trump threatened “severe punishment” for close ally Saudi Arabia if Khashoggi had been assassinated. The kingdom responded angrily and threatened to use oil as a weapon at a time when oil prices were rising rapidly. The Saudi mission that resulted in the apparent death of Khashoggi was organized by a high-ranking officer with the General Intelligence Presidency, Saudi Arabia’s main intelligence service, three sources familiar with the case told CNN. One of those sources described the officer as close to the inner circle of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto leader. Read more here

Apple became the first US$1 trillion publicly traded company on 2 Aug 2018. Apple’s $1 trillion cap is equal to about 5 percent of the total gross domestic product of the United States in 2018,” said David Kass, professor of finance at the University of Maryland. “That puts this company in perspective.” Apple closed that day above the $1 trillion mark, finishing the day up 2.92 percent at a share price of $207.39. The price gave the stock a market value of $1,001,678,000,000 — or $1.002 trillion rounded up. The milestone was hit after a strong third-quarter report that showed earnings beat expectations and also showed increased revenue from the technology giant’s services and software businesses. If you had invested $10,000 in Apple when it first sold publicly traded stock at its initial public offering price of $22 in December 1980, it would have been worth around $6.3 million on 2 Aug 2018, including reinvested dividends. More here

In Singapore’s worst ever cyber attack, hackers stole the personal particulars of 1.5 million patients. Of these, 160,000 people, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and a few ministers, had their outpatient prescriptions stolen as well. The hackers infiltrated the computers of SingHealth, Singapore’s largest group of healthcare institutions with four hospitals, five national speciality centres and eight polyclinics. Two other polyclinics used to be under SingHealth. The authorities said PM Lee’s information was “specifically and repeatedly targeted”. The 1.5 million patients had visited SingHealth’s specialist outpatient clinics and polyclinics from May 1, 2015, to July 4, 2018. Their non-medical personal data that was illegally accessed and copied included their names, IC numbers, addresses, gender, race and dates of birth. More here

US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meet in Singapore for a one-day summit, the first meeting ever between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader. The meeting proceeds and ends in a very cordial manner, with both leaders signing a two-page agreement in which Trump pledges to provide “security guarantees” to North Korea while Kim affirms his “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation” of the Korean Peninsula”. The two leaders also committed “to establish new US-DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) relations”, and they agreed to “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula” and to implement all the stipulations in the joint statement “fully and expeditiously”. However, critics pointed to the absence of a stipulation of “verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” and alleged a lack of substance as a result, saying that North Korea had made and broken such vague promises in the past.

Two African-American men are arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia after they declined to buy any drinks while waiting for a business meeting, and the manager called the police. The incident triggered protests against racial bias, and prompted Starbucks announced that it would close 8,000 stores in the US for anti-racial bias training. Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz and CEO Kevin Johnson met personally with the two men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, to apologise. Starbucks also reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the two men and, according to Robinson, committed to help them complete their bachelor’s degrees. Nelson and Robinson decided not to sue the city of Philadelphia and instead accepted symbolic US$1 payments and asked the city to fund US$200,000 for a grant programme for high school students aspiring to become entrepreneurs, to which the city agreed. More here

Chinese company SenseTime Group Ltd. became the world’s most valuable artificial intelligence (AI) startup when it raised US$600 million from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and other investors. This implied a total valuation for the company of more than US$3 billion. SenseTime, which specializes in systems that analyze faces and images on an enormous scale, said it closed a Series C round in recent months in which Singaporean state investment firm Temasek Holdings Pte and retailer Suning.com Co. also participated. SenseTime didn’t outline individual investments, but Alibaba was said to have sought the biggest stake in the three-year-old startup. With the deal, SenseTime has doubled its valuation in a few months. Backed by Qualcomm Inc., it underscores its status as one of a crop of homegrown firms spearheading Beijing’s ambition to become the leader in AI by 2030. And it’s a contributor to the world’s biggest system of surveillance: if you’ve ever been photographed with a Chinese-made phone or walked the streets of a Chinese city, chances are your face has been digitally crunched by SenseTime software built into more than 100 million mobile devices. More here

Singaporean historian Thum Ping Tjin, a Rhodes Scholar and Research Associate of Oxford University, appeared before his country’s parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods after making a written submission claiming that there are already adequate laws dealing with the spread of falsehoods in Singapore for malicious purposes. He noted that where online falsehoods have arisen in Singapore, with clear provenance, impact, and intent, they have been swiftly dealt with using existing laws. These include:

  • The Telecommunications Act 1999 — Clause 45: “Any person who transmits or causes to be transmitted a message which he knows to be false or fabricated shall be guilty of an offence…”
  • Section 298 of the Penal Code criminalises the “deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person”, and was amended in 2007 specifically to include any electronic medium. This was used to prosecute Amos Yee.
  • The Sedition Act 1948, which was used to prosecute The Real Singapore.
  • The Protection from Harassment Act 2014, which was designed specifically to make acts of cyberbullying and online harassment a criminal offence.

“Given the speed and severity with which online falsehoods in Singapore have been dealt with, further legislation is not required,” he opined. He also noted that social media has proven adept at rapidly debunking untruths and hoaxes, with “fake news” often not merely debunked but also then mocked and ridiculed online. “As perpetrators of racism and discrimination have discovered, Singaporeans have been very quick and efficient at policing online communities,” he said. “It has been suggested that the speed at which social media operates allows ‘fake news’ to spread faster and wider than before; however, there is also clear evidence that the same speed of social media allows ‘fake news’ to be rapidly debunked and ridiculed.”

Dr Thum further alleged in his written submission, “Fake news’ is not a problem in Singapore — with one major exception: the People’s Action Party government has, historically, spread ‘fake news’ for narrow party-political gain.” He gave examples of the numerous detentions sanctioned by the PAP government under the Internal Security Act. “Beginning with Operation Coldstore in 1963, (PAP) politicians have told Singaporeans that people were being detained without trial on national security grounds due to involvement with radical communist conspiracies to subvert the state,” he noted. “Declassified documents have proven this to be a lie. Operation Coldstore was conducted for political purposes, and there was no evidence that the detainees of Operation Coldstore were involved in any conspiracy to subvert the government,” he added.

Dr Thum was grilled by Law Minister K. Shanmugam before the Parliamentary Select Committee for six hours, during which the minister questioned his academic credentials, accused him of being selective in his use of evidence and asserted that Dr Thum was practising “not scholarship but sophistry.” More here.
(Dr PJ Thum is a colourful character who has made very bold analyses of Singapore politics over the years. You can read one such example here.)