2019

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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 2019.

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.

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The world in 2019

Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro hopes to sabotage conservation efforts in the Amazon, leaked documents revealed. The Brazilian government intends to build bridges, motorway and hydroelectric plant in the jungle to “fight off international pressure” to protect the world’s largest rainforest, which is reported to provide over 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. The plans, leaked to political website openDemocracy, emerged as devastating fires rage through the Amazon. Brazil’s space research centre, Inpe, has detected 72,843 fires so far this year – an 84 per cent rise compared to 2018. Read more

Wave after wave of protests involving hundreds of thousands and even millions, often violent, sweep through Hong Kong as the local population’s anger at a proposed extradition bill boils over. The bill, which would amend the law to allow criminal suspects to be handed over to authorities in China for prosecution, aroused deep resentment and fear among Hongkongers that Beijing would use the law to persecute its critics in the Special Administrative Region and suppress dissent. When Hong Kong was returned to China by Britain in 1997, its people were promised a “One Country, Two Systems” model which would grant Hongkongers a degree of autonomy and freedom higher than that on the mainland for 50 years up to 2047. But in recent years, many in the territory have opined that their rights have been greatly diminished and sharply threatened. Pro-democracy legislators elected by the people have been disqualified from taking office and five booksellers and a tycoon critical of the central government in China disappeared before reappearing in custody on the mainland. The intense protests pressured Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam into suspending the bill and calling it “dead” – but even that did not appease the people of Hong Kong, who continued to stage protests relentlessly. Read more here.

US president Donald Trump waged an aggressive trade war against China, accusing the Asian nation of unfair practices such as currency manipulation and intellectual property theft that resulted in the US’ large trade deficit against them. Mr Trump repeatedly imposed and increased tariffs on imports from China to as high as 30%, and also the number of imports subjected to tariffs, even while trade talks were being conducted. On a number of occasions, pronouncements by the US president on Twitter or the mainstream media that talks were going well were followed by sudden changes of tone and new rounds of tariff hikes. The US also imposed export restrictions on Chinese telecom equipment giant Huawei, depriving them of critical US components needed to produce their equipment and install their telecom networks and made a request to Canada to detain and extradite Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wangzhou to the US to face charges of violating US sanctions on Iran. American actions on trade and Huawei have led to widespread suspicions that the US, as the incumbent superpower, is trying to contain China’s rise and maintain its dominance on the world stage. Of particular threat to the US, say some analysts, is the Chinese government’s Made in China 2025 industrial modernisation masterplan which aims to help the country to advance “indigenous innovation” in major and emerging fields of technology such as robotics and artificial intelligence.

A team of researchers at the National University of Singapore developed a new blood test to detect Alzheimer’s disease that it says is the fastest and most accurate in the world. The test is able to detect mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease which leads to severe dementia, and can provide results within an hour after analysing certain proteins in blood samples. Read more

A female undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS) caused a major controversy when she shared on social media that she had been filmed showering in the university hostel and the perpetrator had been let off with just a one-semester suspension and having to write a letter of apology to her. Monica Baey pointed to an allegedly systemic problem of sex offenders on campus getting away with lenient punishments. NUS shared that they had a “second strike and you are out” policy towards sexual misconduct. The episode triggered a fierce debate about giving first offenders a chance versus justice and protection for the vulnerable, particularly women. Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung called the current disciplinary framework “manifestly inadequate” and said NUS would review it.

A Bloomberg report claimed that YouTube executives ignored warnings about toxic content on their popular video-sharing platform for years, allowing toxic videos to run rampant in order to promote “engagement” ie views, time spent and interactions with online videos. (Such “engagement” is of course central to YouTube’s earnings, which rely on online advertising that runs parallel to these videos.) Among the false, incendiary and toxic videos flagged by YouTube staff are those that claim that victims of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting were actually “crisis actors”, all vaccinations are unsafe and part of a conspiracy, and Hillary Clinton is a member of a Satanic cult – as well as “alt-right” videos that spread xenophobia and hatred against immigrants. Critics are even more concerned that YouTube’s artifical intelligence engine actually promotes such extreme videos, in particular to those who are already watching content of this nature. On its part YouTube denied the allegations that they had been inattentive to these issues and pointed to an increase in staff numbers dedicated to content issues; an investment in machine learning to identify violative content; recommending clips based on a metric called “responsibility” which includes input from satisfaction surveys shown after videos; and a tiny text box from websites like Wikipedia that would sit below videos that questioned well-established facts like the moon landing. Read more here

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