Wednesday 30 November 2011

Singapore hosts 2011 Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA)

Super Junior, SNSD and 2NE1 take top honours
By Han Wei Chou, Channel NewsAsia, 30 Nov 2011

Popular K-pop acts Super Junior, SNSD and 2NE1 took home top honours at the 2011 Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA) held at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Tuesday (29 Nov).

2NE1 received the award for Best Vocal Performance Group and the Grand Prize for Song of the Year.

"We are very happy to perform at the MAMA awards and are doubly happy that we have received the award for Song of the Year, thank you for your support," said 2NE1 leader CL.

Super Junior walked away with the Grand Prize for Album of the year, Best Male Group award and the Singapore's Choice award, while their SM Entertainment colleagues SNSD (Girl's Generation) picked up the award for Best Female Group, as well as the Grand Prize for Artist of the Year.

"We have to thank our fans for sharing this with us," said SNSD member Tae Yeon, trophy in hand at a press conference following the 2011 MAMA.

Super Junior echoed her sentiments.

"The fans deserve only the best, so we will always try our best," Super Junior's Si Won declared.

Other notable winners at the 2011 MAMA include Korean girl group A pink, who picked up the award for Best New Female Artist, miss A who won the award for Best Dance Performance – Female Group and boy band BEAST who took home the Best Dance Performance – Male Group award.

Korean singer Kim Hyun Joong was named Best Male Artist while the Best Female Artist award went to Baek Ji Young, who also won the award for Best O.S.T.

Explosive performances galore

Broadcast to about 1.9 billion people in 20 countries worldwide, the 2011 MAMA in Singapore was a star-studded affair jam packed with explosive performances from stars like Snoop Dogg and BEAST, but some performances stood out.

The atmosphere at the Singapore Indoor Stadium was electrifying as Koda Kumi wowed the crowds with a rousing performance of her hits "V.I.P" and "Bling Bling Bling".

2NE1's CL kept the crowds going when she performed without her group mates for the first time at the awards ceremony, belting out the Black Eyed Peas' classic "Where is the Love?" with the band's rappers and

SNSD upped the ante when they performed their latest song "The Boys" and showed off their flashy dance moves on stage while pyrotechnics went off around them.

But the highlight of the evening was definitely Super Junior's performance of "Sorry Sorry", the song that made them famous, with a small army of backup dancers in black suits and sunglasses.

It was a sight to behold, when Super Junior did their iconic "Sorry Sorry" dance together with what looked like a hundred dancers at their back.

MOE to equip 360 schools with faster broadband connections

By Tan Weizhen, TODAY, 30 Nov 2011

About 360 schools across the country will have their current information technology backbone overhauled, as they look set to tap into the new super fast broadband network in five months' time.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Education (MOE) awarded a S$32.6 million contract to SingTel to outfit primary, secondary schools and junior colleges with the Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network (NGNBN).

The network services "will benefit teaching, learning and assessment applications as these can be bandwidth intensive", said an MOE spokesperson in response to queries from Today.

As broadband speed at these schools gets ramped up drastically and capacities become standardised across the board, analysts felt this would level the playing field among schools in terms of technology adoption.

Mr Frank Levering, a research manager in research firm IDC, said that the effect, though not immediately obvious, would be the "catalyst" for innovative technologies - which often requires high speeds and much bandwidth - to change the educational landscape.

He said: "Many schools have selectively kept up with technology and a select few have embraced it fully to maximise the potential advantages of new technologies. Introducing nationwide enablers such as national broadband will narrow the gaps between them in any case, and assist the schools who desire to do so in leapfrogging to the front of the pack."

Principals Today spoke to said that there had been teachers who had wanted to explore new teaching tools, but were hampered by slower speeds.

PictureSG: Online photo album to help public learn about Singapore

By Vimita Mohandas, Channel NewsAsia, 28 Nov 2011 

An online collection of images to help Singaporeans discover, learn and share about the country's social history and development has been launched.

With PictureSG, the public can now share their images, include a description and even tag their friends, so that others can understand the photograph or artwork.

The site contains the National Library's own pictures as well as images donated to the library by donors and partners.

The initiative complements the irememberSG project.

Launched earlier this year, the project aims to collect from Singaporeans five million memories about their country, by 2015.

So far, the number of contributions has swelled from 30,000 to about 220,000 in just three months.

Children to receive MMR vaccination at younger age

by Channel NewsAsia, 30 Nov 2011

From tomorrow (1 Dec 2011), children will receive both doses of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination at a younger age, after the Ministry of Health (MOH) accepted a recommendation from the Expert Committee on Immunisation. 

The MOH said the earlier vaccinations will help reduce the number of measles cases seen in unvaccinated children aged 15 months and below.

Under these recommendations, children will get their first dose at 12 months, instead of the previous 12 to 24 months.

The second dose will also be brought forward from six to seven years to between 15 and 18 months.

The MOH said that providing the two doses at a closer interval will also ensure almost all vaccinated children are sufficiently protected against measles earlier in their lives.

It added that the MMR vaccination is the most effective way to protect against measles, mumps and rubella, which are highly contagious childhood diseases that can lead to serious complications in children and, in the case of measles, even death.

The ministry advised that children who have either started or completed their vaccination with 7-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV7) be given a supplemental dose of 13-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13).

Tuesday 29 November 2011

My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore's Bilingual Journey, Lee Kuan Yew

Mr Lee launches fund to boost bilingualism
It will be used to help children learn English and mother tongue early
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 29 Nov 2011

FORMER prime minister Lee Kuan Yew yesterday launched what he described as the 'most important book' he has ever written and kicked off a fund to help children become bilingual early.

Hoping that the fund would top $100 million, he pledged a personal donation of $10 million plus all proceeds from the sale of 200 signed copies of his book which will go for at least $10,000 each.

The book, My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore's Bilingual Journey, documents his 50-year struggle to transform Singapore from a diverse people, speaking many different languages and dialects, into a nation where everyone speaks both English and a mother tongue language.

The Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism will be used for initiatives to help children with their mother tongue and English, especially before they reach primary school.

Several prominent donors have already made pledges to the fund.

Thanking Mr Lee for his generous contribution to a worthy cause, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat told reporters the Government would match donations dollar for dollar, up to a cap of $50 million.

He said the ministry would form a committee to look at areas where the money could be used best, including the development of bilingual learning materials for pre-schoolers.

More details would be announced later.

Mr Lee's initiative stems from his belief that languages are best learnt at a tender age, and that English-speaking ethnic Chinese parents should speak to their children in Mandarin at home if they could.

Speaking to a 650-strong audience at the Singapore Conference Hall, he said: 'People have asked me why I embarked on this book, which I consider to be my most important book. The reason is simple: I believe bilingualism to be a cornerstone of Singapore's success story.'

Monday 28 November 2011

The jobs that Singaporeans shun

Low pay, weekend shifts and awkward working hours are main turn-offs
By Jalelah Abu Baker & Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 28 Nov 2011

WITH their modest wages and unsociable weekend shifts, they are the jobs that Singaporeans shun.

Waiting tables, cleaning and working in telesales or as a retail or warehouse assistant are the least popular positions among citizens, 10 recruitment agencies told The Straits Times.

Workers continue to turn such jobs down despite a recent government bid to encourage firms to hire more Singaporeans rather than rely on foreigners.

Their main reasons for shunning these jobs are that they pay too little or involve awkward working hours.

'Singaporeans don't like to come back to work during the weekends or do shift work,' said consultant Kristen Lee of recruitment agency Kelly Services. 'Salary-wise, they can't accept the rates as well.'

Last month, the Government beefed up guidelines on fair employment practices after it emerged that certain firms had been deliberately hiring foreigners over suitable locals.

Employers were told to make sure job advertisements were open to Singaporeans, work with educational institutions and recruitment agencies to attract citizens and develop skills of their local staff members so they can take up higher-end positions.

But recruitment agencies and companies said that while they are willing to hire Singaporeans and give them priority, a handful of jobs are consistently shunned.

Only a minority take up these positions, said Ms Lee. It is hard to find citizens who do not mind low pay with little career advancement.

She said that even Institute of Technical Education graduates have high expectations these days. Many continue studying for a diploma to upgrade themselves.

Call for Medisave to cover Parkinson's disease

Researchers cite increased risks and heavy cost burden as population ages
By Judith Tan, The Sunday Times, 27 Nov 2011

Citing their research on Parkinson's disease, clinician-scientists - with an eye on the costs as the number of elderly people grows - are calling for the use of Medisave to manage the condition.

These researchers from the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI) had found and isolated a genetic variant of a gene called LRRK2.

Significantly, this genetic variant is linked to a twofold increased risk of the disease among the majority Chinese population here.

The scientists also worked out the heavy cost that will burden caregivers and the health system as more and more people succumb to Parkinson's. Hence, the use of Medisave can help cut costs all round.

Parkinson's is a brain-wasting disease characterised by uncontrollable tremors. After Alzheimer's disease, it is the next most common neurodegenerative disease here, affecting three to four people in every 1,000 aged above 50.

This number goes up to one in every 100 for people here aged above 70.

Dr Louis Tan, a senior consultant in the NNI's department of neurology, said there are 300 new cases each year. 'This number is predicted to increase to 500 every year by the year 2030,' he said.

PAP Convention 2011 - Speeches

'Fight on... even when the person you are trying to help curses you'
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 28 Nov 2011

TO BUILD a 'First World Country' and not just a 'First World Parliament', members of the People's Action Party (PAP) must 'push the boundaries' no matter how low they are in the pecking order - and effect change from within.

PAP backbench star Denise Phua delivered this rousing message at the ruling party's annual convention yesterday, its first since the bruising May General Election.

To illustrate her point, she cited her own experiences of getting existing policies changed - from traffic congestion in the Bencoolen area in her constituency to improving state care for the special-needs community.

Change took time and effort, but 'these positive experiences reaffirmed my hunch that there is merit to joining the ruling party and changing things from within, and we should encourage others to join our party as change can be influenced from within', she said.

In fact, Ms Phua was later highlighted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as an example par excellence of the ground-up initiative that must be embraced by the 'new PAP'.

'MPs and backbenchers too need to play bigger roles stepping up, speaking up, reaching out,' said the PAP's secretary-general. 'You may ask, how many will do that? I give you one example of an MP who does that actively, and that is Denise Phua.'

The mention, and the enthusiastic applause that greeted it, capped a slow and steady rise to prominence for Ms Phua as one of the party's most highly regarded backbenchers.

Her advocacy work since she entered politics in 2006 has earned her plaudits even from critics of the ruling party; her popularity within the party saw her elected to its central executive committee last month.

Yesterday, she did not disappoint, delivering a speech that visibly raised the morale of the thousand-plus cadres in the audience.

PM Lee urges PAP to transform for new era - PAP Convention 2011

By S Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 27 Nov 2011

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called for a transformation of his People's Action Party (PAP) for a new era.

PM Lee said this is part of conclusions reached in the party's soul-searching after the May 2011  General Election (GE).

Speaking at the PAP Convention 2011 on Sunday, Mr Lee urged citizens to be part of the common cause of building a better Singapore.

It is the first PAP Convention after the GE and an apt forum to reveal results of its soul searching and review of the May 7 polls.

Though the PAP won 60 per cent of the votes, Mr Lee said it is still a watershed election, adding the party must do better next time round.

"We also must recognise that policies alone are no longer sufficient because we must fight the politics, carry the ground, convey the message that resonates with our people and inspire Singapore to aim high and strive for further goals," Mr Lee said.

"We can do better, we can overcome our problems, we know where we are going. Let's do it."

The new PAP will thus work differently - by being less centralised and more interactive, as well as engaging more people in debates.

"The success in reinventing our party depends on all our members. Every member has a role to play. It requires a shift in our mindsets and behaviours, among the leaders to reach out to many more activists and volunteers and to reach out beyond the party," Mr Lee said.

More intense competition as PAP enters new phase - Khaw Boon Wan

By Saifulbahri Ismail, Channel NewsAsia, 26 Nov 11

The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has entered a new phase in Singapore's political landscape, where the key political challenge will be one of more intense competition in a more challenging domestic environment.

This is the consensus among party members, following extensive consultations after the General Election (GE) of May 2011.

PAP chairman Khaw Boon Wan, who highlighted this at the party's awards presentation ceremony on Saturday evening, said the GE reflected some permanent changes.

He said the party has to find ways to improve the lives of not just the lower-income but also those in the middle-income group.

This will require significant resources at a time when Singapore's economy is maturing and when growth will slow.

Mr Khaw stressed that the party has to adjust its approach and style to strengthen the emotional connection with the people.

In particular, it must be able to connect with the younger generation, understand their aspirations, as well as engage and work with them.

Mr Khaw said that to achieve all these, members must continue to evolve, reinvent and reinvigorate the party.

During the May GE, the PAP was returned to power, winning 81 of the 87 seats in Parliament and regaining Potong Pasir after 27 years.

It lost a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) for the first time and saw its vote share slip to 60.1 per cent.

Mr Khaw said over the last seven months, the PAP conducted extensive consultations with party activists at the branch, constituency and district levels.

Supplementary Retirement Scheme (SRS) - Reap the benefits

Little-known savings plan for retirement
Put money into an SRS account and you can reap attractive income tax savings and investment returns
By Goh Eng Yeow, The Sunday Times, 27 Nov 2011

Watching my parents grow old and sick with a host of ailments can be heartbreaking.

Even with the help of a full-time maid to take care of the household tasks, caring for them is a heavy chore as I balance a full-time job and other responsibilities.

Still, in a sense, they are lucky. As a generation which grew up and got married just after the Second World War when starting big families was common, they could always count on at least one grown-up child to look after them.

That turned out to be their best life-insurance policy, so to speak - and a testimony to the virtues of having a big family.

But sadly, this may soon be a thing of the past. My generation - the so-called baby-boomers now in their 40s to early 60s - have far smaller families. Having one or two children is very common, and expecting them to take on the burden of caring for us when we grow old and infirm may be tough.

It is not that our children would not want to. Rather, the harsh economic realities may make it quite impossible for them to achieve giving the same level of care which I give my parents.

Maximising Singapore's limited land, Smaller households sizes = Shrinking HDB flats

Public's complaint: sizes of HDB flats are shrinking. Housing Board's reply: sizes of households are shrinking too
But some say smaller apartments do not square with needs of a developed nation
By Jessica Cheam, The Straits Times, 26 Nov 2011

THE average HDB flat has shrunk over the years, but this is due to the need to maximise Singapore's limited land and to adapt to changing household sizes, the Housing Board said yesterday.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, it said that these needs meant sizes of each flat type had to be made slightly smaller over time, and the agency's architects have compensated by increasing the use of internal space through better flat layouts.

It added that HDB regularly reviews flat sizes, taking into account factors such as changes in demographic trends and lifestyle habits.

HDB's comments come after a debate erupted over earlier remarks made by its chief executive Cheong Koon Hean that smaller flats do not have to mean a lower quality of living.

She cited numbers which showed that although flat sizes are smaller, the number of people in an average household has also decreased, meaning living space per person for HDB residents has actually increased over time.

Her comments prompted Forum Page letters and Internet posts on websites such as government feedback portal Reach.

What Do I Tell the Kids?

'Even if one ant dropped into my water, I would not want to drink it.'

LINA CHIAM, Non-Constituency MP, questioning in Parliament the impact of the water quality in Bedok Reservoir following the recent spate of deaths there

*Apparently Lina was inspired by Public Health officials in Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland drains reservoir after man urinates in it

Sunday 27 November 2011

New Senior Activity Centre for Redhill residents

By Vimita Mohandas, Channel NewsAsia. 27 Nov 2011

Needy elderly residents in Redhill can now spend time meaningfully at a new Senior Activity Centre (SAC) in the estate.

The Silver ACE@Redhill, the second centre to be opened by NTUC Eldercare, will serve some 350 seniors living in HDB rental blocks.

The first Senior Activity Centre by NTUC Eldercare is currently located at its Henderson Senior Citizens' Home, serving the seniors staying in the rental units of Blk 117, Bukit Merah View.

The Silver ACE@Redhill was opened by NTUC Eldercare chairman Lim Boon Heng and Mayor of Central Singapore District Sam Tan.

Another five such centres will be set up island-wide in the next two years to serve more than 3,000 senior citizens.

The centres are expected to be located in Bukit Merah, Lengkok Bahru, Taman Jurong, Telok Blangah and Whampoa.

The labour movement's U Care Fund will be donating S$1 million to the NTUC Eldercare Trust to provide better day-care and home-care services as well as subsidise fees.

Friday 25 November 2011

Malaysian bus firms want govt to bail them out and nationalise sector

Malaysian bus firms threaten to stop services
Struggling operators in city and town areas want govt to bail them out and nationalise sector
By Lester Kong, The Straits Times, 25 Nov 2011

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian bus companies are threatening to pull their buses off the street unless the government bails out their struggling operations, in a move that could leave hundreds of thousands of commuters stranded in the weeks ahead.

The Pan Malaysia Bus Operators Association, which groups 130 stage bus companies employing 4,000 workers across the country, wants the government to nationalise the bus service industry.

Stage buses are those that operate within town and city areas, as opposed to the more profitable express buses that ply the routes between cities.

The companies say that if nothing is done by the end of the month, they will park their buses as they are struggling to cope with spiralling operating costs.

'A total collapse of the bus system is imminent,' Datuk Ashfar Ali, president of the association, told The Straits Times. 'We want the government to acquire stage coach companies, their vehicles and workers at a price to be negotiated.'

Bus operators in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor are in better financial shape because they ply densely populated routes. But those in all other states are in dire straits.

Falling passengers loads, along with soaring fuel and bus maintenance costs, have cut profitability for a number of years, said Mr Ashfar.

Raising fares is not an option as fares for both express and stage buses are government-controlled. Besides, if fares go up, the mostly lower-income passengers will likely make fewer bus journeys, leading to lower takings.

'Bus fares are a political hot potato,' Mr Ashfar said. 'If you raise the bus fares, there will be a hue and cry from the poorer section of society and the government cannot have that.'

Whenever a bus company applies for a permit to operate, it needs to commit to a fare structure and service frequency.

Govt looking at allowing Medisave for home care services & elder care leave options

By Monica Kotwani, Channel NewsAsia, 23 Nov 2011

The government is looking at allowing the use Medisave for home care services and reviewing current subsidies to make home care options more affordable.

This was announced by Minister of State for Health, Dr Amy Khor, at the opening of the TOUCH Home Care Centre in Jurong on Wednesday.

78-year-old Sapri Amat suffers from hypertension and cataract, and some months ago, a gout attack left him almost bed-bound.

His wife Madam Piah has cancer.

Their only caregiver - son Mohamad Sapri - left his job about two years ago to care for his elderly parents.

The new TOUCH Home Care Centre in Jurong now provides transport for Madam Piah for her hospital appointment visits.

A nurse and therapist also visit Mr Sapri to monitor his condition and provide home-rehabilitation.

After subsidies, the family pays about S$60 a month for the services - 10 per cent of the total cost.

Madam Piah said: "I feel better. There are now people to look after me. If not, there is only me taking care of my husband, along with my son."

How About Better Parents?

IN recent years, we’ve been treated to reams of op-ed articles about how we need better teachers in our public schools and, if only the teachers’ unions would go away, our kids would score like Singapore’s on the big international tests. There’s no question that a great teacher can make a huge difference in a student’s achievement, and we need to recruit, train and reward more such teachers. But here’s what some new studies are also showing: We need better parents. Parents more focused on their children’s education can also make a huge difference in a student’s achievement.

How do we know? Every three years, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D., conducts exams as part of the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which tests 15-year-olds in the world’s leading industrialized nations on their reading comprehension and ability to use what they’ve learned in math and science to solve real problems — the most important skills for succeeding in college and life. America’s 15-year-olds have not been distinguishing themselves in the PISA exams compared with students in Singapore, Finland and Shanghai.

To better understand why some students thrive taking the PISA tests and others do not, Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the exams for the O.E.C.D., was encouraged by the O.E.C.D. countries to look beyond the classrooms. So starting with four countries in 2006, and then adding 14 more in 2009, the PISA team went to the parents of 5,000 students and interviewed them “about how they raised their kids and then compared that with the test results” for each of those years, Schleicher explained to me. Two weeks ago, the PISA team published the three main findings of its study:

“Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all. The performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family’s socioeconomic background. Parents’ engagement with their 15-year-olds is strongly associated with better performance in PISA.”

Schleicher explained to me that “just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring. It is something every parent can do, no matter what their education level or social background.”

For instance, the PISA study revealed that “students whose parents reported that they had read a book with their child ‘every day or almost every day’ or ‘once or twice a week’ during the first year of primary school have markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents reported that they had read a book with their child ‘never or almost never’ or only ‘once or twice a month.’ On average, the score difference is 25 points, the equivalent of well over half a school year.”

Yes, students from more well-to-do households are more likely to have more involved parents. “However,” the PISA team found, “even when comparing students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, those students whose parents regularly read books to them when they were in the first year of primary school score 14 points higher, on average, than students whose parents did not.”

The kind of parental involvement matters, as well. “For example,” the PISA study noted, “on average, the score point difference in reading that is associated with parental involvement is largest when parents read a book with their child, when they talk about things they have done during the day, and when they tell stories to their children.” The score point difference is smallest when parental involvement takes the form of simply playing with their children.

These PISA findings were echoed in a recent study by the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education, and written up by the center’s director, Patte Barth, in the latest issue of The American School Board Journal.

The study, called “Back to School: How parent involvement affects student achievement,” found something “somewhat surprising,” wrote Barth: “Parent involvement can take many forms, but only a few of them relate to higher student performance. Of those that work, parental actions that support children’s learning at home are most likely to have an impact on academic achievement at school.

“Monitoring homework; making sure children get to school; rewarding their efforts and talking up the idea of going to college. These parent actions are linked to better attendance, grades, test scores, and preparation for college,” Barth wrote. “The study found that getting parents involved with their children’s learning at home is a more powerful driver of achievement than parents attending P.T.A. and school board meetings, volunteering in classrooms, participating in fund-raising, and showing up at back-to-school nights.”

To be sure, there is no substitute for a good teacher. There is nothing more valuable than great classroom instruction. But let’s stop putting the whole burden on teachers. We also need better parents. Better parents can make every teacher more effective.

Published in The New York Times, 19 Nov 2011

Thomas L Friedman is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner

Thursday 24 November 2011

Lee Kuan Yew was a pioneer environmentalist

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said at an environmental dialogue session (23 Nov 2011) with Singapore Polytechnic students that former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was an environmentalist before the word became fashionable.

Minister Balakrishnan also addressed Singapore's water challenge for the future and the controversial Bukit Brown cemetery road project.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Singaporeans should decide for themselves if they need CDCs help: MCYS

Respect wishes of those who refuse help: Halimah
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 23 Nov 2011

POOR Singaporeans who do not want to seek public assistance should have their wishes respected, said Madam Halimah Yacob, Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports.

'We need to respect the desires of people - even though they may be in the bottom 20 per cent - to have ownership of their lives,' she told the House yesterday.

She was replying to Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC), who asked what could be done for people who refuse public welfare.

It led Madam Halimah to recount her childhood experience in a low-income family. Her father had died when she was eight years old.

Teachers would tell her to ask her mother to apply for social assistance.

But her mother was horrified by the suggestion. Madam Halimah said: 'My mother said that so long as she has two hands and two legs, we will all survive.'

She also disclosed that, in a survey her ministry did of 2,000 low-income families this year, six out of 10 said they preferred to be self-sufficient and did not need help.

Cyber Warriors

Najib recruits cyber army to defend Barisan
He launches grouping of bloggers, tweeters who will explain govt policies online

KUALA LUMPUR: The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) is stepping up its cyber campaign by enlisting a loose group of bloggers and tweeters who will voluntarily explain the government's policies and defend them online.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who launched 1Malaysia Social Media Volunteers (myVO1CE) yesterday, said the time had come for BN to revamp the way it engaged with the public.

'Last time, getting information across to the people on the ground meant going to an open field and asking the Information Department to set up a stage and microphones,' he said at the inaugural 1Malaysia Social Media Convention in the Putra World Trade Centre here. 'Social media will enable us to engage the public directly.'

Datuk Seri Najib also gave the pro-BN social media users official recognition, calling them the new army for the party in the virtual world.

'So, this is your role as cyber warriors. Our social media army can 'turun padang' (get to the ground), but not by rolling up your sleeves and trouser legs. Bring out your iPads, iPhones, BlackBerrys and laptops. These are our weapons as the cyber warriors,' he said to applause by about 2,000 participants.

Social media has become increasingly important politically. Some 11.3 million Malaysians were on Facebook in the middle of the year, according to the Malaysian Insider news site.

'If we cannot tackle this new wave, we will be swept away,' Mr Najib said. 'If we cannot defend ourselves against the opposition, by default, we will lose.'

He said he, himself, was an active user of digital technology. For example, he said, he made a live recording of himself during a recent haj pilgrimage using his iPhone 4, and it was broadcast on national television.

Also present at the function was Dr Novandri Hasan Basri, a Penang Umno leader and blogger known for his attacks against the Penang state government.

One of the convention's committee members, Mr P. Kamalanathan, a ruling coalition MP, said the convention aimed to promote good ethics in blogging, tweeting as well as on Facebook.

A recent survey by global information and analytics provider Nielsen last month found that Malaysians spent an average of 20 hours online each week.

The Star/Asia News Network, Published 21 Nov 2011


US military's cyberwarriors spot lies, misleading postings and counter extremist ideology
By Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, The New York Times, 17 Nov 2011

MacDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — The morning sun had barely cast its fresh light over Tampa Bay when Ardashir Safavi — born in Iran, a refugee to Turkey, educated in the mid-Atlantic states — was up and patrolling two dozen Persian-language Web sites, hunting militant adversaries in cyberspace.

His mission was to scan news reports, blogs, social media and online essays to identify those he viewed as “containing lies, misinformation or just misperceptions” about American military operations and Pentagon policy across the Middle East.

In recent months, Mr. Safavi and his teammates spotted posts that included doctored photographs of Osama bin Laden purporting to prove that Al Qaeda’s leader had not died in an American commando raid. They turned up blogs stating that the Pentagon was accelerating war plans for invading many Muslim nations, and others amplifying Taliban accusations that American troops rape with impunity across Afghanistan.

Mr. Safavi works as part of the Digital Engagement Team, established in 2008 by the military’s Central Command to “counter extremist ideology, promote cultural awareness and explain U.S. interests,” said Maj. David E. Nevers, the team’s chief officer, who must approve all responses before they are posted on foreign-language Web sites.

The team includes 20 native speakers of Arabic, Dari, Persian, Pashto, Urdu and Russian, the latter a shared language across the Muslim countries of the former Soviet states of Central Asia. Given that Central Command is responsible for military actions in an arc of instability stretching from the Indian Ocean across the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, people here call their headquarters “Tampa-stan.”

The government’s expanding efforts in computer-network warfare, offense and defense are among the most secret enterprises carried out by the military and intelligence community. To counter the adversary’s use of the Internet, American cyberwarriors have hacked into extremist chat rooms to sow confusion, or to inject poisonous code to take down militant Web sites. Sometimes, they choose not to act, but silently track the online movements of jihadists to learn their plans.

In contrast, the Digital Engagement Team operates in total sunshine: all of the online postings carry an official stamp acknowledging sponsorship by Central Command.

The team’s operators “respectfully deflect baseless and often irrational insults, confront adversaries with factual evidence and expose extremist propaganda that might otherwise go unrefuted,” Major Nevers said. “All engagements are transparent and attributable.”

The only obfuscation is the use of online pseudonyms to protect the civilian contract employees from potential retaliation.

Mr. Safavi’s Internet pen name is drawn from a grand Persian dynasty. On a recent morning, he spotted a provocative Persian posting that inspired an energetic thread of responses criticizing the Pentagon’s relationship with a complicated ally, Pakistan, mostly posing theories of Great Game conspiracies pitting spy vs. spy, insurgency vs. military, Washington vs. Islamabad.

The discussion was relevant beyond Mr. Safavi’s native Iran, since there are large Persian-speaking populations in Afghanistan and in its northern neighbor Tajikistan.

“You’ve heard of the Iron Curtain, of course,” Mr. Safavi said. “We’re here to pierce the Electronic Curtain because the military has decided that it cannot cede this information space to violent extremists.”

Mr. Safavi typed up a translated summary of the Internet exchange, which in a matter of minutes had grown to 29 entries read by thousands more. He proposed a response drawn from Pentagon and State Department policy statements: it described shared American and Pakistani security interests, citing as evidence the large number of Pakistanis in security forces who were killed in battles with insurgents within that country’s borders.

Then he sent a message up his chain of command to Major Nevers on a form labeled “Permission to Engage.”

The Digital Engagement Team works in cyberspace but not at network speeds because translation and approval take hours. Yet it has tried to make a virtue of the demands of oversight. If an offending Web posting is spotted in the early morning, the response is online by early afternoon, landing just as computer users across the Middle East resume their Web surfing in the hours between dinner and sleep.

Parallel to these military efforts, the State Department created a strategic counterterrorism communications center whose online analysts and bloggers try to understand what inspires their target audience — men 18 to 30 years old, mostly in the Middle East — to violent extremism, and to find ways to steer them away from that.

“We really want to have an intimate understanding of where they’re coming from, what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, and what drives them,” said Richard LeBaron, a former American ambassador to Kuwait who is the center’s coordinator.

For the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team, Arabic- and Urdu-speaking analysts engage extremists in online conversations, identifying themselves as representing the United States government. “The fact they engage with us indicates we’ve hit a nerve,” Mr. LeBaron said. “They often use horribly abusive language, so our folks have to have thick skins.”

Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, said that despite their limitations, these online outreach campaigns were efficient and inexpensive tools in the government’s increasingly holistic approach to combating terrorists, especially as the United States draws down its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In many respects, Mr. Fishman said, juxtaposing factual images — videotapes of the hateful preachings of the Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri against the triumphant protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo this year — can be more powerful, and more effective, than any message the government can transmit.

“Just demonstrate the facts and let reality speak for itself,” Mr. Fishman said.

Popular Arabic-language Web sites acknowledge the impact of the Digital Engagement Team. A blogger at wrote late last year that the effort “represents a shift in the style of engagement normally used by Americans with the populations of the region, which usually addresses the elites and the governments in English.”

The blogger acknowledged that the military’s online initiative “is to open a dialogue with readers and Web sites that represent a segment with different interests and opinions,” and that the Central Command postings in “smooth Arabic” were “often very sophisticated.”

Military officers admit that beyond anecdotal feedback, it is hard to measure the program’s impact. Software can tabulate the number of people reading the postings across the foreign-language Web sites where the team engages. But it is impossible to measure whether opinions are changing — and, if so, whether the team is a significant influence, or simply trying to empty the ocean of militancy one thimble at a time.

“What’s most important is that we are engaging in intelligent, honest and forthright discussions,” said Maj. T. G. Taylor, Central Command’s chief of media. “The fact that more and more forums allow us to participate with their audiences is perhaps a more important measure of our communication efforts.”

One recent effort by the Central Command involved answering a chat room query on what had been accomplished by America’s decade-long involvement in Afghanistan. “Afghans today enjoy more political, economic and social rights than at any time in the history of the country,” the Digital Engagement Team wrote back. It added, “The days of public stoning and the beating of women in the streets are over.”