Best of our wild blogs: 27 Mar 17

Open for registration – Love MacRitchie Walk with NUS Toddycats! on 9 Apr 2017
Love our MacRitchie Forest

We Celebrate 14 Years of Bringing You Closer to Singapore Reefs
Hantu Blog

Olive Backed Sunbirds in Singapore
Sengkang Babies

Read more!

Many bird species spotted in urban green pockets

NParks initiative trains 'citizen scientists' to monitor biodiversity in community spaces
Melody Zaccheus Straits Times 26 Mar 17;

Neighbourhood parks could be home to rare species of birds such as the blue-crowned hanging parrot and spotted wood owl.

Of the 152 bird species spotted by volunteers during three garden bird-watching sessions over the past two years, 110 of them were found in urban green pockets such as Yishun Park, Punggol Park and Choa Chu Kang Park.

This was one of the preliminary findings from the National Parks Board's (NParks) suite of Community in Nature Biodiversity Watch programmes, launched in April 2015.

Under the initiative, NParks trains the public to spot wildlife, turning them into volunteers whom it calls "citizen scientists". There are now 1,000 volunteers, up from 400 at the start.

The data that they gather will help NParks to monitor biodiversity, populations and habitats and develop site management strategies to conserve biodiversity.

The findings so far show that larger parks generally support a wider variety of habitats, leading to a larger variety of bird and butterfly species.

For instance, a park that contains water bodies and grasslands will be more likely to support birds such as herons and munias.

Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Desmond Lee shared the findings yesterday at an event at Kent Ridge Park.

Mr Lee said that to continue to be a "city in a garden", the country needs "community stewardship": "We need everyone to be custodians and stewards of the natural heritage we have been blessed with."

So far, three garden bird-watching sessions, two butterfly watches and three BioBlitzes have been carried out. BioBlitzes involve participants spending either 12 or 24 hours documenting biodiversity in an area.

Citizen scientists also spotted 77 species of butterflies in 45 parks. These are among the 324 resident species of butterflies here.

Greenview Secondary School student Joey Lim, 14, who took part in a BioBlitz at Kent Ridge Park yesterday, said that she never knew Singapore was home to such a diverse variety of wildlife.

She said: "Today, I personally spotted at least five different types of dragonflies at a pond here."

National University of Singapore life sciences undergraduate Sean Yap, 24, who took Joey and her classmates through Kent Ridge Park, said: "As scientists, we point out the wildlife they might miss. This helps to raise awareness about Singapore's rich biodiversity. "

Mr Lee also announced a new dragonfly watch programme, scheduled to be rolled out later this year.

He said that Biodiversity Week will be held from May 20 to 28.

Winged wonders

Singapore is home to 392 bird species and 324 butterfly species. It has five times more butterfly species than Britain, and more bird species than Germany. Rare birds and butterfalies have been sighted by NParks volunteers, or "citizen scientists" over the past two years. Here are some of their sightings.

The blue-crowned hanging parrot is native to Singapore and nationally endangered. It has been seen at Dairy Farm Nature Park, Kent Ridge Park and Mount Faber Park.

The charismatic spotted wood owl, sometimes seen in a pair, is widely distributed throughout the island. Volunteers spotted it at Pasir Ris Park.

The common evening brown, a moderately rare butterfly in Singapore, is active at dawn and before dusk. It was spotted at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

Read more!

Malaysia: A giant reason to conserve Sabah's forests

Researchers find 50 trees over 90m, beating old record of 89.5m
Carolyn Khew Straits Times 24 Mar 17;

A towering giant has recently been discovered in the heart of Borneo, the most imposing of its kind in a land of giants. The world's tallest tropical tree stands at over 94m - taller than New York City's Statue of Liberty or the former Asia Insurance Building at Raffles Place.

Researchers found it in a protected Sabah forest and are hoping that the discovery will highlight the need to conserve the forests of Borneo, home to thriving wildlife and plants.

Said ecologist Gregory Asner, who found the tree with his colleagues: "Sabah (and Borneo in general) harbours some of the most spectacular tropical trees on earth. I have worked throughout the Amazon, Central America, on tropical islands including Madagascar, in tropical Africa and beyond, and yet Sabah's forests stand out as truly inspiring."

The Shorea faguetiana tree first caught the eye of researchers last year when Dr Asner and his colleagues were surveying Sabah's forests in a helicopter.

That was when they struck gold and found the tree that turned out to be 94.1m tall, with an immense canopy measuring 40.3m in diameter, in an undisturbed forest patch in Danum Valley. Even better, they also found 49 other specimens taller than 90m spread all over Sabah, all of which would have crushed the previous record for tallest tropical tree.

Describing the moment he saw the tallest among them, Dr Asner, director of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory at the Carnegie Institution for Science in the United States, told environmental news site Mongabay it was flanked on each side by a tree of the same species of Shorea, each almost as tall.

"There are three trees, like brothers, standing above the rest of the canopy. I almost cried as we circled the tree maybe 10 times before the pilot said we had to go back," he said.


I almost cried as we circled the tree maybe 10 times before the pilot said we had to go back.

DR GREGORY ASNER, director of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, on how he felt when he saw the world's tallest tropical tree.
The previous record belonged to an 89.5m giant discovered in Sabah's Maliau Basin last year. It was reportedly spotted during a research project that used an airborne Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) scanner to create 3D images of forest structure.

News of the latest record prompted Datuk Sam Mannan, the Chief Conservator of Forests at the Sabah Forestry Department, to organise an expedition to locate the tree and determine what species it was.

After trekking through a forest trail on Feb 22 this year, the team found the tree on a slope at about 359m above sea level. Mr Juanis Runcin of the Sabah Forestry Department then climbed the tree to obtain leaf samples so that the tree species could be identified.

Researchers said they are not sure why it has been able to grow so tall but Mr Sam Mannan believes this could be due to genes and the need for the mature tree to rise above the canopy to survive.

"There is much to be known about our natural ecosystems, as in this case, the previously assumed height of Shorea faguetiana was only 50m to 60m tall," he added.

The team will be making recommendations for the management of the area. This includes installing equipment, such as lightning rods, to protect the trees from damage.

"The new discovery will add value to the Danum Valley Conservation Area and its surrounding forest reserves. It is important to conserve such pristine forests. Mature reproductive trees are essential for maintaining forest health and its ecology," said Mr Sam Mannam.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, Borneo is estimated to contain 15,000 plant species and may have the highest plant diversity of any region on earth. Many of Borneo's plants are also found nowhere else in the world.

Dr Robert Ong, senior research officer from the Sabah Forestry Department, said it is likely that the biggest and tallest trees in Sabah were destroyed many years ago when large areas of the most fertile lands were logged and cleared for agriculture. "As that is all part of our history that is poorly documented, we will never know for sure," he said.

For now, remote sensing technology, such as Lidar, has made it possible to detect tall trees by scanning large forest landscapes from an aircraft some 4,570m above sea level, said Dr Ong. "Formerly, we had to scale trees individually to determine their height accurately."

Dr Shawn Lum, Nature Society (Singapore) president who is also from the Nanyang Technological University's Asian School of the Environment, said that trees in South-east Asia have generally been known to be taller than those in Africa and the Amazon, but this discovery has astounded even seasoned forest experts.

Noting that Shorea faguetiana was never thought to be able to reach heights of 90m prior to the discovery, he added: "Have we been underestimating heights or overlooking such great trees simply because they are so hard to access?"

Read more!

Best of our wild blogs: 26 Mar 17

Night Walk At Bidadari Cemetery (24 Mar 2017)
Beetles@SG BLOG

Butterfly of the Month - March 2017
Butterflies of Singapore

Singapore in untypical light
The Long and Winding Road

Read more!

Water price hike ‘absolutely necessary’ but should been explained better: PM Lee

Today Online 25 Mar 17;

SINGAPORE — Before announcing the water tariff hike last month, the Government perhaps should have spent more time explaining the rationale and what it would be doing to help households cope, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged on Saturday (March 25).

By doing so, people “would not have been so surprised”, he said. However, he stressed that raising the price of water was “absolutely necessary”.

“We cannot avoid it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t do it,” said PM Lee, who was speaking at a ceremony to mark the completion of the makeover of the Pang Sua Pond in Bukit Panjang.

In his speech, PM Lee also explained that even if the price of water was not raised, Singapore would still have to pay for the “expensive investments” which national water agency PUB has been ploughing in reservoirs, desalination factories, sewage treatment plants, pipelines and pumping stations, among other things.

“It’s better to pay for (them) through the water tariff – those who use the water, pay for the water, rather than from general taxes,” said PM Lee, citing taxes on income, cars, and goods and services as examples.

He reiterated that water is a strategic issue and a matter of national security – right from the beginning when the nation came into existence, and even until today.

“It’s one of the things which (Singapore’s founding Prime Minister) Mr Lee Kuan Yew used to be obsessed with right from the beginning and right to the end of his life,” said PM Lee. “And as a nation, we have to maintain his attitude towards water - the attitude that has brought us here. We got water security now because of our obsession. And by keeping this focus, we can stay secure into the future.”

Even though Singapore has developed the four “national taps” - local water catchments, water from Johor Baru, NEWater and desalinated water – Singapore “will never have ‘more than enough’ water”, Mr Lee stressed.

“(Water is) crucial to Singapore’s safety (and) existence. It’s fundamental to our survival,” he said.

PM Lee added: “We will never have the luxury of not having to save water, not having to make every drop count. Every national serviceman understands what this means. And every Singaporean, boy or girl, man or woman, also needs to remember this.”

He pointed out that Singapore’s demand for water will go up as its economy grows. At the same time, climate change and Johor’s own growing population and water needs would affect the Republic’s supply of water.

Last month, the Government announced a 30-per-cent increase in the water price – to be phased in over two years. This was the first time in 17 years that water tariffs were raised.

PM Lee noted that the announcement “provoked a strong reaction from Singaporeans”. There was also a vigorous debate in Parliament, where several Ministers spoke about the issue.

“After the discussion, people now understand it better,” he said. PM Lee noted that the hike was “not the only thing we are doing”. The Government is educating households on water conservation, encouraging industries to recycle more water, and supporting research into new techniques and materials that would produce NEWater more cheaply.

“But we also have to price water properly because it’s scarce. It’s not cheap to produce and consumers need to know how precious it is everytime you turn on the tap,” said PM Lee. “And we need to discourage ourselves from using more water than we absolutely need to all of the time.”

PM Lee stressed that if water ever becomes a vulnerability for Singapore, “we will all be in very serious trouble”.

Referring to PUB’s Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters programme, PM Lee urged Singaporeans to remember the serious purpose behind “all these beautiful things” they see.

Calling on Singaporeans to “take nothing for granted” in the country, he added: “We don’t believe that we have to keep people away from water to protect (it). We would like people to get close to the water, enjoy it, take care of it, so that we can value and conserve it for ourselves and for our children.”

Hike in water price 'absolutely necessary': PM Lee
Liyana Othman Channel NewsAsia 25 Mar 17;

SINGAPORE: The 30 per cent increase in the price of water is "absolutely necessary", as it is a "scarce" resource and "not cheap to produce", said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday (Mar 25).

Mr Lee noted that the announcement, made by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in his Budget statement "provoked a strong reaction from Singaporeans".

"In retrospect, perhaps we should have spent more time explaining this before announcing the increase, then people wouldn't have been so surprised," he said.

But the increase is "absolutely necessary", he added, underlining just how precious water is as a resource. National water agency PUB is also investing in various infrastructure like NEWater and desalination plants, pipelines and sewage treatment plants.

"If the water tariffs are not enough to pay for these, PUB would still have to build all this, and we would still have to pay for this. But instead of paying for it through the water tariff, we would have to pay for it through our taxes and I think it's fairer to pay for it through the water tariff. Those who use the water pay for the water, rather than from general taxes and we use the GST or your income taxes, or your car taxes to pay for water."

As the economy grows, the country will need more water, said Mr Lee, adding that climate change will also cause the supply of water to be less predictable.

And as the population in the Malaysian state of Johor continues to grow, this means that the resource will come under pressure due to a corresponding growth in demand, he said.

Singapore draws more than half of its water supply from Linggiu Reservoir. Water levels there hit record lows in recent months.

"We've got to treat water very, very seriously. It's one of the things which Mr Lee Kuan Yew used to be obsessed with. Right from the beginning and right to the end of his life, and as a nation we have to maintain this attitude towards water", said Mr Lee.

"We've got water security now because of our obsession. And by keeping this focus, we can stay secure into the future. If we ever let water become a vulnerability for Singapore, I think we will all be in very serious trouble", Mr Lee cautioned.

Mr Lee was speaking at the official opening of the revamped Pang Sua Pond in Bukit Panjang. S$6.8 million was pumped into transforming the pond under PUB's Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters programme.

Some 3,000 residents gathered to mark the revamp, which took more than two years to complete.

MPs for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Vivian Balakrishnan, Christopher de Souza and Liang Eng Hwa were at the opening, as well as MP for Bukit Panjang SMC Teo Ho Pin.

- CNA/dt

Read more!

Rise in new tuberculosis cases in Singapore last year

Channel NewsAsia 24 Mar 17;

SINGAPORE: Tuberculosis (TB) remains endemic in Singapore, with the number of new cases of active TB among Singapore residents rising in 2016.

In a press statement released on World TB day on Friday (Mar 24), the Ministry of Health (MOH) said that there were 1,617 new cases of active TB in 2016 - slightly higher than the 1,498 new cases recorded in 2015, with older age groups and males continuing to make up a significant proportion of these new active TB cases.

MOH added that there were 41.1 new TB cases per 100,000 population in 2016, compared to 38.4 cases per 100,000 in 2015.

Latent TB infection is "not uncommon" in Singapore's population MOH said, with rates of up to 30 per cent in older age groups, as TB had been prevalent in Singapore until the 1970s.

Most of the new TB cases (81.3 per cent) among Singapore residents were from those born in Singapore. Of the 1,617 new cases in 2016, 68.8 per cent were 50 years old and above, and 65.9 per cent were male.

There were also 142 relapsed cases of TB among Singapore residents in 2016.

In addition, MOH said that the emergence of multi-drug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) - which is more difficult to treat and has lower cure rates - remains a serious public health challenge. In 2016, Singapore had three new cases of MDR-TB who were Singapore-born residents. The death rate for MDR-TB is as high as 30 to 40 per cent.


MOH stressed that the spread of TB is preventable and that the disease is curable.

"There is no need for work places or other places where a recently diagnosed active TB case has visited to be closed," MOH added. "Persons diagnosed with active TB are placed on treatment, and appropriate medical leave, and rapidly become non-infectious once treatment starts."

"Hence, there is no further risk of exposure in the workplace. Workplace or close contacts found to have latent TB infection are not infectious and can continue their activities as usual," MOH said.

- CNA/nc

Taking a long-term view of tuberculosis
HSU LI YANG and LOH KAH SENG Today Online 24 Mar 17;

World Tuberculosis (TB) Day has been observed on 24th March every year since 1982, when it was sponsored by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease to commemorate the centennial of Robert Koch’s discovery of the germ that causes TB.

On that Friday evening in 1882, Koch stunned the scientists who had come to listen to him at the Physiological Society of Berlin by describing a series of experiments that conclusively attributed the disease variously known as the “white plague”, consumption, phthisis, and even lyrically as “captain of all these men of death” to a bacterium that could also cause the same disease manifestations in cattle, guinea pigs, and apes.

World TB Day reminds us that TB remains an epidemic in the majority of countries in the world, including Singapore, and it still exerts a ruinous toll on the health and economy of individuals and society.

TB can be viewed as a crude microcosm of Singapore’s development. It reflects, in equal parts, the benefits and risks of our openness to the world.

In the 19th century, many of the vagrants suffering from TB had been dumped, unwanted, onto Singapore’s shores by the Dutch East Indies government.

The growth of Singapore’s global entrepot trade brought considerable wealth to us in those days, but also increased the incidence of TB, as great numbers of working-class immigrants crammed into the congested shophouses of the inner city, where the disease took root.

In 1901, TB killed 1,700 people, cementing its status as one of Singapore’s top-killing diseases.

After the end of World War II, Singapore made a concerted effort in the 1948 Medical Plan to tackle TB through both clinical methods (surgery to collapse diseased lungs, chemotherapy, BCG vaccination, and the conversion of Tan Tock Seng Hospital into a sanatorium) and social policy (public housing development).

In this anti-TB campaign, which was bolstered when Singapore became a self-governing state in 1959, the island was able to tap into the expertise of the British Medical Research Council.

Singapore even served as a critical site for a series of seminal clinical trials during the late 1970s and early 1980s, which led to the development of the short-course multiple-drug treatment regimen that is still the standard of care today.

Similarly, when the Singapore Tuberculosis Elimination Programme was launched in 1997 to eliminate the disease, local physicians collaborated with their American counterparts to institute a comprehensive programme of directly observed therapy (Dots) and a national registry to monitor patients’ therapy, including preventive treatment for their close contacts.

The impact of the HIV epidemic on TB rates in Singapore has thankfully been small, unlike other parts of the world where a resurgence of TB was witnessed.

In the 21st century, further incremental progress was made, with continued reduction of local TB incidence rates until 2008.

The WHO estimated that only 58 per cent of the world’s approximately 10.4 million new cases of TB had access to quality TB care in 2015.

For multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) — a term used to describe infections caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis isolates that are resistant to the two “backbone” drugs in the chemotherapy cocktail against TB, isoniazid and rifampicin — this percentage fell further to just 20 per cent.

In Singapore, however, virtually all patients with TB and even the rare few with MDR-TB have access to quality care, with social support provided to low-income patients to maximise the likelihood of treatment completion. One example of this is the “Dot & Shop” scheme — sponsored by Sata CommHealth — where grocery vouchers are disbursed to low-income individuals if they are compliant with Dots.

Nonetheless, Singapore’s TB incidence rates started to climb post-2008, after decades of decline.

Various research studies have shown that there are two primary demographic factors that account for much of this phenomenon. They are an ageing resident population and an increase in the non-resident population.

Both factors are not unique to Singapore. In countries with low TB incidence, such as western Europe, Australia and the United States, a significant proportion of their TB cases have come from those who were born in countries where the burden of TB remains high.

The effect of ageing has similarly been described elsewhere, including Japan and Hong Kong.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis can remain in one’s body for years without causing any symptoms — a condition known as latent TB infection — reactivating and causing disease only when one’s immune system becomes weakened (as in the case of HIV infection), which can occur in various ways as one becomes older.

Thankfully, infection rates in Singapore have fallen decade on decade after World War II, and the proportion of elderly that reactivate earlier contracted TB will also fall over time.

Today, in many countries, TB continually risks losing the requisite state and community support to threats posed by other more publicly visible infectious and non-communicable diseases.

Patients are also in greater personal danger due to the emergence and spread of MDR-TB around the world, a message brought home by the Parklane cyber cafe and Ang Mo Kio cluster of cases that made the news in 2012 and 2016.

Socio-economic factors such as the stigma against tuberculosis also cause a small number of patients to fail to complete their treatment, increasing the likelihood of drug resistance.

Thankfully, increased resources have been provided by the Ministry of Health to address this rise in TB incidence rates in Singapore, but it may take a few more years before the impact is seen.

It is imperative that Singapore utilises its international collaborative links, in conjunction with its national and community capacities, to deal with the persisting threat of TB, as it had done throughout its history.

Such commitment and focus must be decades-long, beyond the cycles of government leaders and business.


Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang is the Programme Leader of the Antimicrobial Resistance Programme at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health. Dr Loh Kah Seng, a historian and co-founder of Chronicles Research and Education, is researching the history of TB in Singapore as part of the programme at the school.

Read more!

SingPost to trial eco-friendly scooter for mail delivery

Channel NewsAsia 24 Mar 17;

SINGAPORE: Singapore Post (SingPost) and TUMCREATE will soon kick off trials for an eco-friendly mail delivery scooter.

The trial, which runs from Mar 28 to Apr 7, will take place along two delivery routes between SingPost's Ayer Rajah Regional Delivery Base and the National University of Singapore, SingPost said in a media release on Friday (Mar 24).

The three-wheeler has been designed to streamline postal processes and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, SingPost said. The vehicle will use modular batteries to match battery capacity to the route on which it is deployed.

"By changing the battery configuration, the vehicle’s range may be configured to 35 kilometres, which is sufficient for an average mail delivery route – or 70 kilometres, which will satisfy almost all postal delivery trips made," SingPost said.

In addition, the three-wheeler will produce zero local exhaust emissions, SingPost said.

The postal service provider added that the vehicle is equipped with dynamic GPS routing for priority deliveries and optimised delivery routing, fleet monitoring for data collection and management, integrated cameras, as well as on-demand tracking.

The vehicle also features a storage system that could cut a postman's delivery routine by up to 40 minutes. Its detachable, rollable storage box provides 23 per cent more storage space than existing postal scooters.

SingPost currently operates 674 petrol-driven scooters for last-mile postal delivery. About half of these are three-wheelers.

Three postmen will provide feedback on the electric prototype. SingPost is also looking for a manufacturing partner to convert this prototype into a market-ready product, it said.

- CNA/dl

Read more!

Revamped Pang Sua Pond in Bukit Panjang reopens

Liyana Othman Channel NewsAsia 25 Mar 17;

SINGAPORE: Residents of Bukit Panjang can now get up close to nature thanks to a floating boardwalk over Pang Sua Pond, which was closed in 2014 for a S$6.8 million makeover.

Once a bare stormwater collection pond, Pang Sua Pond has been transformed under national water agency PUB's Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters programme into a place where people can have fun while appreciating nature.

The 480m boardwalk, which is suspended up to 7 metres over the water, connects users to nearby facilities like the Senja-Cashew Community Club and a brand new 3G Wellness Centre.

There is also a multi-purpose stage for community events and activities that can seat more than 200 people, as well as viewing decks where users can get a bird's eye view of the waterfront.

Floating wetlands about the size of an Olympic-sized swimming pool add a splash of green while enhancing the biodiversity in the area.

"This is in fact the second-largest man-made floating wetland in Singapore," said PUB's chief sustainability officer Tan Nguan Sen. "The floating wetland has a few benefits. The plants will absorb the nutrients from the water and helps improve the water quality in the pond. And the floating wetland is a very good outdoor classroom for students and residents to learn about how you can use plants to treat the water."

The pond was built in the 1990s and serves as a stormwater collection pond. It takes in rainwater runoff from the surrounding areas, which is then pumped to the Upper Seletar Reservoir for storage and treatment.

"We will have educational signboards to tell people what is this pond for, and through this message we hope that the people will treasure the water, and with all these enhancements, people will take care of it," added Mr Tan.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong officiated its opening on Saturday, along with about 3,000 residents.

- CNA/kk

Read more!

Malaysia: ‘Manage water resources better’

The Star 26 Mar 17;

PORT DICKSON: With five states expected to face problems supplying treated water to consumers, the federal authorities want all state governments to implement measures to better manage their water resources and catchment areas.

Based on the National Water Resources Study (2000-2050), the states that are expected to face problems with supply were Perlis, Kedah, Penang, Selangor and Malacca.

Some state authorities were weak in managing these resources, causing their water catchment areas to be polluted, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said.

“River pollution has caused water quality to deteriorate to Class Three or Four.

“When this happens, the volume of water that can be treated would be reduced and the cost to treat it would increase,” he said at the national World Water Day celebration yesterday.

Class Five is the highest pollution level under Malaysia’s Water Quality Index.

The Federal Government has allocated RM49.5mil under the 11th Malaysia Plan to implement a Water Balance Development Programme to help the affected states receive water supply.

Dr Ahmad Zahid said it was also unfortunate that some states faced water supply problems although the country received 907 billion cubic metres of rainfall annually.

“That is why there is a pressing need to better manage our water resources. In fact, state authorities should also use groundwater as an alternative source of drinking water,” he said, adding that the country had an estimated three trillion cubic metres of groundwater.

Dr Ahmad Zahid said utilising groundwater was a good option as 82.4% of treated water was sourced from rivers and another 16% from dams.

“Only 1.5% currently consumed comes from groundwater,” he said.

Speaking to reporters later, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said a Bill would be tabled in Parliament to allow the Federal Government to coordinate water related matters in the country.

“We do not plan to usurp the po­­wers of the state governments.

“All we plan to do is to have a template which will allow states to better cooperate whenever they face water related problems,” he said.

Read more!

Forest City: China’s New Limits on Money Outflows Hit a Would-Be Paradise

NEIL GOUGH and CAO LI New York Times 24 Mar 17;

HONG KONG — China’s intensifying efforts to keep money from leaving the country have cast doubt over big Hollywood deals and other marquee investments.

Now, they are blocking Kitty Zhu from buying her dream home.

The 39-year-old Ms. Zhu, who runs a cosmetic center in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai, is one of hundreds of Chinese investors who have bet money on an ambitious but troubled residential project in Malaysia. More than 1,200 miles from China, the $40 billion Forest City housing complex — when completed — will combine lushly green beachfront property with amenities for children and the elderly alike, according to its developer.

But while the developer is Chinese, the payments must be made in Malaysia. Ms. Zhu and other buyers now say they have run into problems making payments on their Forest City apartments.

“I‘ve lost confidence in this project and I don’t want to pay any more,” said Ms. Zhu, who has already paid nearly $44,000 of the $334,000 purchase price. “I told my salesman that I want a refund, but he just avoids me.”

Chinese officials are scrambling to keep money in its borders, and the efforts are hitting big companies and people like Ms. Zhu alike. China spent $1 trillion shoring up its currency since 2014 as big companies and regular investors shifted their money out of the country over worries about slowing economic growth and the prospect of better returns elsewhere. In response, China has put new limits on the ways Chinese can invest and use their credit cards abroad.

The limits now appear to be hitting Chinese efforts to buy real estate globally. In December, China’s currency foreign-exchange regulator said it would take a harder look at how some were buying property, among other investments. On Friday, the overseas arm of UnionPay, the state-owned firm that dominates bank card payment processing in China, said it would prohibit the use of its cards for cross-border property acquisitions.

The moves could hit a large group: The Chinese invested $33 billion in overseas commercial and residential property deals last year, according to Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate services firm. Building homes in overseas markets like Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia or New York City and marketing them to investment-minded buyers back home has become a cottage industry for China’s larger property developers, who also promote the strategy as a way to help export China’s industrial overcapacity.

“It is a major problem for some developers that have megaprojects overseas, as it appears they sell, and were intended to sell, mainly to Chinese investors rather than local buyers,” said Nigel Stevenson, an analyst at GMT Research in Hong Kong. “Anecdotally it does seem much harder for Chinese buyers to transfer money offshore to pay for properties,” he added.

Country Garden, the Chinese developer building Forest City in Malaysia, has also been affected. In a Chinese-language statement sent this month to the Reuters news agency and reviewed by The New York Times, Country Garden said it decided to temporarily close its international property sales centers in mainland China for repositioning and upgrading “in order to better meet the existing foreign exchange policies and regulations.”

A Country Garden spokeswoman said the closure of the sales centers was “not a knee-jerk reaction” to the policy and reflected a shift to selling internationally. Speaking to reporters in Hong Kong on Wednesday, Yeung Kwok-keung, the chairman and founder of Country Garden, skirted the question and struck the same point.

”This project is for sale to the entire world,” Mr. Yeung said.

Forest City bills itself as “a dream paradise for all mankind.” A promotional video for the project highlights a special duty-free shopping zone and its proximity to Singapore, and includes video of tropical fish and sea turtles swimming in turquoise waters.

It is also surrounded by freighters. Just to the west of Forest City is Malaysia’s Tanjung Pelepas container port, which is busier than the ports of Los Angeles or New York. Across the water in Singapore lies an industrial district.

The four artificial islands of the Forest City site cover nearly eight square miles. Recent drone video shows a handful of apartment towers under construction, while completed buildings include the spaceshiplike sales showroom and a hotel.

Videos show beaches sprinkled with white sand covering the newly reclaimed shorelines. In front of the showroom, dozens of life-size sculptures of seals perch incongruously in the equatorial heat.

Last year, Rafael Liu and his father were in the showroom of a Country Garden development in China’s eastern Jiangsu province when they learned about the Forest City project in Malaysia.

“We felt that it could be a place for my father to go in the winter,” said Mr. Liu, a 27-year-old banker from Nanjing. His father went on a buying tour last year to Malaysia and liked what he saw. When he came back to China, father and son went to a Country Garden sales office and paid more than 30 percent down on an apartment costing over $130,000.

Since then they have been transferring payments once every three months to a bank account in the southern city of Foshan, where Country Garden is based. But recently, the developer told Mr. Liu he could not make payments in China any more, and instead gave him details for accounts in Malaysia or Hong Kong to use. Mr. Liu balked, worried about violating China’s restrictions on foreign currency transactions.

“I am not paying any more,” he said.

But now he and his father are in limbo. They do not want to forfeit the 30 percent penalty for a refund. And pursuing arbitration could also result in steep legal fees.

Like many other Chinese developers, Country Garden has borrowed money from overseas, which could leave it vulnerable to any weakening in the Chinese currency and to higher interest rates in the United States. For companies, a weaker currency makes paying back debt more expensive. More than half of Country Garden’s $12.8 billion in debt is denominated in American or Hong Kong dollars, though the company said on Wednesday that its overall cost of borrowing had declined.

In domestic Malaysian politics, Forest City has also become something of a political lightning rod.

The country’s former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has taken to his blog repeatedly to criticize the project — and the administration of current Prime Minister Najib Razak — for allegedly selling land, residency and other benefits to relatively affluent mainland Chinese and bringing little economic benefit to locals in return. Mr. Najib has rejected these criticisms, saying Malaysia is merely taking a page from Dubai’s playbook by building giant projects to attract outside investors.

In a blog entry March 13, Mr. Mahathir said he recently visited Forest City for the first time.

He noted the impressive landscaping, including the large swimming pool and “beautiful” beach. But he renewed his criticism, saying the project is the equivalent of selling off land to foreigners.

“Indeed, Malaysia is very generous,” he wrote. “Anyone can stay here.”

Read more!

LTA’s bike-sharing scheme shelved as private players enter market

KELLY NG Today Online 24 Mar 17;

SINGAPORE — Plans for a government-funded bike-sharing system in Jurong Lake District have been scrapped amid the recent influx of private operators.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) said it decided not to award a tender for a 1,000-bike system it called in July last year, given that these private operators have plans to roll out “many thousands” of bicycles to more locations in the next year or two.

“The ongoing plans by the private dockless bicycle-sharing system operators have obviated the need for a Government-run system backed by Government grants,” it said in a press release. “LTA will continue to monitor developments in the bicycle-sharing landscape, and introduce new plans if necessary.”

The tender to build, own, operate and maintain the system with 100 docking stations closed in December last year with 13 bids from local and foreign entities proposing both docked and dockless systems, the LTA revealed on Friday. Their price proposals will be unopened, it added.

Since the beginning of this year, fully privately-funded dockless bicycle-sharing services have sprouted here.

ofo and Mobike — both players headquartered in China — and homegrown firm oBike are among the firms to offer stationless bike-sharing models.

Riders can unlock Mobike and oBike bikes using QR codes on their respective mobile apps, while ofo sends users a unique four-digit code once they have booked their rides.

oBike’s vehicles can be rented at S$1 for 30 minutes, while ofo bikes are available at S$0.50 per trip. Mobike, which officially launched on Tuesday, is offering a promotional rental rate of 50 cents for 30 minutes’ use — half the standard rate. The firm was unable to say when the promotion will end.

In its release, the LTA also cautioned riders against indiscriminate parking of bicycles, and encouraged operators to “put in place penalties and incentives” to encourage proper behaviour.

The Government will also take action against indiscriminately parked bikes, such as by impounding the vehicles and imposing “heavy fines” on operators or the culprits involved, it added.

“(Operators) should remove any indiscriminately parked bicycles or derelict bicycles expeditiously, whenever alerted by the public or any government agencies. Strict enforcement action will be taken against all indiscriminately parked bicycles,” the LTA said.

A bike-sharing pilot was first mooted in 2013 to support the Government’s vision to improve first-and-last-mile connectivity and encourage cycling for short trips.

Jurong Lake District was chosen for the pilot because it is set to be re-developed into Singapore’s second Central Business District. Just last year, the Government also said it was mulling expanding the scheme to Tampines-Pasir Ris, as well as Marina Bay with the city centre.

National bicycle-sharing scheme scrapped
Channel NewsAsia 24 Mar 17;

SINGAPORE: A national self-service bicycle-sharing scheme which was slated to be piloted in the Jurong Lake District by the end of this year has been scrapped, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced on Friday (Mar 24).

In a media release, LTA said it reassessed its bicycle-sharing plans after several privately funded dockless bicycle-sharing services emerged in Singapore since the beginning of 2017. These operators include local start-up oBike as well as China-based firms Ofo and Mobike.

“The ongoing plans by the private dockless bicycle-sharing system operators have obviated the need for a Government-run system backed by Government grants. The price proposals submitted by all 13 participants of the tender will be unopened,” LTA said.

Earlier this month, Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng during the Committee of Supply debate had said that Transport Ministry is assessing the bids tendered for the bicycle-sharing service in Jurong Lake District "carefully".

LTA had put out a tender to appoint an operator for the pilot bicycle-sharing scheme in July last year, with options to bid to operate a bicycle-sharing scheme in the Marina Bay/City Centre area, as well as Tampines and Pasir Ris. The tender closed in December 2016 and attracted a total of 13 bids from local and foreign participants, LTA said, adding that the proposals were a mix of both docked and dockless bicycle-sharing systems.

LTA added that it will continue to monitor developments in the bicycle-sharing landscape and introduce new plans “if necessary”.

- CNA/dl

Major issues with bike-sharing apps
Isabelle Liew, The New Paper AsiaOne 24 Mar 17;

Two days after its formal launch in Singapore, Chinese-owned bike-sharing app Mobike still has some major issues to iron out.

The New Paper tried the three bike-sharing platforms - Mobike, ofo and oBike over two days.

Eight out of 10 times, those who tried Mobike could not find the bicycle.

The team combed areas like Tampines, Clarke Quay, Bras Basah and Kallang, and while the app indicated the bikes were at spaces like MRT stations and along pavements, they would be missing from these locations, even after a "reservation" had been made on the app.

Some of the bike icons on the app would even indicate the bicycles were inside private residences, hospitals, storerooms and construction areas.

Although the TNP team managed to find a Mobike at Tampines and Kallang Leisure Park, the bike icon on the app showed it was a distance away from where the two bicycles were supposed to be located.

Mobike uses a dockless bike-share system and users can unlock its bicycles by scanning a QR code on it.

Each bicycle comes with a proprietary "smart lock" containing GPS technology.

In response to TNP queries, Mr Florian Bohnert, head of international expansion at Mobike, said: "If the bike icons are not showing up correctly, we advise users to look around their surroundings and across the streets to locate the bikes, as the marker on the map may be affected by the surrounding environment such as buildings and other possible obstructions affecting the accuracy of the GPS signal on the map view."

A spokesman said the company has more than a million bikes in operation. As it can monitor the location and health of Mobikes in real time, "the number of bikes that are lost or damaged is negligible".

He added: "When necessary we can intervene, for example when a bike is damaged or parked in an unsuitable location."

Mobike had a team studying the local market to prepare for its launch from last October and have ramped up the deployment since Tuesday's launch.

There were similar struggles with China-based ofo, which does not use a GPS system. Users would have to find a bike and enter the bike number in the app.

It will return a combination code which can be used to release the lock on the bike.

The New Paper team searched various MRT stations from the heartlands to the CBD area, parks and Housing Board void decks, but none of ofo's bright yellow bikes were spotted.

Based on the team's two-day mission, local venture oBike seems to have the least issues.

Bicycles from oBike could easily be found, with many parked at various MRT stations.

Unlike Mobike, oBike tracks its bicycles through the GPS system on the user's app, and a bicycle was found at the first attempt, near the McDonald's outlet at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park.

Read more!

11 puppies seized at Woodlands Checkpoint

Today Online 24 Mar 17;

SINGAPORE — Eleven puppies were found smuggled in a Malaysia-registered car, following further inspection upon its arrival at the Woodlands Checkpoint on Thursday night (March 23).

The puppies were found hidden in a modified fuel tank of the car by officers from the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA). The car was driven by a lone 43-year-old male Malaysian.

The driver, the puppies and the car were referred to the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA). Investigations are ongoing.

Meanwhile, the 11 puppies have been kept for and quarantined at AVA’s facilities. They are being observed for signs of infectious or contagious diseases, including rabies, which can be fatal to both humans and animals.

Responding to TODAY’s queries, the AVA said the puppies will be quarantined for a minimum of 100 days and it will work with its rehoming partners to rehome them after the quarantine period.

The importation of any animals or live birds without an AVA permit is illegal and carries a maximum penalty of S$10,000 and/or imprisonment of up to one year.

The public can refer to the AVA’s website or download the agency’s mobile app SG TravelKaki for more information on bringing back animals from other countries.

Read more!