Singaporeans have to decide who can serve them better, says Heng Swee Keat on Tan Cheng Bock's new political party

SINGAPORE – Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said Singaporeans will need to decide who can better serve them, in response to former People’s Action Party (PAP) MP Tan Cheng Bock’s return to politics.

Dr Tan’s move to form a political party is “a development that is not totally unexpected”, Mr Heng said on Sunday (Jan 20) on the sidelines of a community event in Tampines to spruce up the homes of low-income families.

“Singaporeans will have to decide on who can serve them better, and I will leave Singaporeans to make that judgment,” he said.

Mr Heng, who is first assistant secretary-general of the ruling PAP, is the first PAP leader to weigh in on the news of Dr Tan setting up a political party.

The next general election must be held by April 2021.

Dr Tan, 78, said in a Facebook post last Friday (Jan 18) that he applied last Wednesday to register the Progress Singapore Party, which is made up of 11 other “like-minded Singaporeans”, some of whom are former PAP cadres.

The six-term MP, who retired from politics in 2006, lost narrowly to Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam in the 2011 presidential election.

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S&P cuts rating on PG&E unit in third such cut this month

(Reuters) – S&P cut its rating on PG&E Corp’s (PCG.N) Pacific Gas & Electric Co unit on Wednesday, making it the third such cut this month, after the unit missed interest payments on its 2040 senior notes.

The credit rating agency downgraded the unit’s rating to ‘D’ from ‘CC’ after Pacific Gas and Electric failed to make the $21.6 million interest payment due on Tuesday, as the company planned to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The latest cut comes two days after both Fitch and S&P downgraded PG&E and its Pacific Power & Gas Co unit in the face of massive claims stemming from deadly wildfires.

PG&E, which provides electricity and natural gas to 16 million customers in northern and central California, faces widespread litigation, government investigations and liabilities that could potentially exceed $30 billion because of the fires.

The most recent fire last November killed at least 86 people in the deadliest and most destructive blaze in California history.

San Francisco-based PG&E is working on lining up roughly $5.5 billion in so-called debtor-in-possession financing to help operations during bankruptcy proceedings.

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Election Related Uncertainty Poses Risk To GDP Growth Forecast For Some African Economies

Most African countries have a positive economic outlook, apart from those with upcoming elections, according to ICAEW’s (the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) latest report. In Economic Insight: Africa Q4 2018, launched today, the accountancy body provides GDP growth forecasts for various regions including East Africa which is set to grow by 6.3%, Western and Central Africa by 2.5%, Franc Zone at 4.6% and South Africa by 1.2%.

According to the report; East Africa continues to report the highest GDP growth on the continent even though the region’s economic growth is expected to ease slightly, from 6.8% in 2017 to 6.3%. Ethiopia reported the highest forecast at 7.8%, while the lowest forecast for the region was at -3.8%, by war-torn South Sudan.

However, lower growth ranking for some countries in the region demonstrate how large an effect political instability can have on economic prospects. For example Kenya’s growth rebounded to 5.4% this year after it dropped to 4.9% in 2017. The drop was attributed to political uncertainty during last year’s elections.

Michael Armstrong, Regional Director, ICAEW Middle East, Africa and South Asia said: “Political instability tends to peak around election time for some African nations. This scenario tends to dampen the GDP growth of some countries, since economic growth shares a complex relationship with both elections and accompanying political instability.”

In West and Central Africa average growth is forecast at 2.5%. Ghana’s forecast is expected to expand by a decent 5.2%, highlighting a stable economy. However, this is not so for Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria whose growth is forecast at 1.8%. The weak performance can partly be attributed to the upcoming elections in February next year.

There is little uncertainty about who will win elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in December, but political tensions are set to rise nonetheless, and are the main obstacle to the GDP growth forecast of 4.1% this year.

The elections narrative is still replicated in Southern Africa, being the slowest region with GDP forecast set to expand only by 1.2%. Election rhetoric regarding land and property rights in South Africa ahead of polls in 2019 has frightened investors.

As a result, President Cyril Ramaphosa is finding it difficult to convince them otherwise. The country is expected to post GDP growth of just 0.7%.

In North Africa, Libya and Algeria are set to hold polls in the near future, in December 2018 and April 2019, respectively. Nevertheless, Libya’s election will almost certainly not go ahead as the legal framework for it is not yet in place. Incidentally, the two countries are the region’s fastest and slowest growing economies this year, at 14.7% and 2.3% respectively.Egypt which held elections in March to overwhelmingly return President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to power, is expected to grow by 5.3% this year. The certainty of Mr Sisi’s grip on power appears to be helping the country’s economic rebound.

The Franc Zone is expected to see GDP growth of around 4.6% this year. Cameroon is expected to post a GDP growth rate of 4.0% this year – up from 3.2% in 2017. This is despite the unpopular re-election of President Paul Biya and the violence that accompanied his re-election.

Elections and accompanying political instability evidently have a complex relationship with economic growth.

The full Economic Insight: Africa report can be found here:

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S&P cuts rating on PG&E unit in third such cut this month

(Reuters) – S&P cut its rating on PG&E Corp’s (PCG.N) Pacific Gas & Electric Co unit on Wednesday, making it the third such cut this month, after the unit missed interest payments on its 2040 senior notes.

The credit rating agency downgraded the unit’s rating to ‘D’ from ‘CC’ after Pacific Gas and Electric failed to make the $21.6 million interest payment due on Tuesday, as the company planned to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The latest cut comes two days after both Fitch and S&P downgraded PG&E and its Pacific Power & Gas Co unit in the face of massive claims stemming from deadly wildfires.

PG&E, which provides electricity and natural gas to 16 million customers in northern and central California, faces widespread litigation, government investigations and liabilities that could potentially exceed $30 billion because of the fires.

The most recent fire last November killed at least 86 people in the deadliest and most destructive blaze in California history.

San Francisco-based PG&E is working on lining up roughly $5.5 billion in so-called debtor-in-possession financing to help operations during bankruptcy proceedings.

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S&P cuts PG&E ratings to junk, warns of further downgrade

(Reuters) – S&P Global Ratings on Monday stripped California power utility PG&E Corp of its investment-grade credit rating and kept it under review for a further downgrade, citing political and regulatory pressure and uncertainty as it faces massive claims stemming from deadly wildfires.

The utility, whose roughly $18 billion in bonds fell on Monday due to bankruptcy fears, has come under severe pressure since a fatal Camp fire in November compounded the company’s woes. It currently faces billions of dollars in liabilities related to wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

S&P cut the rating on both PG&E and its Pacific Power & Gas Co operating utility to “B” from its previous rating of “BBB-,” the lowest tier of so-called investment-grade ratings.

The ratings agency said it could further cut the company’s rating over the next few months if explicit steps are not taken by authorities to improve the regulatory situation, signaling that the agency may be losing faith that lawmakers could rescue PG&E.

“We could also lower the ratings by one or more notches if management does not clearly articulate specific steps it will take to preserve credit quality over the long term,” S&P said.

Earlier on Monday, PG&E shares dived more than 22 percent and its largest bond, a $3 billion note due in March 2034 with a coupon of 6.05 percent, fell to a record-low bid price of 91.5 cents on the dollar, while its yield rose to nearly 7 percent.

“We expect that negative public sentiment and the increased political pressure will challenge the regulators’ willingness and ability to implement measures to protect credit quality over the near term,” S&P said.

The agency also said it expects PG&E’s capital access may be limited to secured debt issuance, restricting its financing options, because of the increased credit risks, and media speculation on a potential bankruptcy.

On Friday, sources told Reuters that PG&E was exploring filing for bankruptcy protection. The company was considering the move, for some or all of its businesses, as it fears a massive charge in the fourth quarter related to potential liabilities from wildfires.

The company said it was reviewing its “structural options” and assessing its operations, finances, management, structure and governance. It is searching for new directors at its holding company and its utility unit Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

In November, PG&E said it could face “significant liability” in excess of its insurance coverage if its equipment was found to have caused last year’s fires in northern California.

The fires near the Northern California mountain community of Paradise swept through the town, killing at least 86 people in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. PG&E had reported equipment problems near the origin of the fire around the time it began.

Credit ratings for PG&E and its Pacific Gas & Electric unit were downgraded by the three main ratings agencies in mid-November.

Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission opened a proceeding to consider penalties against the company, ordering immediate action against the utility for falsifying safety documents for natural gas pipelines.

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Susanna Dinnage pulls out of Premier League chief executive role

The businesswoman – whose most recent job was as global president of Discovery’s Animal Planet channel – was announced as Mr Scudamore’s replacement in November and was due to take the role in early 2019.

But in a statement released on Sunday evening, the Premier League said Ms Dinnage – who has spent more than 20 years working in TV, starting at MTV and also working at Channel Five – would no longer be taking up the position.

The statement read: “Despite her commitment to the Premier League in early November, Susanna Dinnage has now advised the nominations committee that she will not be taking up the position of chief executive.

“The committee has reconvened its search and is talking to candidates. There will be no further comment until an appointment is made.”

She had been hailed as “the outstanding choice” from a “very strong field” of candidates for the role by Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck, who led the recruitment process alongside Burnley counterpart Mike Garlick and Leicester City chief executive Susan Whelan.

She had been set to become the first female chief executive in the history of the Premier League, which has become the most lucrative football league in the world thanks to some record-breaking TV deals.

Mr Scudamore announced he was leaving his post after 19 years in June and Premier League clubs agreed to pay him a £5m bonus as a farewell gift.

He has combined the roles of chairman and chief executive since 2014 and leaves halfway through a season currently being led by Liverpool, who are seven points clear of champions Manchester City at the top of the table.

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COP24: Nations agree on global climate pact rules after impasse

Nearly 200 countries overcome divisions, producing 156-page rule book for implementing the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement

    Nearly 200 nations overcame political divisions on Saturday to agree on rules for implementing a landmark global climate deal, but critics say it is not ambitious enough to prevent the dangerous effects of global warming.

    After two weeks of talks in the Polish city of Katowice, officials from around the world finally reached a consensus on a more detailed framework for the 2015 Paris Agreement which aims to limit a rise in average world temperatures to “well below” two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

    “It is not easy to find agreement on a deal so specific and technical. Through this package you have made a thousand little steps forward together. You can feel proud,” Polish president of the talks Michal Kurtyka told delegates.

    After he struck the gavel to signal agreement had been reached, ministers joined him on the stage, hugging and laughing in signs of relief after the marathon talks.

    Before the talks started, many expected that the deal would not be as robust as is needed. The unity which underpinned the Paris talks has fragmented and US President Donald Trump intends to pull his country – one of the world’s biggest emitters – out of the pact.

    Still, exhausted ministers managed to bridge a series of divides to produce a 156-page rulebook, which is broken down into themes such as how countries will report and monitor their national pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions and update their emissions plans.

    ‘Not strong enough’

    However, an eight-page decision framework text was criticised by some countries and green groups for failing to urge increased ambitions on emissions cuts sufficiently to curb rising temperatures. 

    “The majority of the rulebook for the Paris Agreement has been created, which is something to be thankful for,” said Mohamed Adow, international climate lead at Christian Aid.

    “But the fact countries had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the finish line shows that some nations have not woken up to the urgent call of the IPCC report,” he added.

    A UN-commissioned report by the IPCC in October warned that keeping the Earth’s temperature rise to 1.5C would need “unprecedented changes” in every aspect of society.

    Last week, Saudi Arabia, the Unites States, Russia and Kuwait refused to use the word “welcome” in association with the findings of the report.

    The decision text now merely expresses gratitude for the work on the report, welcomes its timely completion and invites parties to use the information in it. 

    For many low-lying states and islands who are at risk from rising sea levels, this is not strong enough but had to be accepted grudgingly in exchange for other trade-offs.

    “There should be a direct link between the findings of the report and the specific actions that would underpin ambition both in terms of action and finance,” Simon Stiell, Grenada’s environment minister, told Reuters.

    “The challenges will be with some of the bigger players in terms of stepping up to their responsibilities and what is required to truly operationalise the Paris Agreement,” he added.

    At the eleventh hour, ministers managed to break a deadlock between Brazil and other countries over the accounting rules for the monitoring of carbon credits, deferring a bulk of that discussion to next year.


    Long Road to Paris

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    Opinion | Why Is Qatar Leaving OPEC?

    The surprising declaration by Qatar about leaving OPEC on Jan. 1 is a strategic response by the country to a changing energy landscape and the 18-month old ongoing boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.

    Qatar’s decision to move away from a regionwide consensus among the Gulf’s OPEC members is a reminder of the regional tensions arising from the assertiveness of Saudi Arabia, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

    This display of autonomy spilled over into the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to which Qatar and three of its detractors belong and which held its annual summit on Sunday. Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, did not attend the council and sent a lower ranking delegation instead. Kuwait and Oman also hold reservations about the hawkish axis between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and will follow Qatar’s decision closely.

    The Gulf Cooperation summit did not discuss the blockade of Qatar and the rift in the gulf remains unresolved and, perhaps, unresolvable, as positions have hardened and neither Qatar nor the Saudi Arabia-led quartet wants to be seen to blink first.

    By becoming the first of the energy-rich Gulf States to withdraw from OPEC, Qatar has signaled its disapproval with an organization perceived to be subject to increasing Saudi interference.

    Saudi interference was starkly illustrated during an April 2016 meeting in Doha, the capital of Qatar, when Prince Mohammed, then the deputy crown prince, intervened to thwart an output agreement between OPEC and non-OPEC states. Emir Tamim had worked hard to secure the agreement both within OPEC and with Russia, only to see the Saudis pressure Qatar to disinvite Iran, a fellow OPEC member, and sink the deal midway through the meeting.

    Although designed to address the sustained post-2014 slump in oil prices, the Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran trumped, in Prince Mohammed’s view, the need to secure an agreement that could stabilize oil prices and assist producers’ economies hit by shortfalls in revenue.

    Qatar’s decision to withdraw from OPEC builds on two decisions taken before and after Saudi Arabia and its allies cut ties with Qatar and imposed a blockade last June. In April 2017, it decided to significantly expand its production of natural gas to increase its natural gas capacity by 43 percent to 110 million tons annually. The Qatari leadership also responded to the attempt to isolate Qatar by forging a slew of new longer-term natural gas agreements with partners worldwide, including China, Japan and Britain, to demonstrate that Qatar remained open for business.

    Qatar made a strategic decision to direct national resources toward gas rather than oil as the backbone of its energy policy. While the country discovered oil in 1939, a year after Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and joined OPEC in 1961, it never became a major player in global oil markets because its oil exports remained small by Persian Gulf standards.

    In the 1970s, Qatar discovered vast quantities of natural gas in the offshore North Field, which straddles the maritime border between Qatar and Iran, with the largest part of the field in Qatari waters. The North Field remains the largest non-associated gas field ever found, with more than 130 years of reserves at current production rates of 77 million tons a year.

    Since the early 1990s, Qatar has invested heavily in creating the infrastructure to export gas both through pipelines and as liquefied natural gas. By 2007, Qatar was the largest exporter of LNG in the world, with production plateauing in 2010 at 77 million tons a year. In contrast, its average oil production of 607,000 barrels per day in 2017 is less than 2 percent of OPEC’s total output.

    In April 2017, Qatar Petroleum lifted a 12-year moratorium on the further development of its natural gas resources that it had imposed in 2005 to allow time to study the impact of such a rapid rise in production on the condition and sustainable management of the North Field.

    The decision to increase LNG production capacity to 110 million from 77 tons a year came two months before the Saudi-led attempt to isolate Qatar last June. Throughout the ongoing, 18-month-long blockade, Qatar has continued to supply natural gas to the Emirates through a pipeline that accounts for about a quarter of the Emirates’ daily gas demand.

    In November — a month before announcement of Qatar’s OPEC exit — a government reshuffle in Qatar saw Saad Sherida al-Kaabi, the former chief executive of Qatar Petroleum, appointed as Minister of State for Energy Affairs, a new portfolio that replaced the Minister of Energy and Industry.

    During his term at Qatar Petroleum, Mr. Kaabi had lifted the moratorium on increasing gas production in the North Field. In his new ministerial position, Mr. Kaabi has been entrusted by Emir Tamim to oversee the next phase in Qatar’s gas development. Plans include a range of new upstream developments and international partnerships intended to cement the country’s position as the world’s leading supplier of LNG.

    Having displayed their resilience in the face of the Saudi-led blockade, Qataris seem to signal their determination to move on from OPEC and carve their own approach to global gas markets.

    A new deal to supply LNG to Britain, which receives nearly a third of its gas supply from Qatar, was announced just as the blockade came into effect last June. In September Qatargas signed a 22-year agreement to supply PetroChina with 3.4 million tons of LNG a year through 2040.

    Those deals, along with Qatar honoring its natural gas commitment to the Emirates despite the rift, have reinforced the post-blockade effort to portray Qatar as a reliable energy partner and a responsible member of the international community.

    Thus, Qatar’s decision to withdraw from OPEC is consistent with the strategic evolution of its energy interests that plays to their strength as a gas superpower and fits into existing plans to upscale significantly LNG infrastructure and production capacity.

    It makes strategic sense to focus on a sector in which Qatar holds more than 30 percent of the global market share than on its far smaller and declining oil output. By also reinforcing Qatar’s autonomy from its Persian Gulf neighbors, the move exemplifies the failure of the 2017 blockade to force Qatar to clip its wings and return to a Saudi-led regional fold.

    With neither Saudi Arabia nor the Emirates willing to back down or concede defeat, the Gulf rift is reshaping regional and institutional partnerships and increasing the degrees of separation among the parties to the dispute.

    Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy, Rice University.

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    Lucky kitten saved from busy Philippines road given new home

    The tiny moggie, who appeared to have used up one of its nine lives, was spotted in the second to outside lane by a bus driver who moved the animal to the central reservation.

    But then motorcyclist Kristian Nabus offered to help as he signalled to the driver to pass him the feline and he carefully put it in his jacket.

    He then stroked its head to try to put it at ease.

    The whole incident in Quezon City was captured on the biker’s headcam and showed the traffic being stopped so the kitten could be taken to safety.

    Mr Nabus posted on Facebook, saying the kitten had been found a new home.

    He wrote: “Kitty kitty adoption, found a new owner”, along with several photos of the cat.

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    Inmates Ran ‘Sextortion’ Scam Targeting Service Members, Authorities Say

    Five prison inmates in South Carolina have been charged with setting up an elaborate extortion ring in which they blackmailed members of the military by posing as underage women online and collected more than half a million dollars, the authorities said Wednesday.

    The inmates, who were indicted this month, used smartphones that were smuggled into prison to create profiles on social media and dating sites to lure in service members, Sherri A. Lydon, United States attorney for the District of South Carolina, said at a news conference in Columbia, S.C. Ten other people were charged with assisting the inmates in obtaining money they demanded from the service members, according to court documents.

    The inmates exchanged nude photos with the service members, using photos of young women found on the internet, Ms. Lydon said. They would then pretend to be the girl’s father or another authority figure and tell the service member that their fictitious daughter was underage, she said. The inmates demanded money and said that if the service member didn’t pay, they would alert the military to the sexting, she said.

    “Military members would then pay, fearful that they would lose their careers over possessing what they were led to believe was child pornography,” said Drew Goodridge, a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. That agency had been investigating the scheme since early 2017. It called the inquiry Operation Surprise Party.

    The so-called sextortion ring succeeded in getting 442 service members to pay a total of more than $560,000, according to a news release from the N.C.I.S. The service members involved were from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.

    The news release said 250 other people, including civilians and inmates, were being investigated in connection with the scheme.

    The five inmates indicted so far face a mixture of federal charges, including wire fraud, money laundering and extortion. To obtain the money, they used a network of bank accounts, money transfer services, online payment services and prepaid debit and credit cards, said Matthew Lyon, an investigator for the Internal Revenue Service, at the news conference.

    Ms. Lydon, the United States attorney whose office is prosecuting the case, partly blamed the “unfettered use” of illicit cellphones in prison for allowing this operation.

    “We do not lock up criminals only to have them go to prison and continue their criminal conduct,” she said.

    In one case, an inmate, Wendell Wilkins, used a smuggled smartphone to send nude photos of young women to military members based across the country, the indictment alleged. Mr. Wilkins would then call the service members, posing as the young woman’s father and demand money to pay for counseling and medical bills his underage daughter needed to treat the trauma caused by the sexual explicit messages, according to the indictment.

    Using PayPal, Moneygram and other services, Mr. Wilkins arranged for the money to be sent to people outside the prison who would then take part of the money and add the rest to a prepaid debit card account that he could access, the indictment said. The government says he obtained at least $80,000 using this strategy.

    Some of the inmates would ask others in their prison to call service members posing as police officers, according to the indictment. They would then threaten to arrest the service members if they failed to send additional money.

    It was unclear whether the inmates are currently being represented by lawyers. A spokesman for the United States Attorney’s Office did not respond immediately to a request for comment on Wednesday evening.

    Mr. Goodridge said at the news conference, which was posted online by a local television station, that service members who were targeted by this scheme were from all ranks. He said there were most likely other unidentified service members who had not reported their experiences to military authorities and urged them to do so.

    Jeff Houston, a spokesman for the naval investigative service, said in an email that no disciplinary action would be taken against the service members because they did not commit any crimes.

    Follow Julia Jacobs on Twitter: @juliarebeccaj.

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