August 19, 2008
UN, Myanmar resolve aid currency problem, in theory
Mon Aug 18, 2008
By Ed Cropley
BANGKOK, Aug 18 (Reuters) - The United Nations and Myanmar have resolved a problem with distorted official exchange rates that led to U.N. losses of more than $1.5 million in the delivery of aid to survivors of Cyclone Nargis. U.N. officials said on Monday the military government had agreed to let outside donors pay local companies directly and in U.S. dollars, rather than via the official, long-winded system involving foreign exchange certificates.
"This option was always open to both vendors and the U.N. However, there was a 10 percent government transaction fee on such operations that deterred us from using it," U.N. country representative Dan Baker said.
"The government has now agreed to waive the fee for all international humanitarian agencies -- U.N., bilateral and international NGOs," he said in an email to Reuters in Bangkok.
Most local firms used by aid agencies to buy supplies such as food, fuel or construction materials had dollar bank accounts, and those that did not should be able to open them up without too much difficulty, Baker said.
The U.N. has not yet had the chance to ensure the new system works in practice -- always a big if in a country under military rule for the last 46 years -- but Baker said the government had pledged to resolve any problems that arose.
The U.N. losses stemmed from Myanmar's insistence that donors convert aid dollars into foreign exchange certificates with a notional value of $1 each. These certificates are then used to buy the local currency, the kyat.
However, the exchange rate for one certificate is around 880 kyat compared to a market rate of more than 1,100 kyat per dollar, leading to a currency conversion loss of at least 20 percent.
It came as a nasty surprise to many international and private donors, making them even more reluctant than normal to give to a country already regarded as a pariah.
The May 2 cyclone left 140,000 people dead or missing, making it one of the most devastating ever to hit Asia, although the amount of aid pledged has been only a fraction of that which followed the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Of the $482 million it appealed for, the U.N. has managed so far to raise only $200 million.
After discovering the currency problem last month, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes urged donors not to withhold their cash lest it increase the suffering of the 2.4 million people affected.
Holmes initially estimated U.N. losses at around $10 million, but when accountants dug into the numbers they came up with $1.56 million, officials said.
Singapore to ease ban on political videos, public demonstrations
By Imelda Saad, Channel NewsAsia | Posted: 18 August 2008
SINGAPORE: Political engagement in Singapore is set to change with the advent of new media.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged this as much and said the government will have to adapt, get used to it, and turn it to positive effect.
Hence, the government will ease up on the ban on political videos and outdoor public demonstrations, he said at his National Day Rally on Sunday night.
The new-generation Singaporeans, weaned on the likes of Facebook and YouTube, are getting news off websites and discussing issues online.
"By the next GE (General Election), 5 years will have passed. Cyber years are like dog years. One year in cyberspace equals to 7 years in real life," Mr Lee said. "That's the pace at which things change. So 5 years times 7 means 35 years in the real world."
Mr Lee even conceded that his National Day Rally has become a multi-media event.
To show this, he took out a mobile phone and proceeded to film the audience before him in the auditorium. Behind him, on a giant screen, the audience saw themselves featured on the Web page of the Prime Minister's Office - live.
"There you are, simple as that. I've just made our first non-political video," he said to laughter from the audience.
And since anyone can do this anytime, anywhere, Mr Lee said an outright ban on party political films is no longer sensible.
But there will still be safeguards.
"Some things are obviously alright - factual footage, documentaries, recordings of live events. But I think some things should still be off limits... (for instance) if you made a political commercial so that it's purely made-up material, partisan stuff, footage distorted to create a slanted impression," he said.
Unlike the last General Election, podcasts, videocasts and election materials will be allowed. But those who upload such material online will have to maintain accountability and responsibility.
The Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society - led by former Singapore Press Holdings editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng - will set out its recommendations on these issues later this month.
The restriction remains for outdoor demonstrations, but Mr Lee said the government needs to find ways to allow Singaporeans to express themselves safely.
He said Singapore will allow outdoor public demonstrations at the Speakers' Corner, a public space for free speeches. This is as long as the demonstrators adhere to basic rules of law and order, and stay away from issues of race, language or religion.
The government will manage the liberalisation with a light touch, said Mr Lee. So there is no need for the Police to be involved. In fact, the NParks will manage the Speakers' Corner, instead.
Mr Lee said: "The overall thrust of all these changes is to liberalise our society, to widen space for expression and participation. We encourage more citizens to engage in debate, to participate in building our shared future.
"We will progressively open up our system even more. If you compare today with 5 years ago, 10 years ago, it's much more open today."
Even then, Singapore cannot progress just by copying others. Mr Lee said the country must find the right path for itself.
Singapore’s July main exports shrink for 3rd month
Singapore’s main exports dropped for the third straight month in July, hurt by weak demand for electronic goods in key markets including the United States, said AFP on Monday.
AFP quoted the International Enterprise Singapore as saying the country’s shipments of non-oil domestic exports (NODX) dropped by 5.7 percent last month from a year ago.
NODX is a key gauge of the trade-led Singaporean economy, Southeast Asia’s most advanced.
On a month-on-month seasonally adjusted basis, Singapore’s NODX fell 2.2 percent, reversing the 4.2 percent rise recorded in June, the trade promotion agency said in its monthly report.
In July, Singapore’s NODX shipments were valued at 13.67 billion Singapore dollars (9.97 billion US) while total trade rose 20.6 percent to 88.30 billion dollars, the trade agency said.
Electronics exports continued a dive begun in February 2007, declining by 14.2 percent in July to 5.22 billion dollars, it said.
Poor demand from Singapore’s main electronics buyers, the United States and Europe, was the main reason behind the drag.
Overall NODX shipments to the US plunged 33.1 percent in July following a 24.3 percent fall in June. They skidded 26.9 percent to Europe last month after a 16.1 percent decline in June, the agency said.
In the face of a global economic slowdown, International Enterprise Singapore last week cut its export growth forecast.
It predicted NODX could fall 2.0-4.0 percent this year against a previous forecast for a rise of 2.0-4.0 percent.
Singapore’s economy is largely externally driven and trade is worth more than three times the country’s gross domestic product, which was 243.17 billion dollars in 2007.