The World Today for July 06, 2018

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Cutting the Strings

The small yet wealthy city-state of Singapore was in the international spotlight last month for hosting the historic summit between American President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

It was the perfect venue for such an event, commented the Council on Foreign Relations.

Singapore has long served as a neutral arbiter of interests between East and West, and its security and intelligence apparatuses are highly regarded in both the United States and North Korea.

By some measures, Singapore is leaps and bounds ahead of other Asian countries in terms of societal and economic development as well.

Gallup ranked Singapore as the safest country in the world for the fifth year in a row last month, and its economic model, which prioritizes foreign investment over protectionist policies, has catapulted its GDP per capita to one of the highest rates in the world, according to World Bank data.

Meanwhile, the city-state of almost six million people now has the most sophisticated digital economy in Asia, and Reuters recently reported that, despite ongoing issues with trash exports, Singapore is a world leader in waste sustainability.

Still, Singapore’s impressive achievements since it declared independence from Malaysia in 1965 don’t mean it won’t face steep political and societal challenges in the coming years.

For one, the political philosophy of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, to tightly control and micromanage society has earned the country the moniker of a “soft authoritarian state,” wrote the Council on Foreign Relations. Lee was known to jail dissenters and prioritize communal and economic prosperity ahead of civil liberties.

While that led to de jure affirmative-action policies that reach into the highest ranks of government, it also means that free speech is highly constrained and corporal punishment a common occurrence. The 2018 World Press Freedom Index, for example, ranks Singapore at 151 out of 180 countries.

Lee also established a political dynasty. His People’s Action Party has never lost an election and retains 83 of 89 seats in parliament. His eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, has served as prime minister since 2004.

The elder Lee’s puppet-master tactics may have been enough to launch Singapore into orbit with the rest of the industrialized world, but reforms are needed to keep up the progress, given an increased “appetite for greater democracy,” Al Jazeera reported in a telling documentary about the Lee dynasty.

There’s been movement on that front from the nation’s only two viable political parties, writes the South China Morning Post. Both parties are gearing up for general elections in 2021 by putting forward new, young successors who may shift the status quo built by the nation’s founding father.

After all, if Singapore is to take real strides into the future, it has to cut the strings of the puppet master sooner or later.



The Art of (Saving) the Deal

Europe is unlikely to offer enough of a lifeline to save the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran at a meeting of foreign ministers in Vienna on Friday, and Tehran has raised the stakes by threatening to use its strategic position on the Strait of Hormuz to stop oil shipments by other Middle Eastern countries.

The foreign ministers of Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia are meeting their Iranian counterpart Friday, where Europe is prepared to offer Iran lending options from the European Investment Bank, a special measure to shield EU companies from US secondary sanctions, as well as a Commission proposal that EU governments make direct money transfers to Iran’s central bank to avoid US penalties, Reuters reported.

However, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday told French President Emmanuel Macron that Europe’s package isn’t enough to salvage the deal, the agency reported separately.

Iran has said Europe must ensure oil exports continue and Tehran remains part of the SWIFT international bank payments messaging system.


The Final Chapter

The final chapter in the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway came to a close Friday with the announcement that Japan has executed Aum Shinrikyo cult leader Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, and six other members of the doomsday cult.

Asahara’s death sentence was finalized in 2006, but the trials of his co-conspirators dragged on for a further 12 years, CNN reported.

Six other cult members have also been sentenced to death, but no information is available as to when those sentences will be carried out, as executions in Japan are done in secret, with no advance warning given to the prisoner, their family or legal representatives.

In March 1995, Aum Shinrikyo cult members released sarin gas on Tokyo commuter trains during rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 5,500. Nearly a year earlier, seven people were killed and more than 500 hospitalized after Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas in an apartment complex in Matsumoto, Nagano prefecture. Another victim died in 2008.


Louder Than Words

Ethiopia’s attorney general announced the dismissal of five top prison officials for alleged human rights violations, making good on new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s strong condemnation of what he called government terrorism.

The announcement came just hours before the release of a damning Human Rights Watch report describing systematic torture in Jail Ogaden, a prison in Jijiga, the capital of Ethiopia’s Somali region, the Washington Post reported. None of the officials dismissed were linked to that institution, however.

Earlier, Abiy had denounced the use of torture before the country’s parliament, saying, “Does the constitution demand people be flogged, be injured, be kept in dark rooms? It doesn’t. That is the terrorist act of us, the government.”

Abiy’s government has closed the infamous Maekelawi detention center in Addis Ababa, the Guardian noted. But brutality remains particularly severe in eastern Ethiopia under Somali regional president Abdi Mohamed Omar.

“Torture in detention is a serious problem throughout Ethiopia, but Jail Ogaden is in a class of its own,” said Felix Horne, the HRW report’s author.


Sweet Money

Nowadays, most people can afford chocolate. But back in the days of the Maya, the prized delicacy and the seed it’s derived from was likely much more valuable.

That’s because, at its apex, the Mayan civilization, which spread across Mexico and Central America, might have used cacao beans as a form of money, according to a study published recently in the journal Economic Anthropology.

According to the study, the Maya never used coins as currency but instead traded with items like tobacco, maize and clothing, Science magazine reported. Cacao beans, however, became a primary means of payment in the 8th century, the study’s author, archaeologist Joanne Baron, believes.

While the Maya mostly consumed chocolate as a hot drink, Baron says artistic depictions show that both fermented and dried cacao beans were also used as a currency for paying tribute and taxes, and as gifts for tribal leaders.

These depictions show Mayan kings “collecting way more cacao than the palace actually consumes,” Baron said.

Because cacao trees are tricky to grow, Baron speculates that a supply disruption is what ultimately led to the Maya’s demise. However, others argue that one commodity crash would not have toppled the entire society.

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