The World Today for July 08, 2024

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Little Dirty Gem


Holders of Singaporean passports are among the luckiest in the world. They can travel to 195 countries without a visa, wrote the South China Morning Post, more than almost any other nationality in the world, including Americans.

They have fortune at home, too: The approximately 280-square-mile island city-state in Southeast Asia is wealthy, peaceful, and cosmopolitan – English is an official language along with Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. It is also a wealthy trading nation whose glitz and glamour inspired the novel and 2018 film, “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Singapore is also growing – literally – as it has been reclaiming land from the sea at a breakneck pace, the Business Times explained. This new land has provided space for reservoirs for clean water, storm protections, parks, and housing.

Chinese crackdowns on democracy in Hong Kong, meanwhile, have also led many business leaders in the Chinese “special administrative region” to question whether it can retain its place as the financial hub of Asia, reported the New York Times. Many might even argue that Singapore has already surpassed Hong Kong. Singapore hosted around 4,200 multinational firms’ regional headquarters last year, added Channel News Asia, while the Chinese city is home to fewer than 1,340.

Other Chinese companies, like Tabcut, an AI startup founded in Hangzhou in 2022, are moving to Singapore to take advantage of more opportunities for capital, less negative associations with Chinese human rights violations, and other reasons, reported Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, these trends have also made Singapore into a destination for illicit cash. A recent $2.2 billion money laundering scandal, for instance, implicated DBS Bank, Citi, Credit Suisse, Julius Baer, and other international financial institutions, reported the Banker.

This money has infected politics. Prime Minister Lawrence Wong recently took the oath of office after the resignation of his predecessor, Lee Hsien Loong, the son of the country’s founding father who held the top office for 20 years, Al Jazeera wrote. Both are members of the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has run Singapore since independence from the British in 1965, winning office through elections that Freedom House called “partly free.” The party has also cultivated an often harsh state that limits free speech, the Jerusalem Post reported.

The passing of the baton from Loong to Wong after what was essentially 59 years of rule by the Lee family was scripted and planned meticulously, and was a momentous event, according to the Associated Press. But, as World Politics Review wrote, many Singaporeans were also fed up with corruption scandals and other shortcomings in the PAP government.

They want a rich country that’s honest, too, observers said, noting that with a new leader, the country has a new chance to change.


United We Stand


French voters handed a newly formed leftist coalition a shock victory in the second round of parliamentary elections on Sunday, defying predictions that the far right would win big for the first time in French history, the Associated Press wrote.

The New Popular Front – an alliance of five parties ranging from the far-left France Unbowed to the Socialists and the Ecologists – won 182 seats, CNN reported.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s center-right Ensemble political coalition came in second with 163 seats, while Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN) came third with 143 seats.

RN’s loss came as a surprise to many, including its leader and supporters, who had expected the party to dominate the election. The New Popular Front had assembled to defeat RN and the group’s various parties stood candidates down in many seats to enable single candidates to accumulate enough votes to beat RN.

The election came roughly a month after Macron shocked the country by calling early elections after his allies suffered a significant defeat by the RN in the European parliamentary polls in June.

Last week, his party took a beating during the first round, which put the RN in first place with 33 percent of the vote, followed by the leftists with 28 percent and Macron’s center-right with 20 percent.

Voter turnout on Sunday was around 61 percent, the highest level since 1981.

But the result leaves no single party or bloc anywhere near the tally of 289 seats required for a parliamentary majority. Leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has ruled out a coalition with Macron’s center alliance, which could throw France into political turmoil just as it prepares to host the Paris Olympics in less than three weeks.

“Our country is facing an unprecedented political situation and is preparing to welcome the world in a few weeks,” said French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who plans to offer his resignation on Monday.

Meanwhile, across the English Channel, new British Prime Minister Keir Starmer got quickly to work, saying he is planning to “reset” the United Kingdom’s relations with its member states and international partners, after his Labour Party secured a major victory in the July 4 elections that ended 14 years of Conservative dominance, NBC News reported.

Results of Thursday’s elections showed Labour won 412 seats in the 650-seat Parliament, while the Conservatives secured only 121 seats, the latter party’s worst results in its almost 200-year history.

King Charles III formally appointed Starmer as prime minister following the final results Friday, swiftly replacing his Conservative counterpart Rishi Sunak.

Starmer declared that the country “has voted decisively for change, for national renewal and a return of politics to public service.” He quickly began forming his cabinet over the weekend, already filling the important posts of treasury chief, foreign secretary and home secretary.

The new government will face the monumental task of lifting up a post-Brexit UK, as the country grapples with numerous issues, including a stagnant economy, collapsing public services and a dysfunctional National Health Service, the Associated Press added.

Among these are the UK’s relations with its own nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, albeit with England dominant – which have been strained under the Conservatives’ governance. On Sunday, Starmer began a tour of the British nations to “reset” relations with them, the Financial Times added.

Meanwhile, the Labour government will also have to take action to stem migration.

During their governance, the Conservatives tried to stop the flow of migrants and refugees arriving on small boats crossing the English Channel. Sunak and his predecessor Boris Johnson created a scheme to deport migrants and asylum seekers arriving illegally in the UK to Rwanda.

So far no flights have taken place while the plan has cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars.

Starmer had criticized the policy as a “gimmick” and announced it was “dead and buried” shortly after taking office, the BBC noted. Even so, observers told the British broadcaster that ending the plan will raise new questions, such as the total bill taxpayers will face for scrapping the scheme and the fate of 52,000 migrants scheduled for deportation.

Regarding its international partners, Starmer and his cabinet will also work to improve relations with its allies in the European Union, strained since the UK’s exit from the bloc in 2020. Newly-appointed Foreign Secretary David Lammy said Saturday that it was time “to reset our relationship with our European friends and allies,” according to Politico.

The new prime minister is also planning to travel to the US for a NATO meeting this week and will host the European Political Community summit on July 18.

The Big, Little Shift


Reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian won Iran’s presidential runoff over the weekend on promises of social freedoms and increased engagement with the West, a victory that underscored calls for change in the Islamic Republic amid disillusionment with the current theocratic regime, the Washington Post reported.

Pezeshkian won nearly 54 percent in Friday’s second round of voting, beating his hardline rival, Saeed Jalili, who won around 44 percent.

On Saturday, the president-elect vowed to be a leader for “all Iranians” and pledged to pursue peace and “constructive” global interactions. He emphasized government reform and accountability amid widespread public apathy and low voter turnout of 50 percent.

A cardiac surgeon and former health minister, Pezeshkian has proposed moderate reforms that would not challenge the country’s theocratic rule under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: These proposals include lifting internet restrictions and increasing financial transparency to remove Iran from the Financial Action Task Force blacklist.

He also advocated ending mandatory dress codes for women, reflecting the unrest that gripped Iran between 2022 and 2023. The mass anti-government demonstrations began after the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in September 2022 in the custody of the country’s morality police after being detained for allegedly violating the hijab laws.

Pezeshkian also supports talks with the West to lift the debilitating sanctions on Iran and help the country’s struggling economy.

Despite Pezeshkian’s victory, analysts said he will face strong headwinds from Iran’s hardline conservatives dominating the government and cooperating with Khamenei.

The supreme leader previously condemned those candidates advocating better relations with the West, CNN added. He also called on Pezeshkian to act “in continuation of the path” of his predecessor, the late President Ebrahim Raisi.

Raisi, a hardliner, and other senior officials died in a helicopter crash in May, prompting the government to call for new presidential polls.

The Three Musketeers


The military leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger signed a treaty over the weekend to enhance their mutual defense and integration, a major geopolitical shift that marked a departure from traditional alliances with Western and regional powers, Al Jazeera wrote.

Niger’s Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, Burkina Faso’s Capt. Ibrahim Traore, and Mali’s Col. Assimi Goita inked the agreement during a summit in the Nigerien capital Niamey, the first joint meeting of the three army leaders, all of whom came to power in military coups between 2020 and 2023.

The confederation treaty will strengthen the mutual defense pact, the Alliance of Sahel States (AES), that the three countries announced last year.

Observers said the move also underscored their collective departure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) earlier this year.

The three leaders criticized ECOWAS and Western nations – particularly former colonial ruler France – for their perceived interference and exploitation. Traore emphasized that the era of foreign dominance over their resources is over, while Goita asserted that an attack on one member would be seen as an attack on all.

ECOWAS suspended the three countries after their respective military takeovers, even as the bloc’s leaders are hoping for the trio’s return.

But analysts suggested that the leaders’ statements and the treaty indicate a firm stance against rejoining the bloc. They added that the new AES aims to create a more self-determined union and weakens ECOWAS’s influence, something analysts say is unlikely because of heavyweights such as Nigeria that are part of the large bloc.

The summit also coincided with the withdrawal of US forces from Niger, which comes as the coup-plagued region continues to grapple with violence from armed groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.

With the departure of Western troops, the three West African countries are hoping to fill that vacuum through stronger regional cooperation and new alliances, particularly with Russia.

Even so, observers questioned whether the geopolitical reorientation would quell the region’s instability.

In 2023, Burkina Faso saw more than 8,000 deaths from the violence while major displacement continues across the three countries, with about three million people affected.


Scribe Spine

Ancient Egyptian scribes probably had carpal tunnel syndrome and were definitely in pain from other occupational hazards, according to a new study.

Researcher Petra Brukner Havelková and her team recently studied the skeletal remains of 69 people buried in the Egyptian necropolis of Abusir dating from around the third millennium BCE.

Among the samples, 30 of them belonged to scribes who held elevated social status because of their integral administrative roles in the ancient kingdoms – and because only one percent of the population was literate.

But the work had “occupational risks,” the authors wrote.

The scribes showed a higher incidence of degenerative changes in their joints and bones, compared to other occupations: Common problems these scribes faced included osteoarthritis in the jaw, right collarbone, shoulder, knees, and spine.

The team also found signs of physical stress on the humerus and the left hip bones, as well as alterations in the right ankle.

They explained that these changes were consistent with depictions of those scribes in ancient Egyptian art, which show them sitting cross-legged with unsupported arms and forward-leaning heads.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they also suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome on the hand, but unfortunately we can’t identify that on the bones,” Brukner Havelková told the Guardian.

The researchers suggested that these postures and repetitive tasks could have caused a lot of physical strain for the scribes, who began their “office work” in their teens.

Co-author Veronika Dulíková told Newsweek that the findings provide a better picture of what early clerical and administrative work was “without desks and special chairs designed for sitting for long periods of time.”

The paper also underscores the importance of studying the skeletal remains of scribes and other ancient workers to understand how their occupation impacted their health.

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