National Government Fiscal Performance (Oct. 2020)


THE government’s budget deficit swelled in October, bringing the 10-month gap to nearly P1 trillion as state revenues remained weak and spending continued to decline even as economic managers pledged to ramp up spending to stimulate the economy. Read the full story.










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China’s Oct soybean imports soar to 8.7 mln T on rising Brazilian, U.S. cargoes


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BEIJING — China’s soybean imports jumped 41% in October from a year ago, according to data from the General Administration of Customs released on Saturday, as delayed Brazilian cargoes cleared customs and U.S. soybean arrivals grew.

The world’s top soybean importer brought in 8.69 million tonnes of the oilseed in October, up from 6.18 million tonnes in the same month of the previous year, as crushers booked Brazilian beans earlier on good crush margins and as more U.S. beans started to flow in, the data showed.

The figures were down from 9.8 million tonnes in September, as shipments from Brazil started to dwindle with the harvest season in South America approaching an end.

“U.S. soybean imports in October increased,” said Xie Huilan, analyst with agriculture consultancy Cofeed, before the data was released.

“The rest majority are still Brazilian beans, which (crushers) booked very cheap earlier,” Xie said.

Chinese crushers stocked up on Brazilian beans earlier this year to benefit from profitable deals, amid healthy demand from a steadily recovering pig herd that was decimated by the deadly African swine fever.

Importers also increased purchases of U.S. soybeans for the fourth quarter and early next year, when American crop dominates the market, and partly to fulfill terms of the Phase 1 Sino-U.S. trade deal signed in January.

“The buying pace is expected to slow a little in the coming months, as crushers have booked a lot of Brazilian beans earlier already and U.S. beans will increase as well,” said a crusher based in northern China.

“In Feb and March, we will start to switch to Brazilian beans again,” said the crusher, who declined to be named as he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Imports of vegetable oils were 885,000 tonnes in October, down 3.9% from the previous month.

For more details, click on (Reporting by Hallie Gu and Kevin Yao; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)



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Nagorno-Karabakh Briefing | Oct. 29


Fighting continued Thursday in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region after the third attempt at a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan — a U.S. brokered deal — fell apart within minutes of coming into effect earlier in the week.

Oct. 29: What you need to know today

  • Azerbaijani authorities announced that the bodies of 30 Armenian soldiers that died in ongoing fighting were handed over to the Armenian side early in the day, thanking Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for the associated mediation efforts. Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed the handover and said that Armenia is ready for a reciprocal humanitarian gesture.  
  • Azerbaijan launched its heaviest missile strikes in a month of fighting on Stepanakert, the largest city in its Armenian-populated breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, separatist officials said. “Azerbaijan struck Stepanakert for several hours, tens of missiles hit the city,” Karabakh’s rights ombudsman Artak Beglaryan told AFP. “Civilians were injured as a result of the strike, the heaviest during the recent fighting,” he said.
  • A planned meeting between Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers scheduled Thursday in Geneva has reportedly been postponed until Friday, according to Russian state-run news agencies RIA Novosti and Sputnik News, citing unnamed diplomatic sources in Baku. The meeting was agreed as part of the U.S.-brokered ceasefire which rapidly collapsed earlier this week.
  • U.S. Presidential candidate Joe Biden called on Donald Trump to stop the flow of military equipment to Azerbaijan and urge Turkey and Russia to also stop supplying the sides with weapons. In a statement posted on his campaign website, Biden added that “a large-scale humanitarian disaster is looming for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
  • The United Nations said Wednesday more than 130,000 people have been displaced by the fighting and that more than 70 schools and kindergartens had been damaged. Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN Secretary General said the body strongly condemned attacks on population centers, pointing to the reported Armenian strike on Barda, 20 miles from the frontline, earlier this week which Azerbaijan claims killed at least 20 civilians — the most reported in a single attack since the conflict resumed.
  • Reports from witnesses to that Wednesday rocket attack on Barda continued to emerge overnight, including a first-hand account and photos of the aftermath from New York Times reporters who were caught up in the attack. Armenia has denied responsibility.
  • Both sides accused the other of launching new attacks Thursday morning, though no major fatalities were reported.

With reporting from AFP, RIA Novosti, Sputnik News, The New York Times, France 24 and Azadliq Radiosu.

Oct. 29: Analysis

Laurence Broers, Caucasus program director at London-based peacebuilding organization Conciliation Resources who has written widely about Armenia, Azerbaijan and the conflict assesses the stakes as foreign ministers were due to meet in Geneva — a meeting which has now been postponed until Friday.

“Now the situation is close to turning into a protracted war — a war of attrition,” Vladimir Novikov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Socio-Political Studies of the Black Sea-Caspian Region told The Moscow Times. “There are no diplomatic solutions to the conflict yet. Both sides have taken tough positions.” He added that a key factor in whether Russia will become more involved is the geography of the conflict — Moscow will find it harder to refuse its obligations under a collective defense pact if fighting extends into Armenia proper.

Both Pashinyan and Aliyev would face significant domestic repercussions should they be seen to back down, Andrey Suzdaltsev, dean of the faculty of world economy and world politics at the Higher School of Economics told Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti agency. “If Stepanakert is captured, there will be a wave of refugees — more than 100,000 people who will flood Yerevan and all the cities of Armenia. Then Pashinyan will be turned from a defender of sovereignty to a loser. If Aliyev loses, he will suffer heavy consequences. There is strong opposition. A victorious war was needed to strengthen his power and pass it on to his inheritor. He needs victory.”

Oct. 28

  • Azerbaijan said Wednesday an Armenian missile strike on its Barda district near the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline killed 21 civilians, but Yerevan denied carrying out an attack, AFP reported. It would be the deadliest reported attack on civilians since new fighting over the disputed region broke out a month ago and the second in two days that Azerbaijan says killed civilians. An Armenian spokesperson called the claims “groundless and false.”
  • Yerevan also accused Azerbaijani forces of deadly new strikes on civilian areas of Karabakh, as both sides claim the other is increasingly targeting civilians after weeks of fierce frontline clashes.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump said he was “disappointed” in the breakdown of the latest ceasefire and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who negotiated the deal, pressed both Baku and Yerevan to honor the agreement.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone Tuesday evening about the conflict — the latest international showdown which sees the two powers backing opposing sides. According to a summary of the call published by the Kremlin, Putin expressed “deep concern” over the “growing involvement” of fighters from the Middle East in the region.
  • Iran announced it was increasing its air defenses along its northern border, which it shares with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, hours after Tehran also increased troop levels in the region. Iran has also offered to join diplomatic efforts to end the fighting alongside Russia and Turkey.
  • Before publishing statements of Wednesday’s claimed attacks, Azerbaijan said 69 civilians had been killed since the fighting broke out, while Armenia claims 37 civilian deaths on its side. Overall, Putin said last week that almost 5,000 people have died in the fighting — a significantly higher toll than publicly claimed by either Armenia or Azerbaijan.
  • In an address to the nation delivered Tuesday evening, and published on the Armenian government’s official YouTube channel, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan pledged to launch a “destructive” counterattack to recapture territory lost by Armenian-backed forces since the start of fighting last month.
  • Russia has reportedly set up a small military outpost on the border of Armenia in an apparent attempt to keep Azerbaijan’s offensive from spilling over into Armenian territory, Eurasianet reported.

With reporting from AFP, BBC, Channel 4, Eurasianet, Newsweek and TASS.

Oct 28: Tweets and analysis

The Financial Times’ Moscow bureau chief Henry Foy explains how Azerbaijan’s expensive, modern military equipment has overwhelmed Armenia’s outdated defenses.

Journalist Arzu Geybulla, originally from Azerbaijan and now based in Istanbul, reports how the campaign is taking its toll on Azerbaijan despite the military gains, and predicts President Aliyev will find it hard to agree to a diplomatic solution given fervent support for the campaign at home. The full Twitter thread starts here.





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Migrant workers who test negative for COVID-19 allowed to visit recreation centres from Oct 31


SINGAPORE: All foreign worker dormitory residents who test negative for COVID-19 will be able to visit recreation centres on their days off from Saturday (Oct 31), said the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on Wednesday.

They must also come from a dormitory that has no active COVID-19 cases. 

This comes after more than two months of trials when around 30,000 workers from about 300 dormitories were allowed to visit recreation centres on their rest days.  

Eight recreation centres across Singapore will open by the end of the week and workers will choose from one of five three-hour slots from 8am to 11pm. 

At these centres, they will be able to shop for groceries, remit money, get a haircut and dine with their friends. Safe distancing officers will be on the ground to make sure the workers adhere to COVID-19 safety measures. 

READ: Antigen rapid tests piloted for quicker detection of COVID-19 among migrant workers

So far, workers have only been permitted to leave their dormitories for work and errands.

To visit their dormitory’s assigned recreation centre, they will have to apply for an exit pass via the SGWorkPass mobile application and can do so seven days in advance. 

Workers can shop for groceries at the recreation centre. There is a clothing shop, a hardware store, and two supermarkets – one catered for the Indians, and the other for the Bangladeshis. (Photo: Rachel Phua)

As part of safety measures, workers – who currently have their rest days staggered throughout the week – have to pre-book time slots on the SGWorkPass mobile application to prevent overcrowding at these centres. 

“The number of exit passes issued for each time slot will be controlled through the application system,” said MOM.

Dormitory operators and personnel at the recreation centres will check that workers have valid exit passes before they are allowed to enter or exit.

Apart from taking company-charted buses to the locations, those who live in the vicinity are allowed to walk or cycle there as well. 

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Workers can purchase beer and other food items at the centre. (Photo: Rachel Phua)

JTC Corporation (JTC), which runs five of eight recreation centres, used to welcome between 3,000 and 4,000 workers a day before the pandemic, said the agency’s housing and community division assistant manager S Darison Kumar.

Mr Darison, who runs the Tuas South recreation centre, said JTC will cap the capacity of each session at an average of 300 workers. 

IMPROVEMENTS TO TIME SLOTS

Several improvements were made following feedback from workers during the trial period, said MOM’s director of occupational safety and health Christopher Koh.

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Workers have to get their temperatures measured and check in before entering the recreation centre. (Photo: Rachel Phua)

The ministry will add an additional time slot of 8pm to 11pm to cater to workers who do overtime work on their rest days, as some of them are unable to make it for the current last slot of 5pm to 8pm. 

MOM will also extend the time workers are allowed to spend at the centres to three hours, after some workers said the original allowance of two hours is too short, especially after factoring the time spent on their commute. 

VISITS HELP “REFRESH OUR MINDS”

While he is glad for an extra evening time slot, Indian national Mulasapu Raju said he hopes workers will be allowed to visit the centres at least twice a week, or that they can be given more time for each session. 

“Three hours is too rushed,” said Mr Raju, who lives in SCM Tuas Lodge and works for Sembcorp Marine. 

The 29-year-old, who has worked in Singapore for seven years, said that the first time he was allowed to return to the recreation centre was “really exciting”. Before the pandemic, he used to spend four to five hours with his friends at the centre.

Last week, he was unable to book a slot on his rest day and this time, he made sure to book early in the morning. This was his second time at the centre after the COVID-19 restrictions were put in place. 

When asked what will happen if workers sneak off instead of visiting the centre during their session, Mr Koh from the Manpower Ministry said while there are no punitive measures in place right now, they will stress the importance of safety to the workers. 

“We give them some advice and educate them (and say) “for now, for your own safety, you should be going to the recreation centre for now,” he said, adding that such cases are “the minority” right now. 

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Workers can purchase SIM cards and handphones at this telco shop. (Photo: Rachel Phua)

Bangladeshi national Sonjon Kumar Dey is also happy about being able to finally step out of his dormitory on his days off. 

The 36-year-old, who also works for Sembcorp Marine and stays at SCM Tuas Lodge, said the visits help him and the other workers “refresh our minds”. 

Mr Sonjon was confined to his dormitory in March this year and only returned to work in September. He described the lockdown as “tough” and “difficult”. 

While this was his second visit, he said he would only apply to drop by the centre when he needs to shop for groceries. 

“Give the chance to another person.”  

BOOKMARK THIS: Our comprehensive coverage of the coronavirus outbreak and its developments

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MRT disruption on Oct 14 prompts system overhaul, with early weekend closures from November


SINGAPORE: A main contractor of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) will replace 150km of power cables and more than 100 circuit breaker components along the Tuas West Extension, after some faulty parts led to a disruption of train services on Oct 14. 

More than 120,000 commuters along the North-South, East-West and Circle lines were affected.

READ: Train services resume on North-South, East-West, Circle lines after disruption due to power fault

Releasing its report on the incident on Wednesday (Oct 28), LTA said the disruption was caused by the “occurrence of concurrent faults”, starting with a faulty power cable on the Tuas West Extension.

This would not have caused a disruption if the circuit breaker had kicked in, but it malfunctioned, said LTA.

To facilitate the replacement of all the circuit breaker components, called trip coils, some MRT stations will close early from November. Work on this is expected to be completed by the end of the year. 

As for the new cables, LTA said they will take some time to arrive. The authority will therefore schedule early closures or late openings on weekends or full Sunday closures for “limited periods” next year to facilitate the replacement work.

There are no details yet on the stations that will be affected by the closures.

Timeline: How a power fault caused an hours-long disruption on three MRT lines on Oct 14

In its report, LTA said that power cables on the Tuas West Extension had encountered similar malfunctions on four other occasions between 2018 and 2020.

However, they did not cause train disruptions as the circuit breakers worked in those instances.

SMRT has also suspended an employee and his supervisor for an error committed in the chain of events leading to the disruption. 

WHAT HAPPENED

The train operator had said on Oct 15 that the disruption was caused by a breakdown in the insulation of a power cable along the Tuas West Extension, as well as an attempt to restore power to two MRT lines without first isolating the fault. 

The Tuas West Extension is a 7.5km-long extension on the western end of the East-West Line, comprising Gul Circle, Tuas Crescent, Tuas West Road and Tuas West Link stations.

A circuit breaker at the Tuas West Road station should have kicked in to isolate the fault but failed to do so, SMRT said then. LTA explained on Wednesday that this was caused by a faulty trip coil in the circuit breaker.

When the circuit breaker did not function, LTA said a secondary protection mechanism kicked in and isolated a larger electrical sector as a precaution, cutting off power supply from a substation that serves a section of the North-South East-West Line (NSEWL).

An SMRT staff member then tried to draw power from a different substation that also supplies power to the Circle Line (CCL). However, this should only have been done if the initial cable fault was isolated.

SMRT CEO Neo Kian Hong said the staff member’s actions “caused a trip on the Circle Line”.

“Our power staff misread the graphics display and thought that the fault had been isolated and proceeded to draw power from Buona Vista (substation),” he said.

“The power staff and his supervisor have been suspended from their duties. They will be required to undergo retraining and recertification before they can resume duties.” 

As the cable fault had not been isolated, a safety mechanism kicked in to protect the CCL’s power system, disrupting supply to parts of the line.

WALKING ON TRACKS

The disruption happened during the evening peak-hour commute. It affected train services from Woodlands to Jurong East on the North-South Line, Queenstown to Gul Circle on the East-West Line, as well as HarbourFront to Serangoon on the CCL.

“After 40 minutes into the disruption, SMRT assessed that the power supply for the NSEWL and CCL could not be restored quickly,” LTA said.

“It proceeded to de-train commuters from 12 stalled rains along the NSEWL and three stalled trains along the CCL.”

Some commuters had to walk on tracks to make their way back to the station, while bus stops were packed with commuters looking for alternative ways to continue their journey.

LTA said SMRT staff walked along the tracks to reach the stalled trains to check on commuters’ well-being, and guided commuters to the nearest station.

“De-trainment on the three affected trains along the CCL was safely completed within 20 minutes,” LTA said.

“De-trainment operations for 11 out of 12 stalled trains on the NSEWL concluded at 8.42pm.

“Due to inclement weather and lightning risk, de-trainment for the last NSEWL train near Bukit Batok station had to be suspended and was only completed at 9.43pm.”

LTA said train services on the CCL and NSEWL were progressively restored at about 8.43pm and 10.34pm, respectively.


A commuter receives guidance at Buona Vista MRT station after a power fault disrupted train services on several lines on Oct 14, 2020. (Photo: Christy Yip)

MORE PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENTS NEEDED?

The disruption on the NSEWL lasted about three-and-a-half hours from 6.58pm to 10.34pm, LTA said, affecting about 110,000 commuters.

The disruption on the Circle Line (CCL) lasted about an hour from 7.34pm to 8.43pm, affecting about 13,000 commuters.

Of these, LTA said about 6,775 commuters had to disembark from stalled NSEWL and CCL trains.

LTA noted feedback that asked for more updates leading to passengers needing to alight on the tracks “for better awareness and preparedness”.

“Regular public announcements on service disruption were made to all stations and trains throughout the network,” it said.

“Information related to the incidents were also provided to commuters via the various signage on the stations, SMRT Connect App and Twitter messages.”

FAULTY PARTS

Site investigations conducted after service hours on Oct 15 found that a section of the cables located about 500m from Tuas Link station was burnt through, LTA said.

“The faulty trip coil and faulty cables have since been replaced,” LTA said.

Maintenance teams also combed through all the stations on the Tuas West Extension to ensure all the trip coils in the circuit breakers were functioning.

“Two other trip coils were found to exhibit inconsistent performance and were immediately replaced on Oct 15,” LTA said.

“The faulty trip coils have been sent for further forensic examination.”

Alstom, the contractor that supplied the power cables and trip coils for the Tuas West Extension, is also investigating why the power cables had burnt through.

But this is not the first time the power cables had malfunctioned.

Since service on the Tuas West Extension started in 2017, LTA said there had been four instances at different locations involving faults in the upper layer of the power cables.

“These instances did not lead to any service disruption because the circuit breaker kicked in as intended and isolated the faults,” LTA said.

“LTA treated this as a matter of significant concern and raised the issue with the main contractor Alstom in January 2020.”

LTA added that Alstom had agreed to replace the upper of two layers of power cables at the Tuas West Extension, with replacement works scheduled to commence this month.

Investigations into one of the power cable failures in 2018 found that a metallic string made of copper had affected the internal insulation layer. It is thought that a similar fault could have occurred in the Oct 14 disruption.

LTA said previous batches of the cables, which are of similar design and by the same manufacturer, have been used in other parts of the MRT network. These cables have not seen similar faults so far.

“The Tuas West Extension circuit breakers are of an established design and are widely used in the power industry,” it added.

SYSTEM OVERHAUL

In light of the Oct 14 disruption, LTA said all the power cables and trip coils along the Tuas West Extension will be replaced to “provide additional assurance that power cable faults will not lead to another service disruption”.

Alstom will bear the cost of replacing these parts and supply power cables with thicker metallic strings and a more resistant internal structure.

While the cables are being replaced, LTA said SMRT will increase the frequency of checks on the trip coils and circuit breakers.

“This includes visual checks of the trip coil health status every 10 days, and mechanical testing every six months instead of 12 months,” it said.

“SMRT will also enhance their standard operating procedures for power recovery so that similar errors of judgment will not recur,” LTA added.

“Once again, we apologise for the inconvenience caused to commuters that evening. LTA, SMRT and Alstom will work together to address the underlying issues to minimise the risk of a reoccurrence.”

Ms Fang Ling, Asia-Pacific senior vice-president at Alstom, also apologised for the “inconvenience caused to Singapore commuters”.

“In line with our absolute commitment to operational safety and as a precautionary measure, we are replacing all the power cables with a higher specification, and circuit breaker trip coils in the safest and quickest manner possible,” she said.



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PRESS DIGEST- Financial Times – Oct 19


Oct 18 (Reuters) – The following are the top stories in the Financial Times. Reuters has not verified these stories and does not vouch for their accuracy.

Headlines

Johnson to warn ‘time running out’ to prepare for end of Brexit transition https://on.ft.com/2T3bzZc

US banks warn bonuses will not keep pace with profits https://on.ft.com/37jl5Qr

WPP back on hunt for deals, says chief https://on.ft.com/35axPG7

Overview

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will warn business leaders this week that “time is running out” to prepare for the end of Britain’s Brexit transition period on Jan. 1.

U.S. banks Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America have warned their staff that their bonuses will not keep pace with blowout performances in areas like fixed-income trading and debt and equity underwriting.

WPP Plc has rediscovered its appetite for acquisitions, according to Chief Executive Officer Mark Read who has sought to mend the advertising group’s finances and make it fit for the digital age.

(Compiled by Bengaluru newsroom)



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PRESS DIGEST- Financial Times – Oct. 16


Oct 16 (Reuters) – The following are the top stories in the Financial Times. Reuters has not verified these stories and does not vouch for their accuracy.

Headlines

Remdesivir has little effect on COVID-19 mortality, WHO study says https://on.ft.com/3o3mh0j

Johnson ready to force Brexit crisis with no-deal ultimatum https://on.ft.com/2IAkZtj

Marston’s to cut 2,150 jobs after UK clampdown on hospitality sector https://on.ft.com/2H6D6pV

Overview

Gilead Sciences Inc’s remdesivir has no substantial effect on a patient’s chances of survival, a clinical trial by the World Health Organization has found.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson might try to force Brexit trade talks to a moment of crisis on Friday, as he was “disappointed” with the outcome of a recent European Council meeting, and amid claims that Brussels is dragging its feet by insisting that future concessions must come from the British side. Pub operator Marston’s, is to cut 2,150 furloughed jobs after a swath of new government restrictions designed to curb the spread of coronavirus caused sales to slump.

(Compiled by Bengaluru newsroom)



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