KABUL: An Afghan talent show contestant's striking resemblance to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has turned him into an unlikely celebrity in the war-torn country - and potentially given him the winning edge.
Abdul Salam Maftoon, a wedding singer from a village in the remote and impoverished northeastern province of Badakhshan, had never even heard of his more famous doppelgänger until a judge on the popular television music contest Afghan Star pointed out the uncanny likeness.
Slightly built with a long face and dark brown hair and eyes, Maftoon, 29, hopes the flattering comparison to the politician widely rated as one of the sexiest leaders in the world will bring him more votes on Afghanistan's version of American Idol.
"People have forgotten my name and now they just call me 'Justin Trudeau'," Maftoon told reporters, his self-conscious smile revealing two gold-plated front teeth.
"I didn't know anything about Justin Trudeau until I saw the photos on social media.
"The resemblance has boosted my chances of winning the competition by 50 percent."
Composite photos of the pair - Maftoon wearing a hat favoured by men in northern Afghanistan and Trudeau in Western-style clothing - have drawn scores of comments on Facebook.
And a video of an Afghan Star panel discussion about their physical similarities has been viewed tens of thousands of times.
"Trudeau's lost twin," wrote Neila Abdulzadah on Facebook.
Fowzia Zereh posted: "I think their story is like a Bollywood movie - they were separated at birth and he found his lost twin brother."
Another said: "This is truly the copy of Trudeau. I'd love to see our Trudeau win this year's Afghan Star."
'NEXT JUSTIN BIEBER'
Maftoon has a good chance.
The performer is among eight contestants to make it through to the next elimination round on Thursday.
The final will be held on March 21, the Persian new year's eve.
So far Maftoon's repertoire of romantic folk songs, which he sings in both of Afghanistan's official languages Dari and Pashto, and his looks have impressed viewers, whose votes decide which performer is kicked off the show each week.
He has also caught the attention of the official judges.
"He looks like my prime minister," said Afghan-born Canadian musician Qais Ulfat, one of the four judges who first pointed out Maftoon's resemblance to Trudeau.
"His voice is very satisfying. He has that god-gifted vocal ability.
"This guy could be the next Justin Bieber."
Until now Maftoon has relied on singing and playing instruments at wedding and birthday parties to support his wife and four children.
But he is confident that his new-found fame will boost demand for his entertainment services.
"When I go back to my hometown people will definitely call me," Maftoon said, his trademark hat perched on the back of his head as he practised vocals with Ulfat in a recording studio at local television station Tolo.
While Maftoon has little chance of going to Canada anytime soon, he holds hopes of one day meeting his Canadian double.
"I want to meet him if he wants to because he is a global personality and I am a poor man from a remote part of Afghanistan," he said.
"We will see what happens."
SINGAPORE: The Government accepts and will “fully adopt" the recommendations made by the Committee of Inquiry (COI) that looked into the cyberattack on SingHealth’s database system, Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran said on Tuesday (Jan 15).
Delivering his ministerial statement in Parliament in response to the COI report, Mr Iswaran said the Government will “do (its) utmost” to ensure its IT and database systems are secure and that personal data collected by public sector systems are well protected.
Elaborating on how it plans to do so, the minister said there are two key principles, which have also been highlighted by the COI.
The first is adopting a “defence-in-depth strategy, with multiple layers of cyber defences to impede an attacker.
“These layers of defence cascade from the perimeter to within our systems, as we recognise that a sophisticated and determined attacker, given enough time and resources, may find a way through,” he said.
“This is why we also have capabilities in our layered defence that enable swift detection of a breach, and decisive response.”
The second principle is to enhance system defences by “strengthening our people, processes and technology”. He said the aim is not only to monitor and respond robustly to an incident, but to ensure a quick recovery and resilience in these systems.
ACCELERATED CYBERSECURITY ACT
Mr Iswaran pointed to the follow-up actions by the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore (CSA) following the revelation of the cyberattack, saying it had instructed all critical information infrastructure (CII) sectors to strengthen network security with prescribed steps.
It also accelerated the implementation of the Cybersecurity Act, which came into force on Aug 31 last year. The agency designated all CIIs by the end of 2018, and all CII owners must now comply with their obligations under the Act such as reporting cyber incidents to CSA within prescribed timeframes, he said.
The agency also instructed all CII owners via their sector leads to conduct thorough internal reviews of their cybersecurity against the gaps identified during the COI hearings, and report on the progress of closing any identified gaps, he added.
Mr Iswaran said: “CSA will continue to actively work with the sector leads and CII owners to reinforce their cyber defences and cyber resilience, and safeguard the cybersecurity of our systems and networks.”
PUBLIC SECTOR MEASURES
As for the public sector’s efforts to strengthen cybersecurity, Mr Iswaran said the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG) had started bolstering cybersecurity before the SingHealth hack. After the cyberattack, it paused the rollout of new Government systems from Jul 20 to Aug 3 last year as it checked for other potential breaches in other systems and reviewed the public sector’s cybersecurity posture.
“The findings and recommendations of the COI give added impetus to our efforts to continuously review and enhance the cybersecurity of Government systems. In particular, the findings reaffirmed the ‘defence-in-depth’ approach that the public sector had adopted towards cybersecurity,” the minister said.
Going forward, SNDGG will use technology even more to support its IT staff and automate cybersecurity tasks such as patch management, so as to carry out such tasks more reliably, he said.
The agency will further tighten internal checks and enhance security audits, the minister added. It will also conduct more exercises to sharpen officers’ readiness and train all public servants in cybersecurity.
“Above all, we expect our officers at all levels to be aware of their responsibilities, to be accountable for their actions, and to perform their duties to the best of their ability,” he said.
That said, Mr Iswaran stressed that the Government cannot strengthen its cybersecurity alone and will enlist the expertise of the larger community such as ethical hackers. For instance, the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) and CSA launched a Government Bug Bounty programme last month to uncover vulnerabilities on five selected Internet-facing Government systems and websites.
He added that CSA will oversee the follow-up on the COI’s recommendations across all CII sectors, including the public sector. SNDGG, as the sector lead for the Government, will monitor implementation for public sector systems.
“We will then track overall progress via regular updates at the relevant ministerial committees,” the minister said.
He also noted how the Personal Data Protection Commission on Tuesday imposed its biggest fines to date against the Integrated Health Information Systems and SingHealth amounting to S$1 million in total.
SINGHEALTH CYBERATTACK “WILL NOT BE THE LAST”
Mr Iswaran said the measures recommended by the COI will help Singapore defend itself better against malicious cyber activities, including from international attackers.
“This was not the first instance where we were targeted and it will not be the last. Our networks are continually probed for weaknesses, and regularly attacked,” he said.
The Government, the minister reiterated, takes very seriously its responsibility of ensuring the cybersecurity of the country’s systems that are vital to the provision of essential services. The COI’s findings and recommendations have “sharpened focus” and given “further impetus” to secure its IT systems and databases.
He did warn that a cyberattack of the scale and sophistication seen in the SingHealth incident could also be mounted on any one of Singapore’s major IT systems, threatening the safety and security of the country and its citizens.
Likening it to a constant battle against “cunning adversaries with capabilities”, Mr Iswaran said Singapore cannot allow such incidents to derail its Smart Nation initiatives that can enhance the country’s economic competitiveness and deliver better public services.
“We will do our utmost to strengthen Singapore’s cyber defence capabilities and prevent cybersecurity breaches,” he said.
“However, if a breach occurs despite our best efforts, we must have the capability to detect it quickly and respond robustly to minimise the damage. Our people must stay resilient in the face of such a continuing threat while doing their part for our cyber defence.”
SINGAPORE: A research fellow with the National University of Singapore Environmental Research Institute (NERI) was sentenced to eight weeks' jail on Tuesday (Jan 15) for cheating the institute by selling it items from her own firm at an inflated price.
Liang Juan, 42, recommended her own company to NERI at a loss to the institute, and concealed the fact that she was a director and shareholder of the firm.
As part of her job, Liang was to recommend suppliers for research items. She knew that she was required to declare any potential conflicts of interest and disqualify herself from handling any procurement that would put her in such a position, Deputy Public Prosecutor Leong Weng Tat said.
In 2012, Liang recommended Biochem - which she had set up with her husband - to NERI in order to procure items.
Biochem had sourced for the items from overseas at significantly lower prices, and made a substantial profit at NERI's expense, the prosecutor said.
In one instance, in April 2012, Biochem charged NUS three times what it cost to procure the items - billing the school S$5,400 for items that cost only about S$1,800.
In total, NERI suffered losses of more than S$15,000.
NUS hauled Liang up for questioning after the ruse was discovered. In a meeting attended by various NUS officers, including those from the NUS Office of Internal Audit, Liang initially denied that she knew who the owner of Biochem was.
She also shook her head when asked if she was related to any employee from the company.
Officers at the meeting, however, produced Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) search results which listed her as a director and shareholder of Biochem.
When asked why she did not declare her interest in the company, Liang said she was concerned that Biochem's business with NERI would be affected if she made such a declaration.
NERI later confirmed that it would not have approved the transactions if it had known about Liang's association with Biochem.
Liang has repaid the losses in full. The judge granted her a deferment of her jail sentence until Feb 18.
Reporters has contacted NUS for comment.
SYDNEY: As many as a million fish are believed to have died along the banks of a major river system in drought-battered eastern Australia, and the authorities warned Monday (Jan 14) of more deaths to come.
The banks of the Murray-Darling Rivers are thick with rotten fish, with officials putting the number of dead at hundreds of thousands and saying the toll is likely closer to one million.
Further high temperatures forecast for this week could make the situation worse, the New South Wales government has warned.
Low water conditions and the heat may also have encouraged an algae bloom that starves the fish of oxygen and produce toxins.
"We do expect to see more fish kills across parts of the far west and Northern Tablelands this week," said state minister Niall Blair.
The deaths have become a national issue, sparking angry allegations about the cause and who is responsible.
"It's a devastating ecological event," said Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday, pointing to apocalyptic scenes. "The sheer visual image of this is just terribly upsetting," he said.
Morrison's government has blamed the fish deaths on drought, and defended policies which some locals say has caused the systemic depletion and pollution of the river system.
"There's a drought and this is one of the consequences of drought. There are many, and my focus on drought has not shifted one inch," Morrison said.
But for years scientists have been warning of people extracting vast amounts of water without check for irrigation or other uses, undercutting billions of dollars of investment.
"Dead fish and dying rivers are not because of the drought, it's because we are extracting too much water from our river," said John Williams, an expert in water economics at the Australian National University.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten called on the government to set up an "emergency task force" to address the issue.
"You can't ignore a million dead fish, that's a shocking development," said Shorten.
Morrison insisted the management plan for the Murray-Darling Basin was bipartisan, adding that his government was only following on the policies of the opposition Labor government.
"I'm concerned today that some might want to play politics with that," he said.
"There were reports done by scientists under Labor's contribution to that plan back in 2012 and the plan has been operating in accordance with that advice."
Scientists are calling for politicians to be held to account.
"Billions have been spent on upgrading irrigation infrastructure," said Quentin Grafton, also of the Australian National University, "but with no public benefit."
"It's a disgrace and it's time those responsible are held accountable for this unfolding disaster."
SINGAPORE: A Bangladeshi man who leaked a domestic worker's nude photos online after she refused to get into a relationship with him was sentenced to four months' jail on Monday (Jan 14).
Islam Rokibul, a 32-year-old who works in the marine sector, pleaded guilty to criminal intimidation and transmitting obscene material by electronic means.
The court heard that Islam had met the 28-year-old woman on Facebook. While they were chatting, they had a video call via Facebook Messenger while the woman was showering.
During the video call, Islam took multiple screenshots of the woman showering, capturing her face and naked body.
He did this without telling her, as he wanted to force her to be in a permanent relationship with him, Deputy Public Prosecutor Jaime Pang said.
In September last year, the victim stopped contacting Islam. Soon after, Islam called her and threatened to leak her naked photos online if she refused to be in a relationship with him.
He sent her multiple text messages repeating his threat, and called her many times as well.
That same day, while in a dormitory in the west of Singapore, Islam uploaded seven nude pictures of the victim from his Samsung phone to social media platform IMO.
He uploaded the photos, which showed the woman's face and naked body clearly, in order to shame her as he was angered by the rejection, the prosecution said.
The maid subsequently made a police report and Islam was arrested.
While the naked photos have been deleted from IMO, the victim continues to be sent the circulated photos from strangers asking her for sex.
For criminal intimidation with the intention to ascribe the victim as unchaste, Islam could have been jailed for up to 10 years, fined, or both.
He could have been jailed for up to three months, fined, or both for transmitting obscene images electronically.
His mobile phone was forfeited to the police for disposal.
SINGAPORE: The National Environment Agency (NEA) conducted more than 2,400 checks on food caterers last year, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said in Parliament on Monday (Jan 14).
Dr Khor was responding to questions from several Members of Parliament on what the authorities are doing to reduce incidences of mass food poisoning.
"On top of these routine checks, over 900 additional inspections have been conducted since last month on food operators that provide catering services or that have substantial catering operations," she said.
Additionally, NEA has also had discussions with key representatives from the Association of Catering Professionals Singapore and the Restaurant Association of Singapore to further reinforce the importance of food hygiene and safety.
NEA and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority have also stepped up surveillance and engagement of all food operators, said Dr Khor.
SLEW OF OUTBREAKS
Food caterers have been in the spotlight following a spate of food poisoning outbreaks in November and December last year, with the most serious of them involving a fatality. Authorities said the outbreaks are unrelated.
Auxiliary police officer Fadli Salleh, 38, died on Nov 14 after consuming a bento box lunch supplied by Spize from its River Valley outlet. More than 80 people fell ill with more than 20 hospitalised after consuming their bento boxes.
NEA has terminated the operating licence of Spize Restaurant at River Valley Road and will also press charges against the operator in Court.
On Nov 24, 190 people fell ill with symptoms of gastroenteritis after consuming food prepared by restaurant group TungLok's catering arm.
The operating licences of Tung Lok, as well as the ballroom and affected kitchen in Mandarin Hotel, will remain suspended until the operators have complied with requirements imposed by NEA.
On Nov 26, more than 130 students and teachers fell ill after consuming food prepared by FoodTalks Caterer and Manufacturer while attending a kids' camp. NEA said it will fine the operator.
And on Dec 5, banquet operations at Mandarin Orchard Singapore were suspended after 175 people fell ill with food poisoning and nine were hospitalised in four separate event held at the Grand Ballroom.
In Parliament, Dr Khor also revealed that NEA conducted 77,000 inspections on food establishments last year. These included inspections for licence renewals and surprise ad-hoc inspections.
"We adopt a risk-based approach to inspections," Dr Khor added, pointing out that food establishments that cater to more people or handle larger volumes of food - such as caterers - are subjected to more checks.
Dr Khor also reiterated that consumers should only engage licensed caterers and consume catered food within the stipulated "consume by" time period.
"Consumers who come across poor hygiene practices in food establishments should provide feedback to the authorities for further investigation," she stated.
To that end, Dr Khor said NEA will improve its website and the myENV app to make it easier for consumers to check food operators' hygiene records.
"We are also looking into measures to better notify the public about a food operator’s licence suspension," she added.
NEA previously said that as of November, it had taken more than 2,600 enforcement actions against food operators that had flouted hygiene regulations, suspending a total of 84 licences.
"Even as we operate a stringent regulatory regime, food operators bear the ultimate responsibility to serve safe and clean food to their customers," Dr Khor said.
"They must ensure that their premises are kept clean, food handlers practice good hygiene and the food prepared is safe for consumption."
DUBAI: The UN envoy to Yemen said he was "alarmed" over the escalation of violence after a rebel drone attack on the country's largest airbase killed six loyalist soldiers.
In tweets posted overnight Thursday (Jan 10) Martin Griffiths urged all parties to Yemen's protracted conflict to exercise restraint.
The Shiite Huthi rebels said they carried out the strike which hit a military parade at Al-Anad air base, in government-held Lahij province some 60km north of Yemen's second city Aden.
Six loyalist soldiers were killed and at least 12 people wounded, including top commanders, medics said.
The attack comes as the UN, which brokered several agreements between the rebels and the Saudi-backed government at talks in Sweden last month, is desperately seeking to relaunch negotiations for an end to four years of devastating conflict.
Griffiths tweeted that he was "alarmed by today's (Thursday) escalation of violence in Yemen".
He urged "all parties to the conflict to exercise restraint and refrain from further escalation" and to "create a conducive environment to maintain the positive momentum generated" in Sweden.
The UN was hoping last month's talks in Sweden would help launch formal peace talks between Yemen's warring parties.
Thursday's attack is likely to create a new obstacle for those efforts.
In Sweden, the warring sides agreed truce deals for the key rebel-held aid port of Hodeida and for battleground third city Taez.
The drone strike drew condemnation from the United Arab Emirates, a key contributor to the Saudi-led military coalition fighting the rebels.
The "murderous drone attack tells you everything you need about the Huthis. Peace negotiations are a tactic to them, not a commitment," UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted.
"464 ceasefire violations, 36 killed & 318 wounded since (Sweden) agreement. The international community must increase pressure," he said, blaming the Huthis for the slow progress of peace efforts.
The war between the Huthis and loyalist troops escalated in March 2015, when President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi fled into Saudi exile, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to intervene.
The conflict has killed nearly 10,000 people and pushed some 14 million Yemenis to the brink of famine in the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.
SINGAPORE: Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan will make a ministerial statement on Singapore-Malaysia relations on Monday (Jan 14) when Parliament sits for the first time this year.
The two countries have been locked in a dispute over airspace and maritime territory.
In a meeting earlier this week, Malaysia agreed to immediately suspend its permanent restricted area in the airspace over Pasir Gudang, while Singapore suspends its implementation of Instrument Landing System (ILS) procedures for Seletar Airport.
On the maritime front, however, as many as five Malaysian government vessels have been seen in Singapore territorial waters in the wake of the positive meeting between the two foreign ministers.
Nine Members of Parliament have tabled questions on the matter.
MP Cheng Li Hui submitted questions on what measures the Government can take if Malaysian vessels continue to intrude into Singapore waters, and what will be the way forward if the issue cannot be resolved bilaterally.
MP Lee Bee Wah asked if Singapore will bring up the sea boundary issue to the United Nations for a permanent settlement.
Others have asked for an update on the intrusions by Malaysian vessels into Singapore waters.
On the airspace issue, MP Pritam Singh submitted a question on whether there are contingency plans to address Malaysia's decision to impose a permanent restricted area for military operations over Pasir Gudang so as to ensure the safety of planes flying into and out of Seletar Airport.
Other issues on Parliament's agenda include the partly sterilised dental instruments at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, as well as questions about food hygiene following recent cases of mass food poisoning.
Questions have also been tabled about a High Court ruling last month allowing a gay Singaporean father to adopt his biological son who was born via a surrogate in the United States.
Several Bills will be introduced, including the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) (Amendment) Bill.
SINGAPORE: Republic Polytechnic (RP) has teamed up with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) as well as cybersecurity firms - RSA and Ensign InfoSecurity - to launch two experiential training facilities that will give 250 students each year a glimpse into working in transport operations and cybersecurity fields of the future.
Speaking at the official opening of the facilities on Friday (Jan 11), principal and CEO of Republic Polytechnic Yeo Li Pheow described the facilities as "industry-benchmarked" ones that will expose students to "realistic environments".
The RP-LTA Rail Operations Management Lab, for example, is modelled after actual Operations Control Centres for rail lines in Singapore, which are usually located within the train depot.
Students studying for a Diploma in Engineering Systems and Management can build up their crisis management skills through simulations, enabling them to better deal with emergency situations in the real world.
The second facility, the RP-RSA-Ensign Cyber Threat Intelligence Centre, will benefit students pursuing the Diploma in Infocomm Security Management.
The centre is equipped with high-end security monitoring hardware. Technical experts from the industry will also be on hand to work alongside students as they investigate and analyse cyber intrusion attempts.
“As emerging technologies and market forces create new disruptions across many industries, Singapore needs a highly-skilled and adaptable workforce that is ahead of the curve,” said Mr Yeo.
Senior Minister of State for Transport and for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary also highlighted the need for a skilled workforce.
Speaking at the launch, Dr Puthucheary noted that Singapore’s rail network is undergoing rapid expansion, with jobs in the industry expected to grow from 9,000 to more than 15,000 by 2030.
“Rail is transforming to meet the evolving needs of our commuters who expect smoother, faster, more seamless and reliable rides. This will require rail professionals with new and varied skill sets,” he said.
Similarly, digitalisation has also led to the need for cybersecurity solutions.
“Singaporeans must seize the attractive job opportunities that the growth of the cybersecurity industry offers,” Dr Puthucheary said.
Two memoranda of understanding were also inked on Friday.
The first was a five-year agreement between RP, LTA, SMRT Corporation and SBS Transit, and the second, a three-year deal between RP and Ensign InfoSecurity.
The agreements will allow staff and students to undertake knowledge-exchange projects and internships.
BERLIN: More than 640 flights in Germany were cancelled on Thursday (Jan 10) due to security staff strikes at Duesseldorf, Cologne and Stuttgart airports in a bid to put pressure on management in wage talks.
Out of 1,054 scheduled flights in total, 643 were cancelled, the airports said, adding that many of its passengers which average 115,000 per day, would be affected, with significant delays at security checkpoints.
Public sector union Verdi said it was negotiating on behalf of 23,000 security workers in Germany. Wage talks are to resume on Jan 23, it said. The union has demanded a pay increase to €20 per hour before tax.
On Monday, a strike at Berlin's Schoenefeld and Tegel airports had caused delays and flight cancellations.