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At least 21 dead as Venice bus plunges from bridge

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Firefighters worked at the scene in Mestre (pic BBC)

At least 21 people including two children have died after a bus crashed off a flyover near the Italian city of Venice and caught fire, officials say.

The bus broke through a barrier and plunged near railway tracks in the district of Mestre, which is connected to Venice by a bridge.

Among the dead are five Ukrainians, one German and the Italian driver, city prefect Michele Di Bari said.

Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro said a “huge tragedy” had taken place. “An apocalyptic scene, there are no words,” he said on social media.

The bus is thought to have been rented to take tourists between Venice and a campsite in the nearby Marghera district. The incident happened at about 19:45 (17:45 GMT) as the bus was reportedly taking tourists back to the campsite.

Some reports say the bus was powered by methane gas and fell on to power lines and caught fire.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi warned the death toll could rise.

The cause of the crash is not yet known and rescue workers are continuing to work at the scene.

At least 18 people are known to have been injured, five of them seriously.

A reception point staffed by psychologists and psychiatrists has been set up at a nearby hospital to provide support for the victims’ families.

Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said she was following developments and expressed condolences. “Our thoughts go out to the victims and their family and friends,” she said.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she stood by Italian leaders in this “moment of profound pain”.

In 2013, 38 people were killed after a coach lost control on a viaduct near the south Italian town of Monteforte Irpino, hitting several other cars before falling into a ravine.

(BBC)



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The $2bn dirty-money case that rocked Singapore

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The case has put Singapore's status as a financial hub in the spotlight (BBC)

A Singaporean court has begun handing out sentences in a sensational case, which saw 10 Chinese nationals charged for laundering $2.2bn (£1.8bn) earned from criminal activities abroad.

The scandal embroiled multiple banks, property agents, precious metal traders and a top golf club. It led to extensive raids in some of the most affluent neighbourhoods, where police seized billions in cash and assets. The lurid details have gripped Singaporeans – among the seized assets were 152 properties, 62 vehicles, shelves of luxury bags and watches, hundreds of pieces of jewellery and thousands of bottles of alcohol.

Earlier this month, Su Wenqiang and Su Haijin, became the first to be jailed in the case. Su Haijin, police said, jumped off the second-floor balcony of a house trying to flee arrest. Both men will serve a little over a year in prison, after which they will be deported and barred from returning to Singapore. Eight others are still awaiting the court’s decision.

Even as it draws to a close, the case – the biggest of its kind in Singapore – has raised inevitable questions. The money that paid for their plush lives in the country, prosecutors said, came from illegal sources overseas, such as scams and online gambling.

How did these men, some of whom had multiple passports from Cambodia, Vanuatu, Cyprus and Dominica, live and bank in Singapore for years without drawing scrutiny? It has sparked a review of policies, with banks tightening rules, especially around clients who hold multiple passports.

Most important, the case has spotlighted the country’s struggle with welcoming the super wealthy, without also becoming a destination for ill-gotten gains.

Getty Images A Rolls-Royce Dawn vehicle seized by police at a residence of Su Jiafeng, one of the suspects in the S$2.8 billion money-laundering case, in Singapore, on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

Luxury cars were among assets police seized in their raids (BBC)

Singapore, which is often referred to as the Switzerland of Asia, started wooing banks and wealth managers in the 1990s. Economic reforms in China and India had begun to pay off, and then in the 2000s, a newly-stable Indonesia saw wealth grow as well. Soon, Singapore became a haven for foreign businesses, with investor-friendly laws, tax exemptions and other incentives.

Today, the ultra-rich can fly into Singapore’s private jet terminal,  live it up in luxurious quayside neighbourhoods, and speculate on the world’s first diamond trading exchange.  Just outside the airport is a maximum security vault called Le-Freeport that provides tax-free storage for fine art, jewels, wine and other valuables. The $100m-facility is often dubbed Asia’s Fort Knox.

Singapore’s asset managers drew S$435bn from abroad in 2022, almost double the figure in 2017, according to the country’s market regulator. More than half of Asia’s family offices – firms which manage private wealth – are now in Singapore according to a report by consulting giant KPMG and family office consultancy Agreus.

They include those of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, British billionaire James Dyson and Chinese-Singaporean Shu Ping, boss of the world’s biggest chain of hotpot restaurants, Haidilao.

Authorities say some of the accused in the money laundering case may be linked to family offices that were given tax incentives.

“There is an inherent contradiction for a place like Singapore, which prides itself on clean and good governance but also wants to accommodate the management of massive wealth by offering advantages such as low taxes and banking secrecy,” says Chong Ja-Ian, a non-resident scholar at Carnegie China.

“The risk of also becoming a banker for individuals who earned their money through nefarious or illicit means grows.”

Getty Images Infinity pool on top of a hotel in Singapore

Singapore’s attraction for the ultra-rich comes with risks, analysts say (BBC)

For rich Chinese, Singapore is a top choice because of its reputed governance and stability, as well as its cultural links to China. And more Chinese money has been entering Singapore in recent years.

One of the 10 suspects in this case was wanted in China since 2017 for his alleged role in illegal gambling online. Prosecutors claimed that he settled in Singapore because he “wanted a safe place to hide from the Chinese authorities”.

Chinese investment into Singapore is growing. .  .

This isn’t the first time Singapore-based banks have been implicated in a financial crime. They were found to have played a role in cross-border laundering in the 1MDB scandal, where billions were misappropriated from Malaysia’s state investment fund.   Dan Tan, who was once described by Interpol as “the leader of the world’s most notorious match-fixing syndicate” also had strong business links to Singapore. He was arrested here in 2013.

The country has strict rules targeting white collar crimes and is an active member of the Financial Action Task Force, a global body which targets money laundering and financing for terror networks. Over the years, banks have invested heavily to strengthen compliance, to screen prospective customers and to urge regulators to report suspicious transactions. But none of this is foolproof.

For one, it is difficult for regulators to spot suspicious cases in a sea of high-value transactions. “It’s not just one needle in a haystack, but one needle in several haystacks,” Singapore’s second minister for home affairs, Josephine Teo, told parliament in October last year.

Singapore’s buoyant property market is a popular means to “clean” dirty money, some experts pointed out. And there are the casinos, nightclubs and luxury stores.

“Massive amounts of money pass through Singapore’s banking system every day. Criminals can exploit this feature and disguise their money laundering activities among legitimate ones,” accounting professor Kelvin Law from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University told the BBC.

Getty Images Buildings under construction in Singapore, on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024.

Singapore’s property market is one of the routes for dirty money, experts say (BBC)

Singapore also does not limit the amount of cash that can be carried in and out of the country, only requiring a declaration if the sum exceeds S$20,000. And that is an advantage, says Christopher Leahy, the founder of Singapore-based investigative research and risk advisory firm Blackpeak.

“If you want to move lots of money, you hide it in plain sight and Singapore is a great place for that. There is no point putting it in the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands, where there is nothing to spend money on,” he said.

When asked for a response to analysts’ comments that Singapore’s advantages as a financial capital are also a draw for dirty money, authorities pointed the BBC to the law and home affairs minister interview in a local newspaper last year.

“We can’t close the window, because if we did that, then legitimate funds will also not be able to come. And legitimate business also can’t be done, or becomes very difficult to do. So we have to be sensible,” K Shanmugam said.

“When you are successful, you are a major financial centre, a lot of money comes in, some ‘flies’ will also come in,” he added, referring to an oft-repeated quote of the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping.

Singapore has to decide how far it will go in accepting “money with varying shades of grey”, says Dr Chong of Carnegie China.

While increased regulation will help, he says transparency poses a bigger challenge: “Transparency goes against the very model of discretion that allows many wealth management hubs to thrive.”

Some analysts say this may well be the price Singapore is willing to pay to retain its position as a financial hub.

“The vast majority of the funds are legitimate, after all,” Mr Leahy says. “But there is an inevitable cost to being a major financial centre.”

(BBC)

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Singapore tightens rules for expat workers with an eye on local discontent

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Singapore is tightening the rules for skilled migrant workers (Aljazeera)

Singapore – One of the world’s most open economies is attempting a delicate balancing act.

On the one hand, the Southeast Asian city-state wants to lure the world’s best and brightest to bolster its workforce, one of Asia’s most diverse. On the other hand, it has to assure locals competing with foreigners for jobs that the system works for them, too, nipping potential resentment or xenophobia in the bud.

From next year, the government will tweak that calculus in favour of locals by raising the salary threshold for foreigners seeking approval to work in the city-state.

Last month, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower announced that new applicants for the Employment Pass (EP) system will have to earn at least 5,600 Singapore dollars ($4,140) per month, up from 5,000 Singapore dollars ($3,700).

Applicants working in the financial services sector will have to earn at least 6,200 Singapore dollars ($4,600), compared with 5,500 Singapore dollars ($4,100) at present.

“By regularly updating the qualifying salaries based on the set wage benchmarks, we ensure a level-playing field for locals,” Manpower Minister Tan See Leng told parliament during a budget debate.

Analysts said the changes were not surprising for a government that has regularly tweaked the rules for expat workers, most recently in September 2022, when it raised the salary threshold by 500 Singapore dollars ($370).

Walter Theseira, an associate professor and labour economist at the Singapore University for Social Sciences (SUSS), said the move had been “telegraphed for a number of years”.

Theseira said that while the EP system was originally intended to import highly-skilled workers to fill gaps in the workforce, “the criteria seemed to have expanded and EP holders became more prevalent in the middle of the market as well”.

“This was perceived by local workers to be unwelcome competition for jobs that many skilled locals could do, so the government responded by re-calibrating the EP again upwards, so that based on salaries, it now targets more clearly the high-end,” he said.

Singapore

Singapore has built its reputation on attracting foreign talent (Aljazeera)

For decades, Singapore, an island with no natural resources that is about the size of New York City, has built its reputation on an openness to foreign talent.

The number of EP holders has grown substantially over the years, fuelled in part by anxiety over the country’s rock-bottom birthrate and greying population.

As of December last year, there were about 205,400 EP holders in the city, up from 161,700 during the same month in 2021.

As far back as 2021, Tan acknowledged that Singaporeans, though recognising the need to attract foreign talent, had concerns that the influx came at the “expense” of local businesses.

A labour market report released by the Manpower Ministry last month showed that employment growth in 2023, comprising 88,400 positions in Singapore – excluding migrant domestic workers – was largely made up of foreigners.

The revision of the EP qualification criteria can be seen as “a strategic move” to appease age-old tensions over hiring foreign talent amid a crowded job market, said Joshua Yim, the CEO of Achieve Group, a talent acquisition consultancy.

The changes also come as the Southeast Asian country is gearing up for one of the most politically significant transitions in its history.

Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party is set to fight the next general election, due by 2025, under new leadership as incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong prepares to step down after some two decades in office.

The issue of foreign workers became salient in the 2011 general election, when public discontent simmered over rising competition for jobs and increasing pressure on public infrastructure.

While most Singaporeans and permanent residents agree that immigration is generally good for the economy, slightly more than half also believe that immigrants take jobs away from locals, according to a 2021 survey by the Institute of Policy Studies.

In another survey conducted by the research firm Milieu Insight, Singaporeans were almost evenly divided on whether the nation struck the right balance between bringing in foreign workers and protecting local jobs.

Sid Suhas, the senior vice president and head of EMEA & APAC at the talent acquisition firm Cielo, said the visa changes are likely to prompt large employers to “focus more on attracting, developing and nurturing the local talent pool, particularly for junior professional and mid-level lower-skilled roles.”

With the higher salary threshold, companies are likely to adopt “a skills-first approach” when employing foreigners, Suhas said, focusing on talent in areas such as AI, technology, engineering and healthcare.

“The trend of limiting foreign talent deployment to specific skills and industries is inevitable. In the past, foreign talent had the opportunity to develop their careers in Singapore across various roles but now, the focus will likely be on senior and niche positions,” Suhas told Al Jazeera.

Suhas said he has already seen companies exploring alternative locations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, as a means of relocating key talent while still maintaining proximity to Singapore.

PM

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is due to step down before the 2025 general elections (Aljazeera)

 

“Most SMEs [small to medium-sized enterprises] do not rely much on EP workforce as their core talent pool,” Yuit told Al Jazeera.

“Selected businesses may have EP hiring in the stated 5,000 or 5,500 [Singapore dollars] range for specialised roles but usually, that is for time-limited, project engagement or if they are in specialised sectors that rely on a foreign talent pool because of a lack of matching local workforce.”

But the increased labour costs could affect the profitability of SMEs with tighter budget constraints, said Achieve Group’s Yim.

“Local SMEs may not be so well-oiled in terms of their processes and operations, as compared to the MNCs,” Yim said.

“They will feel the heat because they have to go up against the big players with the financial muscles who can offer higher EP salaries and attract better-quality talent. They might feel that talent is being stolen away and thus, this group is at the shorter end of the stick.”

Xu Le, a lecturer from the department of strategy and policy at the National University of Singapore’s Business School, said the policy change could “spur local companies to think out of the box and explore alternative methods to enhance overall operational efficiency and labour productivity”, in turn benefitting the economy.

Beatrice Liu-Cheng, the CEO of Oriental Remedies Group, said that while the higher-qualification threshold could pose challenges for her chain of Chinese medicine clinics, it would also be an “opportunity to further enhance the diversity and expertise” within its workforce.

Liu-Cheng said the changes would encourage her to seek out and nurture Singaporean talent through training programmes, mentorship initiatives and partnerships with educational institutions.

singapore Singapore is known for its business-friendly environment (Aljazeera)

While the migration changes are set to raise the cost of doing business, Singapore’s advantages, including a business-friendly environment, its strategic location and world-class infrastructure, will continue to attract international companies, analysts said.

Singapore is expected to remain “the preferred choice” for firms’ regional headquarters, said Cielo’s Suhas, even if deploying smaller teams becomes more common due to the higher costs.

Suhas said the changes would also accelerate the various government initiatives aimed at creating high-quality jobs for locals, including early talent programmes and re-skilling programmes for mid-to-late career professionals.

“As a result, we anticipate that global companies setting up in Singapore will increasingly prioritise hiring Singaporeans,” he said.

Singapore ranks second in the 2023 World Economic Forum’s Global Talent Competitiveness Index, behind Switzerland.

Nicholas Sim, an associate professor at SUSS’s business school, said that businesses seeking to establish a foothold in Asia are still likely to prioritise Singapore due to its “high-quality infrastructure, efficient and stable government and access to a high-calibre talent pool”.

Besides the EP scheme, there are other avenues for foreign talent to come to Singapore.

In 2023, the Manpower Ministry launched the Overseas Networks & Expertise Pass for “top talent” in business, arts and culture, sports, academia and research.

As of January, the ministry had approved nearly 4,200 applications for the pass.

“Going forward, it’s a clear sign that the Singapore government wants to bring high-calibre individuals into the Singapore workforce – and firms will need to deliberate more carefully about hiring top-tier foreign candidates who are skilled and can add to Singapore’s long-term competitiveness,” Yim said.

”All the more, MNCs will see Singapore as a place for the cream of the crop.”

(Aljazeera)

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Avalanche leaves two dead in Austrian Alps

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(file pic) Helicopters and search teams headed to the scene near the village of Vent (BBC)

A major search and rescue operation is under way after an avalanche in the Ötztal Alps in western Austria.

Two people have been killed, and at least two others are reported to have been rescued. Initial reports suggest 17 people were in the area at the time.

Austrian reports describe a snow slide of 180m (600ft) in length and 80m in width close to the village of Vent, not far from the Italian border in the province of Tyrol.

They were described as part of a Dutch group taking part in winter sports.

However, not all of them were caught up in the avalanche, which took place close to the Martin-Busch Hut, at an altitude of 2,500m.

The local head of emergency services, Bernd Noggler, told the BBC that helicopters, rescue teams, dog teams and the Alpine police had headed to the scene.

He warned that the danger of new avalanches was very high so rescue workers were proceeding with extreme caution.

Rising temperatures in Tyrol have increased the risk of avalanches. Earlier this week a 19-year-old German hiker died when he became caught up in an avalanche near Lake Achensee to the north-east of Innsbruck.

(BBC)

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