Pacific Ring of seismic terror

Hundreds displaced, several dead after various volcanoes erupt around Pacfic Ocean basin

DEADLY TREMORS: (Above) Indonesian soldiers search an area following yesterday's eruption of Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra, Indonesia.
DEADLY TREMORS: (Above) Indonesian soldiers search an area following yesterday's eruption of Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra, Indonesia.
EVACUATED: Farmers being transported on the back of a truck as the Turrialba volcano, in the background, erupted on May 20 in Cartago, Costa Rica.
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Giving all her love to an abandoned baby

Nurse clinician who took in stranger's child for two years wins healthcare humanity award

SELFLESS: Madam Suriani Muhamed Ishak took care of an abandoned baby for two years after the child's mother left Singapore.

Take in an abandoned baby? She did not take her husband's suggestion seriously at first.

In 2014, Madam Suriani Muhamed Ishak's husband received a call from an acquaintance asking him if he wanted a baby.

It had been born on a bus that was heading to Singapore.

"The baby's mother was a Malaysian cleaner and my husband had received a call from (her friend) another cleaner," she told Berita Harian.

The mother had doubts about keeping the baby, so the friend started calling as many contacts as possible.

Madam Suriani, 49, nurse clinician at the neurosurgery department of Singapore General Hospital, said that when the cleaner asked her husband if he wanted a baby, he had said that he did not mind.

"I thought he was joking!" she exclaimed. As a mother of five - aged between six and 22 - raising another child, let alone someone else's, was not on the cards.

Or so she thought.

In an interview with The New Paper (TNP), she said the change of heart came the moment she held the baby girl at KK Women's and Children's Hospital.

"I was just overwhelmed with a sense of pity, I wanted to help to make sure that she gets the best care," she said.

READY TO HELP

The mother gave her verbal consent for Madam Suriani to look after the child. That was followed by an interview with the hospital's medical social worker.

"I was ready to take care of the baby so that the birth mother 
could settle whatever personal problems she had and be in a better position to take care of her child," she added.

While the mother said she needed time to sort herself out, the day after giving consent, she discharged herself and left Singapore.

The arrangement was meant to be short term, but it became clear that Madam Suriani would have to be a mother to a stranger's baby.

She gave the child the best start that she could, including taking the baby for medical check-ups and even doctor's appointments, paying out of her own pocket.

Madam Suriani also tried to locate the mother. She asked social workers for help and, through them and with the help of the Malaysian embassy, was able to track down the mother.

Later, Madam Suriani invited the baby's mother to her home in Jurong to visit the baby.

She also extended financial help to the mother so that she was able to pay for a passport and the baby's birth certificate.

For her efforts, Madam Suriani was honoured by the National Healthcare Group at its Healthcare Humanity Awards 2016 on May 6.

Madam Suriani received a $1,500 cheque and a medal.

Dr Tracy Carol Ayre, chief nurse at SGH, said Madam Suriani was nominated because she "represents the epitome of our core mission, which is to provide compassionate care for the community".

Sadly, there was no grand reunion.

According to Madam Suriani, the mother visited her baby less than five times in two years.

The mother was eventually persuaded to return to Singapore to settle giving up the baby for adoption by a different family.

Despite providing and caring for the baby for two years, adoption was not to be for Madam Suriani.

She told TNP: "I wanted to make sure that the baby was given a good family who could devote their time to taking care of her and who was able to give her the best chance that she can get."

I was ready to take care of the baby so that the birth mother could... be in a better position to take care of her child.

- Madam Suriani Muhamed Ishak

Kopitiam owners say rent hikes are unlikely

In these challenging times, neighbourhood koptiams and shops are finding ways to cope - keeping costs down, innovating or getting Government help.

STEADY: Mr Hoon Thing Keong, owner of coffee shop chain Kim San Leng, does not intend to increase rent prices in the coming years.
HELPFUL: Mr Johnny Yeow, who sublets a coffee shop in Ang Mo Kio, has installed an electronic self-ordering and self-payment machines at the drink stall he runs.

Prices at your neighbourhood kopitiam should remain stable - for now.

Coffee shop owners told The New Paper that they have no plans to raise rents these two to three years.

Mr Hoon Thing Leong, 68, chairman of coffee shop chain operator Kim San Leng which operates about 30 coffee shops, said that rents for his coffee shops will stay stable for the next three years if the economic conditions remain the same.

"All businesses aren't doing well. We can't just raise the rents to earn more - our tenants and customers will suffer," he said.

"The economy is bad, people aren't earning as much, so they might not eat out as often. For the tenants, they're also facing increment in labour and ingredient costs."

Five other coffee shop owners TNP spoke to also said that stall rental prices at their coffee shops will stay stable for now.

Mr Hong Poh Hin, 69, who owns a coffee shop in Serangoon Avenue 4, also said rental prices will be stable for the next few years.

He is also vice-chairman of the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association which has about 400 members.

He added that if other owners were to raise prices in the near future, it would be based on the tenancy agreement or if new developments like public transport nodes sprout up in the area.

Mr Hong said: "If we can afford not to raise rental prices, we won't. It won't help us if tenants leave or if stalls increase food prices and customers leave."

Mr Johnny Yeow, 52, who sublets a coffee shop in Ang Mo Kio Street 11, said that although his recent margins for earnings have been "razor thin" because of the tough economy, he does not intend to charge stall owners more.

He said: "The landlord has increased the rent by 30 per cent over the years, but I didn't increase the rent for my tenants as I didn't want to pass this increase to them."

He added that he has not increased rent prices at his coffee shop for the past six years.

Rather than raising rents, Mr Yeow is looking into helping tenants cut back on costs by implementing an electronic self-ordering and self-payment system.

Two weeks ago, he installed one such machine at the drink stall he runs.

He said: "Times are bad, but we can't just look at earning through raising costs. Instead, we should look at other avenues like helping tenants reduce manpower costs and time."

For the past seven years, noodle stall owner Huang Jin Lian, 54, has been paying a stable monthly rent of $2,000 for her stall at a Jurong West coffee shop.

She said:"I'm happy that the rent hasn't increased. I don't think that it will in the near future since we've been here for so many years and the boss knows that it's difficult for us to maintain the business."

Senior lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic's business school Sarah Lim said raising prices might force tenants to leave.

"And empty stalls, just like those in shopping centres, don't look good," she said.

DOMINO EFFECT

Ms Lim also said that increased rental costs could trickle down to consumers in the form of increased food prices.

"For consumers, an increment of as little as 10 cents could turn them away from a coffee shop," she said.

Mr Tay Liang Swee, owner of roasted meat shop Fatty Weng in Bukit Batok agreed.

He said: "If the rent increases again, I might just have to move out because I can't afford to raise the price of my food anymore."

Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon from the Department of Marketing at the National University of Singapore Business School said that besides keeping rentals stable, more can be done to help tenants and patrons.

She said: "Coffee shop owners can get their stall holders to stay open for longer periods of time instead of the regular lunch and dinner hours.

"They can also be more stringent in picking tenants to ensure that the food mix they have in the coffee shop is attractive to people."

HDB shops get upgrade

HDB's Revitalisation Of Shops - ROS - scheme gives neighbourhood shops in Jurong West new lease of life

UPGRADED: Mr Chen Wing Fatt Michael, owner of Hwa Li Design, has been renting his shop in Jurong West for about 18 years.

He used to see fewer than five customers a week, but after upgrading his shop through the Housing Board's Revitalisation Of Shops (ROS) scheme, he now sees about 20 people weekly.

Mr Chen Wing Fatt Michael, 60, owner of interior design shop Hwa Li Design, is one of the many retailers in Singapore who has benefitted from the ROS programme.

Under the ROS scheme, shops in Jurong West enjoyed co-funding for upgrading works in their common corridors in 2014.

This included new lighted signboards, new flooring and awnings.

Retailers also enjoyed co-funding for promotional events organised in the precinct, which helped to attract more crowds.

Two weeks ago, HDB announced an enhanced ROS scheme that included an adjustment to the co-funding ratio between retailers and the Government. (See report at right.)

Mr Chen, who has rented the shop for about 18 years, said his landlord paid about $7,000 for the ROS upgrading works.

His rental was $4,000 per month when he first started. He now pays $6,000.

He told The New Paper: "After the upgrading, I can't say that everyone's business has improved because we're all in different industries and the economy is generally not too good now, but the market value of each shop has gone up quite a bit."

Secretary for the Federation of Merchants' Associations, Singapore (FMAS), Mr Kwek Boon Watt, 68, said that the ROS gives shops the much-needed facelift.

"The look and feel of the neighbourhood will be better and more attractive... it won't look so old."

The FMAS represents HDB retailers in various neighbourhood centres and helps to foster merchants' businesses and economic development.

Mr Ong Song Huat, owner of packaging store Lee Bee Enterprises, saw a 10 per cent rise in his sales after the ROS scheme.

Mr Ong Song Huat, who owns packaging product store Lee Bee Enterprise, said in Mandarin: "We think the ROS is good. If someone wants to help us, we're happy to participate. After all, it's our business and we have to upgrade it ourselves."

Owner of Chau Wah (KDBFS) Goldsmith & Jewellery, Madam Teo Cheng Sim, 57, said that the upgrading works made the neighbourhood centre cleaner and brighter and reduced the rat population in the area.

Both Mr Ong and Madam Teo forked out about $7,000 for the upgrades after a 50 per cent subsidy by the town council and HDB.

While Mr Ong's business increased by about 10 per cent, Mr Chen's and Madam Teo's businesses did not improve.

RENOVATIONS

Madam Teo said: "Fewer people came to my shop after the renovations. Maybe they found other places to go to. But it may also be because the gold industry fluctuates a lot."

Mr Kwek said that while the ROS scheme aims to help retailers, they cannot depend on changing the exterior of a shop alone to improve their businesses.

Owner of Chau Wah (KDBFS) Goldsmith & Jewellery, Madam Teo Cheng Sim, wants the ROS scheme to improve the neighbourhood centre.

Shop owners and the neighbourhood's Merchants' Federation should "complete the transformation" by organising activities or bringing in new merchandise to attract customers.

"It's like having a good sports car - it might be nice to look at, but it must also be used effectively," he said.

Retail lecturer Sarah Lim from Singapore Polytechnic's business school agreed: "Renovating the shop is just the hardware. After people step into the 'new shop' for the first time, how do you keep them coming back?"

It is important that HDB retailers build rapport with their customers and take the time to gather "data" about how new merchandise will fare on the shelves, she said.

"Retailers should change their mentality and dare to make decisions. They must be willing to go through this learning process."

Mr Kwek said HDB shops are Singapore's "speciality" and should be conserved. They also add vibrancy to the heartlands and help to bring people together.

He said: "The ROS scheme isn't just about making more money but more importantly, it's about preserving our culture of neighbourhood shops and the kampung spirit."

Teacher assaulted, molested by teens

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Masters in memory

S'porean youngest in Southeast Asia to earn the title at his first World Memory Championships

BRAIN POWER: Mr Joshua Koh can commit 1,088 decimal digits and 520 playing cards to memory in an hour.

He can memorise the exact order of one deck of 52 playing cards in just 100 seconds.

Give him an hour and Mr Joshua Koh can commit 1,088 decimal digits and 520 playing cards to memory.

With these, the 21-year-old became the youngest person in South-east Asia to earn the title of International Master of Memory (IMM) at last year's 24th World Memory Championships (WMC) in Chengdu, China.

It was Mr Koh's first memory competition.

"It felt quite surreal, because everything happened too quickly," Mr Koh told The New Paper, adding that the title was more meaningful because he had earned it on his 21st birthday.

The WMC is an international competition that tests competitors' abilities to memorise as much information as possible within a time limit.

The competition has been held annually since 1991 and comprises 10 events ranging from "Names and Faces" to "Speed Cards". Five Singaporeans took part in last year's WMC.

Mr Koh, a first-year computer science student at FTMSGlobal Academy, is one of only two Singaporeans to earn the IMM title. Mr Wellon Chou, 26, was also awarded the title last year after accumulating the required criteria in Chengdu and at 2014's WMC in Haikou.

"I felt very happy. I got to achieve it despite my bad health," said Mr Chou, who was initially discouraged after falling sick on the second day of last year's WMC. He runs a business offering memory training classes in Singapore.

Mr Koh's impressive memory feats are a far cry from his days in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where he dropped out in his second year after doing poorly in his exams.

'MEMORY CLASSES'

He was introduced to memory techniques after his mother's friend steered him to memory classes in June last year.

"People do not expect me to be involved in memory sport, because they have the stereotype that this is something for brainy people," said Mr Koh said, adding that he is known among his peers more for his athletic abilities. "I feel the need to prove them wrong."

The benefits of memory training have been evident in other aspects of Mr Koh's life, especially when he returned to school this year.

For his first semester at FTMSGlobal, he achieved the highest grade for all three of his modules.

His ability to concentrate has also improved without him having to make a conscious effort.

He used to get distracted in class after half an hour, but he is now able to pay attention for the full two hours of a lecture without feeling tired.

Mr Chou has experienced such benefits as well, as he is now able to deliver speeches without the aid of a script.

It is no surprise that Mr Koh feels that memory techniques are a skill that everyone should learn.

He said: "Everyone is only worried about their physical health, but they don't really focus on keeping their brain healthy."

Likewise, Mr Chou cited mental health as one of his reasons for deciding to compete in the WMC.

He said: "Besides being physically fit, we can also be mentally fit. That's the concept I want to promote among Singaporeans."

People do not expect me to be involved in memory sport, because they have the stereotype that this is something for brainy people. I feel the need to prove them wrong.

- Mr Joshua Koh

'My parents give me lots of money'

Student who spent money wrongly channelled into her bank account claims she thought the $4.6m was from her parents

SPREE: Miss Christine Lee Jia Xin splurged on designer goods and jewellery.
SPREE: Miss Christine Lee Jia Xin splurged on designer goods and jewellery.
SPREE: Miss Christine Lee Jia Xin splurged on designer goods and jewellery.

The Malaysian student accused of spending A$4.6 million (S$4.6 million) on luxury items due to an Australian bank error said she thought her wealthy parents in Malaysia had put the money into her account.

Miss Christine Lee Jia Xin splurged millions of dollars on handbags and designer goods over 11 months, after a Westpac banking error.

She was charged on May 5 with dishonestly obtaining financial advantage by deception and knowingly dealing with the proceeds of crime.

Miss Lee received a phone call from Westpac's senior manager of group investigations Matt Tregoning on April 8 last year.

He froze her account after realising she had accidentally been given an unlimited overdraft, reported the Sydney Morning Herald.

The call, contained in an affidavit obtained by Fairfax Media, offered the first glimpse of Miss Lee's version of the events.

When asked why she had overdrawn her account by A$4.6 million, she said she thought her parents were putting money in her account.

SHOES

"I bought clothes, shoes, lots of handbags. They are in my unit at Rhodes," she said, adding that she had only A$4,000 cash left.

"My mother is coming over to visit me in June and will give the bank a cheque," she said.

"I have told my parents about it and they aren't very happy with me."

The chemical engineering student was in Australia on a student visa.

Miss Lee had also transferred A$1.15 million to her PayPal account in 14 transactions in one day.

Westpac then froze the account and contacted Ms Lee, asking why she thought she had access to that much money.

She said: "My parents give me lots of money."

Westpac obtained court orders last year to seize all her assets, declare her bankrupt and take her passport, which she said she could not find.

When three solicitors entered her apartment last May, they found shopping bags, shoe boxes, designer handbags, scarves, shoes and jewellery scattered all over the floor and the furniture.

She was also forced to hand over more than 100 handbags, mounds of clothes, sunglasses, shoes, scarves, a vacuum cleaner, cushions and jewellery.

Photos tendered in the Supreme Court show a number of diamond necklaces, earrings and rings, plus several photos of Miss Lee flaunting her goods.

She was arrested at Sydney Airport earlier this month as she tried to board a flight to Malaysia using an emergency-issue passport.

Taleban leader killed by US drones

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