2014 in Review: Good & bad news around the globe

The United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket carrying NASA's first Orion deep space exploration craft takes off from its launchpad  in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Dec 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
The United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket carrying NASA's first Orion deep space exploration craft takes off from its launchpad  in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Dec 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

As 2014 draws to a close, The Straits Times Foreign Desk does its annual stocktaking of global events. While conflict and calamity brought its share of tears and fears, some events gave the world plenty to cheer about as well.

These are the picks of the year's Top 5 highs and lows.


1 - Cheap oil to fuel growth

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Global oil prices are at their lowest in five years, fuelling hopes of an economic boost for most countries as they would translate into lower transport costs to move goods and people.

A major beneficiary is the world's biggest economy, the United States. Its growth next year is expected to be 3.5 per cent, up from October's forecast of 3.1 per cent, said the International Monetary Fund. Asian and European economies should get a similar fillip. Lower fuel prices helped Malaysia totally remove its fuel subsidies and Indonesia to make more cuts in its fuel subsidy regime.

The flip side to falling oil prices - the benchmark Brent crude has fallen to US$60 a barrel from US$115 in six months - is they will hit producers heavily dependent on oil revenues such as Iran.

2 - India and Indonesia elections lift hope

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The world's second-most-populous nation, India, elected Mr Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in May, while Indonesia, the fourth most populous, voted in Mr Joko Widodo as President.

Mr Modi, 64, and Mr Joko, 53, have both promised that their governments would be more responsive and responsible. They want to clean up the bureaucracy even as they work to accelerate economic growth.

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It is early days yet to see what kind of impact the two men's reforms will have on their countries, but what they do are also likely to have repercussions for their neighbours, if not the rest of the world.

India is, after all, Asia's third-biggest economy after China and Japan. And Indonesia is the biggest economy in the 10-member Asean regional grouping.

3 - Having a blast in outer space

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Four spacecraft scored out-of-this-world achievements in the last four months of the year.

In September, India saw its first interplanetary mission as its scientists put the satellite Mangalyaan, or Mars vehicle in Hindi, into orbit around the Red Planet. They did so on a budget of US$74 million (S$97 million) - the cheapest Mars mission.

The Rosetta created history last month when it became the first space probe to orbit a comet. Its lander Philae touched down on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The European Space Agency's mission hopes to learn about the origins of the solar system.

On Dec 5, the Orion capsule blasted off from the US on a test flight that lasted more than four hours, to gauge its deep-space capabilities, before splashing down into the ocean. Able to accommodate up to four astronauts, the spacecraft is designed to head much farther out into space than any previous mission, to destinations such as Mars.

This month, too, after a journey that spanned 4.8 billion km and nearly nine years, the US probe New Horizons reached its final destination and began exploring Pluto.

4 - Change in the air amid shifts in climate

The world's two top polluters - China and the United States - sprang a pleasant surprise by signing an agreement to take action to reduce carbon emissions.

The US said it plans to cut emissions by between 26 and 28 per cent by 2025, and China - for the first time - put a timetable on its actions, saying emissions will peak by 2030.

Still, while the deal raised hopes, the United Nations climate change preparatory talks in Peru that ended a week ago did not result in a magical resolution on the pact that countries must sign in Paris next year.

The US-China agreement comes amid concern that global weather patterns have changed, resulting in wetter wet weather and drier dry weather.

The planet is experiencing some of the hottest average temperatures ever and there are worries about faster melting of the polar ice caps.

The final goal is to limit global warming to within the internationally agreed ceiling of 2 deg C over pre-industrial levels.

5 - Medical firsts

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There were several medical breakthroughs this year.

A woman in Sweden gave birth to a baby boy in October this year after receiving a womb transplant.

The 36-year-old woman had been born without a uterus.

The donor is a friend who is in her 60s.

In the same month, a Polish man paralysed after a 2010 knife attack could walk again after receiving a world-first therapy involving the transplantation of cells from his nasal cavity into his spinal cord.

Mr Darek Fidyka, 40, now walks with the help of a frame, after he was treated by Polish surgeons in collaboration with London scientists.


1 - Extremist ISIS terror

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Beheadings and slavery are associated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, which also sends foreign fighters on suicide bombing attacks.

The brutal organisation that adopts an extreme ideology has been disavowed even by Al-Qaeda, the terror network that is behind the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The ISIS has beheaded Western hostages and Iraqi and Syrian soldiers it captured, and enslaved women of the Yazidi tribe.

Its foreign-born suicide bombers included two Malaysians.

Despite its brutality, the ISIS has been able to attract, through social media, hundreds of Muslim young people to its cause.

A global alliance led by the US has taken up the fight to defeat the terrorist group.

2 - One airline, two disasters

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The double whammy that hit Malaysia Airlines (MAS) shook Malaysians to the core and shocked the world.

Two MAS planes disappeared within the span of four months.

MAS Flight MH370, with 239 people on board, vanished in March en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

It has yet to be found despite the best efforts of global aviation experts and the Malaysian and Australian governments. The search in the southern Indian Ocean continues.

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On July 17, MAS Flight MH17 was blown out of the sky by a suspected missile as it flew over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board.

The Ukrainian government and pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels have blamed each other for the disaster.

MAS, which was already in bad financial shape before the twin disasters, is now being rescued by the Malaysian government.

3 - Hearts sink with S. Korean ferry

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The April sinking of South Korean ferry MV Sewol killed 304 people, most of them high school students who were on a field trip.

The owner of the ferry company, Mr Yoo Byung Eun, 73, who was being sought by police, was found dead three months later.

The illegally overhauled ferry was overloaded with cargo which was badly secured, and handled by an inexperienced crew not trained in emergency evacuation. Rescue work was poorly executed and the government initially seemed unsure how to assuage public anger.

Altogether, 172 people survived. The ship's captain and 14 crew members were among the first to flee to safety; some have been jailed for up to 36 years.

4 - Disease outbreaks leave trail of dead

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The explosion in Ebola virus cases that swept western Africa this year has left more 6,500 people dead, mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Another 18,000 were stricken by the virus, one of the deadliest known to man.

Ebola is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. Symptoms include fever or vomiting.

Another medical emergency was the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers). At least 348 people have died from Mers, most of them in Saudi Arabia. The virus is believed to be linked to camels.

Global connectivity, helped by low-cost flights and the active movement of labour across borders, showed that countries must make better preparations to respond quickly to these disease outbreaks.

5 - Ukraine and fate of small nations

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The push by Russian President Vladimir Putin into Ukraine should be a cause for worry for small nations, as it shows how a big and well-armed neighbour can come in and make a naked land grab. Mr Putin annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine in March, and has shown determination to take over eastern Ukraine as well.

While sanctions imposed by Western nations over Russia's actions have hurt its economy, Mr Putin, instead of backing down, has remained belligerent, perhaps in the belief that Western powers will not intervene militarily.

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