Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Big plans, small car

Sep 30, 2008

Malaysia robbers were forced to leave loot behind

KUALA LUMPUR - TWO armed robbers hijacked a security van with $1.8 million ringgit (S$0.75 million) inside but were forced to abandon more than half the cash because their small getaway car could not carry it all, Malaysian police said on Tuesday.

The robbers and their compact getaway car were still at large with $1.8 million ringgit following Monday's heist near Kuala Lumpur, said district police chief Shakaruddin Che Mood.

The robbers stole a small car then held up guards in the security van at a shopping mall. One robber drove the van away and the other followed in the car, Mr Shakaruddin said.

The van was recovered nearby with nine bags containing 2.7 million ringgit inside - evidently because they did not fit in the compact car, the police chief said.

'The bags are quite big. I consider them quite stupid. Their planning was very shortsighted,' Mr Shakaruddin said.

The five security guards in the van have been detained for questioning. Police suspect the robbery may have been an inside job, Mr Shakaruddin said.

'This thing was done in an easy manner,' he said. --AP

'Green' the bailout

Sep 30, 2008

By Thomas L. Friedman

MANY things make me weep about the current economic crisis, but none more than this brief economic history: In the 19th century, America had a railroad boom, bubble and bust. Some people made money; many lost money. But even when that bubble burst, it left America with an infrastructure of railroads that made transcontinental travel and shipping dramatically easier and cheaper.

The late 20th century saw an Internet boom, bubble and bust. Some people made money; many people lost money. But that dot-com bubble left us with an Internet highway system that helped Microsoft, IBM and Google to spearhead the IT revolution.

The early 21st century saw a boom, bubble and now a bust around financial services. But I fear all it will leave behind are a bunch of empty Florida condos that never should have been built, used private jets that the wealthy can no longer afford and dead derivative contracts that no one can understand.

Worse, the United States borrowed the money for this bubble from China, and now it has to pay it back - with interest and without any lasting benefit.

Yes, this bailout is necessary. This is a credit crisis, and credit crises involve a breakdown in confidence that leads to no one lending to anyone. You don't fool around with a credit crisis. You have to overwhelm it with capital. Unfortunately, some people who don't deserve it will be rescued. But, more importantly, those who had nothing to do with it will be spared devastation. You have to save the system.

But that is not the point of this column. The point is, America doesn't just need a bailout. It needs a build-up. It needs to get back to making stuff based on real engineering, not just financial engineering. It needs to get back to a world where people are able to realise the American Dream - a house with a yard - because they have built something with their hands, not because they got a 'liar loan' from an under-regulated bank with no money down and nothing to pay for two years. The American Dream is an aspiration, not an entitlement.

When I need reminding of the real foundations of the American Dream, I talk to my Indian-American immigrant friends who have come here to start new companies - friends like Mr K.R. Sridhar, the founder of Bloom Energy. He e-mailed me a pep talk in the midst of this financial crisis - a note about the difference between surviving and thriving.

'Infants and the elderly who are disabled obsess about survival,' he said. 'As a nation, if we just focus on survival, the demise of our leadership is imminent. We are thrivers. Thrivers are constantly looking for new opportunities to seize and lead and be No. 1.'

That is what America is about.

But Americans have lost focus of that. Its economy is like a car, added Mr Sridhar, and the financial institutions are the transmission system that keeps the wheels turning and the car moving forward. Real production of goods that create absolute value and jobs, though, are the engine.

'I cannot help but ponder about how quickly we are ready to act on fixing the transmission, by pumping in almost US$1 trillion in a fortnight,' said Mr Sridhar. 'On the other hand, the engine, which is slowly dying, is not even getting an oil change or a tune-up with the same urgency, let alone a trillion dollars to get ourselves a new engine. Just imagine what a trillion-dollar investment would return to the economy, including the 'transmission', if we committed at that level to green jobs and technologies.'

Indeed, when this bailout is over, the US needs the next president - this one is wasted - to launch an ET (energy technology) revolution with the same urgency as this bailout. Otherwise, all Americans would have done is bought themselves a respite, but not a future. The exciting thing about the energy technology revolution is that it spans the whole economy - from green-collar construction jobs to high-tech solar panel designing jobs. It could lift so many boats.

In a green economy, Americans would rely less on credit from foreigners 'and more on creativity from Americans', argued Mr Van Jones, president of Green for All, and author of the forthcoming The Green Collar Economy. 'It's time to stop borrowing and start building. America's No. 1 resource is not oil or mortgages. Our No. 1 resource is our people. Let's put people back to work - retrofitting and repowering America...

'You can't base a national economy on credit cards. But you can base it on solar panels, wind turbines, smart biofuels and a massive programme to weatherise every building and home in America.'

The Bush team says that if this bailout is done right, it should make the government money. Great. Let's hope so, and let's commit right now that any bailout profits will be invested in infrastructure - smart transmission grids or mass transit - for a green revolution. Let's 'green the bailout', as Mr Jones says, and help ensure that the American Dream doesn't ever shrink back to just that - a dream.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Navigating the new world order

Sep 27, 2008

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had a dialogue with 200 diplomats and academics during his visit to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London this week. This is the first part of the edited transcript.

Asia's role in the international security environment

LET ME start by saying how I see the world.

How does Singapore survive and prosper? Only if there's international order, there's peace and stability in the region and there's growth instead of wars and conflicts. Why has the region grown in the last 50 years? Because there was an American umbrella that provided security.

First Japan, then Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore blossomed. Finally, Mr Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon went to China and opened the door. Then Deng Xiaoping came to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in November 1978 to get us to join forces against the Vietnamese when they were about to capture Cambodia.

I think he had a shock because he saw three Third World cities better than Shanghai and probably better than Beijing. What intrigued him about Singapore was that it was orderly, it was clean, everybody had a home. And what was the economy run on? Trade and multinationals. He asked many questions. He realised you can make use of international capitalism, train your people, get revenue and bring about an egalitarian result.

When he left, I told my colleagues at the airport to see him off. His staff must have got a shellacking because the brief they gave him did not live up to his experience. Instead of crowds applauding and waving at him, everybody went about their business. The greatest Chinese leader next to Mao Zedong and everybody said, 'Well, life goes on'.

He decided that same year on the Open Door Policy. It started with about 10 coastal cities (and agricultural reforms). He must have been thinking about all this for a long time: the system was malfunctioning and what he saw in Singapore clicked. Then their good fortune was they had then-US president George H.W. Bush, who invited them to export to America. They are now in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

They did their sums carefully. Why did these countries develop? How did they overtake China? What is it that enabled them to grow? And I believe they came to the right conclusion: knowledge of the outside world, connections with the outside world, trade, investments, technology and markets. What is it they need? The same.

So slowly, gradually, they moved. Mr Zhu Rongji also came to Singapore, studied us in the 1990s, went back and started his own housing scheme in Shanghai based on our model.

So if I look forward and ask 'what kind of world will allow us to prosper', I think I require first an American pillar with European Union (EU) support to provide the overall ballast. Then as China grows and India grows, Brazil and Russia become more muscular, gradually adjustments take place.

If you watch (the Chinese), you will see that they avoid conflict. You're not going to change them but they're not going to be truculent like the Russians. If you complain about Darfur, they'll send an emissary and try and improve things. You complain about this, they try to ameliorate. But their relentless pursuit of commodities and energy will go on because they know that if that stops, (there would be) trouble at home. If they continue this course, they will be a player within the system. I believe that will hold until a generation that has no experience with the past comes into its own and says 'we have arrived'. Then you might have a different China.

I put this point to them. They said, 'no, no, we're going to make quite sure that it doesn't happen. We need 40 to 50 years'. They know they need to educate their people as we have educated our people. So they have got their students all over the world. I understand Britain has about 75,000 of them in your universities. This is China's Meiji Revolution 150 years after the Japanese - learn from the world, come back. Many won't, doesn't matter. They'll network, bring back knowledge, technology and link up with those countries.

India has also decided it has to open up. I wasn't convinced at the beginning. When Manmohan Singh as finance minister and Chidambaram as commerce minister came in the early 1990s just after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pressured them to open up, they asked us if we would back them, lend our credibility to their free-market enterprise. We said 'yes'. But when I visited them, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders told me India was selling its heirlooms. I said, 'that would be a U-turn'. But (when the BJP assumed power) and the prime minister visited China, when he came back, the next time I saw him, it was full steam ahead. So they realised that if they didn't go this way, they'd be left behind.

If India and China keep on this course, then we're going to have another 10, 20, 30, 40 years of peace and stability in Asia and we will grow. But things could go wrong.

What is the worst-case scenario? China gives up because the world turns protectionist, they got to go their own way and they don't make this kind of growth and they have internal problems. Then what? Then I cannot say that there'll be peace and stability.

At the moment, their approach is: Let's not disturb the world order. I do not see them challenging the international order. They'll play within the rules, not seek spheres of influence, trade, barter, do whatever is necessary within the rules. But the other scenario - if something goes wrong and there are difficulties, if they try to create an East Asia Bloc that leads to regional rivalries - then you'll have an unstable world.

The European Union's response to Russia

I VIEW the EU's lack of unanimity in responding to the Russians as a weakening of the system. Once former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder wanted a pipeline (from Russia), they got an advantage. I met him after he left office. He said: 'Russia is more important to us than China or any other part of the world. They need us, we need them and Eastern Europe is our sphere.' Chancellor Angela Merkel is not a Russian fan but she has adopted this pipeline, and this gives the Russians a very powerful instrument to split the EU. So whether it's Abkhazia or Ossetia, there will not be a united response. That means a weakened Western position.

You watch the Chinese, they have not recognised Kosovo. They expressed profound concern but no recognition. So the other Central Asian states also withheld recognition. They are going to take a non-combative position.

So, for the time being, all is well but if this meltdown takes place and leads to a different kind of world, then I cannot say. The world will stay like this as long as the Chinese believe this is the way they will modernise and catch up.

The risk of the 'Finlandisation' of South-east Asia in response to a rising China

THAT'S already happening. Anything discussed within the 10 members of Asean, you can be sure the Chinese embassies in three countries will be informed: Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia - and they know exactly the position of each Asean country. What is it you want? Facilities for a summit in Laos? I'll build you a conference hall, I'll build you a hotel, I'll provide you with the facilities. The way they exercise soft power goes back to a very traditional Chinese way.

One and a half years ago, they decided to hold a meeting of Asean leaders in Nanning, in Guangxi province. It was a very backward province and they demonstrated that they have changed Guangxi. The place was splendidly decked out. They put on a show depicting the culture of each Asean country. One leader of a big Asean country said: 'Now we know it's not democracy that makes you grow; it's stability and order.'

(Asean leaders) went back fully conscious that this is an unstoppable rise. And the Beijing Olympics had the same effect. It's not that they have arrived, but they assure you of their potential. They're not a new power; they're an old power that's reviving.

Only they can stop themselves. They have the manpower, they have more than adequate intellectual capabilities, they sent a man into space all on their own.

With the bomb, you can say that one eminent Chinese scientist came back from America and helped them. But this one, nobody helped them. I watched a programme on CCTV4 explaining how they arrived at this one astronaut. They started with 1,500 candidates three or four years earlier. Three months before (lift-off) they reduced it to 50 candidates. Then the final three weeks, they reduced that to five candidates. Then the last day, they chose one and President Hu Jintao flew in and wished him Godspeed. And off he went. But I thought to myself: 1,500 to choose one?

What will happen in the (next) Olympics? They're now taking up cricket. You may not believe it but they are. They've got Australian and Indian trainers to produce a cricket 11. And why not?

So I see all the signs of a power already on the ascendant without having to use physical force. You take Singapore. We've helped them in so many ways. But when then-deputy prime minister Lee Hsien Loong visited Taiwan, there was a lot of publicity which the Taiwanese foolishly thought would help them. Beijing decided to show us that this is wrong. They froze everything. A free-trade agreement which was on the cards just got held back. Now finally it's on the cards and settled, will be signed in October - but after we've learnt what not to do when their core interests are involved. It has already happened.

So I start off with the major premise: Let's have a world order, the one I'm accustomed to, (hope it) still obtains.

The problems of extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism

TO SOLVE these problems you must have, first, good intelligence - block their finances, break up their cells, and counter it. Force must be prevented from being exercised before it does you harm. But how do you prevent the radicalisation of these jihadists?

You would have thought peaceful Singapore (wouldn't have these problems). We've broken up the Jemaah Islamiah cell, about 32 individuals. And lo and behold, (we find) a chap self-radicalised on the Internet. It's already all on the Internet. It's all worked up.

You've got to solve the Palestinian- Israeli problem or you're giving them a drum to beat. But how do you solve that? Everybody is rooting for Senator Barack Obama - a great breakthrough. But Mr Obama said that Jerusalem shall be the undivided capital of Israel. So he's already disqualified himself from ever having a two-state solution. That means he'll postpone it for another eight years if he wins. So the thing drags on. I'm not very optimistic.

The environmental consequences of China's rise

AS THE climate change drama unfolds, I hope in five, maybe 10 years, the Chinese will realise that it's closer to midnight than they think. When they suddenly find rivers going dry or there are large movements of people looking for arable land, I think they will start doing something. At the moment, their attitude is: Compare our per capita income to America's and you're telling me that I'm the cause of this? I don't think it's helpful but that's their position.

They went to Bali. Both the Indians and they took that position. I think they will stick to that position at all conferences until they realise they are caught in this too. They're building two coal stations every week. The Beijing Olympics and the Paralympics are over and the smog has come back to Beijing. To clean up Beijing permanently is a very big cost.

We had the Guangdong party secretary coming down recently. He wants us to start an eco-city project in Guangdong. But how's he going to get rid of all the factories and power stations that he's built? So he now talks about clean and green. But how do you get there?

We faced a problem of constraint of space. So as we industrialised, we recognised right from the word 'go' that if we did not do it the right way, we would ruin our lives. We had enormous troubles when we built the petrochemical station complex with Sumitomo. They wanted Japanese standards. We said 'no, we want world standards'. So we had Germans, Americans vetting each stage of the construction process. But the net result is, you go to Jurong, you're near the petrochemical wells, there's no odour. It was worth the effort.

So greenness for us was a matter of survival. But it wasn't for (the Chinese). Just go for growth. Now they're switching to another yardstick: sustainable growth. But between the indicators they impose and the execution are many long years.

The second part of the transcript will be published on Monday.

The centre must hold

Sep 29, 2008

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had a dialogue with 200 diplomats and academics during his visit to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London last week. This is the second part of the edited transcript of his remarks. The first appeared on Saturday.

US financial crisis

IN THE nature of the free market system and the way in which it operates in America - inventive minds working out derivatives, hedge funds and so on - from time to time, you're going to get this kind of a problem. You're never going to solve the boom and bust cycle.

Once you have a loss of trust and banks do not lend to each other, the system freezes up. How do you get it unfrozen? You have got to restore confidence. How do you restore confidence?

The extreme view is you do what the Chinese did - all the bad debts, nationalise, and then the banks restart. Now they got have some sound banks with foreign partners. What will that cost? Many trillions of dollars. What has Mr Hank Paulson proposed? US$700 billion (S$1 trillion). And he's having trouble with Congress. But eventually, they'll pass (a package) or they'll be blamed for big crash. Whether it will meet their situation, I don't know.

But let's say there's a complete collapse and you're back in 1929. Is that the end of the world? Have we learnt nothing from the last Great Depression? Everybody has read Charles Kindleberger (Manias, Panics And Crashes), what shouldn't be done the next time. I think (the US economy) will pick up again. But does that mean the end of all crashes? No.

Nuclear proliferation, North Korea, Iran

I NEVER believed the Chinese would get the North Koreans to give up the bomb. The North Koreans may be prepared to put the bomb in a glass box - and break (the glass) only in emergencies - provided you pay them a handsome fee. But to give up (the bomb) - no, because that's regime survival. They have seen how China abandoned them and went to South Korea because China wanted South Korean technology and investments. The North Koreans are not going to trust China.

As for Iran, it's a very dangerous game the Russians are playing. I would have thought that if ever there was fissile material in Iran, there will be fissile material in Chechnya. Mr Vladimir Putin knows that, but he believes that the Americans will do something about it, they will carry the can. So it's a game.

I do not think it is likely that Iran will stop its nuclear processing. The best solution is to get the Russians (on board and impose) really serious sanctions. But you have got to pay a price.

If you want to get the Russians on your side, was it wise to expand Nato in this aggressive fashion? I mean, are you going to war over Ukraine or Georgia?

I don't know what Saakashvili (Georgian leader) thought. He may have been cheered by whatever the Americans told him. But the hard facts should have told him (otherwise). I'd rather not say anything more because I've got some very strong views on the stupidities of leadership.

Can Singapore allow more freedom of expression?

I START off from first principles. What was it that I had to do to get this improbable country to become a country and eventually a nation? We were a disparate people, rioting against each other just a year before independence because Malay extremist forces stirred up problems.

So let's work from first principles. I have got to have a stable, peaceful society. How do I achieve that? I had strict laws against inciting racial or religious problems. At the same time, I made quite sure that everybody's treated equally. Your religion's respected.

We also got everybody mixed up in the (housing estates), no longer in enclaves. Every constituency has its quota of the less successful. Everybody has the same chances in education and we chose a neutral language - English.

Malaysia threw out English and went with Malay. The Chinese and the Indians decided to have their own schools. Now they have got a divided society.

So these are basics which you have got to get right: level playing field, meritocracy, regardless of race, language or religion. That's part of our national pledge.

Now we've arrived, why not we run a liberal democracy? Why should we? I get a clear mandate. The lowest score we ever had was 60 per cent of the electorate. Why?

Oh, because the press is controlled. The press is controlled? Everything's reported but no crusading on anything is allowed. The Internet is there. You can do what you like. But we try to prevent ourselves from being sidetracked.

Now we've got a coherent Singapore. Do we want an incoherent Singapore and have the whole thing come to bits? Think about it very carefully. At every election time, I tell them, think carefully. Next five years, do you want your homes to be worth more or less? A taxi driver, the smallest hawker, has a home worth $150,000. He's a stakeholder. You vote the wrong government in, property prices drop, you are in trouble. You produce the right government, more infrastructure, roads, underground trains, more connectivity, better environment, clean water, drains become little rivulets, you improve your asset. Why should we change that? Because the Western media and political scientists say that's wrong. Is it?

I have any number of testimonials, unsolicited, from visitors saying 'I love your place. I'm going to settle here'. Look at the people who are coming in to settle. We have in the last few years 30,000 Indian professionals who have taken up residence. We welcome them. We have (thousands of) Chinese and Indian companies. Why have they come? Because we are a liberal democracy? It is because we offer them a platform from which they can market their wares throughout South-east Asia and on to China and India. Do we want to risk that?

Ministerial salaries

OUR Law Minister (Mr K. Shanmugam) gave up a practice worth $4 million - he was a top litigator - to serve as minister for $1.2 million.

Look at who's wives are dripping with gold and diamonds. We are the poorest of all the ministers in Asean countries. Do you want that to change? Am I not worth a million dollars? I can get $100,000 to $200,000 for an appearance somewhere, to talk to a group of bankers who had brought their clients together.

At every election, (ministerial salaries) are an issue. We don't fudge this. We justify it. As long as we have clean, honest, effective government, it will hold. The day we become dishonest, ineffective, incapable, we are out.

Religious tensions cannot be allowed even to simmer in our society

Sep 29, 2008

I REFER to last Wednesday's report, 'Religious tension simmers in Indonesia'. With a predominantly Muslim population in Indonesia, the context is different from Singapore which is more multi-religious with parity between Christians and Muslims. But there is always a fear that tensions may arise when members of different religions live in proximity with one another. We cannot afford to allow such tensions to even simmer in our society. We are alerted to consider the root causes of tensions.

The report indicated: 'Without the State stepping in more forcefully, there is a limit to how much grassroots efforts at religious harmony can achieve. Christians and Muslims must know that the state will be neutral and fair in protecting their rights.'

I applaud our secular Government in its enthusiastic proactive stance in promoting inter-faith dialogue as evidenced in setting up inter-racial confidence circles and harmony circles at the grassroots level, and the Common Engagement Programme in the national level. The media has engaged the public in discussion of the topic in a responsible way. Educational institutions have encouraged study and research on inter-faith relations.

There is widespread concern about inter-faith dialogue and this is reflected in the number of comments made by the reading public on this issue in the ST Discussion Board. Consistently, responses to inter-faith issues top the list and reach around the 500 mark in each case.

However, it has been reported that religious leaders are wary of participating in inter-faith dialogue because they are unwilling to compromise on what is regarded as 'core' or fundamental beliefs in their respective faiths. There is the threat of proselytisation as well. These are certainly causes of conflict, resulting in simmering of tensions between faith communities.

At some stage in the dialogue, we have to re-examine such core beliefs in the light of new study and research and experience of living together. What is traditionally regarded as fundamentals of faith may not be as relevant in our contemporary understanding and in current interpretation of sacred texts.

Perhaps an important core belief of every faith community is that God the Creator loves and continues to be present with all people in every part of Creation. The goal is that people should live in peace with justice and in harmony with nature for our common survival as created beings on planet Earth. We are now opposed to racism, slavery, patriarchy, dictatorship, global warming and exploitation of natural resources.

Another essential core belief is that there will always be differences among people of different races, cultures and religions and we need to respect diversity. Unity is not uniformity but unity in diversity. No one religion has complete monopoly of divine truth.

Meanwhile, we are to work together in addressing common social problems as they affect us in our daily lives. They are the matters of education, food, shelter, health and welfare of our people. Here it is the level of dialogue of ordinary living every day.

Religions have the continuing role to play in helping us to cope with life, motivating us to realise our hopes and directing us to shape a harmonious society.

Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao

[I am reminded of "Imagine" by John Lennon.
I think the problem is that religious tolerance may be an oxymoron. We all openly agree that religion is based on faith. So we can say openly, you believe what you believe. And I'll believe what I believe. But, I believe my faith is true. To me, it's not just faith, it's fact. So I tolerate your beliefs, like I tolerate a child trying to put a square peg in a round hole. In order for us to exists peacefully, you and I have to agree that our faiths are just faiths, not facts. But that is the first step to weakening our respective faiths within ourselves! To admit that my faith is just faith, and may not in fact be fact or be true, is to doubt and to lose faith.

So how can faiths live and let live?]

Global ideas to cut organ wait list in Singapore

Sep 29, 2008

HEALTH Minister Khaw Boon Wan wants Singapore to follow Spain and Norway, two countries which boast very short wait lists for kidney transplants.

He is also looking at introducing the reimbursement scheme allowed in the United States and spelt out in the Declaration of Istanbul in May this year.

Spain has one of the highest cadaveric kidney transplants in the world, with no age restriction on donors. Both kidneys from older donors are given to one recipient, who is usually an elderly person too.

When a patient needs a transplant in Norway, the whole family turns up at the hospital to donate. This gives the patient a high chance of a good match.

In the US, poor donors can get up to US$6,000 (S$8,500) for travel, subsistence and related expenses. Some states allow tax deductions of up to US$10,000 for travel, lodging and lost income.

The Istanbul Declaration signed by over 150 government, medical and ethical representatives from 78 countries in May, lists what donors can ethically be reimbursed for.

They include disability, life and health insurance, dialysis should they suffer from organ failure in the future and priority access to transplant.

Reimbursing donors for the cost of surgery, lost income, travel and subsistence expenses and out-of-pocket spending such as for telephone calls, also does not constitute payment, it said.


Organ transplant law to include reimbursing donor

Sep 29, 2008

It's not unethical to pay costs incurred by donor, notes Health Minister
By Salma Khalik

CHANGES to the Human Organ Transplant Act (Hota), expected early next year, will include compensation to those who donate their kidneys to save the lives of people they do not know.

Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan said this yesterday when he sought to refine the ethical debate over organ trading to placate those who are against money changing hands for body parts.

Ethicists are against commercialisation, he noted, but even ethicists in the United States with its 'highly ethical framework' think that altruistic donors should be reimbursed.

'Ethicists have no problems with reimbursing the donor provided that...he or she is fully informed of the risks, possibility of complications and what will happen to him for the rest of his life.'

Mr Khaw, who was in Manila last week to meet organ donors, said he returned home even more convinced that something had to be done to regulate organ trading, in particular, to cut out the middlemen.

The donors he met had no clue what they were getting themselves into. 'We cannot leave this problem to the black market,' he said.

His remarks following the opening of Woodlands Polyclinic are a sea change from his earlier stance a few months ago which had seemed to preclude any kind of organ trading whatsoever.

But Mr Khaw has been shifting his stance gradually, as debate grew following a high-profile court case involving retailer Tang Wee Sung's attempt to buy a kidney from an Indonesian.

The problem is acute, with over 1,000 more people each year suffering from kidney failure and needing transplants. Last year, 46 people received a cadaveric kidney - after a wait of almost nine years.

Desperation is driving some to illegal methods, despite the risks of running foul of the law and health complications. Every year, 20 to 30 Singaporeans go abroad for an illegal kidney transplant.

Hota, which allows for cadaveric and living-related organ transplants, will be amended early next year to lift the current 60 age cap.

It will also allow for paired matching, where relatives of patients who are not good matches can donate their organs to another patient who also has a family member who is willing to donate a kidney.

The minister drew a distinction between inducement - 'You're poor, I'm rich, I'll give you $1 million for your kidney' - and reimbursement.

'I think if we stick to the reimbursement side of the equation, we'll remain ethical,' he said.

Central to Mr Khaw's plan is the welfare of the donor. The Filipinos he met had been 'short-changed', he said, with just $3,000 to $4,000 paid to them for a kidney.

But what about follow-up treatment and checkups? What if their own kidney failed? The money would scarcely see them into the future.

He said he has asked his ministry officials to compute what additional medical expenses donors might incur as a result of giving up one kidney.

'Putting a dollar value to that is not unethical,' he said, suggesting that the amount would likely be in the tens of thousands of dollars, since it has to last the donor the rest of his life.

Mr Khaw said that there will be roles for various parties. He sees hospitals taking on the job of making sure that donors know the risk they face.

The ministry will audit to ensure that there is no 'hanky-panky', and also to link donors with recipients.

Those able to afford it should reimburse the donors themselves, since they are the beneficiaries. Voluntary welfare organisations like the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) could help poorer recipients raise funds for such reimbursements.

The minister has already met with NKF officials regarding a possible role for the charity.

Mrs Eunice Tay, NKF's chief executive officer, said that details are still sketchy, but the foundation is likely to set up a fund to pay for post-operative treatments for poor donors.

Mr Khaw made it clear that this proposal is but a complement to the living related and cadaveric transplants.

But prevention or the management of diabetes is still the best safeguard. Diabetes causes over half of the almost 1,000 or so kidney failures here a year.

He said: 'Once kidneys fail, the options are all lousy, whether it is dialysis or transplant.'


Compensate donors? Not all favour the idea

Sep 29, 2008

By Salma Khalik & Lee Hui Chieh

HEALTH Minister Khaw Boon Wan's suggestion yesterday that kidney donors be reimbursed has met with mixed reactions.

Madam Halimah Yacob, head of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, felt it was too similar to organ trading for comfort.

'The line between reimbursement and sale of a kidney is very thin,' she said, arguing that the moral hazard remains.

While Mr Khaw's suggestion was 'very practical', it did not address the issues of exploitation that had been raised previously.

'Donors will still be the poor. And you won't be able to completely eradicate under- the-table transactions.'

Madam Halimah urged that more time be spent studying the idea. Trying to get such a scheme in place by next year is 'in my view, very fast', she said.

The Singapore Medical Association is also against organ trading, which is when an organ is priced by market forces, said its president, Dr Wong Chiang Yin.

It wants more details on the proposed reimbursement system before deciding if it was acceptable, he said.

'Whatever the case, the Ministry of Health will have to play a central and active role because only the Government has the mandate of the people to decide on such matters,' he added.

In contrast, eye specialist Arthur Lim, who is staunchly in the other camp, asked if reimbursement was attractive enough for donors for whom money might be vital.

He sees the problem of kidney failure increasing over the years as the population ages and diabetes becomes more common.

Professor Lim said: 'We should not be too rigid in the details. Telling them their medical needs will be looked after is not what they want.'

However, giving them money to support themselves over, say, 10 years, might work better, he said.

Associate Professor Goh Lee Gan, president of the College of Family Physicians, who has stood with Madam Halimah against organ trading, sees it as a possible 'win-win' situation for patient, donor and society.

He said it is for society to decide what road it wants to take and it is good that the subject has been widely, if sometimes heatedly, debated.

One good thing that has resulted from the recent debate on the subject is the increased awareness that donors' health should be managed.

He added: 'So long as it is fair to the donor, it is OK.'

But it should be secondary to voluntary donation from relatives, he said.

Poor donors exploited outrageously

Sep 29, 2008

ONE kidney donor who was promised 180,000 pesos (S$5,500) got only 120,000 pesos in the end.

The dealer who had made the promise was nowhere to be found after the donor gave up his kidney last year.

The predicament of this donor was typical of many others who had been short-changed after donating a kidney, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday.

Donors he met told him: 'The dealers sweet-talked us into parting with kidneys, they had no risk and pocketed the bulk of the money.'

On the sidelines of a World Health Organisation meeting last week in the Philippine capital Manila, he met eight such kidney donors from the village of Baseco.

He spoke to them to get a better understanding of why they had given up their kidneys, and how they had since been faring.

All of them were poor, had 'no clue about what they were going into', and did not get follow-up medical care after surgery.

'The situation was just bye-bye, I got your kidney and that's it, you get on with your life, we go our separate ways,' he said. 'The exploitation of the poor is...quite outrageous.'

Fortunately, all the eight he met had remained healthy, including the oldest one in his late 40s, who gave up his kidney more than 10 years ago and had gone on to add nine more children to his brood of four.

But they were all still relatively young, and faced a risk of kidney failure that would increase with age, he noted. By the time their kidneys failed, the little they had been paid earlier would typically have already been spent on a cheap house, loans to poor neighbours, or literally burnt in the sudden fires that frequently razed village homes.

'So who will reimburse them?' Mr Khaw asked.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

CREDIT COLLAPSE: 'A blessing in disguise'

THE near collapse of the financial system in the United States last week, threatening to bring down markets around the world with it, quite naturally stirred up a brouhaha from financial experts armed with perfect hindsight. However, there is one important non-financial lesson Singapore can learn from this 'once-in-a-century' crisis created and driven mainly by human greed.

Wall Street in the past decade has attracted more than its fair share of the best and brightest talent in the US to work in its financial institutions. Most of this top talent joined the party truly believing they were masters of the universe and could turn a supposedly random walk in Wall Street into a surefooted ascent to immense personal wealth. This created a stark reality where regulatory officers, who are paid a miserable fraction of those they are supposed to regulate, are not competent to cope with the complex investment derivatives churned out by these financial geniuses. These policing executives were probably awed and intellectually overwhelmed by the likes of Mr Richard Fuld.

Unfettered capitalism assumes we can allocate economic resources, especially top talent, according to market forces. But it would be very sad if all top talent was skewed away from stable careers that focus on improving productivity and quality of lives. The human world needs the best of its kind to seek cures for diseases, to seek the best inventions to slow global warming and to become inspiring leaders to eradicate war and poverty.

Singapore, especially, has to ensure that some of its best talent is in politics, government, teaching and medicine. Therefore, the Government has every right to be proactive to tweak the manpower and talent management system, and implement relevant policies if there is an anomaly in the distribution of top talent in our economy. Singapore is no US - we can easily end up in the abyss like Lehman Brothers.

So, if the financial debacle did inject a much-needed dose of realism into talented people, we can see it as a blessing in disguise. Hopefully, many of these young people, disillusioned with business models driven by fear and greed, will settle down to more concrete economic activity - to create real value in goods and services for the progress of mankind.

Dr Edmund Lam

[Two lessons: 1- create real value.  Maybe the market does need some way to spread the risk or free up funds, but at some point it becomes too confusing and unaccountable. 2- Someone or some authority needs to regulate. In order to regulate, they need to understand. In order to understand, they need to ask questions and to take time to understand. That means things can't move as fast as those genius would like it to.]

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Why Sept 16 didn't happen

Reme Ahmad
Assistant Foreign Editor
Why Sept 16 didn't happen
September 17, 2008 Wednesday, 05:22 PM
Reme Ahmad on why a takeover might never happen for Anwar.

BELOW is one scenario on why Sept 16 didn't happen for Anwar Ibrahim. And why a government takeover might never happen for him.

After the dismal press conference yesterday, Anwar's boys are saying: Let's not rule out a change of government in Malaysia yet. They are saying things will work like this: We ask the sitting Prime Minister peacefully that we have the numbers and we want to take over. He rebuffs us. The next step is to show the Malaysian King, the Agong, that Anwar has this super-secretive names and that he can take over.

The King may or may not accept the new majority leader in Parliament.

If he does, PM Abdullah Badawi, Umno, Barisan Nasional (BN) and 51 years of history will be thrown out. BN and its old incarnation, Alliance Party, has always ruled the country since independence.

If PM Abdullah, on hearing that he is about to lose power, calls on the King, too, he could ask for Parliament to be disbanded.

Then, fresh elections would be called within 60 days - November or December? Maybe January.
And the 10 million plus voters, will pick the three Pakatan Rakyat (PR) parties over BN.

And within a few months from now, Anwar will be PM.

Hold that thought, though.
The maths

On paper, PR has 82 MPs in Parliament.

In reality, 81. This is because Ibrahim Ali, a former deputy minister in a Mahathir cabinet, is the House's sole Independent.

He was sacked by Mr Abdullah for standing in a by-election against an Umno candidate, and Abdullah has said the Kelantan chieftain can never rejoin the party.

Datuk Ibrahim, Tok Him to his people in Kelantan, won the March general election on a Parti Islam SeMalaysia ticket. Even then, PAS people had told me that they expect this guy to bolt anytime, because his heart is not PAS.

Tok Him declared himself an Independent not long afterwards, with an understanding that he will be an ally of PR.

But not in recent weeks, when he got nervous to learn that the new federal government, if Anwar pulls this off, would reduce the Malay-Muslim content of government.

So Anwar is left to work with 81 MPs.

That was why he said yesterday that he had in excess of 31 BN lawmakers on his side, because 81 + 31 equals 112.
BN now has 140 MPs. If it loses 31, it will have 109 left.

Add Tok Him to this side (assuming he takes BN as an ally), BN will have 110.

Anwar would then be the majority leader.

The supposed names

But, really, who are these 31 plus turncoat lawmakers?

Just a month ago, top leaders of PR had whispered they had 42 BN MPs.

And then the number went up to 47 just weeks ago, when Anwar won in Permatang Pauh and at the height of the "immigrants", "squatters" issue.

By the now-infamous date of Sept 16 yesterday, the word is that the list has been reduced to between 34 to 36 defectors.

Among them are indeed ministers and deputy ministers.

And these are names that would shake Umno and BN should they join the other side.

Many of them are from Umno in Peninsular Malaysia and from other Peninsular parties.

And then there are names from other BN parties too. Big names.

I won't go beyond that because the howls of protest that 'this is all a lie' would be too loud.

Since there are only 140 BN lawmakers, it is not too hard to find out their names. Just ask around.

Note that the leaders who made the biggest noises about their loyalty are not necessarily the guys who are the most loyal.

But here is the problem for Anwar -- these lawmakers had only made pledges (including verbal) that they would defect.

Yes, yes, many of them had indeed met secretly with Anwar.

I know some of the places that they met too.

One place, a new hotel in Selangor, would soon feature prominently in a court case. Another is the Desa Damansara condominium.

That diary boy-coffee boy, sodomy accuser Saiful Azlan Bukhari, knows a lot more.
What are they waiting for?

These leaders who met Anwar were fed up with the weak rule of PM Abdullah, apparently, and his weak control of the party, poor handling of sensitive issues, the economy, almost the works.

So, according to PR chiefs I spoke to, these leaders would not mind at all defecting if it saves their credibility, and that of their parties.

But all these are just tentative plans.

It's like saying 'I am 70 per cent sure I will buy that Ikea furniture today. But let me walk around a bit more and think whether my old furniture should indeed be junked'.

So when Anwar or PR leaders repeated ad nauseam that "We have the numbers", they are not lying. In one sense.
It's just that they had to wait for everyone to agree to jump at the same time -- they need a trigger event like the "immigrants", "squatters" issue.

Or another big fumble by the government, like the horrible handling of the ISA arrests.

But then, an unexpected trigger event happened.

The huge spoiler to this whole Anwar scheme of events, some say, happened just under three weeks ago.

It was the announcement that former-premier-turned-blogger Dr Mahathir Mohamad, after just three months in the wilderness, had been persuaded to return to Umno.

He is even openly backing his old arch-enemy, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Ku Li to everyone in Kelantan.

And Dr Mahathir is wooing Umno vice president Muhyiddin Yassin to stand with Ku Li as Team B, to fight the Team A partners of Abdullah-Najib for the Umno December elections.

With Mahathir-Ku Li in one team, many in Umno, apparently, had decided to realign their positions vis-a-vis Anwar. For now.

Many in Umno, after fighting a losing battle with Anwar since the March general elections, are now saying: If anybody could beat Anwar, it will be his old boss Mahathir.

This was the man who raised Anwar from a young leader in Muslim group Abim, put him up on a pedestal as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, and then took Anwar with many accusations and got him thrown into jail.

And with Ku Li in the same game also - Ku Li tried to oust Mahathir as Umno president in that now legendary 1987 internal elections - gee, why should we join Anwar yet, they say.

Deputy PM Najib, when he saw this, went to see Dr Mahathir, some leaders in Pakatan say.

He was told, again, not to back Abdullah or else he might not survive the December Umno elections, if it went that far.

That was why last week he suddenly shifted his position and said the planned exit date for Abdullah, 2010, should be looked at again.

Eyes on Supreme Council meeting tomorrow?

The first test of the renewed hope in Umno that its ineffectual and weak leader, Abdullah, could be dislodged soon, is tomorrow, Thursday Sept 18.

This is when the powerful Umno Supreme Council meets.

There are some 40 Council members - from Umno ministers to state chief ministers and the leaders of the Women, Youth and Puteri (Young Women) wings.

Deputy PM Najib and vice presidents Muhyiddin and Mohd Ali Rustam, and information chief Muhammad Muhammad Taib had all indicated last week that members should be allowed to decide if Abdullah should quit earlier as Umno president.

If they found new spine in the Mahathir-Ku Li team, and push this agenda through tomorrow in that meeting room in the 38th floor of the Umno headquarters, then Abdullah will agree to quit earlier.

Anwar's "31 names" will then dissipate.

But what is likely to happen is, errrr, nothing.

Abdullah wants to stay on, and his people have told him to fight. If Abdullah loses, so will they.

The meeting will likely end, unless something unexpected happens, with Abdullah and Najib still as a team and the 2010 exit date for Abdullah intact.

But there might be an agreement to let the Umno 191 divisions - holding their annual meetings between Oct 9 and Nov 9 - pick whomever they see fit to run as president and deputy president.
And today, Abdullah moved to signal that he has strengthened Najib and thus ensure his own survival.
Abdullah has passed to Najib the powerful Finance portfolio (he took up Defence instead in a swop), and said he might resign before the agreed-upon date of 2010.

This reduces Anwar's chance to make good his promise, because it might pacify the Umno ground, now that Abdullah wants to leave earlier.

Then again, the possible Umno defectors might want to wait until Nov 9 (at the end of all the division meetings) to see if Abdullah gets enough nominations to retain his presidency.

And to see whether Ku Li gets enough nominations to stand as a contender.

If there is a Abdullah-Ku Li fight for No.1, then, again, no one will jump to PR.

Worse still for Anwar, if there is a Abdullah-Najib vs Ku Li-Muhyiddin fight. Who the hell wants to join PR then?
Everyone wants to see the outcome of this first!

They will wait until the Dec 16-20 Umno annual assembly, to see and to vote in the party elections which are held every three years.

Only if Abdullah wins, and despair spreads again in Umno by Dec 21, could Anwar hope to see mass defections.

But if Abdullah does not get enough nominations by Nov 9, or if Abdullah fights but loses to Ku Li, then Anwar's Sept 16 is indeed a mirage.

Dates to watch:
1) Oct 9 - Nov 9 -- Umno's 191 divisions hold their annual meetings, and nominate names for the president, deputy president and other top posts. Both Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh wants to run as president. Deputy PM Najib Razak wants to stand as deputy president, and the divisions might also name International Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin as deputy president.
2) Dec 16 - 20 -- Umno holds its annual meetings and its elections - held only once every three years. The 2,500 delegates attending the meeting will vote for party president (who becomes Malaysia's Prime Minister), deputy president (Deputy PM), three vice presidents and 25 Supreme Council chiefs.
The Women, Youth and Puteri (Young Women) wings will also hold their own elections.

[After all the talks, what is coming is more of the same. Mahathir and Tungku Razaleigh rising from the ashes to lead again? Old wine in older wine skins. There is no fresh blood, no fresh perspective, no new directions, just more of the same, trying to get back to business as usual. What Malaysia needs is a new deal. The problem of Malaysia is not just the Malays and Umno. For as long as Umno does not see beyond their race and their own petty needs, they cannot lead their country to greatness. Partisan politics cannot forge a nation, it just institutionalises fault lines.]

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Crisis will worsen: Soros

Sep 17, 2008

LONDON - US FINANCIER George Soros warned in a television interview Tuesday that the turmoil in the financial markets was far from over, with Britain likely to be the economy most badly hit by the crisis.

As Wall Street braced for the potential collapse of insurance giant AIG, the hedge fund pioneer told the BBC that the wisdom of letting Lehman Brothers go to the wall at the weekend would only be revealed with hindsight.

'I'm afraid we are not through it at all - in some ways we are still heading into the storm rather than heading out of it,' he said.

Asked whether the US government should have rescued Lehman investment bank, he said: 'If the financial system survives then it was the right thing to do to let them go bust. If there is a meltdown then obviously it wasn't.'

'Saving the system trumps moral hazard. In the end you do whatever it takes to save the system,' he added.

However, he said the way US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was handling the situation was 'very reminiscent of the way the central bankers talked in the 1930s', the time of the Great Depression.

Mr Soros said Britain's reliance on the financial industry make it especially vulnerable.

'The financial industry is a major segment of the British economy and that's why I think Britain is more heavily hit by this financial crisis than most other economies,' he said.

More generally, he warned finance had 'grown too big, it has taken up too big a share of the world's resources. Now it is shaking and I think when it becomes once again regulated it will be less profitable'. -- AFP

[The last para is sooo true.]

Monday, September 15, 2008

HK, S'pore have top judiciary

Sep 14, 2008

REGIONAL financial centres Hong Kong and Singapore have the best judicial systems in Asia, with Indonesia and Vietnam the worst, a survey of expatriate business executives showed.

The judiciary 'is one of Indonesia's weakest and most controversial institutions, and many consider the poor enforcement of laws to be the country's number one problem,' said the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC).

Some court rulings in Indonesia have been 'so controversial that they have seriously hurt confidence of foreign companies,' said PERC, without giving specific examples.

In the PERC survey, Hong Kong's judicial system topped the vote with a score of 1.45 on a scale that has zero representing the best performance and 10 the worst.

Regional rival Singapore was in second place with a grade of 1.92, followed by Japan (3.50), South Korea (4.62), Taiwan (4.93) and the Philippines (6.10).

Malaysia was in seventh place with a grade of 6.47, followed by India (6.50), Thailand (7.00) and China (7.25). Indonesia got the worst score of 8.26 after Vietnam's 8.10.

The Hong Kong-based consultancy said 1,537 corporate executives working in Asia were asked to rate the judicial systems in the countries where they reside, using such variables as the protection of intellectual property rights (IPR) and corruption.

Transparency, enforcement of laws, freedom from political interference and the experience and educational standards of lawyers and judges were also considered.

'Year after year our perception surveys show a close correlation between how expatriates rate judicial systems and how they rate the openness of a particular economy,' PERC said.

'Better judicial systems are associated with better IPR protection, lower corruption and wealthier economies.'

The less favourable perception of China's and Vietnam's judicial systems are rooted in political interference, PERC said, adding that the Communist Party 'is above the law in both countries.' Despite India and the Philippines being democracies, expatriates did not look favourably on their judicial systems because of corruption, PERC added.

Malaysia's judicial system has suffered a 'serious reputation damage due to political interference,' while expatriates in Thailand 'have serious doubts' that moves to expand the judiciary's powers will be good for the country, it said.

PERC noted the survey involved expatriate business executives, not political activists, so criteria like contracts and IPR protection were given more weight.

'This bias is possibly most obvious in Singapore,' it said, noting that the city-state's top rating in the survey is not shared by political activists, who have criticised the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) for using the judiciary to silence critics.

'In Singapore, the general perception of expatriates is that local politics has not compromised the way commercial and criminal law is conducted,' PERC said. -- AFP

[Democracies can be undermined by corruption.]

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

M'sia deals with racism - Official to be punished

Sep 9, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR - MALAYSIA'S prime minister says the ruling party will punish a senior official who made racist remarks against the minority Chinese and Indians.

The minorities were stunned by Ahmad Ismail's recent remarks, which increased racial friction in this multiethnic country and deepened divisions in the embattled National Front ruling coalition.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad says Ahmad's comments have 'stirred anger and restlessness among the people.' He told reporters Tuesday that the coalition's leaders 'want swift and firm action to be taken' against Ahmad.

He says the punishment will be decided on Wednesday by a meeting of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the main component in the National Front to which Ahmad belongs.

The row has highlighted tensions between majority Muslim Malays and the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities who say they are threatened by rising 'Islamisation' in Malaysia.

It has triggered criticism of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for failing to quell nationalist voices within his United Malays National Organisation (Umno) which leads the coalition of race-based parties.

Ahmad Ismail, an Umno leader from northern Penang state, sparked the row by reportedly describing ethnic Chinese as 'lodgers', forcing deputy premier Najib Razak to issue an apology.

Mr Ahmad escalated the situation with an outburst on Monday in which he made veiled threats, among other things, towards the Chinese community - a taboo in a country that has seen bloody racial riots in the past.

'The patience of the Malays and Muslims has a limit. Do not push us to the wall, as when we turn back we will be forced to push the Chinese in the interests of our own survival,' he told a press conference.

Malays are dominant in politics in Malaysia, while ethnic Chinese are prominent in business.

Mr Abdullah said he was 'utterly unhappy' with the comments and would take 'stern action', according to the state Bernama news agency.

Mr Ahmad was defiant as he left a meeting with the premier, saying that Malays were 'frustrated' as leaders tried to appease all the racial groups, and that Malay 'dignity' was at stake.

'Half the Chinese say I'm a racist but most Malays say I'm a nationalist defending my race,' he told reporters.

'What I see now is a rise of the Malay people, and I feel we should capitalise on the strength, the support we get from the Malay people... I know they are with me,' he added.

The row has erupted as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim attempts to woo the support of enough coalition lawmakers to topple the government.

In March, elections he won a third of parliamentary seats, in the most serious challenge ever faced the coalition which has ruled for half a century, and which has struggled to respond to the resurgent opposition.

Anwar's Keadilan party is the first pan-racial party in Malaysian political history, and he has promised to dismantle positive discrimination policies for Malays in favour of a program to benefit the poor of all races. -- AFP

Monday, September 8, 2008

Quest for secrets of Universe

Sep 8, 2008

PARIS - PARTICLE physicists believe they will throw open a new frontier of knowledge on Wednesday when, 100 metres below ground, they switch on a mega-machine crafted to unveil the deepest mysteries of matter.

The most complex scientific experiment ever undertaken, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will accelerate sub-atomic particles to nearly the speed of light and then smash them together, with the aim of filling gaps in our understanding of the cosmos.

It may also determine the outcome of novel theories about space-time: does another dimension - or dimensions - exist in parallel to our own? After nearly two decades and six billion Swiss francs (S$7.6 billion), an army of 5,000 scientists, engineers and technicians drawn from nearly three dozen countries have brought the mammoth project close to fruition.

At 9.30am (3.30pm Singapore time) on Wednesday, the first protons will be injected into a 27km ring-shaped tunnel, straddling the Swiss-French border at the headquarters of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Whizzed to within a millionth of a percent of the speed of the light, the particles will be the first step in a long-term experiment to smash sub-atomic components together, briefly generating temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the Sun in a microscopic space.

Analysts will then pore over the wreckage in the search for fundamental particles.

'We will be entering into a new territory of physics,' said Mr Peter Jenni, spokesman for Atlas - one of four gargantuan laboratories installed on the ring where a swathe of delicate detectors will spot the collisions.

'Wednesday is a very major milestone.'

The LHC is massively-muscled machine compared to its CERN predecessor, the Large Electron-Positron (LEP) collider, and an ageing accelerator at the legendary Fermilab in Illinois.

It has the power to smash protons or ions - particles known as hadrons - together at a whopping 14 teraelectron volts (TeV), seven times the record held by Fermilab's Tevatron.

The leviathan scale of the project is neatly juxtaposed by its goal, which is to explore the infinitely small.

Physicists have long puzzled over how particles acquire mass.

In 1964, a British physicist, Peter Higgs, came up with this idea: there must exist a background field that would act rather like treacle.

Particles passing through it would acquire mass by being dragged through a mediator, which theoreticians dubbed the Higgs Boson.

The standard quip about the Higgs is that it is the 'God Particle' - it is everywhere but remains frustratingly elusive.

French physicist Yves Sacquin says that heroic work by the LEP and Fermilab has narrowed down the energy range at which the devious critter is likely to spotted.

Given the LHC's capabilities, 'there's a very strong probability that it will be detected,' he said.

Some experts are also hopeful about an early LHC breakthrough on the question of supersymmetry.

The supersymmetry theory goes way beyond even the Higgs. It postulates that particles in the Standard Model have related, but more massive, counterparts.

Such particles could explain the unsettling discovery of recent years that visible matter only accounts for some four percent of the Universe. Enigmatic phenomena called dark matter and dark energy account for the rest.

CERN Director General Robert Aymar is confident the massive experiment will yield a correspondingly big breakthrough in penetrating these mysteries.

'It is certain that the LHC will yield the identity and understanding of this dark matter,' he said in a video statement.

CERN has had to launch a PR campaign aimed at reassuring the public that the LHC will not create black holes that could engulf the planet or an unpleasant hypothetical particle called a strangelet that would turn the Earth into a lump of goo.

It has commissioned a panel to verify its calculations that such risks are, by any reasonable thinking, impossible, and France too has carried out its own safety probe.

Either way, the end of the world will not happen on Wednesday, for the simple reason that the LHC will not generate any collisions that day.

These will probably be initiated 'in a few weeks' as part of a phased programme to commission the LHC, testing its equipment and evaluating work procedures before cranking it up to full strength, said Mr Jenni.

Looking at the daily mountain of data that will have to be analysed, 'it will take weeks or months before one can really hope to start discovering something new,' he cautioned.

'The LHC is more than a machine. It is the intellectual quest of our age,' the British weekly New Scientist said in this week's issue.

'With luck... today's physics textbooks will start to look out of date by the end of 2009.' -- AFP

[Well, if they calculated wrongly, the world will cease to exist sometime after 3.30 pm on Wed.]

'Illegitimate' baby boost: A view from England

Sep 8, 2008

HERE I am in England nursing some painful cold symptoms and with a business suffering from the credit crunch, yet I feel the need to respond to Dr Andy Ho's article last Thursday advocating illegitimate babies to enhance fertility in Singapore ('The (illegitimate) way to more babies').

Perhaps if Dr Ho lived in Britain (as I do) and paid British taxes (as I do) to fund the feckless and irresponsible lifestyles of young and older mothers who have children out of wedlock by multiple partners, his article might not have seen the light of day.

I am a volunteer - at the coalface, if one may call it that - at a parent-and-toddler group in the local community. Here, I meet all sorts of parents and carers of young children.

Although a child outside wedlock has lost its stigma, such children still grow up with many emotional issues resulting from living in single-parent or 'reconstituted' families.

While the British government gives generous financial support to young parents (for example, free childcare while they continue with an education), many of these young people simply 'play the system' with no intention of coming off welfare. It is too easy to fall into that rut.

Statistics may show a 'healthier' fecundity rate.

The crime rate, drug-abuse rate, alcohol-abuse rate, school drop-out rate, teenage mother rate and the number who are 'unemployable' (as opposed to 'unemployed') together paint a very different picture.

Please, let us not replace one set of problems with another.

Dr Lee Siew Peng
Middlesex, England

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Party mum blames son, 6, after toddler dies

Sep 4, 2008

SAITAMA (Japan): A mother was sentenced to six years in prison yesterday for the death of one of her two-year-old twins and the severe dehydration of the other. She had left them in the care of their six-year-old stepbrother while she partied with her boyfriend.

Megumi Shimamura, 30, of Misato, Saitama Prefecture, blamed her son for the death of his brother in her 11-day absence, according to the Saitama District Court, the Asahi Shimbun reported.

Judge Yujiro Nakatani chided Shimamura, saying 'such a heartless and inhumane crime makes one doubt (your) self-awareness, affection and humanity as a parent'.

Shimamura, who is unemployed, left her house on March 3 because she wanted a break from child-rearing and to hang out with her boyfriend, according to the Asahi.

Her mother apparently gave Shimamura the money she needed to keep herself and her three young children alive, the Mainichi Shimbun reported.

Shimamura reportedly told her six-year-old son: 'I will not return so take care of things.'

He called Shimamura's mobile phone several dozen times a day but was largely ignored, the Asahi said.

Shimamura left hamburgers, bread, cookies and other food at the entrance of the house once or twice a day.

But the food was not enough for the three children, according to the court.

On March 12, the six-year-old called Shimamura to say his brother would not wake up.

She returned to the house but did not have the courage to enter it. Instead, she went to a pub and got drunk.

The next day, her son called her again, saying: 'He still won't wake up.'

On March 14, Shimamura returned home and found the two-year-old boy dead in a crib covered in garbage and faeces, Asahi reported.

She slapped the older boy's face and said: 'You are disqualified as my child. Though I'm responsible, you are also responsible. You must have eaten all the food by yourself.'

The two-year-old starved to death on March 12, according to the court.

The six-year-old told prosecutors: 'Mum told me I was fired because I didn't take care of the twins. It's all my fault.'


$424m offer for his firm, but inventor-doc says no

Sep 4, 2008

Singapore creator of sought-after blood pressure device aims to take company further

By Salma Khalik

MUNICH: A Singapore doctor-cum-inventor of medical gadgets is being courted by pharmaceutical giants at the ongoing European Society of Cardiology Congress.

These big boys are keen on buying over his HealthStats International company because of his invention - a watch-sized blood pressure monitor that takes readings of the wearer's central aorta, the largest artery in the body.

The companies would like control of his company and its product because the United States Food and Drug Administration has told them that it would fast-track the approval of their new hypertension drugs if these medicines can be proven to improve blood flow in the aorta.

But general practitioner Ting Choon Meng is not biting at offers of US$300 million (S$424 million) to buy his company, which makes the BPro gadget.

'I'm not selling. I want to develop it further,' he said of his company, which already has 10 patented medical devices.

The patented BPro has drawn good reviews. It is the only non-invasive device that takes readings of blood pressure in the central aorta. This has been proven in several trials to be a much better indication of how well the heart and brain are working because the readings are taken from nearer the heart, the seat of the hypertensive patient's problem.

Conventional blood pressure readings taken from the arm measure blood pressure in a blood vessel in the arm.

There are other devices that can take readings of blood pressure in the central aorta, but BPro is the only one that is non-invasive and easy to use.

The 3,000 euro (S$6,260) watch-like device, besides being a highlight at Dr Ting's booth, is also enjoying a high profile at the huge booths of pharmaceutical big boys Servier and Novartis.

HealthStats staff there are using it to measure visitors' central aorta blood pressure to show the 23,000 cardiologists at the five-day meeting that having a 'healthy' blood pressure from conventional readings might be deceptive.

What is more important is having an 'elastic' aorta - and it is the degree of this elasticity which BPro measures.

Servier and Novartis have drugs that promise to improve the pressure in the central aorta.

Dr Ting said BPro is being used by drug companies during clinical trials on their drugs' efficacy, as well as by doctors on patients. BPro can do both a spot measurement as well as track pressure readings over 24 hours.

Professor Bryan Williams of the University of Leicester, a fan of the device, is best known for showing why two drugs that claim to lower blood pressure can have different benefits.

In his study, more than 2,000 patients were split into two groups, with each given one type of drug.

One group fared significantly better than the other, although both had their blood pressure brought down to similar levels.

Prof Williams explained: 'Drugs we use to lower blood pressure have very different effects on the cardiovascular system. These effects cannot always be appreciated from the simple measurement of blood pressure.'

After having used more complicated and invasive methods to measure the pressure in the central aorta for his clinical trial, he sees the convenience of using BPro.

Dr Ting said he is on the verge of signing agreements for BPro to be used in three major clinical trials. He is also in talks with two other large drug companies which are planning trials for their drugs.

The Singapore doctor has just completed two small trials in the United States involving 60 patients, a project that earned him US$300,000.

That was an early trial for a new cancer drug. The company wanted to be sure that its drug had no adverse effects on the central aorta before pouring more money into large trials to test its cancer-fighting abilities.

For Dr Ting, the offers he is getting are attractive. But even more alluring is his success, which has given him ample funds to chase his dream - inventing more devices to improve patient care.

This was how his HealthStats International came to be. He had set out to find out why some of his hypertension patients were faring better, though they appeared no different from others on paper.

The rest is history.


The (illegitimate) way to more babies

Sep 4, 2008

Conservative Italy and liberal Britain provide lessons for Singapore

By Andy Ho

MORE births are being registered here without the babies' fathers being named. There were 481 such cases in 2005, 495 in 2006 and 561 last year, accounting for 1.28, 1.29, and 1.42 per cent of all live births here in those years.

But despite a dearth of babies, Government policies do not support such births.

For example, unwed single mothers are not entitled to Baby Bonus benefits, nor can they get a new HDB flat.

Inheritance laws, which bandy about the term 'illegitimate' without defining it, discriminate against these offspring.

One might have thought that babies are babies and the authorities would welcome them no matter how they came into being, especially since fewer young people are getting married.

In 1997, 20,633 young men aged 20 to 34 got married for the first time; last year, only 16,765 did. The corresponding figures for women were 22,527 and 19,999 respectively.

Moreover, people are getting married later, so they tend to be less fertile. Last year, the median ages of those who married for the first time were 29.8 years for grooms and 27.2 years for brides.

Back in 1997, the figures stood at 28.4 years and 25.7 years respectively. And way back in 1977, they were 27.3 years and 24.2 years.

In the old days, men were the breadwinners while women were valued for their domestic skills and child-bearing capacities. The family was the main source of social support, especially for women.

Thus, the norms then favoured earlier marriages and more babies. Young people generally married earlier and were more willing to partner spouses they might have regarded as less than ideal, for the family was the primary source of social support.

Today, however, these norms have weakened. People marry later - or stay single. One reason is that nowadays a combination of state, market and welfare institutions provides the kind of social support that the family used to.

Women work and can provide for themselves, employers provide health-care coverage, there are state-run schemes like CPF and Workfare, charities care for the elderly or destitute, and so on.

Once crucial to one's golden years, children are no longer necessary to take care of the retired.

In sum, marriage has become a less crucial institution, which is why divorces in the early years after marriage have also risen. The social structures that supported it have become considerably attenuated.

And here is the rub: Since these trends - late marriages, rising divorce rate, fewer children - are largely due to changes in the social structure, it is going to be very difficult to reverse them without also altering the social structures that gave rise to them in the first place.

And since those social changes are directly traceable, in the main, to state initiatives, there is going to be no easy solution to the problem of falling fertility rates that the Government can crank out.

After all, no government is going to transform wholesale the very institutions and policies that it believes have resulted in social stability.

For example, the Government cannot possibly suggest that women should now refrain from entering the labour force and, instead, stay at home to have more babies. At any rate, the structure of the economy as it exists now will not permit that.

Thus the Government can do little more than tweak the birth rate with Baby Bonuses, longer maternity leave, token paternity leave, co-payments for in-vitro fertilisation, tax rebates for more children, and the like.

In sum, if the baby dearth is the outcome of seemingly irreversible structural changes in society, the problem may well be an intractable one.

Still, whether to couple up with someone of the opposite sex remains a decision that pivots on what one wants to get out of the relationship - love, companionship, even children.

For some couples, being legally married is not necessary in order to gain any of these benefits

If more children are born out of wedlock, Singapore will have more babies. In fact, that is why the Britain's fertility rate has stayed around 1.7 since 1995 whereas Italy's is a paltry 1.2.

In a University of Pisa study this May, Italian economists noted that Britain's illegitimacy rate, which had been a stable 5 per cent for more than a century since 1845, first began to rise after 1960.

In tandem with that rise, the age of first marriages and the numbers of cohabiting couples in Britain also began to grow after 1960. By 2004, some 42 per cent of British babies were born out of wedlock.

Later first marriages also plague Italy. However, because the Catholic Church still plays a vital role in Italian culture, cohabitation and illegitimacy are frowned upon.

In 2004, only 14 per cent of Italian babies were born out of wedlock.

Crucially, while Britain affords its single mothers adequate public resources, Italy does not. Their differing fertility rates can clearly be construed as rational responses on the part of their respective citizenries to public policy.

In Singapore's case, even if its Government wished to go the British way and provide support to unwed mothers, it would have to contend with the conservative majority in the electorate.

On this matter, the Government is likely to remain pinched between a rock and a hard place for a very long time.


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Anwar: A third alternative?

Sep 3, 2008

By K Kesavapany

THE attention given to the Permatang Pauh by-election held on Aug 26 stretched far beyond the borders of the small constituency. Not only were Malaysians transfixed by the contest, foreign journalists too waited for every titbit of information coming out of rural Penang.

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the country's former deputy prime minister, returned to Parliament after an absence of 10 years. He was deposed in 1998 and jailed for abuse of power. Now the leader of a formidable coalition of opposition parties, he is trying his best to topple the government.

The challenge the government faces, however, is much more than a contest between individual Malay leaders. In losing control over four more states apart from Kelantan in the general election of March 8, as well as its two-third majority in Parliament, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) suffered a blow from which it cannot recover easily, if at all.

Its component parties lost badly. Some of them - such as Parti Gerakan Rakyat, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and the People's Progressive Party - were practically wiped out. This upsets the basic rationale of the BN, for its race-based parties claims to represent all the races of Malaysia. The Indian community, for example, is no longer properly represented within the ruling coalition.

The BN's dominant United Malays National Organisation (Umno) now looks very much like a regional party, firmly entrenched only in the south of peninsular Malaysia. The coalition is now critically dependent on support from across the South China Sea, in Sabah and Sarawak.

The challenge facing the BN is therefore systemic. Not only is the coalition in trouble, Umno has to revamp its image as the champion of Malay rights. Perhaps the federation's current configuration will have to be reconsidered. More critically, Umno has to deal with the disintegration of the concept of Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy.

Umno came into being to defend Malay interests. These interests were initially articulated as 'the special position of Malays' and later 'Malay rights'. As a tactical move during the 1960s, 'Bumiputera rights' became the key term. As Umno grew in political prominence after 1969, its policy perspectives converged around the controversial concept of Ketuanan Melayu.

Fundamental weaknesses in the BN system became undeniable at the time of the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis. These were reflected in the Reformasi movement and in the 1998 fallout between Mr Anwar and his mentor-turned-nemesis, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed.

Paradoxically, Dr Mahathir, the Malay champion, had brought Mr Anwar into his government in 1982 because of the latter's religious credentials. The then prime minister was responding tactically to the rising religiosity of ethnic Malays. The Malay champion thus restyled his administration as a champion of Malay-Muslims interests. He succeeded well in this - perhaps too well for his own good.

Sixteen years down the road, when the two men fell out, it was the Malay-Muslim Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) that harvested the immediate benefits. Ketuanan Islam - Muslim supremacy - threatened to overshadow Ketuanan Melayu.

Another crucial development of 1998 was the coming into being of what later became Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Mr Anwar's party. It remained small but stubborn under the leadership of his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, at least until March 8. That day, the number of its MPs jumped from one to an impressive 31, making it the largest opposition party in Parliament.

What makes PKR different from both Umno and PAS is that although its top leadership consists of Malays, its second-rank leaders, its members and its supporters include people of all races. Just as interestingly, most of its Malay supporters are educated urbanites.

And so, over the last decade, what we have seen is a dramatic shift among Malays. The community now has a diversity of political perspectives and development agendas.

Among non-Malays, there was no great shift among the Chinese before March 8. Indian voters had generally been loyal to the MIC, and so when they chose to show their dissatisfaction with the system, it had a dramatic effect. On Nov 25 last year, at least 30,000 Malaysian Indians took to the streets in Kuala Lumpur to protest against what they saw as the systematic alienation of their community under the BN government.

Mr Anwar's achievement over the last two years lies in how he was able to project himself as the embodiment of a viable alternative to the BN. He was able to bridge the gap between the social democratic and multiracial Democratic Action Party, and the Islamic PAS. Following the success of the electoral strategy that the three parties forged, they quickly established the Pakatan Rakyat as an alternative to the BN.

The opposition coalition faces many problems. But to the extent that its component parties view the BN as their common enemy, there is a strong likelihood that they will remain united. Their test will come when and if Pakatan takes over the federal government.

In summary, by returning to Parliament with a convincing personal victory, Mr Anwar now properly represents a third alternative to Ketuanan Melayu and Ketuanan Islam. Although the PKR's ideology is commonly described as 'multiracialism', it would be more accurate to describe it as a form of pluralism that still requires Malay leadership.

Perhaps Ketuanan Bangsa Malaysia would be an apt term to describe this third alternative.

Compromises in the immediate future among these three approaches - Ketuanan Melayu, Ketuanan Islam and Ketuanan Bangsa Malaysia - will decide Malaysia's long-term future.

The writer is director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore's tertiary and research institutions.

Man defends himself, wins rare acquittal

Man defends himself, wins rare acquittal
China worker accused of assault walks free after pleading self-defence
By K.C.Vijayan, Law Correspondent
IT IS rare for someone accused of a crime to represent himself at a trial.

It is even rarer for him to win.

But a lowly educated China national accused of assault did just that recently.

Construction worker Tan Zun Yong, 33, held his own against Assistant Deputy Public Prosecutor Christine Liu at the trial and was acquitted by a judge in June.

The prosecution initially appealed but decided to drop the appeal two weeks ago after District Judge Loo Ngan Chor released his written judgment on July 31 explaining his decision.

Mr Tan had been accused of using a hammer to hit the left hand of co-worker Cui Yong Meng, 35, following a worksite scuffle last December.

The two men were having a quarrel at the worksite at a building in St Martin's Road near Mohamed Sultan Road.

Mr Cui was said to have pushed Mr Tan who fell down. He was about to hit Mr Tan when the latter raised the hammer which blocked Mr Cui's left hand and caused the fracture.

In the days that followed, Mr Cui demanded between $8,000 and $10,000 in compensation for the injury. Mr Cui filed a police report when Mr Tan could not afford the sum.

The offence Mr Tan was charged with - voluntarily causing grievous hurt - carries a jail term of up to seven years and a fine or caning.

The prosecution had offered to reduce the charge to causing hurt, presumably if Mr Tan agreed to plead guilty, but he refused to do so and claimed trial.

At the trial, prosecutors produced five witnesses, including a doctor, to prove the case against Mr Tan and offered him one witness in his defence whom he accepted.

The case turned on the evidence and demeanour of the witnesses. The judge, citing Shakespeare's 'there is no art to tell the mind's construction in the face', said there was little to suggest any inconsistency in the evidence of either side.

But Judge Loo noted a major difference when Mr Cui and two others suggested Mr Tan had brought the hammer with him to the incident site while Mr Tan and another witness denied this and countered that it was already there.

The judge went with Mr Tan's version, saying the hammer was a workman's tool and not meant to hit Mr Cui.

Mr Tan pleaded self-defence which 'to his credit' he had very clearly set out early in the trial, said Judge Loo.

When asked by the judge why he should believe him, Mr Tan said he had spent a lot of money to come to Singapore. He did not want to blow up the matter and had looked for their supervisor after the first incident in the hope that Mr Cui would not argue any more.

Instead Mr Cui became angry and consequently, the second scuffle took place.

Judge Loo described Mr Tan as someone of 'some subtlety, straightforwardness' and he seemed like someone 'not given to casting aspersions on the prosecution witnesses even as he had been trying to extricate himself from this bind'.

He also noted Mr Tan had 'the courage of his convictions' by declining the prosecution's offer of a lower charge.

When cross-examined by Mr Tan, Mr Cui had also agreed his attacker had used the hammer in self-defence.

Mr Tan had also cross-examined the doctor who conceded it was possible the blow could have occurred in the course of self-defence.

Lawyers said it was rare for accused persons to defend themselves in a trial.

Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore president Subhas Anandan said from experience he is seeing more cases now where accused persons had opted to defend themselves for various reasons.

'But acquittals are rare in criminal cases and rarer still where the accused is defending himself,' he said.

Criminal lawyer Amolat Singh said the basic premise for an accused person to assume is that 'you are your own worst lawyer'. 'But sometimes, the nature of the case is such that the accused knows the case best and the lawyer is not as intimately aware of the case as the accused.'

Mr Amolat added that where the cases are largely fact-based and no points of law are involved, there is little difficulty for the accused person to put forward his case and the judge also helps clarify matters where he is unclear.

'This (Mr Tan's case) is justice at its best. If you have a compelling story, you can go to court and put forward your strongest case,' said Mr Amolat.


[Justice at its best indeed. Cheers to Mr Tan.]

The end of the 'all-white' pill

Sep 3, 2008

By Chang Ai-Lien, Science Correspondent

PILLS may come in many colours, but they remain stubbornly white inside.

Until recently, drugs were tested mainly on Caucasian populations, although they are used by patients of every skin colour. Doctors now know that racial differences and their underlying genetic variants can play a critical role in how, or even if, medicines work.

Studies have found, for example, that African-Americans respond poorly to some of the main drugs used to treat heart conditions like beta blockers and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors.

In Singapore, researchers at the National University Hospital (NUH) have found that Indians need different doses of the blood-thinning drug warfarin compared to Chinese and Malays.

The dominance of the all-white pill began to erode about a decade ago. In tandem with the rise of China and India, drug companies turned to trials involving ethnically-diverse populations.

Singapore is playing a pivotal role in this particular transformation of medicine. The NUH study was the first definitive data from non-white patients on the relevance of genetics to warfarin response.

Based partly on that work, the United States Food and Drug Administration made it compulsory to state on warfarin labels that genetic variations could influence how people responded to the drug.

But race as such is old hat. The field of pharmacogenomics goes beyond race. NUH, for instance, is now testing out a formula which calculates precisely how much warfarin patients might need, depending on their genetic make-up, weight and age. Ethnicity is just one factor in the equation.

If it succeeds, this research will have an immediate impact on health care worldwide. It would be a great leap in medicine when treatment can be customised precisely to the individual.

Ethnic diversity, it turns out, provides just a glimpse into a medical future that will rely on the three billion chemical letters that spell out the unique recipe for each individual. The results of a comparison between the genomes of two white men bear this out.

On Aug 19, Nobel laureate James Watson - the co-discoverer of the DNA's structure - and the equally famous Craig Venter who spurred the race to decode the human genome, had their own genomes decoded.

The result: out of six genes known to play key roles in metabolising medicine, Watson and Venter had three which were identical and three which showed variations that could result in different reactions to several common drugs. Their genomes disclosed information that a cursory look at their physical appearance - skin colour - could not.

Professor Watson, for instance, had a mutation in a drug-metabolising gene rare for a Caucasian; it was more likely to be found in an Asian. The mutation meant that pain relievers such as codeine would not work as well on him as on Dr Venter, nor would antipsychotic drugs and certain antidepressants.

Such personalised information will one day render tests based on ethnicity obsolete. But since mapping a genome currently costs about $500,000, race will have to do for now.

Still, the gauntlet has been thrown down: map a person's genome within a week, for less than US$1,000 (S$1,430); develop a test that would be fast and cheap and available to most people. Researchers from the Genome Institute of Singapore, the Institute of Microelectronics and Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology have joined an international race to do just that.

When it happens - and experts are predicting it will within a decade - medical treatment based on such information will come with its own set of ethical issues, not least the problems of safeguarding personal genetic information.

But when it happens, hundreds of thousands of lives will be saved just by calibrating the dosage levels of various medication to take account of genetic variations. And as the science advances, people will be pooled according to how their genes would react to, say, a type of heart medication or a specific cancer drug.

Then, race truly won't matter.

Babies: Quietly does it

Sep 3, 2008

To encourage more births, the less talk the better, studies show

By Susan Long

A FRIEND of mine is expecting her third child. Every time she mentions that she's expecting No. 3, she gets two predictable responses: 'Thanks for doing my share' or 'Was it planned or an accident?'

It shows just how sharply social norms have shifted here such that most Singaporeans cannot conceive of having more than one or at most two children.

And unfortunately, every time the Government brings up the tumbling Total Fertility Rate (TFR) and forms yet another high-powered national committee to tackle the problem, it reinforces the normalcy of having no kids or just one.

By lamenting that the TFR is well below two, it ends up furnishing more social proof that this is the new norm. And it unwittingly shapes social norms in exactly the wrong direction.

Social psychologists say that the last thing governments should do if they want to change behaviour is to jaw on about how it has become more prevalent.

For example, one of the last things the authorities in the United States should do to increase voter turnout is to lament how few people go to the polls any more. And instead of increasing compliance, telling people not to litter may in fact induce more littering than telling people nothing at all.

So, if the Government wants to see more babies, perhaps the best thing it can do is: Stop talking about it.

Going forward, with an increasingly sophisticated populace, the nanny state has its work cut out for it. Subtlety has never been its strong suit.

But it needs to cut its apron strings in bedroom matters, step back and let its policies and provisions do the talking instead - the same way it has for boardroom matters with a lighter financial regulatory touch.

It could for example let burgeoning civil society groups like I Love Children, aLife, Focus On the Family and Centre for Fathering lead the pro-family discourse in Singapore.

That does not relegate the Government to a retiring role. Just that instead of direct and didactic state intervention, it should serve as behind-the-scenes enabler - actively identifying needs, marshalling resources, building pro-family infrastructure and helping where help is needed, for example by increasing infant care and flexiwork options.

There are good reasons why the Government should let its actions speak louder than words, chief of which is that it is possibly its own worst advocate in this matter.

Its vacillating track record in fertility policy and sharp about-turns over the past four decades have led to mixed messaging and much cynicism.

In the record time of a decade, the Government achieved a replacement rate TFR through a 'market approach' of financial incentives and disincentives by 1975. Slogans like 'Small families have more to eat' and 'We have attained a high standard of living. Let's keep it' reduced the emotional matter of procreation to a hard-nosed economic calculation.

By the mid-80s, when it tried to reverse the falling TFR among higher-income families, it found that the cost-benefit framework of looking at family size - reinforced by economic development and social changes - was ineradicable.

In 1984, its Graduate Mother policy, to encourage better-educated women to produce more children by giving their children preference in primary school admission, caused such a groundswell of unhappiness that it was withdrawn 15 months later. That was followed by similarly tactless campaigns to prod people to have more children by instilling the fear of a lonely dotage.

All these fumbling efforts stuck in people's minds. They reinforce an unspoken ideology of elitism, pessimism and economic conservatism, instead of a sense of security, optimism and confidence - the very qualities needed to encourage a population to replace itself. Because with such a bleak world view, why bother to replace oneself?

To stoke the Singapore stork, the state needs to shift away from the rhetoric of competitiveness, much as it sees it as its key developmental struggle.

It must desist from speeches on how Singapore needs to increase its population from the current 4.5 million to 6.5 million by 2050, or else risk slower growth, a smaller economy and being overtaken by much larger neighbours.

Conversely, it needs to stop using financial incentives as its main policy tool in getting people to have more children. Even today, the main incentive is called an Enhanced Baby Bonus - which connotes a payment for a task performed.

It needs to get far away from the cost-benefit arguments of having children, which it cannot rationally hope to win.

So what's there left to say?

Not a whole lot.

But a useful reference here is the taciturn Nordic countries, which have the most enviable fertility rates and most generous pro-natal provisions in the developed world today.

Despite that, they have no explicit population policies. Their leaders assiduously refrain from public exhortations to go forth and multiply.

The Nordic countries' silent and supportive policy approach is to work diligently at providing a cosy bassinet of pro-natal benefits, packaged plainly as parent and child support measures, then leave people alone to decide how they want to live.

People do not feel they are being forced, but think they have decided what to do on their own, although their decisions are really enabled - and guided - by the government.

Quietly, as these countries show, does it.