Monday, April 27, 2009

Aware saga: A new militancy emerges

April 25, 2009

Tolerance is critical in the public sphere in a multi-religious society

By Chua Mui Hoong

THE battle lines have been drawn. And it is not just between Aware's new executive committee and its old guard.

The leading women's advocacy group saw a stunning leadership change when newcomers captured nine of 12 executive committee posts at the group's annual general meeting on March 28. Older members questioned their motives as well as the sudden influx of new members who joined Aware just months before the AGM.

Four members of the new exco held a press conference on Thursday evening. At the same time as the press conference was proceeding at Raffles Town Club, an exco meeting was called at Aware's Dover Road premises. The new team sacked the Aware centre's manager, a paid employee, changed the locks at the Aware office and had a stand-off with old guard members who turned up later.

Some see this episode as a 'catfight' among ambitious women. Others see it as a tussle for control of a prominent women's advocacy group, three of whose presidents have served as Nominated Members of Parliament.

With four of the new exco members attending the same church - and having the same 'feminist mentor' in the shape of lawyer Thio Su Mien - and all espousing 'pro-family', anti-gay sentiments, some are calling this a fight between the Christian Right and the Gay Lobby.

There is also an intra-Christian element here. For even within the Christian community, there is concern about religious zeal spilling over into the public sphere and giving Christianity an unduly aggressive image in peaceful, multi-religious Singapore.

Some of the new exco members have been reportedly threatened, with one receiving a death threat. Even if that were the act of an eccentric, threats of violence against activists should never be condoned and Singaporeans must be firm in denouncing such behaviour.

There is such a cauldron of emotions swirling over this issue that it is hard to take a cool look at it. But that is precisely what is needed - a hard-headed look at why this issue has roiled so many people.

At the risk of stating the obvious, religion mixed with socio-political controversies is always a combustible combination. Especially when faiths are interpreted in a fundamentalist way.

Tolerance and accommodation are critical attitudes for people of different faiths to adopt towards one another in the public sphere. Religion can be divisive, especially when it insists on a religiously-informed view on any particular social, moral or cultural issue.

Secular, multi-religious societies must draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not in the public domain. There is nothing objectionable about zeal for one's faith per se. But action aimed at invalidating or challenging other religions or enforcing a particular religious view on everyone can have harmful social and political consequences in a multi-religious society.

It is especially troublesome when people go beyond spreading their religious beliefs to attempting to legislate their preferred moral practices. For example, they may believe that the moral values their church subscribes to should govern civil law. So if their church says homosexuality and abortion are grievous sins, then the laws of the land should outlaw such practices, even if many other people do not agree.

The so-called Christian Right has made its presence felt in recent years: in opposing the setting up of casinos, and in lobbying against a motion to repeal section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sex between males.

While other religions too have been vocal on these issues, they have adopted a live-and-let-live attitude, preferring to preach to their own flock than convert others. The Christian Right is more organised, vocal about claiming public space for debate, and savvy in using constitutional means to advance its causes.

Concern over just where religious and social zeal will lead the new Aware leadership is the reason many have reacted strongly to news of its grab for power. Many are concerned that this group has established a benchmark for religiously inspired activism that may well be emulated by people of other faiths.

It would have been different if the group and its mentor Dr Thio had been upfront about their association. It would have been even better if they had formed their own organisation to propagate their social plans.

But their decision, from the looks of it, to use Aware as a convenient organisation to launch their cause has raised eyebrows. While the new group was properly elected, its method has sown mistrust. They were not a model of transparent organisation.

In recent years, much attention, for good reason, has been focused on Islamic fundamentalism, given the violence of militant groups claiming Islam as their inspiration. But religious fundamentalism of all kinds can do harm - not necessarily to the physical body but certainly to the body politic of a multi-faith society - if it invalidates others' faiths and seeks to use the law to suppress the practices of minority groups.

Singapore has long guarded its public sphere and common space zealously to keep it free from religious strife. We should be no less vigilant in guarding against new forms of militancy that may harm the body politic.

muihoong@sph.com.sg

[It is becoming increasingly clear that despite the legitimacy of the new Exco rise to power, this is in effect an attack on AWARE and an attempt to gut it from within. Certainly there are other ways, perhaps less effective, of challenging and attempting to change AWARE. They could have questioned and publicly challenged AWARE's sex education programme for example. But that would have led to a whole series of letters to the press and dialogue and while all this is going on, the programme would continue. Whereas this way, the new Exco can in effect radically change the programme or even cancel the programme outright. No dialogue necessary. No debate or discussion.

That is why it is an attack, with a take no prisoners approach, and a shoot first don't ask question policy. The old guards are right to feel demonised, as it is an attack on their policies, their practices, their philosophy, and their legacy.

The charges of pro-gay/pro-lesbian agenda, and of promoting homosexuality with their sex education made by Thio Su Mien being so prominently featured in the Straits Times has been unquestioningly accepted as fact by many parents.

What is clear is that the new Exco is not interested in dialogue, or debate. They have their views and they are not discussing it or changing it.

The Old AWARE should move fast to secure a restraining order to require the new Exco to do nothing that would endanger or cause the destruction of the AWARE library and materials developed and accumulated over the years. As with fundamentalists, "book-burning" is a predictable action they may take.]

The treason of the economists

April 25, 2009

By Robert Skidelsky

ALL epoch-defining events are the result of conjunctures - the correlation of normally unconnected events that jolt humanity out of a rut. Such conjunctures create what the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls 'Black Swans' - unpredictable events with a vast impact. A small number of Black Swans, Taleb believes, 'explain almost everything in our world'.

The prosperity of the first age of globalisation before 1914, for example, resulted from a successful constellation of developments: falling transport and communication costs, technological breakthroughs, the pacific state of international relations, and Britain's successful management of the gold standard. By contrast, the poisonous international politics of the interwar years combined with global economic imbalances to create the Great Depression and World War II.

Now consider recent financial innovations. On the back of the new computer and telecommunications technology, a giant market for derivative instruments was built. Collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) made a new population of aspiring homeowners supposedly creditworthy by enabling the originating banks to sell 'sub-prime' debt to other investors.

The result was a wonderful system for diversifying individual bank risk, but only by magnifying the default risk of all banks that held what came to be called 'toxic' debt. Because all the derivatives were based on the same assets, if anything happened to those assets, all the banks holding the debt would find themselves in the same soup.

What made the spread of derivatives possible was the ease with which the volume of debt for a given set of assets could be expanded. This scalability was magnified by the use of credit default swaps (CDSs) that offered phony insurance against default. Since an unlimited number of CDSs could be sold against each borrower, the supply of swaps grew much faster than the supply of bonds.

CDSs magnified the size of the bubble by hugely speeding up the velocity of monetary circulation. The CDO market grew from US$275 billion (S$409 billion) to US$4.7 trillion from 2000 to 2006, whereas the CDS market grew four times faster, from US$920 billion in 2001 to US$62 trillion by the end of 2007.

But financial intermediation would never have brought disaster - or indeed gone so far - save for the global imbalances arising from America's twin trade and budget deficits, financed to a large extent by Chinese savings. This East Asian 'savings glut' enabled a debt-fuelled consumption glut in the US, Britain and much of the Western world.

The marriage between Chinese savings and American consumption had a fatal flaw: It created non-repayable debts. Chinese investments increasingly took the form of official purchases of US Treasury bills. These investments did not create new resources to provide the means of repayment. For the counterpart of the US debt build-up was the relocation of much American manufacturing capacity to China. Chinese savings flowed not into creating new assets, but into financial speculation and consumer binges.

'Surplus' Chinese savings made possible America's credit expansion between 2003-2005, when the federal funds rate was held at 1 per cent. Ultra-cheap money produced a surge in sub-prime mortgage lending - a market that collapsed when interest rates increased steadily after 2005, reaching 5 per cent.The financial crisis of 2008 was the start of a highly painful, but inevitable, process of de-leveraging.

This interpretation of the origins of the present slump is disputed by the 'money glut' school. In their view, there was one cause, and one cause only of the crisis: the excessive credit creation that took place under Mr Alan Greenspan's Federal Reserve. This view draws on the 'Austrian' theory of booms and slumps, and also Milton Friedman's explanation of the 1929 Great Depression. It was wrong then; it is wrong now.

This line of reasoning assumes that markets are perfectly efficient. If they go wrong, it must be because of mistakes in policy. This view is also self-contradictory: If market participants are perfectly rational and perfectly informed, they would not have been fooled by a policy of making money cheaper than it really was. Mr Greenspan is the sacrifice they offer to the god of the market.

This suggests a more fundamental reason for the economic crisis: The dominance of the Chicago school of economics, with its belief in the self-regulating properties of unfettered markets. This belief justified, or rationalised, the deregulation of financial markets in the name of the 'efficient-market hypothesis'.

I blame economists more than bankers for the crisis. They established the system of ideas that bankers, politicians, and regulators applied.

John Maynard Keynes wrote that 'practical men who believe themselves to be quite immune from intellectual influences are usually the slaves of some defunct economist'. Most of today's crop of economists are not defunct, but continue to work in the ideological vicinity of Chicago. Their assumptions should be ruthlessly exposed, for they have come close to destroying our world.

The writer, a member of the British House of Lords, is professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University and author of a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes.

PROJECT SYNDICATE

[Don't quite understand the argument here, except that Chinese savings and lending in conjunction with American consumption led to the crisis. Don't need to understand it completely to realise that nothing comes from nothing.]

New flu virus kills 68 in Mexico

April 26, 2009

Health officials act to prevent pandemic; eight also infected by the swine virus in US
Mexico City - A new strain of flu that has killed as many as 68 people in Mexico has had health officials scrambling to avert a possible global outbreak.

As the Mexican government axed public events and shut schools, libraries and cinemas, World Health Organisation (WHO) experts were dispatched to Mexico.

More than 1,000 people there, and eight in the United States, are suspected to be down with that strain of flu.

WHO director-general Margaret Chan warned yesterday that the new multi-strain swine flu virus had 'pandemic potential'.

'A new virus is responsible,' she said after an emergency meeting of flu experts in Geneva. 'It is a serious situation which needs to be closely followed.'

Separately a US health official warned that it may be too late to contain the new virus.

'It is clear that this is widespread. And that is why we have let you know that we cannot contain the spread of this virus,' Dr Anne Schuchat of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told reporters.

Dr Chan said it was too early to say whether a pandemic - defined as a global infectious disease outbreak for which there is no immunity - will actually occur.

But the UN agency has advised countries worldwide to look out for similar outbreaks following the discovery of related strains on both sides of the US-Mexico border.

Scores have died in Mexico from severe pneumonia after infection. At least 24 new suspected cases reported yesterday in Mexico City, a city of 20 million people.

Tests on some of the victims found that they had contracted a new version of the A/H1N1 flu virus, which is a combination of bird, pig and human viruses.

'It has pandemic potential because it is infecting people,' said Dr Chan. 'However, we cannot say on the basis of currently available laboratory, epidemiological, and clinical evidence whether or not it will indeed cause a pandemic.'

As the new strain was still poorly understood and the situation evolving quickly, it was too soon to announce any travel advisories or to advise drugmakers to switch to producing a new vaccine, she told a teleconference.

The CDC said some of the samples from Mexican patients were a genetic match of the strain seen in eight people in California and Texas, who later recovered.

In New York City, health officials were looking into what had sickened scores of students who fell ill with flu-like symptoms.

The French government said suspected cases are likely to occur in the coming days because of global air travel.

Most of the dead were young healthy adults. That alarms health officials because seasonal flus cause most of their deaths among infants and elderly people, but pandemic influenza - like the 1918 Spanish flu which killed millions - often strikes young, healthy people the hardest.

Influenza can spread quickly when a new strain emerges because no one has natural immunity.

Yesterday was the first time Dr Chan has convened such a crisis panel since the procedure was created almost two years ago.

An official source said yesterday the panel is expected to declare the outbreak 'a public health emergency of international concern'. With that, the WHO would have to decide next on measures such as travel advisories, trade restrictions and border closures.

The panel is also likely to ratchet up the WHO's six-phase flu pandemic alert level. It is now set at Phase 3 - meaning there is no or very limited risk of a new virus spreading from human to human.

US health officials are urging anyone with a fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath or muscle and joint pain to seek medical attention.

The WHO stands ready with antivirals to combat the outbreaks in Mexico. But the authorities have a sizeable supply of Tamiflu, which has proved effective against the new virus, the UN agency said.

Mr William Schaffner, a US flu expert, said the new strain is the biggest threat of a pandemic since the emergence of the H5N1 strain, which has killed millions of birds and hundreds of people.

AP, Reuters, AFP

[For years, the world has been warned of an impending outbreak when H5N1 virus mutates to a humanly transmissible virus. Then what strikes is the H1N1 strain... in Mexico! Not Asia as predicted. Truly nature has it's own plans, and trying to anticipate outbreaks and the next flu epidemic is like trying to win Toto. ]

When death's not always an evil

April 25, 2009
DAEDALUS

By Andy Ho

AUSTRALIAN euthanasia outfit Exit International is running a right-to-die workshop here to pass on to locals some swift and painless technologies of death.

[Note: Exit International has clarified that they are not going to give tips on committing suicide in view of local laws. Dr Nitschke said that his talk would focus on the need to change existing legislation.]

This promises to reignite the debate that Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan sparked last year when he suggested that we debate euthanasia. Then, as now, rising costs of end-of-life medical care would be a pressing issue in the debate.

[Note: Minister of Health clarified that MOH is not promoting euthanasia. Rather he wanted to open dialogue on end-of-life issues so that people could discuss more openly about the various options - inlcuding sending Ah Kong to JB. Sorry. Could not resist. :-)]

But economics is unhelpful with moral issues for it calibrates goodness merely in terms of value that can be traded. Instead of asking 'How much do you care about this dying person?' it asks 'How much time and money would you trade to keep him alive?'

The question of euthanasia's ethical status - its goodness or badness - is surreptitiously transformed into a monetary issue. We don't think about loved ones that way, so the debate will likely continue to pit two immovable moral principles against each other: namely, sanctity-of-life versus right-to-die. The positions being totally incommensurable, there is no resolution in sight.

Actually, neither principle is iron clad. For example, narcotics are used to relieve pain in extremis though this can suppress breathing, which hastens death. Sanctity-of-life proponents accept the use of narcotics, judging the end of pain relief to be more important than the means used to accomplish the end, which in this case can also hasten death.

Yet how does distinguishing a possible effect (hastening death with pain killers) from intending it (killing intentionally) explain why this exception is permissible? Labelling two outcomes differently and then asserting that one trumps the other is no explanation. To dress it up, the doctrine of double effect has been proposed: It is just that narcotics relieve pain (good effect) though they can kill too (bad effect). More labelling?

The right to a good death is not an unproblematic notion either. Intuition tells us it is only when we know what is good that we know what is right. We can only have a right when we can pin down what the good thing is that the right serves to protect.

But no one has proven that death for the terminally ill is an unequivocally good thing since no one has proven that no hereafter exists. Near-death experiences suggest the opposite, if anything.

If there is nothing but an eternity of sublime bliss - or just nothingness - well and good. But should it be an interminable payback time of hellfire - or reincarnating as an ass, say - euthanasia could amount to trading a bad situation for a worse one.

So neither principle - sanctity-of-life or right-to-die - is faultless. Yet, in tandem, they have gridlocked the debate. Experts suggest that the gridlock might have arisen in the following way.

First, certain paradigmatic cases were scrutinised and principles were derived from them. One paradigmatic case would be a terminally ill patient without pain relief despite the finest palliative care who wishes to die but is kept alive anyway. The opposite one would be a wealthy disabled person who wants to live but relatives after his money set him up so he is euthanised.

From such cases are derived the principles that a patient's will is paramount or that life is precious regardless. So far so good. But then things go awry when the latter principle is applied to the former type of cases, or vice versa.

Alternatively, a principle is applied to the correct type of case - precious is the life of a pregnant mother with exsanguinating vaginal bleeding - but it is in conflict with another case - precious also is the life of the baby but it must be sacrificed when completely removing the womb is the only way to stop the woman bleeding to death. Proponents then furnish the ad hoc double effect doctrine.

One way that has been suggested to break this gridlock is to not begin by deciding which principle controls the analysis. Instead, just examine each case on its own merits to see if something is good or evil.

But can we trust our intuitions? Take killing babies just for fun. Without pulling out the sanctity-of-life banner, we can intuit that this is wrong.

Or, consider the Austrian monster dad Josef Fritz who locked his daughter Elisabeth in the basement and sexually abused her for 24 years to father seven children. We grasp immediately without resorting to the notion of Elisabeth's right-to-life that this was definitely evil.

Now take a terminally ill patient in severe pain. Narcotics can relieve the pain but they also cause him to drift in and out of consciousness. Moreover, they cause intractable constipation which is seriously distressful as well. So sometimes we go easy on the narcotics but pain returns.

It is the final chapter in the story of a whole life of someone who isn't fully the person he was before but our love for him is not thereby diminished. In this context of loving someone who can get no unsullied relief from unremitting pain and distress, a swift and painless death is intuitively an unmitigated good, not evil.

Still most of us also intuit death as something intrinsically evil. But is it? In July 2003, Iranian conjoint twins Ladan and Laleh Bijani asked their neurosurgeon here to proceed with separation surgery even if it led to death, which it did.

If death is not always an evil, the crux of the matter is not whether right-to-die trumps sanctity-of-life, or vice versa. The root question is whether death is an evil in your own particular case. We must each deal with this unflinchingly and answer it for ourselves unequivocally. Then only should we acquire the technologies of death for an Exit.

andyho@sph.com.sg

[I am tempted to snidely remark that Dr Ho argued a whole column to conclude: it depends. But I am inclined to his view - that there is no universal right or wrong, or that right or wrong is completely dependent on the situation and the person facing the situation. Even similar circumstances with similar philosophy may lead to differing personal choice. An atheist with terminal cancer and in horrendous pain, kept alive and lucid only with enough painkillers to knock out a horse - he may decide that he has run the good race, and would like to go gentle into the good night. Another atheist in the same situation, knowing that there is no life after death (or believing so), may feel that pain is a price for life and no price is to high.

But Dr Ho does not go one further. To argue whether death is evil or not is to attribute a moral judgement on a natural fact. Everyone dies. Everything that lives, dies. Does this mean that whatever one's achievement, ultimately an evil will be done to one at the end of life? That is nonsense.

Death is neither evil nor good. Murder is evil. Suicide due to depression is bad mainly because one is not in one's right mind when one kills oneself. Suicide mission for nation and country is heroic. But then "suicide" in this case is instrumental to military objectives. So the act of killing oneself or putting one in danger such that death is imminent and inevitable is good or bad depending on the situation and the state of mind of the person. (So if a depressed soldier volunteers for a suicide mission is it good or bad? Do we talk him out of it and send someone else - who doesn't really want to die - on the suicide mission? And counsel the suicidal one until he gets better? Only to see him kill himself uselessly later on?)

What is clear is that death is an inevitable fact of life. It is neither evil nor good. It is how one chooses to meet death that may be subject to moral judgement or assessment. If one chooses death early to escape from one's responsibility or because of one's inability to deal with or cope with life, then we may say that that person has opted out of life, or even rejected the gift of life for the most trivial of reasons.

If one chooses death because one has achieved all that one could hope for and used the talents given to one, and one is at peace, then that is a good death.

For those in pain or with terminal illness, they should make a medically-informed decision based on facts and probabilities, and best and worst case scenarios.]


Conversion case: Wife gets custody of children

April 26, 2009

Kuala Lumpur - A Malaysian Hindu woman who is fighting her husband's conversion of their three children to Islam has been awarded custody of them.

This came a day after the government decided it would no longer allow disputed conversions of minors.

A high court in northern Perak state granted Ms M. Indira Ghandhi custody of her children, aged between one and 12, last Friday, her lawyer M. Kulasegaran said.

Ms Ghandhi's estranged husband, Mr K. Pathmanathan, who became a Muslim recently, had converted their children to Islam. The 40-year-old then got an Islamic court to give him custody earlier this month.

But the 34-year-old Ms Gandhi said she spent a sleepless night last Friday at the Ipoh police district headquarters, waiting for her one-year-old baby girl to be returned to her.

The kindergarten teacher said that shortly after the court order was granted, her husband contacted her at 8.30pm to say he was on his way to Singapore.

She claimed that when she asked him to return her daughter, he refused. It was not known why she did not ask for the whereabouts of the other two children.

The case caused a renewed outcry among Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and other minorities, who complain their religious rights are under threat as courts rule in favour of Muslims.

This led Prime Minister Najib Razak's administration to announce last Thursday that it would bar the conversion of children without both parents' consent. Amendments are expected to be made to the law.

Besides custody, Ms Ghandhi also obtained an order to bar her husband from entering her home and taking the children, Mr Kulasegaran said.

'From what the mother has told me, she wants the children to be Hindus until they are 18,' Mr Kulasegaran, who is also an opposition lawmaker, said. 'The Cabinet decision is just a directive. But I'm sure it will help.'

Malaysia has a two-tier court system for family and civil matters - secular courts for non-Muslims and Islamic courts for Muslims. But it is unclear which court has jurisdiction in interfaith disputes, and when Islamic courts get the last word, non-Muslims feel they cannot get a fair hearing.

AP, The Star/Asia News Network

[I admit that I did not like PM Najib or what I thought he stood for, but he has surprised me and I am changing my mind about him. His handling of this case was well done - getting 5 ministers to look into the matter showed that the govt took the matter seriously, and their recommendation was very commonsense (which might lead one to ask if it's so commonsense, why did it take 5 ministers to come up with it in the first place, but let's take the good news as a step forward and not focus on the past backwardness).

I was also impressed by his attempt to skip the by-election, tho the incredibly stupid Dr M seems determined to shoot off his mouth and give PM Najib no face.

The partial scrapping of the bumiputra requirements was a bold move and one that has been long asked for.

PM Najib has made some good starts, I just hope legacy and stupidity (Yes, I mean you Dr M!) does not derail his plans.]

Thursday, April 23, 2009

China to parade naval prowess today [incorrect use of thesaurus]

April 23, 2009

Speculation on whether project to build aircraft carrier will be unveiled

By Peh Shing Huei

BEIJING: China will show off its aquatic prowess today in a display which has been called a 'naval Olympics' by the country's military.

The unprecedented maritime parade will feature dozens of Chinese naval ships and planes.

["Naval" prowess does not translate to "Aquatic" prowess. This is an incorrect, extended use of the thesaurus - Naval = Marine = Maritime = Aquatic, therefore Naval = Aquatic? No!]

US sold on S'pore maths teaching techniques

April 23, 2009

WASHINGTON: About a decade ago, a small number of made-in-Singapore maths textbooks began circulating among frustrated American parents looking for better ways to teach the subject.

Now, these textbooks are used in about 1,200 United States elementary schools, with annual sales of about 100,000 copies.

Building on this growing popularity, representatives from Singapore's Education Ministry and publisher Marshall Cavendish were at the Singapore Embassy on Tuesday evening to launch a treatise on the thinking behind the textbooks.

'We know that the US has always been interested in (Singapore's way of teaching) mathematics, so with the monograph being written, we decided we would come here to officially launch it and take the opportunity to explain a bit about the differences between our curriculum' and that of America, said Madam Low Khah Gek, director of the ministry's curriculum planning and development division.

Sceptics have often questioned the relevance of the Singaporean model to the US, particularly given the differences in the size and culture of the countries and their education systems.

The population of Singapore, for instance, is only slightly bigger than that of Los Angeles, the largest city in the state of California.

But exploratory studies by US maths academics have found over the years that students in the US who adopt the Singapore model, together with the right training for teachers and some tweaks to fit the local context, have outperformed their peers who stuck with US textbooks.

Interest in the Singaporean textbooks grew further in late 2007, when California endorsed their use for elementary schools statewide.

Elementary schools in states such as Massachusetts, New Jersey and Wisconsin are also said to be using the textbooks.

'This is quite a change in the US,' said Dr Alan Ginsburg, director of policy and programme studies services at the US Department of Education, when he spoke at the Singapore Embassy on Tuesday.

'Ten years ago, you would not see the US looking outwards. That has changed.'

President Barack Obama also drew attention to Singapore's model in a recent speech on educational reform, remarking: 'In 8th grade math, we have fallen to 9th place. Singapore's middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one.'

Ms Duriya Aziz, publisher and deputy general manager of Marshall Cavendish, said growing interest means US sales of the Singaporean textbooks should grow 'exponentially'.

CHUA CHIN HON

[So Singapore sells China on Governance Singapore Style and US on Mathematics the Singapore Way. Things like these make me prooud. Then of course Singapore's poor status in customer service, graciousness, courtesy make me embarrassed. ]


Stop worrying, Obama, learn to love the Bomb

April 23, 2009

Disarmament is a noble goal but atomic arsenals are now key to stability

By William Choong

DURING my postgraduate studies in Canberra, I had a friend who was so enamoured of nuclear weapons, he even had a coffee-table book with high-resolution photographs of various nuclear detonations. When he secured a lectureship after finishing his doctorate, Stephan wanted to stick a poster of a large mushroom cloud on his office door. It was disallowed, for various reasons.

In the overall scheme of things, Stephan's mushroom cloud fetish is morally insane. Nuclear weapons, after all, are expressly designed to destroy billions of people. At the same time, he was also politically sane, since he strongly believed that nuclear weapons were not inherently evil, but stabilising weapons.

The opposite applies to United States President Barack Obama's recent proposal for a nuclear-free world: it is morally sane, but politically insane since it rejects the notion that such weapons can bring stability.

This does not mean that the proposal is not laudable. Mr Obama joins a distinguished company of notable abolitionists such as Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the nuclear bomb, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, as well US elder statesmen George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. Unlike most other anti-nuclear advocates though, Mr Obama is also infused with a good deal of realism. Speaking in Prague earlier this month, he noted that a nuclear-free world would not be realised quickly, even in his lifetime, but that it will take lots of 'patience and persistence'.

But like other noble goals - such as world peace, say - Mr Obama's proposal is normatively desirable, but operatively impossible. This is because nuclear weapons - now more than 60 years old - cannot be disinvented.

Suppose we nevertheless give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that a whiff of Obama magic so wows the world that he convinces everyone, from Moscow to Pyongyang, of the virtues of nuclear disarmament. Disarmament would still face two major hurdles.

To begin with, it would have to be implemented by the five great powers - the US, Russia, China, France and Britain - as well as second- and third-tier powers comprising Israel, India and Pakistan, as well as Iran and North Korea. The typical response to any American proposal for disarmament would be 'yes, sure, but you go first'. Even if the US commits to drastic disarmament (unlikely), the rest will not follow suit, given the relationships among their arsenals: China's arsenal, for example, is linked to Russia's; India's to China's; and Pakistan's to India's.

Let us assume, again, that in the best-case scenario, the countries involved somehow manage to give up large chunks of their arsenals, such that the total number of nuclear weapons is zero or approaching zero. Paradoxically, the dash to zero will throw open Pandora's Box. A nuclear-free world will inevitably be a 'nuclear-prone' world: one or more countries will be tempted to seek a strategic 'break-out' by amassing nuclear weapons, leading to destabilising arms races. Argues Colin Gray, a prominent strategist: 'Given that the principal nuclear 'secrets' are secrets no longer, even a supposedly nuclear-free world would be a world wherein (a) the country that concealed a handful of weapons could be a winner, and (b) nuclear rearmament races would be a reality.'

Ultimately, the push for disarmament is not technical, but psychological. For a long time, nuclear-armed countries have considered nuclear weapons to be indispensable trump cards. Jonathan Schell, who sparked off the nuclear disarmament movement in 1980s, argues that the world's nuclear dilemma arises from 'bombs in the mind'. But that, unfortunately, is a mental construct that will persist even after nuclear weapons are got rid off.

This does not mean that Mr Obama's quest should not be attempted. If the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, Mr Obama's best shot is to seek the reduction of Russian and American stockpiles to around 1,000 warheads each. In 2002, both countries agreed to reduce their arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads each by 2012. Both Mr Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev have agreed on the possibility of more ambitious cuts.

In the meantime, Mr Obama should depend on the Cold War-era concept of deterrence, and its associated stability. Deterrence received a bum rap after the Cold War, but its potency lies in its simplicity. The threat of mutual assured destruction (or MAD) is a line that no country has yet crossed. Distinctions between conventional and nuclear weapons have blurred, but the latter still retains a critical edge. As Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling puts it, nuclear weapons have the ability to wreak destruction 'in a moment, at the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet' - and thus concentrate minds wonderfully.

Herman Kahn - the famed nuclear strategist and gallows humour specialist - once advised against over-emotionality on the issue of nuclear weapons and seeing the weapons as the enemy of humanity. He wrote in Thinking About The Unthinkable In The 1980s: 'The objective of nuclear-weapons policy should not be solely to decrease the number of weapons in the world, but to make the world safer - which is not necessarily the same thing.'

Mr Kahn was said to be the inspiration behind Dr Strangelove, a 1964 black comedy about a madcap American general who launched a first strike on the Soviet Union. The film is now basic 'reading' in universities around the world. Its most potent lesson: Amid the madness of using nuclear weapons - the author of the book on which the movie is based committed suicide, for fear of nuclear war - nuclear weapons can still engender stability. In this sense, they should be loved, not loathed.

Perhaps Mr Obama might be heartened to know that an alternative title of the movie is: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

williamc@sph.com.sg

[We cannot go back. We need to deal with reality in the most realistic manner.]


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Grading system is sound

April 22, 2009

By Amresh Gunasingham

THE National Environment Agency's (NEA) hawker grading system, which covers over 5,000 hawkers in 100 food centres island-wide, is 'sound', said Environment Minister Yaacob Ibrahim on Wednesday.

And linking hygiene to a tender system would be 'too harsh', he said in response to tougher measures proposed by the Health Ministry at public hospitals, which may include issuing tenders to its canteen stallholders with a 'A' or 'B' hygiene grade.

Speaking to reporters at the launch of NEA's $8 million recycling fund on Wednesday morning, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim said penalising stall-owners with a 'C' grading or below would be 'too harsh'.

'There are about 5,000 hawkers of variant qualities and backgrounds. We must not run away from the fact that the grading system already in place is robust and sound,' he said.

He said NEA prefers instead to work in an 'evolutionary way', while maintaining pressure on stallholders to improve hygiene standards.

'As far as we are concerned, the present grading system is sound. The system has evolved and over the years, more hawkers are improving in terms of their grading,' he said.

He cited statistics which indicated that 99 per cent of all stall holders under the Government's Hawker Centre Upgrading Programme have either a 'A' or 'B' grading.

'This shows that as we begin to improve the ambience, design, layout and impose better cleaning practices, hawkers can do a good job in terms of improving hygiene standards,' he said.

He said a food poisoning outbreak, such as the one which broke out earlier this month at a temporary market in Geylang Serai, could occur as long as there were lapses. 'The most important thing is that we develop good hygiene practices,' said Dr Yaacob.

[Can we expect a 100% safe system with no food poisoning ever? Even the US has salmonella cases. Generally, are we afraid to eat at hawker centres? Do we stay away from "C" graded stalls? For the most part Singaporeans are pragmatic and reasonable people. If the environment is too much for you, you'll probably not eat there. And if enough people feel that way, business will drop and the stall-owners should learn to do something about it.

If you want "A" graded stalls. Eat at Mac. I hear the food's kinda bland tho.]

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dr M will keep pushing

April 21, 2009 Tuesday, 03:02 PM

Reme Ahmad says after sinking Abdullah, Dr Mahathir now rocks PM Najib's boat.

WHEN Datuk Seri Najib Razak was installed as Prime Minister just over two weeks ago, many people in Umno  really hoped for a new beginning after the disastrous 5-1/2-year rule of his predecessor.

Part of the new hope was fired up by the return of former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad into the Umno fold after years of bitter attacks against the government of Tun Abdullah Badawi.

Pictures of Dr Mahathir attending Mr Najib's installation and going around campaigning for Barisan Nasional in Bukit Gantang warmed many Umno hearts (although BN still lost badly).

The big hope was that the Old Man would now stop attacking the party and the coalition and help the government restore confidence in Umno and BN.

The big hope was also that Dr M (and perhaps a retired Daim Zainuddin) would be roped in to help steady the unsteady economy. Now, it seems those hopes are fast dissipating.

Guess who said these great sound bites in just one week:

1. The Malaysian Cabinet just appointed by Mr Najib has "unsavoury characters" as ministers.

2. BN should not be afraid to contest the Penanti by-election in Penang.

3. The Malaysian government should go ahead with the crooked bridge in Johor.

For No.1, it was PM Najib's big hope that Malaysians would accept his 28 ministers and 40 deputy ministers.

But no, Dr M is not pleased. A premier for 22 years, he seems to have forgotten that in appointing a new Cabinet, PM Najib had to make the 13 BN coalition partners happy and ensure that there is at least one Umno leader as minister or deputy minister from all the states (except Sarawak where Umno does not exist).

Do otherwise and the PM could face revolt within its ranks.

For issue No.2 - sure, BN and Umno will look like cowards if they say 'No' to Penanti: An unprecedented retreat by the Grand Ole Party of Malaysia's independence.

But the calculation of PM Najib could have been that better be called coward for a week, and then people will move on to other issues.

But to agree to a by-election would be worse. It is bad for his standing, as the opposition will keep up their attacks against him and the government for a week or more during the campaigning.

And then, after the expected win in Penanti, the opposition and the many blogs supportive of it will celebrate loudly for at least one more week.

The opposition will shout loudly from the rooftops that Umno-BN's loss of Penanti is another indication that the people have rejected the coalition.

A fresh rejection of him and his Cabinet too.

And this time there is no excuse to say - as Deputy PM Muhyiddin Yassin said after losing the recent by-elections - that the ‘fact of the new PM has not been absorbed by the rakyat yet’.

Issue No.3 is a hot potato for PM Najib. Should he agree to a crooked bridge, Singapore could be expected to once again raise its legal objections.

Meaning, he could be tied down with rhetoric within Malaysia (Umno leaders will line up to attack Singapore) and with the Republic over the issue.

Yes indeed, he could ignore the Singaporeans perhaps, but he would still be faced with a sceptical rakyat, because not everyone liked the idea of a crooked bridge - as opposed to a nice straight bridge.

The half-bridge, covering only Malaysia's side of the Causeway, would be a permanent ugly symbol of the type of relations Malaysia has with Singapore.

And since compensation has been paid out to developer Gerbang Perdana and others involved in the contract, does the government now ask  for the money back? And then ask them to re-start the project? What if they don't want to and ask for more money?

But on the flip side, if PM Najib keeps quiet over the issue, he can be sure that Dr M will keep pushing and pushing.

[The indomitable Dr M. The Incredibly huge ego of Dr M. The stupidity of Dr M. The Blindness of Dr M. The arrogance of Dr M. The Presumptuous Dr M. The stubborn Dr M. The undignified Dr M. The persistent Dr M. The Clueless Dr M.

Give the PM a chance. I don't like him, but he's winning me over. I thought the "by-elections are a waste of money" was an incredibly astute move. Then Dr M puts his foot in Najib's mouth. Idiot. You give him no face, you paint him into a corner, and you leave him with little choice. You sabotage him and undermine him. If you wanted to be PM, you should have just continued. Stepping down, only to cut the legs off all those who step forward is ungracious, and serves only UMNO detractors. I think UMNO is wrong and needs to be revised, but you are making it incredibly irrelevant.]

Preventing takeovers: Learn from the PAP

April 21, 2009

I REFER to last Saturday's article, 'How other groups build in safeguards'. Civil society groups should take a leaf from the People's Action Party (PAP) on how it safeguards itself against takeovers.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, in his book The Singapore Story: Memoirs Of Lee Kuan Yew, wrote about how the PAP had to safeguard itself against any left-wing capture and modelled elections to the PAP central executive committee (CEC) on the system to elect the Pope.

He wrote: 'The amended Constitution established two classes of party membership: ordinary members, who could join either directly through PAP headquarters or through the branches, and cadre members, a select few hundred who would be approved by the central executive committee. Only cadres who had been chosen by the CEC could in turn vote for candidates to the CEC, just as candidates nominated by a Pope could elect another Pope.

'This closed the circuit, and since the CEC controlled the core of the party, the party could not now be captured.'

This is a foolproof way to ensure that an organisation that has been built up over time is not suddenly overwhelmed and taken over by newcomers, albeit democratically.

Peter Teo Boon Haw

[Democracy. Can't live with it. Can't live without... Nope. Just can't live with it.]

Alcohol no excuse

April 21, 2009
UNDERAGE SEX

PARIS - GETTING drunk, even rip-roaring drunk, is no excuse for a man mistaking an underage girl for an adult, according to a study released on Monday.

But the new study, led by Vincent Egan from the University of Leicester in Britain, shows that even when thoroughly soused, a man remains a shrewd judge of female maturity.

The researchers asked 240 people, half men and half women, to look at a series of 10 photos of 17-year-old girls and then comment on their age and attractiveness.

Some of the photos had been digitally enhanced to add makeup, or make the young women look older or even younger.

All of the respondents were heterosexual adults, but only half had consumed alcohol before taking the test.

The results showed that alcohol slightly impaired the ability of women to see past the digital manipulations.

But the men, no matter how much they had boozed it up, remained keen judges of age.

'The study suggests that alcohol consumption and make-up use do not interfere with how old we perceive someone to be,' Mr Egan said in a statement.

'Even heavy alcohol consumption ... is not of itself an excuse for apparent mistaken age in cases of unlawful sex with a minor.' The findings held true across all age groups, ranging from men in their 20s to men in their 60s.

Nor does peering through a drunken haze enhance the attractiveness of the person one is looking at, an effect sometimes called 'beer goggles,' the study concludes.

'Overall, participants who drank alcohol actually rated all the women in the photos as less attractive,' Mr Egan said. -- AFP

The rise of the Beijing Consensus

April 20, 2009

By Jonathan Holslag

UNITED States President Barack Obama's first appearances outside North America - in London, Strasbourg, Prague and Istanbul - galvanised world attention. But what that trip singularly failed to do was paper over a startling fact: The 'Washington Consensus' about how the global economy should be run is now a thing of the past. The question now is what is likely to replace it.

Although China is often said to lack 'soft power', many of its ideas on economics and governance are coming into ascendance. Indeed, in pursuit of economic stability, the Obama administration is clearly moving towards the kind of government intervention that China has been promoting over the past two decades.

In this model, the government continues to benefit from the international market but retains power over the economy's 'commanding heights' through strict control over the financial sector, restrictive government procurement policies, guidance for research and development in the energy sector, and selective curbs on imports of goods and services. All these factors are not only part of China's economic rescue package, but of Mr Obama's stimulus plan as well.

China is clearly pleased to see that the US is now also placing cool calculation of its national interests at the forefront of its foreign policy. 'In delivering a better life for people on the ground, one should be more concerned with substance than with form,' Mr Obama said before his inauguration. Rather than obsessing about elections, the US now seeks to build pragmatic alliances to buttress its economic needs. This requires, first of all, cosying up with China and the autocratic Gulf states - the main lenders to the US Treasury - as well working with Iran and Russia to limit the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the US backtracks on its liberal standards, it is flirting with what can be called the 'Beijing Consensus', which makes economic development a country's paramount goal and prescribes that states should actively steer growth in a way that suits national stability. What matters in this world view is not the nature of any country's political system, but the extent to which it improves its people's well-being. At the diplomatic level, this implies that national interests, not universal norms, should drive cooperation.

[And we can see the imprint of the Singapore Way in the Beijing Consensus.]

This diplomatic and economic realism is more than a reversal of the neo-conservative muscle-flexing of the George W. Bush years. It is an attempt by a declining power to use its restrained capabilities in a more economical way.

For example, in times of crisis it is no shame for a government to be mercantilist, but by behaving in this way, the US has lost the moral high ground as a champion of free trade.

America's new pragmatism is also the consequence of a process of 'reverse socialisation'. Over the past two decades, the US and its European allies believed that they could inculcate the rest of the world with their economic and political principles. Countries like China became enmeshed in a web of multilateral organisations and subjugated to conditional engagement strategies. Nowadays, the West does not have the leverage to enforce these conditions. Moreover, the majority of developing countries now actively embrace multilateral bodies as part of their development strategies.

As we move from a unipolar international order to one with multiple regional powers, realism should allow them to vie for influence while keeping the costs as low as possible. The result will be a new concert of powers, tied together by their fixation on national economic growth and the objective of discouraging others from causing instability that risks intervention.

Instead of entrusting America with the arduous task of safeguarding international stability, the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) will assume a more prominent role in policing their own backyards. Russia can have its Caucasus, and if the generals in Myanmar should go mad, it would become China and India's problem to sort out.

America's policy shift will inevitably erode the Western liberal axis. America has the flexibility, capacity and leadership to adapt to the new rules for pursuing diplomacy, but Europe simply does not. Its strategic relevance, even in the transatlantic partnership, is destined to weaken further.

Realism will give the US more manoeuvrability in the short term, but it will have to sacrifice some of its soft power to achieve this. Whether America is able to strengthen its global influence in the future will depend not so much on its moral esteem, but on the extent to which it succeeds in revamping its economy and forging new alliances.

The rising Beijing Consensus offers no guarantee of stability. A concert of powers is only as strong as its weakest pillar, and requires a great deal of restraint. If one player slides back into economic turmoil, nationalism will reduce the scope for pragmatic bargaining. Overlapping spheres of influence could cause major conflict. And if China comes out of the crisis as the big winner and continues to boost its power, zero-sum thinking will soon replace win-win cooperation.

The writer is head of research at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies
.

PROJECT SYNDICATE

As the US backtracks on its liberal standards, it is flirting with what can be called the 'Beijing Consensus', which makes economic development a country's paramount goal and prescribes that states should actively steer growth in a way that suits national stability.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Reconsider plans: Khaw

April 19, 2009
SEPARATING CONJOINED TWINS

By Judith Tan

THREE of the four twins joined at the head who were separated in operations here are dead, and the fourth is not in good shape.

Given this track record and the similarly dismal results overseas, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan on Sunday suggested that doctors reconsider plans to separate yet another pair of such conjoined twins.

Indian twins Vani and Veena, five, will go under the knife at East Shore Hospital in August, if the medical team involved decides to proceed with the operation.

Neurosurgeon Keith Goh, who was involved in the marathon surgeries here to separate the two earlier sets of twins joined at the head, has been asked by the state government of Andhra Pradesh in India to carry out the surgery.

Speaking to reporters on Sunday at a grassroots event, Mr Khaw said that doctors would likely end up harming the patients, and should not attempt such operations.

'Surgeons, in some instances, have to pick one twin to die to save the other. Even those who survived would often be left with brain damage. So, to what extent is this quality of life?'

International studies have shown the chances of surviving surgery for 40 pairs of twins joined at the head was rated 50:50 - one twin would not survive the operation.

And the Health Minister said the outcome of the two operations here 'reaffirmed these awful statistics'.

In 2001, a team from the Singapore General Hospital separated 11-month-old Nepali conjoined twins Ganga and Jamuna.

Ganga, the weaker twin, died at age eight from a severe chest infection while Jamuna, the surviving twin, had numerous complications, including a potentially-fatal problem with her spinal cord.


[Dr Lee Wei Ling made a slightly different point - that such surgery serves at best to prolong life without improving quality of life. Now it would seem that it does not even have that great a chance of prolonging life, let alone improving quality of life.]

Heart attack mystery: New clues found

April 18, 2009

Besides cholesterol levels, inflammation of blood vessels may have role in disease

By Mak Koon Hou

TODAY, we know that Galileo was wrongly condemned for saying that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

But he wasn't always right.

Nowadays, even primary school children can identify Saturn by the beautiful rings encircling the planet.

But in 1610, when Galileo first observed the rings of Saturn using his then state-of-the-art 20-power telescope, he described them as 'handles' or large moons on either side of the planet.

The reason for this disparity is unclear and may have been due to his poor eyesight. Scientists now want to exhume his body to analyse his DNA - to determine the cause of his visual impairment. Using computational modelling, they hope to recreate what Galileo actually saw.

Challenging old concepts with new findings happens continuously in the world of science and discovery. Our understanding of the world is constantly refined as novel observational and analytic techniques are developed.

This happened when researchers studied the link between the hardening of the arteries and cholesterol.

Cholesterol was assumed to cause the hardening - called atherosclerosis - which leads to a host of problems such as heart attacks and strokes.

This association was not surprising because atherosclerotic plaques, which lead to narrowing and hardening of the arteries, were found in post-mortem studies to be filled with fats, or lipids.

In humans, there is a genetic defect in which individuals do not have a low-density lipoprotein (LDL) receptor to process 'bad cholesterol', or it is dysfunctional. These people often suffer a heart attack at a young age.

For discovering the LDL-receptor, Dr Joseph Goldstein and Dr Michael Brown were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1985.

Subsequent investigators were able to follow closely individuals with known cholesterol levels, and found that those with the highest levels were most likely to suffer from heart attacks.

After discovering how cholesterol is handled in the body, medicine was developed to lower cholesterol levels. Of these, statins have been the most potent in lowering LDL-cholesterol levels and reducing heart attacks and death from vascular diseases.

Gradually, the public came to know this group of life-saving drugs. In some countries, they are even available over the counter.

But despite overwhelming evidence linking cholesterol with heart attacks, there were still several gaps in our understanding.

Two groups of people stood out - those with moderately elevated cholesterol levels who did not get heart attacks, and people with normal cholesterol levels who did.

Considering the substantial proportion of individuals who end up suffering a heart attack, there is an urgent need to identify factors that can single out who will be a victim.

Investigations have led to a better understanding of atherosclerosis: Instead of depositing cholesterol passively into the vessel walls, it is now believed to be an active process, involving immune and inflammatory responses in blood vessels.

By looking at the various biomarkers - chemical indicators - of inflammation in the body, an old test has been transformed for use in modern technology.

The C-reactive protein was discovered in 1930 among patients who had pneumonia. Subsequently, researchers discovered that such protein levels were raised among those with heart attacks or other inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.

Studies have shown that this protein could be part of the missing link in the heart attack mystery.

On both ends of the spectrum: People with highest levels of cholesterol and C-reactive protein had the greatest risk for death and heart attacks; those with the lowest levels of both had the lowest.

The risk was intermediate among individuals with either high cholesterol or C-reactive protein levels.

Seven years ago, the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, together with the American Heart Association, convened a Workshop on Markers of Inflammation and Cardiovascular Disease.

They recommended categorising patients into low, average and high risk based on the C-reactive protein levels.

When investigators re-analysed the clinical trials studying the efficacy of statins, they found that patients with both high cholesterol and C-reactive protein levels benefited from treatment.

On the other hand, the outcome was unchanged among those with high cholesterol but normal levels of C-reactive protein, even though their cholesterol levels were reduced by the drugs.

Armed with these early observations, the Jupiter (Justification for the Use of Statins in Primary Prevention: An Intervention Trial Evaluating Rosuvastatin) trial was conceived.

The investigators put up a bold hypothesis to further evaluate the relationship between inflammation and vascular disease: Treatment with statins would help patients with cholesterol levels in the normal range, but who had raised C-reactive protein levels - a group not previously considered at risk.

Almost 18,000 patients - men were aged above 50, women above 60 - were enrolled in this study.

These were healthy men and women without vascular diseases or diabetes, with normal cholesterol levels but high C-reactive protein levels.

Patients were randomly assigned to receive a statin drug or placebo.

Although the study was scheduled for five years, it was discontinued prematurely after close to two years.

This generally happens when the independent safety monitoring committee discovers overwhelming benefit or harm in one of the groups.

In this case, the drugs reduced LDL-cholesterol and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein levels by half in men, and 37 per cent in women, while the group taking the placebo experienced no change.

Correspondingly, the rate for death, heart attack, stroke or need for a bypass or angioplasty was significantly lowered, by 44 per cent in both the men and women on statins.

Importantly, death from any cause was also reduced by 20 per cent in the treatment group.

These findings certainly provide a sound basis for the strategy of identifying previously invisible but high-risk individuals without vascular disease or diabetes.

In the US alone, it is estimated that an additional 6.5 million men and women could benefit from such treatment. Lower the age limit to 20 years and older, and the number balloons to 36.6 million.

Although the findings are compelling, they have not yet become mainstream.

Doctors are generally cautious in adopting novel treatment approaches, and testing is also not done for C-reactive protein in many clinics. As the saying goes, one swallow does not make a summer.

Making accurate observations in the natural world has always been a challenge.

While Galileo was right in stating that the Earth revolves around the Sun, he was incorrect to say there were handles around Saturn.

But what Galileo saw, he recorded.

Four hundred years later, we are still doing the same thing.

The Jupiter study has changed our understanding of atherosclerosis.

Besides cholesterol levels, inflammation of the blood vessels plays a critical role, we have found.

Although we are still uncertain as to what triggers this response, the high sensitivity C-reactive protein test has given health-care providers an invaluable tool to determine who should receive treatment for a very common disorder.

The writer is a cardiologist in private practice, founding director of clinical trials at the National Heart Centre, and visiting associate professor in Nanyang Technological University's School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The rain has over 40 names

April 18, 2009
LETTER FROM KYOTO

By Janice Tay

I HEAR the rain before I see it. I dress to go out anyway, my lips painted red under a grey sky.

Not everyone puts up an umbrella. The rain gentle yet, like day-old love.

I pass a woman outside the supermarket. She wipes water off her bike seat morosely; all the other bicycles are under cover.

I buy dried seaweed, dried sesame and roasted rice tea but the desiccation does nothing to turn away the wet. Is it because I also bought sake?

Outside, people are running for cover. The rain now fierce, like day-old love.

Mushrooms aren't the only things the storm brings; umbrellas are sprouting all over. In Japan, it's illegal to ride a bicycle with one hand holding an open umbrella but not many people seem to know this. Perhaps they find it convenient not to know.

The police probably do but I've never heard of them pulling anyone over for cycling under the influence of umbrella.

I ask the sky to stop but it is in no mood to listen. Perhaps it has bought sake too.

The woman who sold me the wine looked hard at my face but did not ask for proof of identity.

In Japan, the rain is known by over 40 names. Some are workmanlike labels - naga ame, long rain; others mark the season - samidare, the rain of early summer; but a few hint at stories.

When it drizzles even as the sun shines, it's because a fox has become a bride - kitsune no yome iri - and showers are needed to veil the wedding procession from human eyes.

You can drink the rain and you can eat it: Harusame, spring rain, is also a kind of vermicelli.

Drink, eat and listen because even the ways in which rain falls have been named. When a storm roars zaa-zaa, it's better to wait indoors till the deluge passes.

A downpour just beginning goes potsu-potsu - what the raindrops say because, though there are not many of them, they are big and very wet. But the drops will change their tune soon enough to para-para as they become smaller, more numerous and busy themselves with pattering and splattering.

The rain can come softly too; sometimes it falls shi-to shi-to. Though a quiet rain, it is a sinister one, the rain of ghosts and assassins. If you wander into the pages of a novel, you may hear it. And if you hear it, you may need more than an umbrella for a shield.

Rain has its names and it has its times. There are four seasons in Japan, but really five: spring, tsuyu, summer, autumn and winter.

Generally covering June and July, the rainy season of tsuyu thwarts laundry and frustrates futons. Fine weather is the signal for people to air their bedding and take their futons out to the balcony, where the mattresses slump over the railings like so many exhausted caterpillars.

But during tsuyu, the caterpillars sulk indoors, soaking up moisture from air soured by clothes drying imperfectly.

Still, optimists and tourism boards point out that tsuyu is also the time when irises and hydrangeas bloom. The sight of rain turning hydrangeas from pastel into pale is shorthand for temporality to Japanese eyes. Put it in an anime and the audience will know that it is June.

But my first tsuyu was dry and the hydrangeas I saw then blazed in the sunlight.

Perhaps the rain stayed away because someone had strung up an army of shine-shine priests. These teru teru bouzu can be seen hanging from windows at all times of the year, charms to keep skies clear and the rain from coming.

They are magic but not the kind that needs rare wands or expensive Latin. Take a small piece of cloth or paper. Scrunch it up. Cover it with another sheet and secure with string or tape so it looks like an upside-down dumpling. If you wish, draw a face on the ball.

Then hang it near a window but be sure to keep the head up. If it points to the ground, the doll will bring the rain instead.

The teru teru bouzu is said to have once been the magic of farmers. Now, it is a spell for children to cast on the day before an outing.

But during my first tsuyu, the Japanese I spoke to about the rain seemed more worried than happy that the torrents had not come. 'Tsuyu replenishes our water,' one said.

On another island an ocean away are a people who see things much the same way. The Hawaiian term for fresh water, wai, is the root word of prosperity, waiwai.

Money may not grow on trees but wealth can fall from the sky. And on the day that I go out in the rain, there is a big giveaway.

Even when I return and can no longer see it, the sounds still roll around my room. Gurong gurong gloing: This is what the rain sounds like in this space.

I unpack the things I bought. Shall I drink sake or tea?

I can still hear the rain so we have sake together. And when I can no longer hear it, I make a cup of genmaicha, green tea bulked up with roasted rice - the tea Japanese people used to drink if they were poor.

tastingjapan@gmail.com

Friday, April 17, 2009

An opportunity missed 20 years ago

April 16, 2009
CHINA'S TIBET POLICY

By Ching Cheong

IT'S academic, but scholars continue to wonder whether the Tibet issue would have turned out differently had Hu Yaobang's political life not ended so prematurely.

Two years after he resigned in disgrace as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in January 1987, Hu died of a heart attack on April 15, 1989.

About a month before his death, martial law was imposed in Lhasa. Chinese troops were sent there to quell rioting Tibetans, many of them monks and nuns. The protests, which had been building up since 1987, reflected the Tibetans' unhappiness with the Chinese authorities who had ruled with a heavy hand.

Could the unrest in the Himalayan region have been avoided if Hu had remained in charge and not been removed because his policies towards Chinese intellectuals and Tibet were deemed too liberal by party conservatives?

Mao Zedong's theory of class struggle had brought widespread destruction and hardship to Han Chinese as well as ethnic minorities, including the Tibetans. Millions died either of unnatural causes or from human rights abuses between 1949 and 1976, especially during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.

Soon after Hu became CCP General Secretary in February 1980, he convened his first Central Secretariat conference: Tibet was on the agenda.

The conference produced the so-called Document No. 31, which was aimed at repudiating Mao's class struggle theory and policies as applied to Tibet. The document reiterated the right of Tibetans to self-rule, stressing that they were 'entitled to pass their own laws to protect their own special interests'.

'(Tibet) need not implement any central government instructions, regulations, orders and directives if they are not appropriate to the local situation,' said the document.

In May 1980, Hu went on a fact-finding trip to Tibet, the first CCP leader to do so. Spending nine days there, he was appalled by the backwardness of the place and shocked to see the people's suffering.

According to official statistics, there were 500,000 Tibetans - or 36 per cent of Tibet's population of 1.8 million at the time - who were worse off in 1980 than in 1959, just after the commune system was introduced.

On his last day in Tibet, Hu apologised to the Tibetans for the CCP excesses of the previous three decades, when thousands of monasteries were destroyed.

'The life of the Tibetan people has not been improved. Our party apologises for that,' said Hu.

He then set out six ways to improve the lot of the people. These included respecting the Tibetans' right to self-determination. He ordered Han Chinese cadres to leave Tibet so that local cadres could fill the posts instead. Those who remained were required to learn Tibetan. There would also be improvements in education and efforts to revive Tibetan culture.

Later the same year, Hu held another conference on the ethnic problems in Xinjiang, which produced Document No. 46. This, together with Document No. 31, formed the basis of Hu's thinking on policy towards ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. He believed that ethnic minorities must enjoy the right to autonomy or self-rule.

He made it clear in Document No. 46 that the central government would henceforth hand over all powers to ethnic regions except for defence, foreign relations and the centre's right to veto local policies that were inconsistent with national interests.

Hu's pragmatic policy delighted the ethnic minorities and won him widespread support. In a rare move, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, sent a congratulatory message to Hu at the CCP's 12th national congress in 1982. The Dalai Lama commended Hu for his courage in admitting the party's past mistakes and said he looked forward to meeting Hu at some future time,

A source told The Straits Times that the Dalai Lama had indeed indicated his wish to visit China and Tibet in the mid-1980s. The trip never materialised. And any hopes of real improvement for Tibet and its people were soon dashed when Beijing reverted to its hardline ways after Hu's fall.

In an interview published on Nov 17, 2005, in the World Daily, a US-based Chinese newspaper, the Dalai Lama said that if Hu had remained in power, the Tibetan issue would long have been resolved. Beijing and the Dalai Lama's representatives have had several rounds of talks in the 20 years since Hu's death, but they have all ended with little to show.

chingcheong@gmail.com

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Berlin zoo is 'already safe'

April 14, 2009

BERLIN - THE Berlin zoo doesn't plan to change security measures even after a polar bear attacked a woman who managed to jump into the bears' enclosure last week, an incident caught on video.

'It is already safe,' zoo spokesman Heiner Kloes said on Monday.

The woman, who has not been identified, climbed down a fence, over a wide hedge full of thorns and got past a concrete wall before swan diving into the murky moat where the polar bears swim.

One of four bears in the enclosure bit the woman's arms, legs and back before keepers rescued her out with a life preserver.

The woman was taken to Berlin's Charite hospital for treatment and is still recovering, the Bild newspaper reported Monday. The hospital did not return phone calls seeking comment.

It was not clear what made the woman circumvent all those security measures and jump in with four large, fully grown polar bears. Police did not provide any motive for the incident.

Last year, a man who said celebrity polar bear Knut looked 'lonely' hurdled over a water-filled ditch into his enclosure at the same zoo. The 37-year-old emerged unscathed after keepers lured Knut away with a leg of beef.

An older bear attacked Friday's leaper.

Despite visitors' repeated attempts to hug the huge, powerful bears, keepers have no plans to change the zoo's setup. The concrete wall protecting the polar bears' enclosure will not be built up higher than its current 90 centimetres, nor will more guards be posted, Mr Kloes said.

'People who want to jump in will always find a way,' he added. -- AP

[A clear-headed response. Sounds similar to the White Tiger episode in Singapore.]

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The end of philosophy

April 10, 2009

By David Brooks

SOCRATES talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.

One problem with this kind of approach to morality, as Michael Gazzaniga writes in his 2008 book, Human, is that 'it has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behaviour, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found'.

Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.

As Steven Quartz of the California Institute of Technology said during a recent discussion of ethics sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation: 'Our brain is computing value at every fraction of a second. Everything that we look at, we form an implicit preference. Some of those make it into our awareness; some of them remain at the level of our unconscious, but...what our brain is for, what our brain has evolved for, is to find what is of value in our environment.'

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don't have to decide if it's disgusting. You just know. You don't have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can't explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote: 'The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and...moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.'

The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there's an increasing appreciation that evolution isn't just about competition. It's also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labour, help one another and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don't just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendants of successful cooperators.

The first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasises the social nature of moral intuition. People are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence.

The second nice thing is that it entails a warmer view of human nature. Evolution is always about competition, but for humans, as Darwin speculated, competition among groups has turned us into pretty cooperative, empathetic and altruistic creatures - at least within our families, groups and sometimes nations.

The third nice thing is that it explains the haphazard way most of us lead our lives without destroying dignity and choice. Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons - along with new intuitions - come from our friends.

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

Finally, it should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They're good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people's moral experiences, but central. The evolutionary approach also leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle towards goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.

NEW YORK TIMES

Friday, April 10, 2009

Indian Rojak, Rojak Theories and Mass Media Poisoning

April 10, 2009
MASS FOOD POISONING
Probe into another stall

By April Chong & Diana Othman

INVESTIGATIONS into what may have led to Singapore's worst outbreak of food poisoning appears to have moved beyond the Indian rojak stall to a neighbouring stall selling mee siam.

[PM knows. Mee Siam mai hum!]

It is now known that both stalls in the Geylang Serai Temporary Market shared the same refrigerator. The rojak sellers also used their neighbour's premises to store and wash their equipment.
...

It is becoming increasingly certain from further laboratory testing that the Vibro parahaemolyticus bacteria is the source of the food poisoning, 'most likely due to cross-contamination of rojak and raw seafood ingredients harbouring the bacteria,' said the statement.

At last count, 154 people have been struck after eating the stall's Indian rojak, with 48 people warded. Six patients remain in hospital.

The outbreak was cited as an example of deteriorating hygiene standards by Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday.
...

He suggested stepping up the frequency of spring-cleaning at hawker centres. NEA guidelines state that this should take place two or three times a year.

The Geylang Serai market was closed for two days for cleaners to wash the area and stallholders to scour their stalls. Pest controllers have been laying traps and baits since last Friday to rid the area of rats.
---------
Comment:
"Rojak" has been translated as "Salad", but that's a bad translation. When we use the term "rojak" to describe something, like "your thesis was a rojak of theories and assumptions", we can't replace "rojak" with "salad" and still retain the nuanced meaning of the original.

Rojak has the connotative meaning of mish-mash or incoherent or incongruent mix of ingredients. And seems to describe the theories as well as the so-called "preventive measures" that has been taken so far.

The Indian Rojak Mass Food Poisoning incident was originally attributed to the "off-tasting" gravy. One victim said it tasty salty. Then it was discovered that Vibro parahaemolyticus (VP), a seafood bacteria, was present in at least two of the victims. After questioning the victims, it was suggested that those most affected by the food poisoning were those who ate a lot of the prawn fritters and cuttlefish.

Then it was discovered that the Rojak stall stored their food in the Mee Siam stall's refrigerator just next to them. And now the theory is the rojak was cross contaminated by the uncooked seafood in the mee siam stall.

(Excuse me. I eat mee siam sometimes. I don't usually get seafood with my mee siam. And no, mee siam mai hum. So what seafood?)

In the meantime, they are cleaning the hawker centre, catching rats and talking about toilet cleanliness and crows and mynahs as well.

Channel News Asia jumped to the conclusion and has a poll on "How should the hawker be punished for the mass food poisoning?" Punishment is usually decided after guilt and responsibility has been established. To be sure, it is very likely that most of the responsibility would be on him. But investigations are still on-going and theories are still being tossed around in the rojak bowl. Why the rush to judgement?

Then they are talking about regular spring cleaning and NEA is saying as this is a temporary market its cleaning is not under its jurisdiction.

So the theory has now expanded to include rat infestation (with an observation that these rats are patchy and wet and are likely to be sewer rats - and the point being?), birds, hygiene practice, toilet cleanliness, market cleaning, plus cross contamination.

The fact of the matter is that even if there were no rats in the market, no crows and mynahs in the vicinity, and the cleaners cleaned up before they left every night, and the market is cleaned regularly, and the toilets are also very clean, this food poisoning would still have happened if the true cause was the cross contamination. All the on-going cleaning and rat-trapping are just wayang. The rats, disgusting though they may be, did not cause the food poisoning. The less than pristine environment, though unappetising, did not contribute to the food poisoning. If they did then patrons of all the other stalls and the market would have suffered food poisoning.

Tossing in all these superfluous elements serves up a rojak of theories about the food poisoning that does not bring us closer to the truth.

The sad sad fact is that people just want to see that something is done in the aftermath of a tragedy. This wayang serves no purpose other than to assuage perceived public anger.

The other sad sad fact is that the media has stupidly bought into the wayang... or are active conspirators and actors in the wayang. Instead of seeing and reporting the spring cleaning and pest control as the desperate remedial action of public agencies closing the barn door after the chicken has flown the coop (and no I am not mixing my metaphors - just pointing out the irrelevance of closing the barn door when it is the chicken coop that needs tending).

If the true cause of the food poisoning is due to the cross contamination from sharing facilities, then the issue is about the size, space, and design of food stalls both temporary and permanent, in addition to hygienic food handling practice.

Reading trends, staying nimble

April 10, 2009

S'PORE'S FOREIGN POLICY: THEN AND NOW


Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew delivered MFA Diplomatic Academy's S. Rajaratnam Lecture yesterday. We carry today an extract of the lecture.

INDEPENDENCE was thrust upon Singapore. The fundamentals of our foreign policy were forged during those vulnerable early years. They remain relevant because small countries have little power to alter the region, let alone the world. A small country must seek a maximum number of friends, while maintaining the freedom to be itself as a sovereign and independent nation. Both parts of the equations are equally important and inter-related.

Friendship, in international relations, is not a function of goodwill or personal affection. We must make ourselves relevant so that other countries have an interest in our continued survival and prosperity. Singapore cannot take its relevance for granted. Small countries perform no vital or irreplaceable functions in the international system. Singapore has to continually reconstruct itself and keep its relevance to the world and to create political and economic space.

To achieve this, we have to be different from others in our neighbourhood and have a competitive edge. Because we have been able to do so, Singapore has risen over its geographical and resource constraints. We earn our living by attracting foreign investments and producing goods and services useful to the world. Had we disported ourselves like our better endowed neighbours, we would have failed.

At the same time, we must never delude ourselves that we are a part of the First World. Our region has its own special features. Singapore's destiny would be very different if it were sited in Europe or North America. We cannot transplant our island elsewhere. Therefore, a recurrent issue for Singapore is how to differentiate ourselves from our neighbours in order to survive, and also get along with them. This is a perennial challenge.

As the world changes, small countries have to swiftly adjust their policies and positions. We have to live with the world as it is, not as we wish it should be. Let me outline the major changes in the international and regional environment since we became independent.

In 1965, the Cold War was at its height. The world was bipolar, divided into communist and non-communist blocs. The Vietnam War had been raging for several years. That year, President Lyndon B. Johnson upped the ante by bombing North Vietnam. All the non-communist countries of South-east Asia faced serious internal threats from communist insurgencies supported by China.

All the non-communist countries of South-east Asia were embroiled in disputes of varying intensity with one another. Singapore had just 'separated' from Malaysia, and Indonesia was pursuing a policy of 'konfrontasi' against Malaysia and Singapore. The Philippines claimed Sabah. Brunei with British help had suppressed an internal rebellion backed by Indonesia. There were also strong irredentist pressures on the borders between West Malaysia and Thailand, and between the Philippines and Indonesia. In these unpropitious circumstances, the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) was formed so that the non-communist states of South-east Asia could contain and manage their differences.

The world has completely transformed since. The Cold War is over. Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia have joined Asean. The threat of mutual nuclear annihilation has gone. But it is not the 'end of history'.

The Cold War divided the world into two blocs. Once this overarching strategic discipline of the bipolar Cold War was dissolved, long submerged conflicts broke out in many parts of the world, but fortunately not in South-east Asia.

With the collapse of communist ideology, all states joined the global wave of the free market. Singapore has since 1965 plugged into the international economic grid.

East Asian countries had been leading the pack in the globalisation wave. Japan was the earliest to plug itself into the global system. The newly industrialising economies of Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan followed suit; then came the South-east Asian 'tigers': Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Vietnam reformed its economy in the 1990s.

The most dramatic transformations were China and India. China's re-emergence in the world economy is the single most profound event of the 21st century. Two huge economies in China and India will reshape the world order before the end of the 21st century.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Singapore was berated in the Chinese media as a lackey of the American imperialists. The Malayan Communist Party backed by China refused to recognise Singapore's independence. This changed after Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore in November 1978.

Deng visited Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur before he arrived in Singapore. He saw that China had fallen behind these supposedly backward cities. He concluded that China had to stop supporting insurgencies in South-east Asia if it wanted Asean to support the resistance to Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia.

In 1985, Dr Goh Keng Swee, after he retired as Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister, was invited to be economic adviser to China's State Council on the development of China's coastal areas and tourism. China, a huge nation with an ancient history, was willing to learn from a tiny city-state.

Deng kept abreast of developments in Singapore and South-east Asia. During a tour of southern China in February 1992, he said: 'There is good social order in Singapore. They govern the place with discipline. We should draw from their experience, and do even better than them.'

Vice-Minister of Propaganda Xu Weicheng led a delegation to Singapore for 10 days that same year. Since then, exchanges between Singapore and China have grown. Hundreds of Chinese officials continue to be trained in Singapore. Since 1996, we have trained over 16,000 Chinese officials.

Rebalancing the world

THE post-Cold War world is in a state of flux. All countries are transiting to a different global order.

The present unprecedented global economic crisis resulted from a lack of checks. There was insufficient oversight in financial markets as layer upon layer of ever more complex financial instruments spun out of control.

A mood for more regulations and control prevails in many economies. This could slide into protectionism. Protectionist measures will prolong the economic crisis with unpredictable geopolitical complications.

This crisis will hasten China's growth vis-�-vis the US. It is growing at 8 per cent; the US may suffer negative or low growth.

The relationship between the US and China has already become the most important geopolitical issue. Both countries realise that they need to work with each other. Neither wants conflicts.

American resilience and creativity should never be underestimated. The US, as the dominant global power, would want to preserve the status quo. As a rising power, China will not acquiesce to a status quo status indefinitely. Competition is inevitable, but conflict is not.

The US and China will both come through the present economic crisis. China is closing in on America's lead. Their relations will remain stable, provided the world does not slide into protectionism.

The world, including East Asia, is not yet 'decoupled' from the US. Multi-polarity where different poles are approximately equal in strategic weight is unlikely to emerge because the 'poles' are not equal. A global economic recovery is not possible unless the US recovers.

After the crisis, the US is most likely to remain at the top of every key index of national power for decades. It will remain the dominant global player. No major international issue can be resolved without US leadership; no country or grouping can yet replace America as the dominant global power.

The current economic problems require a global rebalancing of consumption and savings and a change in economic relationships between the US and China. The American consumer must spend within his means; and the Chinese consumer must increase his domestic spending. This will be a difficult transition.

Globalisation cannot be reversed because the technologies that made globalisation inevitable cannot be uninvented. Singapore has to embrace this reality and remain open to talent, capital, technology and immigrants.

In an era of rapid and convenient transportation and communications, political leaders meet one another frequently and phone one another through secure lines. Ambassadors do not influence foreign policy so significantly. Sound foreign policy requires a prime minister and a foreign minister who are able to discern future international trends. Able foreign ministry officers and diplomats can greatly assist the foreign minister and his Cabinet colleagues. But ultimately, it is the prime minister and other key ministers who decide on changes in policies. At face-to-face meetings over long hours they can sense each other's thinking and leanings before their officials are privy to them. Hence, our foreign policy from 1965 was settled by the prime minister and his key ministers.

A mediocre prime minister and Cabinet will reduce our standing with other countries and we will lose opportunities.

Let me return to the complexities of Singapore's relations with our neighbours. These complexities are not the result of historical baggage, but of basic differences in political and social systems. Baggage is something we can discard. Political and social systems we cannot change so easily.

Singapore is a multi-racial meritocracy. Our neighbours organise their societies on the supremacy of the indigenous peoples - bumiputeras in Malaysia and pribumis in Indonesia. Though our neighbours have accepted us as a sovereign and independent nation, they have a tendency to externalise towards us their internal anxieties and angst over their own minorities. This is unlikely to go away.

Time has worn down many of the sharper edges in our relations with our immediate neighbours. A habit of working together in Asean has also helped. Singapore is now more established, internationally and regionally. Forty years ago, many did not believe Singapore would survive. We have a strong economy, accumulated robust reserves, developed a civil service, a mature and capable foreign policy team, and institutionalised our systems. We have strategic relationships with the major powers. We have a credible defence capability. The SAF is an insurance.

Each generation of Singaporeans must build on these assets, seize new opportunities and avoid impending disasters. The perennial challenge is to remain competitive. To be competitive, we must remain a cohesive, multi-racial, multi-religious nation based on meritocracy. We have to strengthen our national consciousness at a time when the forces of globalisation are deconstructing the very notion of nationhood.

All countries face this challenge. But so long as succeeding generations of Singaporeans do not forget the fundamentals of our vulnerabilities, and do not delude themselves into believing they can behave as if our neighbours were Europeans or North Americans, and remain alert, cohesive and realistic, Singapore will survive and prosper.


April 10, 2009

Rhetoric from KL not official stance


By Zakir Hussain

THE heated rhetoric about Singapore that comes out from Malaysia, for example in some newspapers there, is not reflective of the official policy of Singapore's closest neighbour, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said yesterday.

There is a lot of close collaboration on the ground, he said, although fundamental differences on both sides remain.

He cited collaboration between the two governments in the areas of security and law enforcement as an example.

'On terrorism, on drug smuggling, there's very low-key but very close collaboration, because it is in both our national interests, and that goes on all the time,' he said.

He was replying to a question posed by Ms Foo Chi Hsia, a Foreign Ministry official, who asked for his view on the paths both countries will take and areas they could work on.

She noted that since Separation in 1965, both countries had embarked on very different social, cultural and political paths, resulting in divergent outlooks.

Said Mr Lee: 'There's a clear division between the public rhetoric and the quiet official national interest.

'The public rhetoric from Malaysia, especially for the Malay newspapers, is that Singapore is a troublemaker and everything we do is wrong.

'That view is not shared by the Chinese or Indian papers.'

Still, he felt that both sides 'will become very divergent societies' because they hold fundamentally different views on what a nation should be, with one believing in meritocracy and the other, a race-based political system.

Back in the early 1960s when Singapore was part of Malaysia, Singapore leaders had urged the establishment of a Malaysian Malaysia - as opposed to a Malay Malaysia - and was told to leave in 1965.

'When we parted after less than two years in Malaysia and at the raw end of the minority race, we decided to do the opposite,' Mr Lee said.

'For the last 44 years since 1965, we have assiduously insisted on 'regardless of race, language or religion' in everything we do: schools, housing, health, jobs, education, promotions. So we are becoming an integrated society.'

The emphasis on English as a common language created a slightly more cohesive society in Singapore, although Mr Lee was unsure it would stay so in a time of stress.

Malaysia, by contrast, had segregated vernacular schools, which meant communities grew up separately, and had differential yardsticks for jobs and contracts.

'It's openly a bumiputera country,' he said, referring to the preferential treatment of indigenous groups.

'I've often said this about Malaysia ... If you would educate your Chinese and your Indians like we do our Malays and others, you will equal if not surpass us.'

Can the countries simply acknowledge they are organised on different principles and yet seek to work together in areas where their interests converge?

Replied Mr Lee: 'You are assuming they can have two compartments in their minds.

'With the Malaysians, if you read the Malay papers, there's a certain regret that they allowed us to be independent.

'They didn't expect us to succeed. But we have, and our very existence is a challenge to their policies.

'And so they say, look, our Malays are dispossessed, are oppressed and so on. But they come down (to Singapore) and they know it's not true, that the Malays are completely part of our society,' he said.

'They share the same benefits in housing, health, education, everything. They have their mosques, they're not deprived of any freedoms as Malays. So the angst is there (in Malaysia).'

zakirh@sph.com.sg