Thursday, March 31, 2011

Social Capital & Integration

Mar 31, 2011

S'pore can't afford to stop building social capital

By Li Xueying, Political Correspondent

SINGAPORE'S policy of ethnic quotas in public housing is a 'textbook example' of trying to build social cohesion and trust across different community groups, says the man who has written the seminal textbooks on social capital.

Professor Robert Putnam is quick to add wryly: 'I'm perfectly aware that just because you put Malays and Chinese in the same physical building doesn't mean that they spend a lot of time having tea together - or go bowling together.' But, in its conception at least, the policy is a 'well thought-out idea', he says.

The Harvard University academic and former dean of its Kennedy School of Government has been in town for a month-long spell as the Li Ka Shing Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

Ruddy-faced with a distinctive beard and an equally marked sense of humour, the 70-year-old, who leaves tomorrow, is known for his pioneering work on social capital, including the best-selling Bowling Alone. He pins social capital down as the value that arises when individuals learn to trust one another, make credible commitments, and engage in cooperative activities, such as giving to charity, joining civic and political groups - and yes, bowling together.

When such connections are forged, members of the community will enjoy low crime rates, longer life expectancies - and those coveted job references. So far, nothing so controversial. But to the glee of those on the far right - including the Ku Klux Klan - Prof Putnam also found that immigration and ethnic diversity reduce social capital. The higher the diversity in a neighbourhood, the lower the levels of trust, political participation and happiness between and within the ethnic groups, he discovered.

Residents 'hunker down' - unhappily - in front of the television set. Not very good news for a place such as Singapore. But happily, Prof Putnam has also diagnosed this as a short-term problem that can be overcome with 'bridging social capital' - or the idea of fostering social capital across different groups. And this is where Singapore's policy of ethnic quotas in Housing Board blocks comes in - to 'bridge' the different ethnic groups.

Asked for his assessment of Singapore's progress in building social capital, the academic - who has been consultant to three American presidents, three British prime ministers and one Libyan dictator - adds the caveat that he does not have 'a very good answer because I'm a little bit like a doctor who's seeing the patient for the first time'.

That said, he tries.

Having met academics, students and Cabinet ministers including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in his past month here, his sense is that the struggle for independence in Singapore's early years 'probably had the effect of creating a strong sense of solidarity', with the help of organisations such as the traditional Chinese clans.

Meanwhile, the Government tried different ways of building social capital in the fledging nation - although 'some of them may not have worked exactly as well as people hoped', observed Prof Putnam.

One policy that did work was an education system that brought students from different backgrounds together. Another successful example - 'the most important' - is national service. But looking ahead, Prof Putnam sounds the alarm bells. 'I think the world moves on and just because you've solved the social capital problems in one epoch, doesn't mean you solve them forever,' he warns.

Ironically, Singapore's economic success over the past four decades has created new challenges for social capital in two respects, he observes. First is the 'general emphasis on individualism, on the marketplace and on social isolation in individuals'. This has meant that many of the bonds formed at the grassroots level may 'no longer have the same vitality as they did'.

Meanwhile, new forms of social capital have not been formed to replace fading ones. The second challenge is economic segregation as a result of inequality. As the income gap widens, people lead lives in parallel universes - in terms of where they live, the schools their children attend, the people they mix with. Opportunities for 'bridging social capital' are thus lost.

In the United States, there are increasingly 'two separate societies - the well-off and the less well-off', he says, adding: 'I'm not certain but I think it might be a serious problem here too.'

Little research has been done to measure Singapore's social capital, whereas in looking at the US, Prof Putnam uses up to 30 indicators ranging from frequency of volunteering, to inter-racial marriages, to political participation. But a 2006 comparative survey by the Taiwan-based East Asian Barometer provides some indication (the Singapore survey was co-coordinated by sociologist Tan Ern Ser).

For instance, just 10 per cent of Singaporeans belong to an organisation, as opposed to 29 per cent of Taiwanese. Meanwhile, 70 per cent say that one must be 'very careful in dealing with others', compared with 63 per cent in Taiwan.

Without in-depth study, Prof Putnam is cautious about offering specific advice on how a diverse society such as Singapore can move along in the process, but makes it clear that the homogeneity model in countries such as Britain 'where one has to choose - be Muslim or be British' would not work. 'It's important that people be able to have special ties with other people like them. That's completely normal.'

This is why he thinks that there continues to be a role for Singapore's self-help community groups organised along ethnic lines, such as the Chinese Development Assistance Council, the Muslim community self-help group Mendaki and the Singapore Indian Development Association, even though detractors argue that they exacerbate ethnic differences.

'The way you achieve a successfully diverse society is not to make everybody homogenous,' he says. Rather, there should be a national identity that is dynamic and 'more encompassing', not one that is fixed and immutable.

That is why Prof Putnam is leery of Singapore's practice of imprinting identity cards with one's race. 'I am a little suspicious about it because that implies that your identity is fixed and that your identity says Indian or Chinese or Malay or whatever.'

The next phase of Prof Putnam's work is to look at the link between social capital and economic equality. Much of the existing research thus far has focused on the ill effects of inequality on social capital. But he argues for a causal relationship in the other direction. It was the downward spiral in social capital in the US after World War II which led to increasing economic inequality, he says. When communities are less cohesive and their members care less for one another, they tend to be more unequal. 'It is a big, big deal,' he says simply.

xueying@sph.com.sg

Q and A with Robert Putnam


What are your thoughts on how Singapore can build social cohesion and trust?


I don't know whether the ethnic and religious differences here are a problem or not, and frankly, as I talk to people in Singapore, I get mixed messages. Some are very worried about growing separation, say, between Muslims and others; others are not. MM (Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew) has expressed both sides. He said he was worried and then he said he stood corrected, so I don't know what the right answer is. But if I were a citizen here, I would not be framing that question in terms of blaming any ethnic minority group for the problem.

Let's take Britain where many say it's the fault of Muslim immigrants - they are separating themselves. I do think there's segregation, but I don't think it's because they chose to be outside British society - I think British society has not made sufficient effort to bring them in too.

In my view, the way you achieve a successfully diverse society is not to make everybody homogenous. The challenge is not to make them like us; it is to have a new 'us'.

You say that less social cohesion has led to less equality in the US. But could other factors such as globalisation have played a role in the growing inequality?


Maybe, but the time is wrong because globalisation in America didn't become a serious phenomenon until the 1980s. I do not want to get into a debate with the Singapore Government (about the role of globalisation in inequality).

But I do think that, at least in other countries, many things have contributed to the rise in inequality in addition to purely economic factors - the growth of individualism and a certain kind of materialism has been an independent cause of the growth of inequality.

What are the implications of this causal link? Why does it matter?


Independent of globalisation or changing skill premiums or all the other things that are said to be causes of inequality, I think norms of fairness have an independent effect on both public policy - tax and spending - and private wage-setting behaviour.

Now, my norms of fairness may differ from your norms of fairness. Indeed my norms of fairness differ from my children's norms of fairness. I love my children but they think it's fair if people who've worked harder are entitled to their money. And I don't think that's quite so fair because I think someone who had some bad luck shouldn't (suffer that) - he or she is part of us.

How we engineered the food crisis

Thanks to dysfunctional regulation of genetic engineering and misguided biofuels policy, the world's poorest are going hungry

Henry Miller guardian.co.uk,

Sunday 20 March 2011

Food prices worldwide were up by a whopping 25% in 2010, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, and February marked the eighth consecutive month of rising global food prices. Within the past two months, food riots helped to trigger the ousting of ruling regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. (It is noteworthy that food prices increased 17% last year in Egypt, and the price of wheat, a critical staple there, soared by more than 50%.)

For poor countries that are net importers of food, even small increases in food prices can be catastrophic, and recent bumps have been anything but small. There are several causes of rising prices.

First, large-scale disasters have precipitated localised crop failures, some of which have had broad ripple effects – for example, Russia's ban on grain exports through at least the end of this calendar year resulted from fires and drought.

Second, deadly strains of an evolving wheat pathogen (a rust) named Ug99 are increasingly threatening yields in the major wheat-growing areas of southern and eastern Africa, the central Asian Republics, the Caucasus, the Indian subcontinent, South America, Australia and North America.

Third, rising incomes in emerging markets like China and India have increased the ability of an expanding middle class to shift from a grain-based diet to one that contains more meat.

And fourth, against this backdrop of lessened supply and heightened demand, private investment in R&D on innovative practices and technologies has been discouraged by arbitrary and unscientific national and international regulatory barriers – against, in particular, new varieties of plants produced with modern genetic engineering (aka recombinant DNA technology or genetic modification, or GM).

Genetic engineering offers plant breeders the tools to make crops do spectacular new things. In more than two dozen countries, farmers are using genetically engineered crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment. But exploiting this advanced technology has been a tough row to hoe.

Regulation commonly discriminates specifically against the use of the newest, most precise genetic engineering techniques, subjecting field trials to redundant case by case reviews and markedly inflating R&D costs. A veritable alphabet soup of United Nations' agencies and programmes are prime offenders, perpetuating a regulatory approach that is both unscientific and obstructionist.

These public policy failures, in turn, inhibit the adoption and diffusion of new plants that boast a broad spectrum of new high value-added input and output traits.

Can the flawed public policy that prevails in most of the world be rationalised? Nina Fedoroff, professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, former state department senior adviser and currently visiting professor at King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia, is not optimistic: "The continuing distaste for [genetically engineered plants] and their consequent absurd over-regulation means that the most up-to-date, environmentally benign crop protection strategies are used almost exclusively for the mega-crops that are profitable for biotech companies.

The public agricultural research sector remains largely excluded from using modern molecular technology. Will this change soon? I don't think so." Fedoroff continues: "The screams of pain will come first from the poorest countries that already import way beyond their ability to pay and [are] too poor (or perhaps unwise) to make the requisite investments in developing new high-tech approaches to agriculture in hot places. And now we we're pouring our ag [agriculture] bucks into biofuels, of all the imaginable absurdities."

In fact, the United States and Europe are diverting vast and increasing amounts of land and agricultural production into making ethanol. The United States is approaching the diversion of 40% of the corn harvest for fuel and the EU has a goal of 10% biofuel use by 2020. The implications are worrisome.

On 9 February, the US department of agriculture reported that the ethanol industry's projected orders for 2011 rose 8.4%, to 13.01bn bushels, leaving the United States with about 675m bushels of corn left at the end of the year. That is the lowest surplus level since 1996. If only the ingenuity of genetic engineers were unleashed, we would likely see innovative approaches to the production of energy from non-food organisms, including switchgrass, trees and algae.

But as Steven Strauss, professor at Oregon State University and an expert in genetic engineering of plants, has pointed out, regulators' approach to such sources of energy make field trials and commercialisation unfeasible.

Related to this issue is that discriminatory regulation has been complemented by outright antagonism to genetically engineered crops from anti-technology, anti-business NGOs, and some governments, which has caused farmers to become concerned about the acceptability of such crops to importers of seeds and other agricultural products. This is part of the ripple effect of flawed, discriminatory regulation.

Finally, the United Nations' brokering of an international agreement on "Liability and Redress" in the event of damages, real or imaginary, from the use of genetically engineered crops is yet another drag on investment in and the use of these products.

What are the implications of this profound and costly policy failure?

Mixed, according to Juergen Voegele, director for agriculture and rural development at the World Bank: "Somewhat higher food prices are a good thing for overall global food production because they stimulate investments in the agricultural sector which are long overdue. Those investments need [to] be economically, socially and environmentally sustainable, everywhere, but particularly in poor countries because they are most vulnerable to climate change and social disruption."

That might be so, but the classic relationship between supply and demand is being distorted by public policy that discourages the private sector investment that would otherwise be stimulated by market forces.

Voegele goes on to observe that the inflation of food prices also has negative implications: "Somewhat higher food prices are a bad thing for the poor because they cannot afford a healthy diet in the first place and are forced to make further cuts on education and health spending if their food bill goes up. We already have close to one billion people go[ing] hungry today, not because there is not enough food in the world but because they cannot afford to buy it." And therein lies the real – and escalating – tragedy of our current, flawed regulatory excesses.

Voegele muses about whether we will be able to feed 9 billion people in 2050: "Without a doubt we can. But not by continuing business as usual. Or we will have 1.5 to 2 billion hungry people in the world by 2050. It will require very significant investments in agriculture R&D and in overall productivity increases."

But investment alone will not be enough: like trying to run a locomotive with the brakes on, it is wasteful – and ultimately futile – to focus on the "supply side" of research without considering the inhibitory effects of gatekeeper regulation; the regulatory barriers are, in fact, rate limiting. Greater global food security certainly cannot be accomplished without innovative technology. And that, in turn, cannot be developed in the face of unscientific, gratuitous and excessive regulatory barriers.

As Professor Strauss says, "Solving these problems will require new ways of thinking and strong scientific and political leadership to move us toward a regulatory system that enables, rather than arbitrarily blocks, the use of genetic engineering."

He is correct, but there is neither impetus nor momentum to move us in that direction, no hint of bureaucrats' willingness to correct past mistakes. Yet again, the poorest and most vulnerable and powerless among us will suffer most.

GE 2011 - New faces and New Media

Mar 31, 2011

New PAP faces stunned by online vitriol

But they say they will focus on working the ground for elections


NEW People's Action Party (PAP) candidates may have been prepared beforehand for a frosty reception in cyberspace, but the speed and malice with which some of them are being picked apart online have come as a shock.

Within days and sometimes hours of their introduction to the media as PAP candidates, private pictures and even court documents have been dug up and disseminated online, and forums lit up with debate and speculation.

Although the new candidates admit that the sound and fury of cyberspace has taken them aback, they say they are trying to tune out the most vicious comments and focus on working the ground for the coming general election.

The two female candidates introduced thus far have been the subject of the most intense scrutiny online.

Pictures from the Facebook account of the PAP's youngest female candidate, 27-year-old business consultant Tin Pei Ling, showing her posing with a Kate Spade shopping bag or with her husband on holiday, were posted on various websites and blogs.

Netizens have also raged over her young age, and alleged that her being fielded was due to her husband's position as principal private secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In the case of Ms Foo Mee Har, the Standard Chartered banker, an application for a bankruptcy order against a Mr Bernard Chan, who netizens claim is her husband, has spread to various forums.

The fact that she became a Singaporean only in 2008 has also come under heavy fire online.

For Dr Janil Puthucheary, another new candidate whose status as a new citizen has also ruffled feathers, what surprised him was 'how readily people are willing to make stuff up'.

'If the forums are to be believed, I have betrayed both my 'Malaysian' wife and my 'dead' father,' he quipped.

For the record, he pointed out that his wife is Singaporean, and his father, former Internal Security Act detainee Dominic Puthucheary, is still alive.

The latter was detained in 1963, before Singapore became independent. The Internal Security Council then comprised representatives from Singapore, Malaysia and Britain.

During Dr Puthucheary's introduction as a new candidate last week, he told the media that he once promised his wife not to enter politics, but later sought her permission to do so.

As for criticism that he did not serve national service, as he became a Singapore citizen at the age of 35, the paediatrician said he has been in public service: 'I've spent the last 10 years saving kids' lives.'

Both female candidates told The Straits Times that their focus is on their grassroots work and reaching out to residents.

Ms Tin has now made her Facebook pictures private.

Ms Foo did not want to respond to online comments about her husband, Mr Chan, apart from saying that he works as a general manager at an information technology firm.

Separately, a Straits Times check revealed that Mr Chan has never been made bankrupt and that the bankruptcy order against him, brought by Standard Chartered Bank, was later withdrawn.

Political observers interviewed by The Straits Times were split on whether the online firestorm is par for the course in politics, or has crossed the line.

Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong, for example, spoke out against the personal attacks on Ms Tin, writing on his blog that 'this is not what I want Singapore politics to be like'.

He told The Straits Times that the 'unfounded insinuations' made about her 'are quite offensive and to my mind beyond the pale'.

However, he defended the role of socio-political websites and Internet forums in subjecting political candidates to rightful scrutiny of their public statements and track records.

Some online have justified the attacks on Ms Tin and other new PAP candidates as mud-slinging which is to be expected in politics, in Singapore or elsewhere.

It has also been pointed out that the PAP itself has a rich history of lobbing verbal grenades - and worse - at selected political opponents.

But Mr Siew argued that the two are separate matters: 'The PAP has been and will be judged by those actions. Many do not agree with those actions and accordingly take a negative view of the PAP. But those of us on the Internet will also be judged by our actions.'

As for any actual impact that the cyberstorm may have on the new candidates or the PAP at the polls, Nanyang Technological University associate professor Cherian George believes that there may be none, as the Internet could just be 'making visible what was being said in countless conversations in elections past'.

'We can probably trust in Singaporeans' ability to distinguish relevant arguments from cheap shots,' he added.

rchang@sph.com.sg

chanckr@sph.com.sg



This is not what I want Singapore politics to be like
by Siew Kum Hong

Mar 31, 2011

The People's Action Party (PAP) recently unveiled 27-year-old Tin Pei Ling as a potential candidate in the coming elections. What has been happening on the Internet (especially Facebook) since has been nothing short of disgusting.

Ms Tin is reportedly a business consultant at a big accounting firm and apparently is married to what would seem to be a high-flying civil servant in a position of some importance. From the news reports I have read, she had been volunteering with grassroots organisations since she was 21.

Some folks seem to have taken it upon themselves to dig up what they think is dirt on her personal life, in an effort to put her down and besmirch her reputation. These efforts have included personal photos apparently from her Facebook account, before she removed or privatised them (and here is an object lesson to the PAP and indeed all parties: Tell your candidates to privatise their online presence before announcing them!), insinuations about who she is married to and how and why she married him, and claims about her purportedly extravagant lifestyle, so on and so forth.

This is essentially a young woman who has taken a huge leap into the unknown by stepping forward as a potential candidate. Her motivations are still unknown (other than what she has publicly stated), her competence and suitability as an MP remain to be seen, and she has not said much about her policy positions. In short, she is still pretty much a complete unknown.

And that is precisely my point. I would like politics in Singapore to be about the candidates and their views and their competency/suitability as MPs and office holders. I would not like politics in Singapore to become an exercise in gutter journalism. If and to the extent that a politician makes morality and virtue part of his/her platform or public persona, then that becomes fair game as well - but only then, and not before.

I would like Ms Tin to be given a chance to show what she would be like as an MP, instead of digging up all this personal stuff - things which, frankly, to my mind have been overblown and do not say anything about her suitability as an MP, or even her as a person. She is a 27-year-old professional, not a nun.

I find what has happened to be quite offensive and reprehensible. It is almost as if people, in their antagonism toward the PAP, are willing to overlook and ignore what is right and what is dignified.

The consequence of all this, is that people will be deterred from joining politics, even more so than before. I for one will openly admit that I have thought about it and decided against taking the plunge, in part because of these things. I have been a victim of these whispers. It is not fun. It is not right. It is not what I would want Singapore politics to be like.

And so I will not "like", comment on or share these stories and articles. I will lose, and have lost, some respect for those who pile in with their derisive comments on Facebook (some of whom I had respected before). I will choose to publicly express my disagreement with what has happened and is happening, and my sympathies for Ms Tin.

I sometimes feel like we have the government that we deserve. Well, through our actions, we will also get the politics that we deserve. Let's think about what we really want Singapore politics to be like.

Siew Kum Hong is a corporate counsel. This article first appeared at siewkumhong.blogspot.com.


Apr 1, 2011
TIN PEI LING'S BAPTISM OF FIRE

Should bloggers have lit the match?


By Cherian George

THERE'S an old saying, attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, that goes something like: 'What doesn't kill us makes us stronger.'

There's an older and more famous saying: 'Thou shall not kill.'

These two different takes on adversity are, of course, not really contradictory. The quote from Nietzsche advises us to raise our threshold for pain.

'To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering,' the 19th century philosopher also said. Or maybe it was Maya Angelou. Or Oprah Winfrey.

None of these self-help gurus would go on to say that we should help those around us get stronger and find meaning in life by inflicting pain on them. That's where the universal golden rule comes in, that whatever we wouldn't want for ourselves - including near-death experiences - we shouldn't want for others.

I got thinking about this as I read about the current online storm over would-be People's Action Party candidate Tin Pei Ling. It's not a life-and-death story worthy of airtime on Oprah's final season, by a long shot, but it does raise some ethical issues for journalism and election coverage.

Never mind that Ms Tin (unlike most high-flying PAP candidates) has several years' grassroots experience; sections of the online community have dismissed the possibility that someone so young - she is in her 20s - could serve in the highest forum in the land. (I recall feeling similarly sceptical when Ms Eunice Olsen was put up as a Nominated MP. She proved me wrong and I have learnt not to prejudge.)

That is nothing, though, compared with the attack by Temasek Review, the anonymously run website with lofty ambitions 'to foster an informed, educated, thinking and proactive citizenry'.

The website delved into her personal life - even questioning her motives for marrying her husband - to present her as a materialistic, social-climbing monster. Such attacks have also been flying around social media.

Former NMP Siew Kum Hong, hardly a PAP apologist, has had the intellectual honesty and moral courage to come out swiftly in his blog against this distasteful turn of events.

However, some others have argued that election candidates should expect such a baptism of fire. One blogger, while agreeing that the incident was 'unfortunate', said with Nietzsche-like logic: 'If Ms Tin is made of sterner stuff, she'll live through this. If our future political leaders don't have the tenacity to look past the Glee-like slushies and take the hit for the citizens of Singapore, then I don't think they deserve my vote in the first place.'

I agree that how Ms Tin and her party leaders respond to this episode will say a lot about their preparedness for the new terrain.

This, however, doesn't really excuse those who have chosen to corrupt that terrain.

Some online posters have argued that the PAP is just reaping what it has sown: It has made life ugly for those who dare to enter opposition politics, deterring many able individuals from joining other parties; now it's payback time, time for the PAP to get a taste of its own medicine.

Certainly, the online world should help to level what is undoubtedly a tilted offline playing field. This imperative is what motivates some of Singapore's best online journalism.

But, there are surely some limits. Websites that say they want to help raise the level of Singapore's political discourse shouldn't go lower than the politicians themselves.

And the truth is that the political parties have been more civilised than they've been given credit for. Think back to the Workers' Party's calm under fire when attacked by the PAP over the so-called James Gomez affair. And consider the restraint that the PAP showed over the sensational revelations about one opposition leader's penchant for photographing himself in the nude.

What they may say in private is another matter, but what's contributed to the stream of public discourse should meet some basic level of civility.

Rational politicians know they shouldn't totally poison the waters in which they swim. Perhaps it's time for Singapore's citizen journalists to start making similar calculations.

The writer is an associate professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University. The article is from his blog journalism.sg



Of life, love and happiness ...

These I've known, though I've been unable to move or speak for 21 years
Mar 30, 2011

by Kevin Weller

I had a massive stroke when I was 32, which came without warning. I had always been healthy, so there was no way of knowing what was about to unfold. One evening, I was having dinner at my mum's and couldn't swallow my food. While driving home, I started getting pins and needles in my left arm and by the time I reached my house the sensation had spread to my tongue, so my wife, Janet, took me to hospital.

The doctors refused to accept it was a stroke, saying I was too young. But by midnight I was in a coma.

Soon afterwards my wife was told that my body was shutting down and that I was probably going to die. They said a tracheotomy to help me breathe probably wasn't worth it, but Janet insisted.

Two weeks later I woke from the sedation drugs with no recollection of the trauma. When it slowly dawned on me that I couldn't move, and couldn't speak, I felt such fear. I was paralysed below the neck, unable to move or feel anything - I was trapped in my own body and petrified no one would realise I could understand.

When I flashed my eyes the doctors thought I was having fits and gave me more sedatives. Back then they didn't know much about locked-in syndrome and assumed I was brain dead. It was my wife who spotted the recognition in my eyes and persevered - showing me flashcards with simple words. She realised that I was fully conscious and aware of everything.

With time, I learned to communicate through the use of an alphabet board, blinking my eyes to spell out words.

As the weeks and months went on I felt an unimaginable grief for the person I'd lost - the old me. The man who did the milk round, who played squash every week. The family man with three daughters.

I was in hospital for 18 months before I was offered a place in a residential home but Janet knew I wanted to go home. She gave up her job and became my nurse and my daughters became young carers. It was hard, but we made sure the children didn't miss out - they always went dancing and met their friends.

As someone who is stubborn, difficult and awkward, being cared for in every way imaginable has been hard to accept. To be cuddled, rather than give a cuddle, to be kissed rather than give a kiss, to be fed, to be changed, have all been hurdles.

I miss eating, as I am fed through a tube in my stomach. I miss being able to shout at the football. People have to guess what I'm saying with my eyes, and my spelling sometimes isn't at its best. Before the stroke, I was always active and on the move. Now I watch others move.

I watch my daughters living their life, the life I gave them. I watch my seven grandchildren grow and play. They sit with me on my bed and we watch DVDs or football. I go out in my wheelchair for special occasions, but it's a big deal as we need to hire a full team of carers and an ambulance and I take a portable ventilator.

There's always plenty of conversation, and my wife reads to me. We row like any married couple - I can scream at her with my eyes - but I don't know what I'd do without her.

It's a love story. We got married as teenagers 35 years ago. Janet shares my dark sense of humour. I've lost friends, I've gained friends. But she's always there.

Though I've had my teary moments, I've always believed that if there's life, there's hope.

I know that some people who have been locked-in have asked not to be resuscitated if their heart stops, or have elected for euthanasia. But if that had been me, look at how much I would have missed.

I have a sense of humour, and although I cannot laugh or move any other muscles in my face, I can smile - which is rare for someone with locked-in syndrome.

I do feel happy. I have never once considered suicide or needed antidepressants. I wish to remain here as long as possible. There's so much going on, so much to look forward to. You can either cry your way through life or laugh, and in the end, I guess you do what you believe is right.

THE GUARDIAN

Kevin Weller told his story to Jill Clark with the help of his wife Janet, using an alphabet board.

Next terror attack could involve these new toys

Mar 30, 2011
by Amity Shlaes

The United States ended the Cold War the way a master pilot lands a fighter jet, in a sort of ecstasy of precision and the gradual reduction of force. Today, that same jet is screeching around the runway, as our capacity for messy outcomes (Iraq, Libya, Egypt) expands before our eyes.

One place where the potential for unparalleled damage has increased is the US. That is because there are more tools available to terrorists, extremists or just plain kooks now than in 2001. As Colonel John Geis, director of the Air Force Center for Strategy and Technology has been saying, people looking to make trouble have at least four new technologies at their disposal.

"As nuclear proliferation was to the 1950s, the proliferation of lasers, microwaves and bioengineered disease is to coming decades," Col Geis told me in an interview.

The military has worked for years on an airborne laser. The chemical oxygen iodine laser, known as COIL, uses chemical reactions to generate intense beams. But these lasers remain unwieldy. It is a different story for private industry, which is developing electric lasers the size of a flashlight.

Products such as the handheld Spyder III Pro-Arctic can blind pilots, temporarily or permanently, from more than 30m. The device can also pop balloons and melt Dixie cups, as fans have demonstrated in YouTube videos.

People are already using such devices to disrupt air travel. Federal Aviation Administration officials reported 2,836 incidents of lasers pointed by people at aircraft cockpits last year, compared with fewer than 300 in 2005.

The Spyder is cool. It so resembles a Star Wars light saber that film-maker George Lucas threatened to sue unless its maker, Hong Kong-based Wicked Lasers, publicly stated the device has no connection to Lucas's products. However, the Spyder is a Class IV laser, which means it should not be available, and various state and federal rules seek to block civilian use. But the reality is that people can buy them. An NBC reporter who placed an order had no trouble and produced a segment featuring burning cups and paper.

A second advance, that of microwave pulse systems, is also a threat. A microwave pulse system induces a current into the circuitry of a microprocessor, frying the computer chip. The technology has gained so much power that it can disable an entire computer network.

The hazard has increased because computers are much denser than they were even a few years ago, Col Geis says. Here, Moore's Law, the rule about how rapidly computer chips grow in speed and capability, does double damage. With each doubling of transistors per chip, the weapon becomes more powerful and the target more vulnerable.

What might a microwave pulse terror attack look like? A truck driving up next to the back of a power plant.

A third vulnerability is in the area of cyber-terror. It used to be that companies and government offices could isolate their computers from the world. Today, that is much harder to do because systems are almost always exposed to the Internet in some way or another.

A fourth vulnerability involves the human genome. In 15 years, scientists will be able to engineer a disease that will kill an entire population, according to Col Geis. Soon after that, it may even be possible to use viruses or other diseases that target a specific ethnic group, while leaving another healthy, he says.

How might a terror attack play out? Dr Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a non-profit research group in Washington, modelled such an attack in his book, 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century. Nuclear explosions are the main feature of his scenario for a terror attack in the US. But he foresees threats as large as nuclear attacks coming from other types of weapons.

The point is not for Americans to scare themselves silly. It is to reconsider the antidotes.

One may well be to increase defence spending, which is still at about 5 per cent of gross domestic product, or half the presence in the economy that it was in the '50s. But cooperation among agencies to an extent that goes beyond the creation of the unifying Department of Homeland Security is probably also needed. Too, government must spend more flexibly, and the old 10- or 20-year cycles for new weapons must become shorter.

On the civilian side this means more restrictions, less-happy Internet shopping and more security lines. It is not pleasant to contemplate, given the battle fatigue most Americans feel a decade into the War on Terror. But the reality is that just when we want to downgrade defence in our lives, the technology that can be used against us is relentlessly upgrading.
BLOOMBERG

Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bitter truths from Lee Kuan Yew

Mar 30, 2011  

This is a translation of an article in Malay by blogger Shirzad Lifeboat. [Excerpted]

THE bitter truth is more often than not hard to swallow. Once the truth is out, we deny we had foul intentions and play to hide our embarrassment.

In the recently published Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, the Singapore Minister Mentor describes how he and his people suffered to maintain their high living standards and their country's developed status.

Much of the book is about the politics and future of the Republic. Mr Lee gave answers to questions on economic, social and political issues that the interviewers raised.

The issue that they raised most frequently was about the difficulties that the People's Action Party (PAP) faced in preparing second-echelon leaders who could maintain the Republic's status as a dynamic and developed country for the sake of current and future generations.

A reading of the book shows that Singapore not only practises meritocracy, but also chooses its political leaders at all levels most carefully. The situation in Singapore is not like those in some of the developing countries in South-east Asia. There, Cabinet appointments are arbitrarily made to reward long-serving party members and friends of the party president, to fulfil the quotas for component parties of a coalition and to fulfil the prime minister's desires, regardless of whether the appointees are qualified and of high calibre.

Not surprisingly, those countries have Cabinet members who are immature, cannot work, are all talk and no action and cause chaos in the ministries they head. While Singapore practises accountability for every unit of public dollar spent, leaders of the said countries throw public money, sometimes as much as RM1 billion (S$417 million), down the drain.

In his answer to a question on the challenges faced by the Republic's leaders, Mr Lee said: 'We have a population of slightly more than three million. Every year, we obtain 100 people of high quality and political leadership potential. From that number, we end up with just 20 to 30 people. 'We source them from every profession, every business field, but to be successful in politics, you have to join it when you are in your 30s and 40s, when you are not tied down by your ways and are able to feel how others feel when you make your rounds, making appeals, shaking hands, kissing babies and so forth. We were so short of good people in 2001 that we took in three doctors, each of whom had reached the highest level of their professions: Ng Eng Hen, Vivian Balakrishnan and Balaji Sadasivan. 'Balaji, a brain surgeon, was the best in his field but failed as a political leader.'

Looking at Mr Lee's answer and knowing the internal politics of the PAP, the question of leaders aiming to become a vice-president, deputy president and ultimately the president of the party, despite not having the requisite qualifications and capabilities, does not arise in the ruling party in Singapore.

It is not surprising that Singapore has succeeded in becoming a developed country in less than three decades without any slogans, visions and accompanying songs composed for government media broadcasting, and professors and intellectuals holding dialogues and writing articles on the visions. As with all discourse on Singapore's political future, the book comments on the Republic's ties with Malaysia.

The book began with many questions asked on the history between the two countries. On Singapore's economic success in the context of cooperation and competition with Malaysia, Mr Lee said that when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the Malaysian Prime Minister, he tried to surpass Singapore's performance by building the Port of Tanjung Pelepas. 'Now they go to Tanjung Pelepas. His win-win is: 'I win, you lose'.'

What Mr Lee is trying to say is that despite 20 years of attempts by leaders of neighbouring countries to sabotage Singapore's economy, it remains strong. This is the bitter truth about Singapore that leaders of neighbouring countries must swallow.

High savings rate, but S'poreans are not misers

Mar 29, 2011
 
ASK: NUS ECONOMISTS
 
By Toh Mun Heng

Singapore has one of the world highest saving rates. Are Singaporeans misers?

Many analysts believe Singaporeans oversave. Indeed, Singapore's savings to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio is exceptionally high.

GDP is the sum of the incomes - including wages, profits, dividends and rentals - generated within a country during a given time period. Saving is simply the part of income that is not expended on goods and services.

Singapore's savings to GDP ratio is in the vicinity of 50 per cent, while that of developed economies like Britain and the United States is well below 20 per cent.

High savings rates also indicate low consumption to GDP ratios. Keynesians will infer from this that fiscal pump priming measures, such as increasing government expenditure or reducing tax rates, will be limited in effectiveness in Singapore during times of recession, since people are likely to save, not spend, the additional income.

Others will point out that Singapore's high savings rate is simply a function of its social security system, the Central Provident Fund (CPF), which compels workers to save. Currently, up to 36 per cent of the wage of a worker goes to CPF.

But all these explanations miss an important point: Much of the GDP generated in Singapore's economy is not indigenous.

Singapore plays host to more than 7,000 foreign multinational corporations (MNCs) and practically all of them produce for exports. They also employ a large number of foreign workers, who currently constitute more than 30 per cent of Singapore's workforce.

Thus a substantial portion of the income generated here will accrue to foreign labor and capital. This means there is a non-indigenous portion of the total GDP that is not available for consumption in Singapore.

Indigenous GDP is GDP that accrues to Singapore residents. Information on Indigenous GDP is available in the Yearbook of Statistics published by the Department of Statistics. The share of Indigenous GDP in total GDP has declined from 68 per cent in 1990 to 62 per cent in 1999 and further down to 57 per cent in 2008 and 2009. From 1999 to 2009, non-Indigenous GDP grew at an average rate of 8.3 per cent, while Indigenous GDP grew by 5.2 per cent.

A more appropriate measure of the savings rate is the proportion of Indigenous GDP that is not consumed. In 2008, the Indigenous GDP was $157.9 billion. An estimate of the indigenous private consumption can be obtained by multiplying the total private consumption by the share of Singapore residents in the total population.

Adding this figure to total public consumption yields a total indigenous consumption of $109.8 billion. The balance of $48.1 billion was saved - or 30.5 per cent of total Indigenous GDP. The figure for 2009 has been computed to be 26.8 per cent. These are obviously much lower than the unadjusted savings rates and are similar to those observed in Hong Kong, Thailand and South Korea.

Would the conclusion be different if we considered Gross National Product (GNP) or Gross National Income (GNI), instead of GDP?

GNP or GNI is the sum of incomes of the country's nationals, dwelling both in Singapore and abroad, during a given period of time. Adding to Indigenous GDP the net factor incomes of Singaporeans from the rest of the world will give Indigenous GNI. In 2008 and 2009, the Indigenous GNI was $196.5 billion and $182.5 billion respectively.

Assuming the propensity to consume income originating from abroad is the same as that originating domestically, the Indigenous gross national saving in 2008 and 2009 are estimated to be $66.6 billion and $54.9 billion - or 34.1 per cent and 30.1 per cent respectively of Indigenous GNI. Once again, these are much lower than the unadjusted savings rate of more than 50 per cent.

Singapore is hardly a nation of misers. The low effectiveness of fiscal policies here is due not to the high saving rate but to the high proportion of income that is non-indigenous, as well as Singapore's high import propensity.

The writer is an associate professor at NUS Business School.

20 years after SQ117, terror threat looms larger

Mar 29, 2011

By Francis Chan

IT HAS been 20 years since Singapore experienced a full-scale act of terrorism on home soil.

On March 26, 1991, four hijackers, later established as leftist supporters of the Pakistan People's Party, took control of Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 as it took off for Changi Airport from Kuala Lumpur.

They demanded, among other things, the release of 11 political prisoners held in Pakistan; and to speak to former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Fortunately, the authorities here were able to bring that hostage crisis to a close, shooting dead the hijackers without loss of innocent lives.

Since then, the relative peace enjoyed by Singapore, in part due to the Internal Security Department (ISD) and other agencies foiling acts of terrorism, have lulled people here into a false sense of security.

For instance, thousands ignored a parked car emitting smoke last November during a mock-attack exercise. Codenamed 'Times Square', the drill was modelled after an attempted bombing in New York last May, when the police discovered a bomb in a car after a street vendor alerted them to the smoking vehicle.

Only 52 people bothered to call the authorities during the exercise here, which was conducted at nine different locations islandwide from 8am to 7pm.

There are, however, good reasons for Singapore to maintain, if not raise, its guard against terrorism.

On March 19, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that threats to the home and overseas environment have not 'drastically improved' in the last decade. This is despite ramped-up counter-terrorism activities by security and intelligence agencies the world over in recent years.

'My conclusion was that we're lucky we haven't been hit,' he said.

The terror threat to Singapore today is larger than in 1991. It has especially intensified after the Sept 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.

With the 10th anniversary of that attack coming this September, security experts and analysts are already warning of a spike in terrorist activities led by Islamic militant organisations like Al-Qaeda and its splinter groups to mark the occasion. Singapore may well be on the radars of some of these groups.

Senior Minister S. Jayakumar, who until last November was also Coordinating Minister for National Security, said Singapore was not the target of the Pakistani hijackers in 1991.

'We just happened to get caught as a transit point... (but) today, Singapore is an 'iconic' target for terrorists as became clear from the JI's failed plans,' he said.

Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), believes Singapore remains under threat from the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and Al-Qaeda.

The acting head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the RSIS said Singapore's close ties with the United States, Western Europe, Israel, China and India are viewed as indications of its 'anti-Islamic character' by Islamic extremists.

'And Singapore's economic success and ability to nullify whatever threat that has emerged is also viewed with envy, with the belief that if the Republic is hurt and harmed, it would stop being an 'icon' of success,' he added.

In fact, Singapore has already had a few near-misses, as it was the target of terrorist groups like the JI on a few occasions in the last decade. As recently as May last year, the Indonesian authorities disclosed that Orchard MRT station had been marked as a target on a map seized from the home of terror suspect Ahmad Sayid Maulana, who was shot dead during a raid in East Jakarta last year.

Some people sceptical of the terrorist threat have asked how Singapore ended up as a target of Islamic terrorist groups like the JI and Al-Qaeda in the first place.

Ms Susan Sim, a former intelligence analyst and diplomat, cited a 2010 interview with Ali Imron, one of the Bali bombers, who gave an insight into how Singapore came under the radar of JI operational chief Hambali.

According to Ali Imron, Hambali wanted a spectacular attack as JI's follow-on to Sept 11. And thus the plot to set off six truck bombs in Singapore against foreign and local targets was hatched in 2001.

But when the truck bomb plot was foiled by the ISD, Hambali tasked Mas Selamat Kastari to come up with a suicide attack on Changi Airport using a hijacked plane, said Ms Sim, now vice-president (Asia) with New York-based strategic consultancy The Soufan Group.

Citing other sources familiar with Hambali's confessions after his arrest in Thailand in 2003, Ms Sim also said Hambali admitted to receiving funding from Al-Qaeda for 'a big attack in Singapore'.

Closer to home, the radicalisation of Islamic extremists remains a concern among political and Islamic leaders here, which is why the work of the Religious Rehabilitation Group in reintegrating radicalised individuals must continue.

Without being unduly paranoid, there is thus a need for the average Singaporean to be more vigilant about the terror threat. At the end of the day, as the New York smoking-car incident illustrated, foiling a terrorist attack should not be the preoccupation of only counter-terrorism agencies. An observant bystander can also make a difference. That's you and I.

franchan@sph.com.sg

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Surgeon tried to halt hearing with 'threat' to MFA: Counsel

Mar 29, 2011 By Salma Khalik SURGEON Susan Lim tried to stop a disciplinary hearing against her by writing to the Foreign Minister to alert him that it might expose information that could cause 'unnecessary embarrassment' to Brunei and affect bilateral ties, the High Court heard yesterday. Revealing the existence of the letter, Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo, for the Singapore Medical Council (SMC), said the letter amounted to Dr Lim 'threatening' Foreign Minister George Yeo and was another attempt by her to 'subvert the legal process'. 'This is nothing more than a pressure tactic,' he said. 'The ministry rightfully responded that it could not intervene in the ongoing legal process.' The High Court yesterday resumed a hearing on Dr Lim's call for a judicial review of the SMC's case against her. The question before High Court judge Philip Pillai is whether the SMC can set up a second disciplinary hearing against her concerning fees she had charged a patient, the sister of Brunei's Queen. Dr Lim had been Pengiran Anak Hajah Damit's main doctor between 2004 and her death in August 2007. She charged $24.8 million (before GST) for care rendered in 2007. After giving a discount, the bill came up to $12.1 million, including costs for third-party doctors amounting to more than $3 million. Following inquiries by Brunei's Health Ministry on the size of the bill, the Singapore Health Ministry filed a complaint to the SMC, which set up a disciplinary committee to hear the matter last year. The hearing stopped after Dr Lim's lawyers accused the committee of pre-judging the case. The SMC then set up a second committee to hear the case, and this is the one that Dr Lim wants the High Court to quash. Her lawyers argue that the SMC is biased against her and that she would not get a fair hearing. In any case, they say she and the patient had an agreement that charges would amount to $100,000 to $200,000 a day. Wrapping up the SMC's case yesterday, Senior Counsel Yeo revealed the letter sent to Foreign Minister Yeo, which was submitted to the court. In the three-page letter dated March 1 last year, Dr Lim said her fees were 'a matter for private negotiation'. 'I remain unclear why the issue is being pursued against me as a disciplinary matter, but in any event, I am deeply concerned that information will eventually come to public light, which will cause unnecessary embarrassment to Brunei. This in turn may affect ties between Brunei and Singapore.' She said the information included:

  • the medical condition of the patient;

  • the 'extraordinary and often unreasonable demands' placed on her by the patient and the royal family, including significant out-of-pocket expenses she had to bear;

  • how she has 'not been paid for the work done for almost three years' even though she had paid $3.256 million in third-party costs;

  • the 'apparent inconsistent relationship' between Brunei's Ministry of Health, the royal family and the patient's family.

She said she looked forward to a 'practical resolution of the matter, which I believe to be in the interests of Brunei and Singapore'.


Senior Counsel Yeo described her application to the High Court as 'desperate' and 'bankrupt', as there was nothing to support even the allegation of actual bias. He added: 'It is Alice in Wonderland logic.'


He asked Justice Pillai to 'look at this with more than a jaundiced eye', and reiterated the point he had made several times before: that a disciplinary hearing was the proper place to decide if there was any impropriety on Dr Lim's part.


In his rebuttal to Mr Yeo's points, Senior Counsel Lee Eng Beng, acting for Dr Lim, accused the SMC of being 'false, mischievous and scandalous' in the way it presented invoices purporting to represent 'fantastic' mark-ups by Dr Lim.


He said the invoices were not detailed and that there were doctors who were paid for their work whose names did not appear in any invoice.


Also, the total billed for third-party work came to $4.87 million - of which $3.1 million or 64 per cent went to other doctors. Dr Lim's companies charged $1.76 million for their services. He argued that, had the Brunei palace been unhappy with her charges, based on the same rates prior to 2007, it would not have returned to her again and again.


The SMC's charges also included the pre-discounted amount of $24.8 million. The 50 per cent discount she had voluntarily given was done on Aug 1, 2007, before she had any inkling that there might be a case against her, he said.


He also said that the SMC should put its house in order before convening a second hearing. For a disciplinary committee to step down because it had pre-judged the case 'is one of the most terrible things that could happen', said Mr Lee.


None of the lawyers from either side had found any precedence in disciplinary hearings in either the legal or medical professions where this has happened.


The judge reserved judgment yesterday.


salma@sph.com.sg


[I was ambivalent about this case. On the one hand, she did seem to work particularly hard for the apparently unreasonable patient. But this just smacks of desperation, and blackmail. As the SMC lawyer said, there is a complaint. It was to be inquired. She should just cooperate. If she has nothing to hide, she will be cleared. Her actions are those of a guilty person. Like Ming Yi or Durai.]

Monday, March 28, 2011

We should stop running away from radiation

26 March 2011

By Wade Allison
University of Oxford

More than 10,000 people have died in the Japanese tsunami and the survivors are cold and hungry. But the media concentrate on nuclear radiation from which no-one has died - and is unlikely to.

Nuclear radiation at very high levels is dangerous, but the scale of concern that it evokes is misplaced. Nuclear technology cures countless cancer patients every day - and a radiation dose given for radiotherapy in hospital is no different in principle to a similar dose received in the environment.

What of Three Mile Island? There were no known deaths there.

And Chernobyl? The latest UN report published on 28 February confirms the known death toll - 28 fatalities among emergency workers, plus 15 fatal cases of child thyroid cancer - which would have been avoided if iodine tablets had been taken (as they have now in Japan). And in each case the numbers are minute compared with the 3,800 at Bhopal in 1984, who died as a result of a leak of chemicals from the Union Carbide pesticide plant.

So what of the radioactivity released at Fukushima? How does it compare with that at Chernobyl? Let's look at the measured count rates. The highest rate reported, at 1900 on 22 March, for any Japanese prefecture was 12 kBq per sq m (for the radioactive isotope of caesium, caesium-137).

A map of Chernobyl in the UN report shows regions shaded according to rate, up to 3,700 kBq per sq m - areas with less than 37 kBq per sq m are not shaded at all. In round terms, this suggests that the radioactive fallout at Fukushima is less than 1% of that at Chernobyl.

The other important radioisotope in fallout is iodine, which can cause child thyroid cancer.

This is only produced when the reactor is on and quickly decays once the reactor shuts down (it has a half life of eight days). The old fuel rods in storage at Fukushima, though radioactive, contain no iodine.

But at Chernobyl the full inventory of iodine and caesium was released in the initial explosion, so that at Fukushima any release of iodine should be much less than 1% of that at Chernobyl - with an effect reduced still further by iodine tablets.

Unfortunately, public authorities react by providing over-cautious guidance - and this simply escalates public concern.

Over-reaction

On the 16th anniversary of Chernobyl, the Swedish radiation authorities, writing in the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter, admitted over-reacting by setting the safety level too low and condemning 78% of all reindeer meat unnecessarily, and at great cost.

Unfortunately, the Japanese seem to be repeating the mistake. On 23 March they advised that children should not drink tap water in Tokyo, where an activity of 200 Bq per litre had been measured the day before. Let's put this in perspective. The natural radioactivity in every human body is 50 Bq per litre - 200 Bq per litre is really not going to do much harm.

In the Cold War era most people were led to believe that nuclear radiation presents a quite exceptional danger understood only by "eggheads" working in secret military establishments.

To cope with the friendly fire of such nuclear propaganda on the home front, ever tighter radiation regulations were enacted in order to keep all contact with radiation As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA), as the principle became known.

This attempt at reassurance is the basis of international radiation safety regulations today, which suggest an upper limit for the general public of 1 mSv per year above natural levels.

This very low figure is not a danger level, rather it's a small addition to the levels found in nature - a British person is exposed to 2.7 mSv per year, on average. My book Radiation and Reason argues that a responsible danger level based on current science would be 100 mSv per month, with a lifelong limit of 5,000 mSv, not 1 mSv per year.

New attitude

People worry about radiation because they cannot feel it. However, nature has a solution - in recent years it has been found that living cells replace and mend themselves in various ways to recover from a dose of radiation.

These clever mechanisms kick in within hours and rarely fail, except when they are overloaded - as at Chernobyl, where most of the emergency workers who received a dose greater than 4,000 mSv over a few hours died within weeks.

However, patients receiving a course of radiotherapy usually get a dose of more than 20,000 mSv to vital healthy tissue close to the treated tumour. This tissue survives only because the treatment is spread over many days giving healthy cells time for repair or replacement.

In this way, many patients get to enjoy further rewarding years of life, even after many vital organs have received the equivalent of more than 20,000 years' dose at the above internationally recommended annual limit - which makes this limit unreasonable.

A sea-change is needed in our attitude to radiation, starting with education and public information.

Then fresh safety standards should be drawn up, based not on how radiation can be excluded from our lives, but on how much we can receive without harm - mindful of the other dangers that beset us, such as climate change and loss of electric power. Perhaps a new acronym is needed to guide radiation safety - how about As High As Relatively Safe (AHARS)?

Modern reactors are better designed than those at Fukushima - tomorrow's may be better still, but we should not wait. Radioactive waste is nasty but the quantity is small, especially if re-processed. Anyway, it is not the intractable problem that many suppose.

Some might ask whether I would accept it if it were buried 100 metres under my own house? My answer would be: "Yes, why not?" More generally, we should stop running away from radiation.

Wade Allison is a nuclear and medical physicist at the University of Oxford, the author of Radiation and Reason (2009) and Fundamental Physics for Probing and Imaging (2006).


Becquerels and Sieverts
  • A becquerel (Bq), named after French physicist Henri Becquerel, is a measure of radioactivity
  • A quantity of radioactive material has an activity of 1Bq if one nucleus decays per second - and 1kBq if 1,000 nuclei decay per second
  • A sievert (Sv) is a measure of radiation absorbed by a person, named after Swedish medical physicist Rolf Sievert
  • A milli-sievert (mSv) is a 1,000th of a Sievert

Opposition Parties. Role

Mar 28, 2011  
More rookies 'a measure of opposition progress'
But voter support is key to cement momentum, says Low Thia Khiang 

By Kor Kian Beng

WORKERS' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang is cheered by reports that at least 40 first-time opposition candidates will contest the next election, and says it is a measure of the progress made by the opposition camp. But he urged voters yesterday to help cement this development by turning support into votes which ensure these candidates enter Parliament as elected MPs.

Mr Low, 54, said the opposition would otherwise not grow or be able to attract talented people who are keen on contributing to the political process here. 'If Singaporeans don't support the opposition and think, 'Never mind, I welcome you to contest but I will vote for the PAP', we could end up like the situation we had in 2001 or in 1997 where you didn't have much of a choice,' he said.

The opposition won four seats in the 1991 election, but only Mr Low and Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong retained their seats in 1997. In 2001 and since then, the opposition has been unable to build on the two elected representatives. He described this as a process of having taken 'a step forward, and three steps backwards'. Backing the opposition would ensure that Singaporeans would have a chance to exercise their right to vote, while elected opposition MPs would serve as a check on the People's Action Party (PAP) Government, he said.  

[The problem was the other two opposition MPs, Ling How Doong, and Cheo Chai Chen, were an embarassment to Parliament, to Singapore, and to the opposition. If the role of the opposition MPs is to be watchdogs to check on the PAP, then they should not behave like mad dogs. So the the three steps back were due to the flaws of the opposition MPs, not the fickleness of the electorate.]

Added Mr Low, the MP for Hougang: 'We have a competent government and a competent prime minister, but that doesn't mean there is no need for the opposition to play a role.'

[Chiam, Low, and Sylvia Lim has done well. I expect that Sylvia Lim would make a good MP, if she can convince the voters to vote for her. Chiam has had a good run, but I doubt he can win a GRC at his age. Or rather, why would the electorate in another ward want to vote for Chiam? In terms of what he can do for them it is unlikely that he and his team would be better.]

The PAP secured 66.6 per cent of valid votes at the election, compared with 75.3 per cent in the 2001 polls. Mr Low said voters were impressed, in particular, with the WP's slate of 20 candidates. Among these, 15 were graduates, 11 were from the post-independence generation, and 10 were professionals. The 2001 polls saw the WP field just two candidates: Mr Low in Hougang, and Dr Poh Lee Guan in Nee Soon East.

Yesterday, at least five potential new candidates accompanied Mr Low when he visited the Bendemeer Market and Food Centre. They included Ms Lee Li Lian, 32, the WP deputy treasurer who is a sales trainer; Ms Frieda Chan, 34, a social worker and WP central executive committee member; Mr L. Somasundaram, 48, an engineering lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic; Mr Toh Hong Boon, 31, a research officer at the Genome Institute of Singapore; and Mr Sajeev Kamalasanan, 41, an owner of an interior design company.

Sources say the WP line-up in the four-member Moulmein-Kallang GRC could include at least one from the group. Its team there could also include WP vice-chairman Mohammed Rahizan Yaacob, 55. He was in the WP's 'A' team that contested Aljunied GRC in 2006.

Potential WP candidate and former Rhodes scholar Chen Show Mao, 50, was expected at yesterday's walkabout but did not turn up. The Beijing-based corporate lawyer, who studied at Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, returned to Singapore at the weekend for party-related activities.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg

He's in the army...but she has the backpack

Mar 28, 2011 Photo posted on Net triggers debate about 'soft' and 'spoilt' youth
Most netizens who saw this photo were critical of the soldier. But there were some who gave him the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that he might have been injured. -- PHOTO: STOMP




[He seems to be texting, ipodding, or PSP-ing, or variations thereof.]

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Acts of God: It's how we react

Mar 26, 2011
 
COMMENTARY

We'll never know why tragedy strikes, but how we overcome defines us
 
By Yen Feng

A LOT has been said about the Japanese response to the triple disasters of quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. While most have been decent and respectful, others have come across as being - how shall I put this mildly - really bone-headed.

In the days following the March 11 disaster, two newspapers - in Thailand and Malaysia - ran editorial cartoons depicting a sumo wrestler and the Japanese icon Ultraman running away from tsunami waves. In China, some netizens cheered the disaster, saying that it was 'payback' for World War II.

Then there were the Americans - 50 Cent, Hulk Hogan, and Mr Gilbert Gottfried, a voice actor and comedian, who all thought the tragedy was a fine time to crack a few jokes - though no one seemed to be laughing, especially not Mr Gottfried, who was later fired from his job voicing the mascot of an insurance company.

Now, I have my own list of people who should be fired - including religious extremists whose comments top the lot of all the bone-headedness going around.

On March 14 - three days after the massive earthquake hit the north-eastern coast of Japan - American conservative radio host and political commentator Glenn Beck called the disaster a 'message' from God.

A few days later, Mr Cho Yong Gi of South Korea's Yoido Full Gospel Church - said to be the world's largest single church with 800,000 members - told news media the Japanese had only themselves to blame for the earthquake.

'Because the Japanese people shun God in terms of their faith and follow idol worship, atheism, and materialism, it makes me wonder if this was not God's warning to them,' the pastor said.

The world has been left in shock by the events that have gripped Japan in the past weeks. To some extent, I can understand the impulse to turn to God in the face of such widespread devastation.

It is the same impulse that drives us to ask 'Why?' in times of other ineffable - and often personal - tragedies.

Religious perspectives can provide ways to help explain, give meaning to, or at least relieve, unexpected human suffering.

But it is one thing to turn to God for answers, quite another for someone to suggest they know what God was thinking, and an abomination to name a tragedy as a vengeful act from God.

Mr Beck and Mr Cho are not the first - and unlikely the last - to use natural disasters to advance religious ideology.

Last year, a senior Iranian cleric, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, said that Iranian women cause earthquakes when they wear immodest clothing.

'Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes,' he said during a Friday prayer sermon.

The same year, when an earthquake killed nearly 220,000 people in Haiti, American evangelist Pat Robertson said it was because Haitians had 'sworn a pact with the devil' to help them shake off colonial rule in the 18th century.

And when the tsunami hit Aceh, Indonesia, in 2004, Islamic extremists said the disaster was sent by God to punish non-practising Muslims.

God is conjured up as an avenging force against 'Them' - however one chooses to define the 'sinning' victims of natural disasters.

What a load of bunk it all is. Thankfully, such views are in the minority.

Most religious leaders agree that no one can speak authoritatively about God's will in natural disasters and other unpredictable tragedies. The hard fact of life is that sometimes, bad things happen to good people.

Theodicy is the branch of thought that tries to reconcile evil and suffering with the existence of a good God.

But the truth is, humans can never really come to grips with the why of suffering. We will never understand.

Inadequate and brutish this answer may be, it is perhaps the most honest - and one we all try to live with.

Four years ago, my partner died, at age 33, of a malignant skin cancer, after receiving treatment for it for three years. The diagnosis was made two months after we had run a marathon together.

I asked God: Why? Why us?

When God was silent, I turned to books. My situation was neither new nor unique; surely, the answer was out there, and I had only to find it to be freed, so that I could finally stop asking: Why?

I haven't; perhaps I may never.

My partner's death, I know, cannot compare to the absolute destruction of thousands of lives in Japan.

Even for the survivors, the nightmare, in so many ways, is just beginning.

The nuclear threat aside, they will face a long, difficult road ahead to rebuild their lives. Along the way, some may find the answers they need.

Others, like me, may not.

The problem with religious extremists is not just that they tout these answers so readily, when anyone who has ever experienced personal tragedy will know there can be none to be found so soon.

It is that as thought leaders who have the power and influence to shape public opinion, they have chosen a message of exclusion and blame based on fear and ignorance, rather than a message of charity and compassion.

Since the earthquake, the world has been moved by stories of how the Japanese have responded with courage and dignity.

In a recent column in British newspaper The Telegraph, the Mayor of London, Mr Boris Johnson, argued that no one should be blamed for acts of nature.

He wrote: 'The most important lesson from the Japan earthquake is that there are no lessons for human behaviour.'

But I think that there is one: That in the end, most of us who have suffered loss want to be defined not by our trials, but by how we overcome them.

That is why we go on.

Despite the religious extremists' theory that the Japanese are themselves to blame for the tremors that ruined their lives, the people of Japan, by their quiet courage, have shown themselves to be on truly firm ground.

zengyan@sph.com.sg

Crucial lessons from Fukushima

Mar 26, 2011
 
By Robin Grimes, Mamdouh El-Shanawany & William Lee

SINCE 1973, Japan has implemented a national strategy to produce energy from nuclear power, in order to reduce its dependence on imported fuels. In 2008 Japan became the third largest nuclear power user in the world, with 53 reactors. Today these provide 34.5 per cent of Japan's electricity.

On March 11 an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude occurred off the north-east coast of Japan, the most powerful recorded earthquake to strike the country. As a result, a tsunami of over 10m height swamped the coast. The area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was badly affected.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was first commissioned in 1971. It consists of six boiling water reactors (BWR). The BWR design is a light water nuclear reactor and is the second most common type of electricity-generating nuclear reactor after the pressurised water reactor (PWR).

As in all nuclear reactors, heat is produced by nuclear fission in the reactor core. In a BWR this causes the large volume of cooling water in the core to boil, producing steam. The steam is used directly to drive a turbine, after which it is cooled in a condenser and converted back to liquid water. This water is then pumped back to the reactor core, completing the loop.

Unit 1 at Fukushima Daiichi is a 460 MW BWR reactor constructed in July 1967, and is an example of an early generation of reactor design. It commenced commercial electrical production in 1971, and was initially scheduled for shutdown in early 2011. Last month, Japanese regulators granted an extension of 10 years for the continued operation of the reactor. Units 2 to 6 have larger electricity-generating capacities than Unit 1.

Prior to the March 11 earthquake, reactors 4, 5 and 6 were shut down for planned maintenance. Reactors 1, 2 and 3 shut down within seconds of the earthquake, as they are designed to do, using the automated Reactor Protection System (RPS). Thus, the main nuclear fission chain reaction ceased in all reactors.

However, considerable residual heat from nuclear decay processes remains in a reactor for some time after it shuts down. This produces the so-called 'decay heat'. While the amount of heat produced naturally ebbs away over time, it is sufficiently great to require active cooling for weeks.

Removal of decay heat is helped by the Emergency Core Cooling System (ECCS). This requires power to be available to the reactors. However, the tsunami that occurred soon after the earthquake was beyond the 5m maximum expected height, which the plant was designed to withstand. This caused the power sources for units 1, 2 and 3 (those that were in operation) to be lost. Also, the back-up emergency diesel electricity generators were damaged and their fuel tanks washed away. Although emergency batteries kept providing electricity, they gradually weakened. This meant the pumps injecting cool water into the reactor cores eventually stopped operating.

Crucially, the flooding and earthquake damage prevented assistance being brought from elsewhere. Over the following days there was evidence of partial meltdown of the nuclear core in reactors 1, 2 and 3; explosions destroyed the upper cladding of the building housing reactors 1 and 3, and an explosion damaged reactor 2's containment.

After nuclear fuel has been in a reactor core for many months, it gives up its useful energy and must be swopped for new fuel - in other words, it becomes 'spent'. It is removed from the reactor core and initially stored within water ponds. The circulating water both removes the 'decay heat', preventing the fuel from overheating, and acts as an effective barrier to harmful radiation. Each of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi has a spent fuel pond. Unusually, these are situated high up in the reactor building, right next to the reactor core.

Unfortunately, the spent fuel pools also suffered from the earthquake and tsunami. Loss of power meant that water could no longer be added and circulated. Consequently, the spent fuel began to warm up. In the case of pools 3 and 4, it appears the fuel became uncovered. It may be that these ponds were damaged and leaked.

This in turn led to the spent fuel becoming damaged. And in the case of pond4, at least, it resulted in a fire and explosion that damaged the reactor building and caused the release of a small volume of radioactive particles.

The Japanese government and the energy company Tepco have been working tirelessly to control the situation. In anticipation of the loss of function of the emergency batteries, Tepco started diesel fire pumps and got ready to inject sea water when the reactor pressure had lowered. It has also been supplying sea water to the spent fuel pool. Still, the unprecedented combination of Japan's largest earthquake ever recorded and a tsunami above the design criteria has resulted in a very serious situation.

At the time of writing, Unit 1 reactor poses no immediate danger but its core has been permanently damaged, as has Unit 3's. In addition, Unit 3's reactor vessel may have been damaged, according to officials, which raises the possibility of radiation from the fuel in the reactor being released.

Unit 2 is still a concern but external power is being reconnected to all six units. The ponds for units 1 and 2 are being re-filled and their temperatures are stable though a little high. Pond 3 is still a concern but sea water is being introduced. The good news is that units 5 and 6, the newest of the six, seem to have suffered negligible damage.

Tepco can concentrate its efforts on units 1 to 4. Also, the measurements of radiation levels in Tokyo are just above the natural radiation level and do not represent a hazard to people. Local radiation levels will, however, be a concern for some weeks and months but should eventually return almost to normal.

Nuclear power's future

THE nuclear power industry worldwide continued to develop and improve reactor technology in the four decades following the commission of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The industry has recently begun to build the next generation of nuclear power reactors - known as third-generation reactors or Gen III.

Third-generation reactors have:
  • A standardised design for each type to expedite licensing, reduce capital costs and reduce construction time;
  • A simpler and more rugged design, making them easier to operate and less vulnerable to operational upsets;
  • A longer operating life - typically 60 years;
  • Additional safety measures to further reduce the impact of core melt accidents;
  • Resistance to serious damage that would allow radiological release from an aircraft impact; and
  • Nuclear fuel that can safely spend longer in the reactor, the increased efficiency thus reducing the volume of waste produced.
The greatest safety improvement and departure from earlier-generation designs is that many incorporate passive or inherent safety features that do not require active controls or operational intervention to avoid accidents in the event of malfunction. It is no longer even necessary to have a power supply to remove the decay heat - a crucial difference compared to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Traditional reactor safety systems are 'active' in the sense that they involve electrical or mechanical operation on command. Some engineered systems, however, operate passively. They function without operator control and despite any loss of auxiliary power. Full passive safety depends only on physical processes such as convection, gravity or resistance to high temperatures.

A second difference to the Fukushima Daiichi plants is that modern designs would not incorporate spent fuel ponds at a great height and adjacent to the reactor core. If the ponds are placed away from the reactor core, the spent fuel will not become compromised in the event of a reactor incident. Also, placing the ponds at a lower elevation makes it easier to refill them if water is lost.

Finally, during the 1990s the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) established the principle of Defence in Depth (DiD). To achieve optimum safety, nuclear plants use the DiD principle, which requires multiple safety systems supplementing the natural features of the reactor core. This ensures the success of the three fundamental safety functions in a nuclear reactor, namely: to control reactivity, to cool the fuel and to contain all radioactive substances.

The safety provisions include a series of physical barriers between the radioactive reactor core and the environment, and the provision of multiple safety systems, each with a back-up and designed to accommodate human error. These barriers are monitored continually.

While it seems that modern reactor designs would not be subject to the same consequences experienced by Fukushima Daiichi units 1 to 4, the international nuclear energy community must not be complacent. This is a difficult time and the community must establish the facts, which are emerging and not yet fully known or understood. It is essential that we understand the implications, both for existing nuclear reactors and any new programme, especially in the selection of sites for new nuclear power plants.

The events unfolding in Japan make it even more important to have a well-educated and trained workforce, which can underpin and ensure the safety of nuclear power.

The writers are with the Imperial College Centre for Nuclear Engineering.

Don't dismiss risk of radiation from nuke plants

[Excerpt]

Mar 26, 2011
 
By Benjamin K. Sovacool

A SLEW of recent articles have mentioned how the radioactive plume from the struggling Fukushima reactors in Japan will have little to no health impact on those living in the United States (and elsewhere, outside of the Fukushima prefecture).

But how much do we know about the effects of low-level radiation? And what are some of the medical and health risks associated with nuclear power?

Reactors like those in Japan and the United States create more than 100 dangerously radioactive chemicals, including strontium-90, iodine-131 and cesium-137, the same toxins found in the fallout from nuclear weapons.

Some of these contaminants, such as strontium-90, remain radioactive for 600 years, concentrate in the food chain, are tasteless, odourless and invisible, and have been found in the teeth of babies living near nuclear facilities. Strontium-90 mimics milk as it enters the body and concentrates in bones and lactating breasts to cause bone cancer, leukaemia and breast cancer. Babies and children are 10 to 20 times more susceptible to its carcinogenic effects than adults.

Though they are contested, some of the medical and epidemiological studies assessing nuclear power, radiation and health are shocking, to say the least. One medical study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that those living within 10km of the La Hague nuclear reprocessing plant in north-west France had a sevenfold increase in risk to the incidence of childhood leukaemia.

[Interesting that he highlighted that this was from a peer-reviewed journal]

A similar study headed by University College Dublin researchers found twice as much plutonium in the teeth of children living near the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Britain than in those farther away.

[So how much is twice as much? 2 parts per million is twice as much as 1 part per million. And this is study was not peer-reviewed?]


Even the accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) is not as benign as it originally appeared. One comprehensive study conducted by the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina divided the 16km area around TMI into 69 study tracts, and then assigned radiation dose estimates and correlated them with incidences of leukaemia, lung cancer, and all other types of cancer. The study found that residents living around TMI had abnormally high rates for all three.

[Note: not peer-reviewed (at least not indicated as such). and instead of measuring radiation, the dose were estimates. Such rigorous scientific method!]

...

Another reason such estimates may be conservative is that new medical evidence suggests that there may be no such thing as 'safe' exposure to radiation. One study of 15 countries that monitored 407,391 workers for external radiation exposure published in the British Medical Journal, with a total follow-up of 5.2 million person years, found that even low doses could trigger high rates of cancer.

Put another way, there is no safe threshold at which the human body can tolerate the unnatural levels of radiation produced by nuclear reactors and their components.

One can actually draw from existing studies to loosely quantify the health risk per nuclear reactor. Evidence from the US, home to 104 operating nuclear reactors at 65 sites, has documented elevated rates of leukaemia and brain cancers at nuclear power plants.

Mr Joseph Mangano from the Radiation and Public Health Project and his colleagues estimate that roughly 18,000 fewer infant deaths and 6,000 fewer childhood cancers will occur over a period of 20 years if all reactors in the US were closed - or that each nuclear plant was associated with 175 deaths and 58 cancers.

Applied globally, and the world's existing 432 reactors could cause 75,600 deaths and 25,056 cancers every 20 years.

[Wow! 75,600 deaths! In 20 years! Worldwide! I mean compared to the number of people killed by vehicles everyday! Or coal miners! Or air pollution. Or the seasonal flu. The numbers are underwhelming!]

To be fair, there are other medical studies that have shown no significant health risk from nuclear power plants and their facilities. Furthermore, the results of the studies above have been fiercely attacked by nuclear industry representatives.

[Nice of him to be fair and just put one line to indicate that the conclusions are not unanimously accepted as final.]

Yet if their frightening conclusions are true, they imply that nuclear power plants are unsafe, and pose significant medical risk, even when they operate normally. The plume currently circulating through the West Coast of the US may not be harmful, but the reactors that produced it certainly appear to be.

The writer is a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

[So IF the frightening conclusions are true...? I think the point of this article is supposed to argue the "IF" is true, not conclude that it is still an "IF".]

Friday, March 25, 2011

Did Big Pharma trigger flu pandemic?

Mar 19, 2011

DAEDALUS

By Andy Ho

LAST week, a panel of 27 experts 'found no evidence of malfeasance' in the World Health Organisation's handling of the last flu pandemic.
Set up to look into the application of the International Health Regulations during the pandemic, it said the world body did make crucial errors. But 'no critic... has produced any direct evidence of commercial influence on decision-making'.
However, the panel was commissioned by the WHO itself. Was it really independent? According to a study by the BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, about half the panel's membership also sat on the International Health Regulations committee itself.
In addition, one of its members was even the Emergency Committee chairman. This body was set up during the crisis to advise the WHO director-general, Dr Margaret Chan, on when the scientific criteria for a flu pandemic had been met.
This would determine the precise timing of an official declaration of a pandemic. Since this advice was crucial, transparency about the identities of the scientists giving that advice was paramount.
However, the WHO insisted on keeping the committee membership secret during the pandemic, allegedly to shield these boffins from pressure being exerted by Big Pharma. It also refused to divulge any conflicts of interest involving the scientists.
Yet it was at their behest that the pandemic was declared at a specific point in time. This declaration, the BMJ argued in a report last June, was what 'triggered the (vaccine) contracts' many countries, including Britain, France and Belgium, had pre- signed with Big Pharma.
Indeed, Britain's Department of Health confirmed in a May 15, 2009 announcement that 'Advance Supply Agreements signed by the government with GSK and Baxter in July 2007 (for) 132 million doses of pandemic specific vaccine' would be triggered 'if a pandemic is declared'.
So the declaration did trigger such contracts. Big money was involved: Vaccine makers had reportedly invested US$4 billion (S$5.2 billion) to make the new flu shot.
Crucially, the BMJ was able to identify several key scientists on the Emergency Committee who had tight financial ties to Roche, the manufacturer of Tamiflu, and to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the maker of Relenza.
The BMJ asked if some committee members had 'put pressure on the WHO to declare a flu pandemic', the first in 40 years.
Worth billions of dollars, these shots and all the stockpiled Tamiflu and Relenza now lie unused in storehouses the world over.
The BMJ also reported how the studies establishing the efficacy of these antivirals had been carried out by some scientists on the committee. However, other experts have not been able to replicate their results. Thus, the effectiveness of the two drugs themselves remains in doubt.
Last August, the committee advised Dr Chan to declare the pandemic over. Only then was its membership revealed.
A study last June issued by the health committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe was equally critical of the WHO. It found that the pandemic declaration had been based on politics, not science. This had led to 'a waste of large sums of public money, and also unjustified scares and fears'.
Apart from this lack of transparency over conflicts of interest, critics have also questioned why the WHO changed the way a pandemic was defined. The WHO decided that pandemics were to be declared based simply on how fast the virus involved was spreading. The severity of the illness caused was deemed unimportant.
Severity had been a factor in the definition of a pandemic for the last 15 years. Yet, late in April 2009, just after the new bug emerged in California and Mexico, the WHO dropped severity as a criterion.
In the original definition of a pandemic, many had to be very ill and/or die from the virus. When the WHO declared this a pandemic, there were about 30,000 patients in 74 countries, with 144 fatalities. That mortality rate of less than 0.5 per cent was even lower than that of the seasonal flu.
Throughout the crisis - and long after its projections of up to 7.4 million deaths in the worst-case scenario looked increasingly unlikely - the WHO continued to refuse to admit that the early waves were mild. Instead, it even insisted that the new bug 'rapidly crowded out other circulating influenza viruses, a phenomenon... distinctly seen during pandemics'.
However, scientists from Singapore's National University Hospital reported in the BMJ last July that the new bug had 'failed to completely displace the previously dominant circulating seasonal influenza H3 subtype (which) may argue against (it) being a truly pandemic virus'.
In fact, between May 2009 and last April, there were 'decreasing numbers of (the new bug) and increasing numbers of seasonal H3N2 viruses'.
The WHO's own panel of 27 experts agreed that it should have included severity in its definition of a pandemic. It also noted that the agency had changed some of its pandemic documents available online without highlighting the changes or offering any reason for them. This could only fuel suspicion, it demurred.
But had the WHO not declared a mild flu a pandemic, far fewer people would have rushed for the flu shots or stocked up on antivirals. So was the declaration of a pandemic influenced by financial ties to Big Pharma?
Just because Dr Chan has waved off all such talk as 'conspiracies' does not mean the questions BMJ and other authorities have raised do not need to be answered.
andyho@sph.com.sg