Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Biotech firm finds fortune in prawn farming

July 30, 2008

Bionovar diversified its business to prove the worth of its product; its revenue last year was $1m - more than its original biotech sales

By Chua Hian Hou

BIONOVAR started out as a biotechnology firm four years ago, but customers for its microscopic organisms, which aid in chemical-free prawn farming, were hard to come by.

So the local start-up took a daring step: It diversified its business to become a major customer of its own product - by going into the prawn-farming business itself. And it has not looked back since.

The initial problem in attracting customers? The market was saturated with competitors touting similar products to jaded and sceptical customers.

To counter this, the firm reasoned that getting into prawn farming would allow it to demonstrate the worth of these microscopic organisms - and thereby attract customers.

The microbes that Bionovar has developed help prawn farmers keep their facilities clean and disease-free in an environmentally friendly manner.

The 2004 foray worked out so well that Bionovar has made prawn farming a business mainstay.

It now runs a 50ha prawn farm in Malaysia producing 600 tonnes of tiger and Pacific white prawns every year. It has more prawn farms in India and will be expanding into China soon. It has also started a farm for tilapia fish in Vietnam.

Earlier this year, it set up a distribution arm to sell its prawns to gourmet restaurants and households in Singapore.

Getting to this point, though, has been challenging.

For one thing, raising money to get off the ground was incredibly difficult.

While many Singapore investors were 'curious' about Bionovar, few plonked down their cash, said chief executive officer Chia Boon Tat.

This was probably because Singapore investors have little experience with agriculture, he added. Even the company's biotech billing cut no ice.

'Investors wanted to hear 'biohealth', not 'bioagriculture',' he said wryly.

In the end, though, the company managed to raise $1 million to conduct research into microbes. This sum came from the three founders' own pockets, along with some from the brothers of one of them, and more from investors.

Since then, Bionovar has raised another $5.7 million for its prawn farms.

Its founders, who come from varying backgrounds, are Dr Chia, 46, a telecommunications executive; microbiologist Angelito Abaoag, 39; and aerospace engineer Liaw Kok Eng, 39. The trio, who met in 2003, got together 'by chance', said Dr Chia.

Back then, all three had been leading comfortable lives working for multinational companies.

'But we were also at that age when we wanted to go out and do something on our own,' said Dr Chia.

Rather than just talking about how to 'make the world greener', they decided to put their words into action.

The plan: use a combination of microbes - nature's own rubbish collectors - and beneficial bacteria or probiotics to help farmers reduce their reliance on pesticides and antibiotics.

The heavy use of chemicals in agriculture, said Dr Chia, has been increasing the level of pollution. Meanwhile, over-reliance on antibiotics has created new strains of diseases increasingly resistant to the drugs.

This, he added, was one reason that the region's aqua-farming, already a 'high-risk' industry, was going into a 'downward spiral'.

For instance, the typical prawn farmer finds it increasingly difficult to rear bigger - and more profitable - prawns.

Today, most prawn farmers harvest the prawns after 120 days. Dr Chia said keeping prawns alive after this period is very difficult because of the build-up of sludge in the pond.

The sludge, a combination of prawn faecal matter, uneaten prawn food that has begun to rot and plankton, eventually causes the pond's ecology to crash - and the prawns perish.

Bionovar uses microbes to break down the sludge, said Dr Chia. Compared to using chemicals as an alternative, microbes are a 'non-intrusive way to nurse the pond back to its original healthy state', he added.

He said that when Bionovar first tried to sell its microbes, it found itself up against many more well-established companies, all peddling similar products.

Customers were sceptical of the company's claims, having been burnt once too often by competitors' unfulfilled promises.

In the end, Bionovar managed to sell only some 'tens of thousands' of dollars of biotech products.

The resulting move into prawn farming has produced good returns. He said last year's profits from selling the prawns has already surpassed its original biotech sales.

Last year's revenue was $1 million. This year's revenue is expected to be several times that amount.

The company's profit margins are fattened by probiotics - dietary supplements containing beneficial bacteria like those used in drinks like Yakult. They help boost the prawns' health and survival chances. Bigger prawns mean wider profit margins, said Dr Chia.

For instance, Pacific white prawns harvested after the typical 120-day cycle usually weigh 10g to 12g and retail at about $10 per kg. By comparison, the same prawns harvested after 180 days weigh about 35g and retail at $24 per kg, he added.

Bionovar, which believes its success in prawn farming is due to its biotech origins, continues to maintain a research facility at Nanyang Polytechnic to continue improving its microbes.

However, it no longer offers its products for sale. Instead, it keeps them for its own use and thereby maintains its competitive edge over other prawn farmers, But it does offer a profit-sharing scheme for those interested in working with the company.

Its early forays into prawn farming were not always successful, Dr Chia said.

While Bionovar's prawn-farming process, on paper, was sound, there were a few instances when the entire population of its prawn ponds died due to 'human error', he said.

Today, though, its 50 staff at its prawn farms are more reliable and such heart-stopping moments are a thing of the past, said Dr Chia. Bionovar has 15 more employees in Singapore doing research and development, sales and other functions.

Dangers that lie ahead include disease and industrial espionage, he added.

Disease has led to tiger prawns, previously the dominant species among cultivated prawns, being largely wiped out and replaced by the more disease-resistant Pacific white prawns, said Dr Chia.

He believes it is only a matter of time before a similar outbreak hits Pacific white prawns.

The company has already started working on anti-viral products aimed at suppressing such outbreaks among prawns, as well as improving their resistance to diseases.

And as for competitors looking to steal its biotech, Bionovar has put in place countermeasures to prevent them from reverse-engineering its products.

Any attempts to reproduce the biotech in large quantities will result in products with 'significantly reduced capability and potency', said Dr Chia.

[Aquaculture - fish and other seafood farming - will at least leave our children and grandchildren a taste of seafood. Some predictions are that the oceans will be depleted by 2040. And Seafood will be so rare only the wealthiest can afford them.]

Night lights, too bright

July 30, 2008

NEW YORK - TWINKLE, twinkle, little Internet router. And cell phone. And digital video recorder. And cable modem. And game console. And power strip. And TV - even though it's turned off.

Turn off the lamps in a living room or bedroom today, and chances are good the room will still be aglow with the tiny diode lights of a half-dozen gadgets.

They can be useful indicators of what state a gadget it is in, or where it is, but they also annoy people who'd rather not have lights shining in their faces when they're trying to sleep or watch movies.

To sleep in a dorm room full of electronics at Cornell University, Mr Rafael Garcia has covered some lights with black tape.

He turns his laptop upside-down and places a mouse pad and a picture of his girlfriend on his desktop computer to block its lights. His electric toothbrush has to come out of its charger, or it will blink through the night.

Unplugging the gadgets stops them from disturbing the darkness, but an unplugged laptop or toothbrush also doesn't charge. Other devices, such as computers, take time to shut down and start up.

'It's gotten way, way, worse, especially in the last year or two,' said Mr Shawn Therrien, a Los Angeles computer programmer.

'Every single thing we buy has little neon-blue flashing lights on it. ... Turn the light off and they shine like beacons.' Mr Therrien's bedside nemesis is an alarm clock that doubles as an iPod docking station.

'It lights up like the Fortress of Solitude,' he said, likening it to Superman's headquarters of glowing crystals. He tamed it with 12 strips of black tape.

Mr Tom Hespos, a partner in an advertising firm in New York, counted six glowing devices in his bedroom. One is an alarm clock with a blue backlight so strong he has to put a pillow between it and him.

And don't get him started on his Internet router, which has blinking blue light-emitting diodes.

'Whoever sees that glow through my window must think I'm keeping aliens in my spare room,' he said.

Blue LEDs have become particularly popular for electronics, and that's part of the problem. In dim light, our eyes are more sensitive to colours at the blue end of the spectrum, so blue LEDs look brighter, said Ms Mariana Figueiro of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lighting Research Center in Troy, New York.

When blue LEDs became available in 1993, following red, green and yellow, they first showed up only in high-end equipment.

Mr Andy Logan, principal designer at Frog Design in San Francisco, tries to steer manufacturers towards more subtle light designs rather than having the diodes shine like flashlights.

But he doesn't recommend designing products so that people can turn off the lights without turning the entire gadget off. The lights often indicate when a device shouldn't be unplugged, such as when a hard drive is writing data.

Outside the bedroom or dorm room, more blue LEDs might actually be a good thing - researchers are exploring whether they can be used to keep people alert and awake.

Scientists have discovered that a light-sensitive layer of the eye, separate from the part that allows us to see, sends signals to the body that affect rhythms of wakefulness and sleep.

That layer is also more sensitive to blue light than to any other colour, said Mr George Brainard, director of the light research programme at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

He has funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa)-affiliated National Space Biomedical Research Institute to study whether blue-light treatment can help keep astronauts more alert. Mr Figueiro is helping the Navy figure out whether blue light can help submariners adjust to their watch schedules.

For now, researchers don't believe the low levels of blue light emitted by gadgets is enough to change our sleep patterns.

'Some people are very, very sensitive,' Mr Brainard said, 'so I'd hate to say never'. -- AP

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ignorance may not always be bliss

July 29, 2008

By Ang Peng Hwa

THE lawsuit between two of Singapore's top bloggers is alarming. It may spill over into the larger blogging community and could even backfire on the two involved.

Given that no writer or editor can be free of errors all the time, defamation suits can and do crop up. But, often, those between a media organisation and an individual can be settled quietly.

It is, however, quite another matter altogether when one content producer sues another. This may set a precedent with far-reaching consequences.

First, some background. On June 30 and July 3, in blog entries that have since been removed, Ms Wendy Cheng made in her Xiaxue blog some unfavourable remarks about Ms Dawn Yang. On July 15, Ms Yang's lawyers sent a letter to Ms Cheng demanding an apology.

The rule of thumb in defamation suits is that one sends a lawyer's letter when one is reasonably confident of winning. Accordingly, the letter and the requisite letter of apology were sent. That is, Ms Yang expected Ms Cheng to apologise using the letter her lawyer had written.

If, however, the recipient refuses to comply, it must be followed very quickly by a suit. Otherwise, the recipient can go to town waving the lawyer's letter and say: 'Look, it was an empty threat.' Well, in this case, the lawsuit has been filed.

In a blog entry dated July 22, Ms Cheng posted Ms Yang's lawyer's letters online. If the statements in question were defamatory, this blog entry would have repeated the defamation.

The law is a two-edged sword: It can cut the wielder too. To avoid being sued, would Singapore blogs have to be sanitised by lawyers? If so, how edgy can they be? And what appeal would they have if they aren't edgy?

This particular libel suit may lead to self-censorship. In which case, the biggest losers would be the biggest bloggers.

To be sure, American newspapers have sued other American newspapers in US courts. But they take care to frame the issue so as to contain any spillover effects. But the same care does not seem to have been exercised in this case.

What should Ms Yang and Ms Cheng do?

Firstly, they should try to settle the matter offline and outside the court. Who knows what legal ruling might issue from this case, potentially hurting the blogosphere? No one can go to court 100 per cent sure of victory.

Secondly, if they insist on their day in court, they should confine the issues to minimise any 'spillover' effects. For example, they should not demand that the loser must run an advertisement in all the newspapers in Singapore to apologise.

This would set a precedent for future defamation cases involving blogging. And that in turn would set a precedent for all other media.

To avoid a 'spillover' of unintended legal consequences, the two bloggers should narrow the issue down to the essential, keeping in mind that they themselves would be subject to whatever rules emerge from this suit.

Thirdly, the Xiaxue blog claims that some donors have contributed money to Ms Cheng's legal defence. This is unwise. Such donations would fuel a war where there is no knowing who might be hit by the stray bullets.

Bloggers need to be educated about the law. Ms Cheng says in her blog FAQ: 'I took media law in school (and fared quite well for [sic] it too) and I know what I can say.'

That is a bold assertion indeed when defamation law can befuddle even the most seasoned of lawyers.

Two years ago, my colleagues and I at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information conducted a workshop on the laws affecting blogging. A small group of bloggers attended the workshop. The blogosphere was apparently upset that we had even dared to suggest bloggers needed any education that might inhibit their freedom of expression.

What can we say now? Clearly, ignorance is not bliss.

The writer is chair of the Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

S'pore parking not as costly as in other cities

July 28, 2008

By Jermyn Chow
SINGAPORE cars may be among the world's most expensive, but parking in prime areas here is far less taxing on the wallet.

Drivers here pay far less than their counterparts in cities such as London, Sydney or Tokyo, according to the first major survey of parking charges worldwide.

Property consultant Colliers International, which did the study, ranked Singapore 52 out of 138 cities for how much drivers paid to score a lot in the city centre for a day.

Drivers pay an average of $27.16 for eight hours, far less than the top price of $92.63 in London.

In the Asia-Pacific, it ranked seventh.

Also scoring well is Singapore's monthly season parking rate - at $247.60 a month. This falls far short of charges in many cities including Sydney ($1,054.02) and Hong Kong ($1,009.94).

Analysts spoken to said that prices here remain comparatively cheap - in tandem with a relatively cheaper cost of living.

This despite parking rates increasing by 10 to 20 per cent over the past two years.

Workers in the central business district (CBD) here also enjoy the luxury of more parking spaces: about 165 per 1,000 jobs, compared to space-short Hong Kong, which has only 23.

Carpark operators say they have no immediate plans to raise charges, much to the relief of motorists.

Said marketing executive Alvin Lam, 31, who drives to his workplace in Shenton Way every day: 'I have already paid so much to buy a car and on ERP charges, I cannot imagine having to spend even more on parking.'

The respite could be brief, warned Mr Nicholas Mak, property consultant Knight Frank's director of research and consultancy - a looming carpark crunch in the CBD could drive up parking charges.

Upcoming office buildings and shopping malls - especially those in Marina Bay - have to restrict the number of parking spaces they can have, under tightened regulations.

The Market Street Carpark, which has 704 parking lots in the CBD area, could soon come under the wrecking ball. It may be redeveloped into an office building, cutting the number of spaces available in the city.

Said Mr Mak: 'It will be a matter of time before carpark charges spiral upwards.'

[Articles like this are usually the first warning shot before some Minister or ministry start to make announcements that prices have to be adjusted because compared to our position in the world, our resources - in this case, parking lots - are underpriced and so encourages inefficiency. Expect to pay more for parking in the near future.]

S'pore charities collected $5.45b in 2006

July 29, 2008

That's how much donors gave to charities in 2006
Watchdog's report shows past scandals fail to erode generosity of givers
By Theresa Tan & Esther Tan

CHARITIES in Singapore earned $5.45 billion in 2006, a big jump from the $4.97 billion they drew in 2005.

Large, one-off donations - like the $100 million from the Khoo Teck Puat Foundation for a new hospital in Yishun - were a major reason for the rise, the Commissioner of Charities (COC) said in his annual report for last year.

The report, released yesterday, put paid to a popular perception: that donor fatigue, especially in the light of scandals involving big- name charities, had taken hold. In fact, individuals donated about 40 per cent more to Institutions of a Public Character (IPCs): $255 million last year, compared to $184 million in 2006. IPCs are charities that are allowed to give donors tax exemptions, such as the National Kidney Foundation.

The lion's share of the $5.45 billion earned in 2006 - 82 per cent - went to 65 large charities. Mainly religious groups, tertiary education institutions and health bodies, these outfits form a minuscule portion of the 1,890 charities here as of last year.

The New Creation Church, for example, told The Straits Times that its income from April 2006 to March last year was $42.8 million, compared to $40.1 million from April 2005 to March 2006. By contrast, about half of the charities here had annual incomes of under $250,000 in 2006.

The success of large charities in drawing big sums is due to their fund-raising machinery, brand name and other factors, say observers.

The surprise in the report, though, was the largesse shown by ordinary Singaporeans. Many charities had worried that there were just too many groups fighting for Joe Average's donation dollar, and that they would lose out. Just two weeks ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged more Singaporeans, especially those with means, to give to charities.

Chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre Tan Chee Koon said last year's robust economy may have contributed to increased giving.

She added: 'The good news is that we are moving towards a more informed giving public that is able to look beyond individual charities that got into trouble to the larger body of those that are focused on doing good well.'

IPCs received about $820 million in tax-deductible donations last year, up from $535 million in 2006.

Besides attracting more individual donations, IPCs also drew more support from companies, which gave $565 million last year, up from $457 million in 2006.

Charities derive income from donations, government grants and service fees, among other things.

The report also detailed work done by the COC to beef up the sector. Three groups - Children of Singapore Foundation, Children's Leukaemia Foundation and Club Sunshine - were shut down after 'serious irregularities and suspicious transactions in the administration of these charities were found'.

A probe into financial irregularities at the Ren Ci Hospital & Medicare Centre resulted in criminal charges being filed against its former head, Buddhist monk Ming Yi, and two others a fortnight ago.

Last year, the COC and its partners held governance reviews of 56 charities, aimed at helping them improve the way they are run.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Rewards, but at what hidden social cost?

July 26, 2008

By Lydia Lim
MONEY talks, and its voice is creeping into areas once considered off-limits.

Today, it has become acceptable to pay children to study, couples to have children and perhaps, in the not too distant future, people to give up one of their kidneys.

What is our society losing in the process? Do the benefits of monetising motivation exact a cost on social values?

I raise this issue as our society contemplates legalising the trade in human organs.

That we are considering such an option reflects how moral repugnance against such sales, which once used to be widespread, seems to be diminishing in the face of a global shortage of organs for transplant.

The straightforward, hard- nosed solution proposed by economists like Professor Gary Becker, whose work was cited by Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan in Parliament last Monday, is to allow a market in human organs where prices for kidneys and livers can rise to the point where supply matches demand.

Prof Becker, the 1992 Nobel laureate for economics, argued that 'markets in human organs are the best available way to enable people with defective organs to get transplants much more quickly than under the present system'.

'I do not find the arguments against allowing the sale of organs compelling, especially when weighed against the number of lives that would be saved by the increased supply stimulated by financial incentives,' he added.

Poised against him are the likes of the late, great British social scientist Richard Titmuss, who insisted on the superiority of altruism over price as the motivator for such donations.

Professor Titmuss based his arguments on a comparison between the American system of paying for blood and the British system, which relied on donations. He chronicled the contrast in a 1970 book entitled The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood To Social Policies.

He feared the impact that markets for human blood and organs would have on society.

'Atomistic private market systems 'free' men from any sense of obligation to or for other men regardless of the consequences to others who cannot reciprocate,' he wrote.

Despite what some economic literature would have us believe, most of us would agree that human beings are not motivated solely by a desire for selfish gain.

The father of modern economics, Adam Smith himself, recognised that.

'How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it,' he wrote.

But it is only in recent decades that economists have been able to test the truth of Prof Titmuss' warning that monetary rewards undermine people's sense of social obligation and altruism.

Drawing from psychology, these economists have developed methods to analyse changes in human motivation.

Rewards and regulation in the form of fines and other punishment drive people's behaviour from the outside. They lead to what is known as extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation, by contrast, drives people to perform an activity for which they receive no reward except the activity itself.

Social psychologists have observed a phenomenon known as 'the hidden cost of reward', in which external incentives can actually cut away at people's inner motivation for doing what they consider worthwhile.

In a 1994 paper, Swiss economist Bruno Frey analysed this phenomenon's implications for socio-economic policies. He examined different situations in which payment either 'crowded out', that is, diminished intrinsic motivation, or 'crowded in' and reinforced it.

He found that two factors contribute to the crowding out of intrinsic motivation.

First, the person in question perceives the external intervention as controlling, thus undermining his sense of self-determination.

Second, the external intervention sends the message that what he is currently doing is unsatisfactory, which then impairs his self-esteem.

What these findings bear out is the common-sense observation that money is not always the best way to get people to do what is right.

A market in human organs may very well crowd out altruistic donations - what one person chooses to do for another for no other reward than the gift itself.

The same applies for financial incentives aimed at getting couples to have more children.

Recall the anger of some couples against government interference in such a private matter.

Policymakers would do well to review any pro-family measures that intended recipients might view as controlling, lest they undermine people's inbuilt belief that children are good to have in and of themselves.

Ultimately, what Prof Frey's research does is sound a warning bell against an over-reliance on extrinsic motivating factors.

From a purely economic point of view, there might be nothing wrong in allowing rewards and punishment to crowd out intrinsic motivation altogether.

After all, cash bonuses and fines might be a far more efficient way to drive human behaviour than allowing people to decide based on their inner inclinations.

But how would that change the tenor of our society?

Psychologists have found that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are linked to different modes of behaviour. The first invites calculativeness, discipline and professionalism.

The second draws out playfulness, conviction, amateurish actions and innovativeness.

When we start buying and selling what was once priceless, are we paving the way for a society that is less compassionate and more calculative?

Will personal conviction dry up completely?

I would be loath to live in a society where money has so disarmed our inner moral compasses that the only reason to either perform or refrain from an activity is the price tag attached to such behaviour.

Wouldn't you?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

S'pore Govt wins kudos for smart PR

July 24, 2008

British academic says its strategy ensures that it communicates effectively in a tough situation

By Jeremy Au Yong

A BRITISH academic has cited Singapore as a model of a government that makes smart use of public relations.

This model, contends Dr Jonathan Woodier, 48, in a recently completed doctorate thesis, offers 'hope to all authoritarian regimes'.

The director of communications at Citibank in London made a number of bold arguments in his thesis analysing the media in Asia.

Besides highlighting how good PR is useful for governments, he also challenged the notion that global media outlets are deliberate agents of democratic change.

International media outlets, he argued, have been given more credit than is their due.

'CNN doesn't walk into Singapore and say it wants to change local politics,' he said.

His thesis, titled Karaoke Culture And The Evolution Of Personality Politics, contains a chapter on Singapore and focuses on its successful use of professional PR techniques.

'Communication in the current climate has become very confused. There is a lot of noise and the ability to cut through the noise has become very important,' said Dr Woodier, who was a journalist in Asia for nearly 20 years from the 1980s, including with CNBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

'Singapore has become very professional in its approach to communication,' he told The Straits Times.

That approach includes hiring public relations firms and giving media training to top leaders and spokesmen.

The handling of the fallout from Sars was a case in point.

In the wake of the 2003 outbreak, tourism was badly hit and PR firm Burson-Marsteller was hired to help get the industry back on its feet.

Campaigns launched included Singapore Roars, a six-month marketing drive to attract tourists; and Cool Singapore, to get hotels and retailers to practise preventive measures and to reassure customers that they were Sars-free.

'It was a fantastic effort. It was a time when the international community was threatening to ring-fence the country, but the Government and the PR campaign kept it open,' he said.

But beyond the tourism example, he said Singapore was an example of a place where 'local elites' were able to face the challenge of globalised media influencing their hold on power.

He put this point starkly in an interview with the University of Queensland after the completion of his PhD there: 'The longevity of the successful, media-controlled modern state as modelled by Singapore, in particular, holds out an example to offer hope to all authoritarian regimes.

'China and many other states in Asia look to Singapore in particular, as it has increasingly followed a sophisticated media strategy, using the techniques espoused by public relations experts to ensure that it communicates effectively in an increasingly complicated media environment.'

Getting a message across effectively 'will help protect your position' at a time of threats from all over, he said.

These threats include the flow of information across borders, the use of technology like SMS by small groups to get their messages out, and the fact that the 1997 Asian financial crisis may have eroded confidence in the model where development of a nation is entrusted to the state.

But low on that list of threats, contrary to popular belief, is the international media's impact.

'Outlets like CNN and CNBC are not interested in politicisation. They are interested in profit. There may be a subliminal influence - somebody in the Philippines watching a programme about the US may say: 'I want to live like that' - but that effect is not deliberate,' he said.

'So when leaders point a finger at global media, they are giving them more influence than they actually have.'

[While the media in and of themselves are not interested in politicisation, neither are they against the politicisation of any issue for the purpose of news reporting. In other words, if human rights agencies or special interests groups seek to cast aspersions or otherwise politicise issues, it is newsworthy and media will cover it. Moreover, as they are covering the news for their audience back home, they will couch the issue in terms and values that the audience back home will empathise and understand. While the media may not have a conscious or deliberate intent to impose their values on the non-western audience, the fact is that their home audience is western and the pitch of their stories will be normalised around western culture and values.]

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Should purchase and sale of organs be permitted?

July 23, 2008

By Gary Becker
THERE were about 50,000 persons on the waiting list for kidney transplants in the United States in the year 2000, but only about 15,000 kidney transplant operations were performed. This implies an average wait of almost four years before a person on the waiting list could receive a kidney transplant.

In addition, the cumulative gap between demand and supply for livers was over 10,000, which implies an average wait for a liver transplant of a couple of years.

In 2000, almost 3,000 Americans died while waiting for a kidney transplant, and half that number died while waiting for a liver transplant. Many also died in other countries while in the queue for an organ transplant. Some of these people would have died anyway from other causes, but there is little doubt that most died too early because they were unable to replace their defective organs quickly enough.

If altruism were sufficiently powerful, the supply of organs would be large enough to satisfy the demand, and there would be no need to change the present system. But this is not the case in any country that does a significant number of transplants. While the per capita number of organs donated has grown over time, demand has grown even faster. As a result, the length of the queue for organ transplants has grown significantly over time in most countries, despite exhortations and other attempts to encourage greater giving of organs.

In recent years, the US has taken several steps to improve the allocation of available organs among those needing them, such as giving greater priority to those who could benefit the most. These steps have helped, but they have not stopped the queues from growing, nor have they prevented large numbers of persons from dying while waiting for transplants.

Some countries use an 'opt out' system for organs, which means that cadaveric organs can be used for transplants unless persons who died had indicated that they did not want their organs to be so used. A study by Mr Sebastien Gay of the University of Chicago's Department of Economics shows that opt-out systems may yield somewhat more organs for transplants than the 'opt in' systems used by the US and many other nations, but they do not eliminate the long queues for transplants.

Balancing supply and demand

TO AN economist, the major reason for the imbalance between demand and supply of organs is that the US, and practically all other countries, forbid the purchase and sale of organs. This means that under present laws, people give their organs to be used after they die (or, with kidneys and livers, also while they are alive) only out of altruism and similar motives. In fact, practically all transplants of kidneys and livers with live donors are from one family member to another. With live liver transplants only a portion of the liver of a donor is used, and this grows over time in the recipient; the remaining portion regenerates over time in the donor.

If laws were changed so that organs could be purchased and sold, some people would give not out of altruism, but for the financial gain. The result would be an increased supply of organs. In a free market, the prices of organs for transplants would settle at the levels that would eliminate the excess demand for each type of organ.

In a paper on the potential of markets for live organ donations, Professor Julio Elias of the University at Buffalo and I estimate that the going price for live transplants would be about US$15,000 (S$20,300) for kidneys and about US$35,000 for livers. We recognise, however, that the data is too limited to be confident that these numbers would be close to equilibrium prices that equate supply and demand - they may be too high or too low. But even if our estimates were only half the actual equilibrium prices, the effect on the total cost of transplants would not be huge since current costs for live transplants in the US are in the range of US$100,000 for kidney transplants and US$175,000 for liver transplants.

An open market in organs would sharply curtail the present black market where some persons in need of transplants in effect buy organs by having transplants in poorer countries like Turkey, where enforcement against selling organs is slack.

Since the quality of the surgeons and hospitals in these countries is much lower than in developed countries, this often greatly reduces the quality of the organs used and how well they are matched to the organ types of recipients.

What the critics say

STILL, despite these strong arguments in favour of allowing commercial markets in organs, I do not expect such markets to be permitted any time in the near future because the opposition is fierce. Some critics simply dismiss markets as 'commodification' of body parts and deem it immoral. More thoughtful critics suggest that allowing organs to be bought and sold might actually reduce the total number of organs available for transplants because the number of organs donated from altruistic motives would decline by more than the organs provided because of the pay.

That scenario, however, is extremely unlikely since presently only a small fraction of potentially usable organs are available for transplants. Compensating persons either for allowing their organs to be used after their death, or for kidneys and livers to be used while they are alive, would enormously widen the scope of the potential organ market.

Another set of critics agree that the effect on the total supply of organs from allowing them to be purchased and sold would be large and positive, but they object to markets because of a belief that the commercially motivated part of the organ supply would mainly come from the poor. In effect, they believe the poor would be induced to sell their organs to the middle classes and the rich.

It is hard to see any reasons to complain if organs of poor persons were sold with their permission after they died, and the proceeds went as bequests to their parents or children. The complaints would be louder if, for example, mainly poor persons sold one of their kidneys for live kidney transplants. But why would poor donors be better off if this option were taken away from them? If so desired, a quota could be placed on the fraction of organs that could be supplied by persons with incomes below a certain level, but would that improve the welfare of poor persons?

Moreover, it is far from certain that a dominant fraction of the organs would come from the poor in a free market. Many of the organs used for live liver or kidney transplants are still likely to be supplied by relatives. In addition, many middle-class persons would be willing to have their organs sold after they died if the proceeds went to children, parents, and other relatives.

Although this is not an exact analogy, predictions that a voluntary army would be filled mainly with poor persons have turned out to be wrong. Many of the poor do not have the education and other qualifications to be acceptable to the armed forces. In the same way, many poor persons in the US would have organs that would not be acceptable in a market system because of organ damage due to drug use or various diseases.

Still another criticism of markets in organs is that people would be kidnapped for their organs, and that totalitarian governments would sell organs of prisoners. This would happen, but not likely on a significant scale since the source of organs offered for sale could be determined in most cases without great difficulty.

A criticism specific to a commercial market for live transplants is that some persons would act impulsively out of short-run financial needs, and that they would regret their decision to sell a kidney or allow their liver to be used for a transplant if they had taken more time.

I do not know how important such impulsive behaviour would be, but it could be sharply reduced by having a month or longer waiting period between the time someone agrees to supply an organ and the time it can be used. They would be allowed to change their mind during the interim.

Many of the arguments against the sale of organs indirectly stem from an influential book in the early 1970s by the British social scientist Richard Titmuss, The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood To Social Policy. He argues against allowing blood to be sold for transfusions, and compares the British system, which did not allow the purchase of blood, with the American system, which did allow it to be purchased.

Titmuss basically ignored the fact that the American system was getting more blood per capita than the British system. Instead, he concentrated on the quality of the blood. Since a significant fraction of the American blood came from individuals with hepatitis and other diseases that could not be screened out, the blood given under the British system tended to be healthier. In the absence of effective screening techniques, perhaps shutting down the commercial market was an effective way (at the time) to improve blood quality. But that is no longer the case as highly effective methods have since been developed to determine whether blood is contaminated with various types of hepatitis, HIV, and other transmittable diseases. Under present screening technology, a market in blood yields much more blood, and with enough diligence, its quality can be maintained at a high level.

My conclusion is that markets in organs are the best available way to enable persons with defective organs to get transplants much more quickly than under the present system. I do not find the arguments against allowing the sale of organs compelling, especially when weighed against the number of lives that would be saved by the increased supply stimulated by financial incentives.

The writer is University Professor of Economics and of Sociology at the University of Chicago and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution

This article first appeared in Capital Ideas, April 2006. It was referred to by Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan when he spoke about organ trading in Parliament on Monday.

Self-defence claim hard to believe, says judge

July 23, 2008

By Khushwant Singh

A JUDGE expressed scepticism yesterday at the claims of an accused murderer who said he was forced to kill his lover in self defence.

Seafood-stall owner Eu Lim Hoklai said his China-born mistress was standing behind him when she stabbed him repeatedly in the stomach following an argument two years ago.

But Justice Kan Ting Chiu said the story was hard to believe.

'It would be so much simpler for her to stab you in your back instead of reaching over to pull up your shirt and then stabbing you on the front right side of the abdomen.'

The High Court judge made the comments on the ninth day of Eu's trial for murder. The 54-year-old is accused of killing Madam Yu Hongjin, 30 in her Ang Mo Kio massage parlour on June 18, 2006. Eu suffered nine stab wounds which the prosecution claims were self-inflicted.

Meanwhile, a re-enactment of the killing, which was set to include an aspiring actress playing the role of Madam Yu and a cardboard cut-out of the knife, was not performed yesterday.

The judge adjourned the trial at about 4pm after Eu's lawyer, Mr Subhas Anandan, said his client had slept badly and was feeling giddy.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Winston Cheng has set up a cubicle and massage bed in one corner of the courtroom for the re-enactment, which observers considered unusual.

Calling DPP Cheng 'the most drama counsel' he has come across, Justice Kan gave permission for the re-enactment but said it should have been done during the initial investigations and not at the trial two years later.

'Then, memories would be fresh,' he pointed out.

The judge also had strong words when DPP Cheng asked for a video camera from the High Court to film the re-enactment.

Justice Kan flatly refused and said: 'This court's position is one of strict neutrality. We cannot be helping either side.

'If you don't know this, you better learn it now.'

Unlike previous days, the public gallery was packed yesterday with about 50 people.

The trial continues today.

[DPP Cheng's colleagues must be having a lot of fun teasing the most "drama counsel" in Singapore. Meanwhile Jack Neo, Eric Khoo, and Roystan Tan better watch out. Competition is in the wings. Wonder if Colin Goh was ever called the most "drama counsel" in Singapore.]

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

S'pore cancels Asean song-and-dance: Surin

July 22, 2008

SINGAPORE has cancelled Asean's traditional night of skits and stage acts by ministers at the end of their annual talks, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said on Tuesday.

He said he did not know why the Singaporeans had decided to pull the plug on what he described as 'one of the highlights' of the sometimes dull annual foreign ministerial meetings.

'That's the privilege of the host,' he said. 'It was the decision of the host not to (keep the tradition) but I agree it was one of the highlights.'

He said some of the ministers had taken it 'too seriously' in previous years.

'The point was to relax and bond,' Mr Surin said.

Singaporean officials refused to publicly confirm that the gala dinner at the presidential palace on Wednesday would be a strictly formal event featuring professional entertainment but no ministerial performances.

They would not comment on their reasons for cancelling the annual behind-closed-doors bonding session, highlights of which invariably leaked to the media.

Ministers from the 10 Asean countries - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - plus dialogue partners such as the United States and Australia were expected at the dinner. -- AFP

[It's no surprise. Singaporeans can do many things. Performing arts is not one of them. :-)]

Changes to organ transplant law to meet demand for transplants

July 21, 2008

SINGAPORE is considering legalising kidney trading to help meet demand for kidney transplants, the city-state's health minister said on Monday.

The Health Ministry will examine the feasibility of providing payments to unrelated donors to augment the supply of kidneys, Mr Khaw Boon Wan said in Parliament, acknowledging that the suggestion has stirred controversy.

'We should not reject any idea just because it is radical or controversial,' Mr Khaw said. 'We may be able to find an acceptable way to allow a meaningful compensation for some living, unrelated kidney donors, without breaching ethical principles or hurting the sensitivities of others.'

Mr Khaw said the ministry would review possible changes to current legislation to allow payments for donations from third parties such as those from the charity and religious sectors. Under the proposal, which would need to be approved by Parliament to become law, patients would also get help in finding donors.

'There are desperate patients out there wishing to live and desperately poor people willing to exchange a kidney for a hopefully improved life,' he said. 'Criminalising organ trading does not eliminate it ... it merely breeds a black market.'

Mr Khaw also said the Health Ministry would push to amend existing laws on organ transplants to remove an age limit on deceased donors, currently set at 60 years, because 'the suitability of the organ depends on its condition rather than the age of the donor'.

The two initiatives should enable Singapore to carry out 70 per cent of the kidney transplants needed every year - up from 50 per cent currently, the minister said.

The two initiatives should raise Singapore's sufficiency in kidney transplants from 50 per cent to 70 per cent, the minister said.

He said about 1,000 new cases of kidney failure are diagnosed every year, with nearly 40 per cent unable to survive the first year.

Mr Khaw's comments follow the cases of two Indonesian men who were jailed and fined by a Singapore court earlier this month after being convicted of agreeing to sell their kidneys to two patients in Singapore.

Selling or buying organs or blood is illegal in Singapore, as in many other countries, and carries a penalty of up to 12 months' jail, or a fine of up to S$10,000 or both. -- AP

[The cost of dialysis is $130 per session, at 3 sessions a week, or about $20,000 per year. Median survival rate overseas is about 3 years. NKF apparently has a higher survival rate but some have said it is because they give priority to younger patients. But assuming a 5 to 7 year median for dialysis patients, the total cost would be $100,000 to $140,000 cost. This is what a kidney is worth.

An organ sale market funded by the govt should provide $50,000 to each donor/organ seller (tax-free) and a lifetime of medical care free. And charge the recipient $50,000 to $100,000 (or more) if they can afford it.

For a low income Singaporean, $50,000 is about 2 to 4 years of income. That can give them quite a headstart or boost in their life. With 1000 new kidney failures a year, and so 1000 kidneys required, the budget required is $50m, less some cost recovery from the high income recipients.

Any recipient with annual income of $50k and above should pay for their kidneys either in lump sum or instalments. The cost of the kidney will be one year's salary. The payment should go back to the Organ Purchase Fund.]

Success makes it a scapegoat

July 21, 2008

By Jonathan Eyal
ANOTHER week, another pinprick. In an article published last week in The Guardian, one of Britain's most influential dailies, Singapore was yet again disparaged as a modern, but authoritarian state.

Writer John Kampfner - a distinguished local columnist and the author of the broadside - was not concerned with Singapore as such: He was merely using the Republic as part of a broader attack on the policies of the British government.

His contention was that ordinary Singaporeans allegedly gave up their personal freedoms in return for prosperity and that, if Britons are not careful, the same could happen to them.

But Mr Kampfner's article is part of an emerging pattern: Reports from a variety of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international media sources periodically portray Singapore as a wealthy yet less than attractive state.

What accounts for this outpouring of venom about a country which, when all is said and done, remains just a tiny speck on the world map? The answer is rather simple. Singapore is merely a convenient scapegoat for a deeper crisis of confidence which now grips the West.

As such, the flow of criticism is likely to continue, and very often the Republic can do little more than just grin and bear it.

To a large extent, success is Singapore's biggest problem. It is hardly the only Asian country to undergo a remarkable economic and political transformation. But it is the only Asian nation whose academics and politicians are completely plugged into the current Western intellectual circuit. So, Singapore's international visibility far outstrips the country's actual size.

One explanation for this big footprint may be prosaic: the ability of Singaporeans to think and speak in English. To be sure, other Asian nations have many commentators and academics fluent in foreign tongues.

Yet few Asian countries have an education system which so faithfully replicates that of key Western states: Singapore's intellectuals not merely speak the language, but know how to fashion their arguments in a digestible way.

More significantly, because their country is so small, globalisation is not merely a choice for Singapore's thinkers, but a way of life. So, unlike academics in many other Asian countries, those in Singapore always extrapolate from their own national experience to that of the wider world.

Their message is complex and varied, but ultimately boils down to a few key propositions.

The West - Singaporean thinkers frequently assert - is experiencing a relative decline. Western nations no longer enjoy a monopoly on ideas. Their mechanical advice for political and economic development - including various recipes for democracy - are no longer universally relevant. And the Western-dominated international system is no longer tenable.

Of course, some of these arguments have been advanced by Western intellectuals as well. As long ago as 1959, celebrated sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset noted that Western-style democracy only takes root after economic development, and not the other way around.

[Democracy comes from Economic Development which comes from Stability which often comes from Authoritarian if not Totalitarian Govt. Democracy is a luxury only the rich can afford?]

Earlier this decade, Dr Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International magazine, criticised the West's obsession with exporting the mechanics of democracy. And most Western academics now accept that the West is in decline.

So, why should the 'Singapore Model' of development grate so much? Part of the answer is that Singapore's example is still generally misunderstood.

A view which often prevails in Western academic circles is that Singapore's leaders had a master plan for development right from the first day of the country's independence, and that this model was, supposedly, designed to be the antithesis of the West.

The fact that Singapore's government experimented with many different policies over the years, or that Singapore's government remains 'paranoid' - as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once candidly put it - about its performance never registers with Western academics.

Western criticism of Singapore usually falls into two categories. One school of thought argues that the Republic still has plenty of problems: look behind the glitzy facade and you'd find many warts.

Another school of thought accepts that Singapore is successful, but claims that its example is irrelevant: It is just a small, beautifully-decorated fish bowl which cannot be replicated in a big ocean.

But both critical trends converge on one point: Singapore is a laboratory experiment which should have failed but which, for some apparently devious reason, has instead succeeded.

Meanwhile, some international NGOs fret about what Singapore means for the development of other nations. Over the past decade, countries as far apart as China, Russia and the Gulf states have explicitly praised the Singapore model as the one they wish to follow.

Yet again, the facts are more complex. Few countries are proposing to copy Singapore to the letter: They are merely borrowing specific management techniques and government solutions.

Just consider the crop of recent examples. The Punjab police chief in Pakistan copied Singapore's experience in managing road traffic, India's Minister for Women looked at Singapore's practice of controlling the migration of maids, Mauritius applied Singapore's regulations on foreign law firms, and Japan copied the Singapore Exchange model by creating a comprehensive bourse able to handle a variety of securities and derivatives.

Meanwhile, South Korea's President Lee Myung Bak has asked his civil servants to study Singapore's experience in rooting out corruption, and Abu Dhabi has launched a civil service college on the Singapore model.

In all these cases, far from being anti-Western, the Singapore model actually strengthened Western policy objectives. Indeed, during a recent visit to Singapore, Britain's Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells praised the Republic for its innovative measures in dealing with youth radicalisation.

More significantly, no Singaporean politician has suggested that the Singapore model should be exported wholesale. 'We certainly do not claim to be a model for exact replication,' President S R Nathan told Singapore's civil servants last year.

And, in a recent speech to Harvard University students, Foreign Minister George Yeo went further by suggesting that the learning process goes in both directions. 'Without the American dream becoming the Asian dream, today's Asia would not be possible,' he told them.

But none of these reassurances seem to work: Western NGOs resent Singapore because they see it as an exporter of a model which challenges their cherished assumptions of development, the so-called 'Washington consensus' which decrees that 'good governance' - by which they mean all the technical trappings of democracy - are a prerequisite for economic prosperity.

The reasons why facts are no longer important is that Western policymakers are growing desperate over increasing evidence that, far from being unique, Singapore-like development theories are actually working in an increasing number of states.

But, while it may difficult to criticise Russia's or China's development, it is relatively easy to hit at Singapore - a small country which can be criticised with impunity. So, Singapore is a battering ram for broader frustrations: it is merely a risk-free tool for bigger political battles.

Many Singaporean intellectuals are trying to move the discussion on to more productive lines. Professor Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, recently published an acclaimed book - New Asian Hemisphere - which sought to debunk many of the prevailing Western myths.

And many other Singaporean intellectuals are regular participants at various international academic gatherings. But still, the assault on Singapore looks set to continue.

Yet Singaporeans can also derive satisfaction from the current climate. First, they are the subject of international curiosity because theirs is a system which works.

And they are being scrutinised precisely because people suspect that the Singapore model does have wider applications.

So, this is one instance when criticism may be the sincerest mode of flattery. Regardless of how much it stings.

[More important than foreign scrutiny, is our self-scrutiny and reflection. What sort of Singapore do we want. What is important. What do we value. We need to know ourselves to know the answers.]

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Videogames getting minds of their own

July 20, 2008

LOS ANGELES - VIDEOGAMES are getting smarter with virtual enemies improvising during battles, storylines shifting based on moral choices and in-game characters sending players text messages for help.

Titles unveiled at the just-concluded Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles feature artificial intelligence (AI), making in-game worlds more realistic and less predictable.

'There was a lot we had to do,' Mr Peter Hines of Bethesda Softworks said as AFP tried the studio's eagerly-awaited 'Fallout 3' shooter game, set in a post nuclear war Washington, DC.

AI software in 'Fallout 3' lets enemies change tactics depending on what players do.

'They are being smart about being in a combat situation,' Mr Hines said.

The game is also designed so that players' choices effect which computer-controlled factions become their allies or enemies.

A 'Project Origin' action horror game built by Monolith Productions for Warner Interactive Studios boasts 'vastly enhanced' AI that makes enemies act realistically and use environments to their advantage.

'See, he threw the car door open because it was the smartest way to take cover,' a Monolith developer said of an on-screen adversary while showing AFP the game.

'That isn't scripted. He is figuring it out as he goes.' Custom software that Gearbox Software built 'Borderlands' video game generates a 'near-endless' array of missions, enemies, environments and weapons.

'Borderlands' is an 'evolutionary leap in game design and technology,' 2K Games president Christoph Hartmann said when it was announced that the title will be published by his firm's parent company, Take-Two Interactive.

'Borderlands' is set on a lawless planet called Pandora where bandits rove badlands with a 'very 'Mad Max' vibe,' Gearbox president Randy Pickford said while demonstrating the game.

The videogame's software has generated more than a half million weapons and hidden them about Pandora, surprising even its creators.

'Wow, that's a cool gun and it has a blade,' Mr Pickford said to a colleague playing the game. 'You definitely want to pick that one up.'

Lionshead Studio built AI into an animated dog that serves as an enviable companion for players of 'Fable 2,' according to the firm's creative director Peter Molyneaux.

'Fable 2' also has a 'dynamic landscape' that changes depending on whether players prefer to visit towns, linger in faux taverns, or hack and slash adversaries, Molyneaux said during an E3 preview of the game.

Nintendo software developer Katsuya Eguchi's 'Animal Crossing' game inhabited by creatures with lives that go one whether players are not in-world.

'Even when you aren't playing the game the animals get up in the morning and go to bed at night,' Mr Eguchi said.

The multi-player online game for Nintendo's Wii consoles is time-synched to give people the illusion they are playing together, no matter when they venture into the virtual realm.

Nintendo is also marketing 'MotionPlus' devices that attach to Wii controllers so the motion-sensing devices pick up more nuanced movements.

Sony Online Entertainment is putting finishing touches on an online secret agent game called 'The Agency' that gives players command of operatives that work around the clock.

If operatives need help, they can send real-world team leaders email or mobile telephone text messages, Mr Matt Wilson of 'The Agency' development team told AFP.

'You might send an operative to find a Colombian drug lord, then be sitting in a bar and get a text message telling you he found the target,' Wilson said.

'The bad news is he was captured and they want a million dollars ransom or they'll kill him. You'll hit 1 on the phone to pay the ransom or 2 to refuse.' -- AFP

[Skynet is coming! Skynet is coming! :-)]

Crime and punishment

July 20, 2008

By Andrew Raven

A lovelorn soldier slips out of camp with a high-powered rifle and a handful of bullets.

He's found 20 hours later in the bathroom of a downtown mall, apparently weighing the pros and cons of rampage.

Fast-forward to July 7, and the baby-faced corporal is standing in court after admitting to a few weapons-related charges.

His sentence: just over nine years behind bars and 18 strokes of the cane.

The penalty for Dave Teo Ming pained even the judge who handed it down.

'My heart hurts for you,' he told the national serviceman who went absent without official leave after being dumped by his girlfriend.

'(It's unfortunate) that so young a man will have to spend some of the best years of his life in prison and have to undergo so many strokes of the cane.'

The case illustrated the stark differences between the West's touchy-feely approach to crime and Singapore's brand of justice.

But, while perhaps a little jarring to my Western sensibilities, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Singapore's tough stance on crime has helped make the country one of the safest in the world.

You're four times more likely to be murdered in my birthplace of Canada than here, according to the United Nations. (And 36 times more likely in Ecuador.)

The length of Teo's sentence surprised me because I come from a place that has the tendency to coddle criminals.

When I was working in northern Canada, the local government spent tens of millions on a jail that featured panoramic windows, individual cells and even a sprawling sauna built into the side of a rocky hill.

The correctional centre represented a softer approach towards crime - one that emphasises rehabilitation over punishment.

It was the culmination of 30 years of increasingly liberal thinking about the best ways to deal with criminals. (The same ideas that see police call suspects 'clients'.)

The jury is still out on whether or not these changes reduce crime. But the approach has largely been panned by a Canadian public frustrated with the five-star treatment and slap-on-the-wrist sentences.

It seems to be the polar opposite here, where most people appear solidly behind the justice system.

'We're a pragmatic people,' someone told me when I asked whether they thought jail sentences were too long.

'Crime is low. So why change?'

My first introduction to Asian justice came last year when I was working in Hanoi and a couple of drug runners were sentenced to hang for ferrying heroin.

They were poor, likely uneducated and undoubtedly small players in a much bigger game.

'This place is harsh,' an expat co-worker told me. 'You've got to look out.'

While not the biggest fan of the molly-coddling Canadian system, I thought the executions were a little barbaric.

But over time, I came to realise that many of the cultural stigmas that surround capital punishment in the West don't exist here. And it was a little self-centred of me to think that they should.

So, while the jail sentences are still sometimes surprising, I'm coming to understand them a little better.

[Comment: I think there should be a distinction between punishment for the crime, and rehabilitation for the offender. One does not preclude the other. The crime has resulted in a loss to society, whether that loss is tangible (property, life, etc) or intangible (sense of security, risk, fear, etc), and the punishment should reflect or repair that loss. At the same time the offender may need to be rehabilitated. But that is a separate issue. One should not confuse the issue by equating "he has learnt his lesson" with "he has paid for his crime". But for every one expat like the writer, there would be another or more who continues to hold onto their own "western" philosophy. Nothing wrong with that. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination, I say. At least people who agree with Singapore's philosophy can come to Singapore to enjoy this security, and those who prefer the western model, can go West. Vote with your feet.]

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Singapore's Hot Girls

Extract from:
Where to find the sexiest girls in the world (outside the US)

It’s all about the accent. Singaporean English (Singlish) is at once sophisticated, endearing, cute, and sexy. Somewhere between public school Londoner, New Delhi socialite, and urban Chinese, this is English as it should be spoken.

Singapore’s year round humidity and relative affluence means that the summer range of fashion is constantly updated and the ladies of this micro-state are always a step ahead of it. Fashion-conscious, self aware, and demure, Singapore is smoldering!

[So an outsider has actually found Singlish to be "sophisticated, endearing, cute, and sexy." And calls it "English as it should be spoken." And I've been trying so hard to not speak Singlish!]

Friday, July 18, 2008

3 injured in shooting accident at gun-control briefing in China

July 18, 2008

BEIJING - THREE journalists were injured in south-west China when a gun went off at a press conference called by Chinese police to highlight the success of a gun-control campaign, state media said.

The press conference took place in Nanchong in Sichuan province to publicise the results of a campaign by the city's police to seize illegal weapons, the Beijing News reported on Friday.

According to Mr Zheng Chongjun, deputy head of the political division of Nanchong police, some of the reporters asked to take photos of the guns seized, the newspaper reported.

One of the police officials mishandled a homemade weapon, releasing the trigger and dropping it to the ground.

It was unclear from the report whether the gun contained bullets or shotgun pellets but it said one local journalist needed surgery after being hit in several areas of the body including his ankle, crotch, and chest. -- AFP

[Alternate Headlines: China shoots itself in foot. Is it bad luck, or just that with the focus on China, and the need for news means unlucky news like this makes it to print?]

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Low-carb diet best for weight, cholesterol

July 17, 2008

ATLANTA - THE Atkins diet may have proved itself after all: A low-carb diet and a Mediterranean-style regimen helped people lose more weight than a traditional low-fat diet in one of the longest and largest studies to compare the duelling weight-loss techniques.

A bigger surprise: The low-carb diet improved cholesterol more than the other two. Some critics had predicted the opposite.

However, all three approaches - the low-carb diet, a low-fat diet and a so-called Mediterranean diet - achieved weight loss and improved cholesterol.

The study is remarkable not only because it lasted two years, much longer than most, but also because of the huge proportion of people who stuck with the diets - 85 per cent.

Researchers approached the Atkins Foundation with the idea for the study. But the foundation played no role in the study's design or reporting of the results, said the lead author, Ms Iris Shai of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Other experts said the study - being published on Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine - was highly credible.

The research was done in a controlled environment - an isolated nuclear research facility in Israel. The 322 participants got their main meal of the day, lunch, at a central cafeteria.

'The workers can't easily just go out to lunch at a nearby Subway or McDonald's,' said Dr Meir Stampfer, the study's senior author and a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In the cafeteria, the appropriate foods for each diet were identified with coloured dots, using red for low-fat, green for Mediterranean and blue for low-carb.

As for breakfast and dinner, the dieters were counselled on how to stick to their eating plans and were asked to fill out questionnaires on what they ate, Dr Stampfer said.

The low-fat diet - no more than 30 per cent of calories from fat - restricted calories and cholesterol and focused on low-fat grains, vegetables and fruits as options. The Mediterranean diet had similar calorie, fat and cholesterol restrictions, emphasizing poultry, fish, olive oil and nuts.

The low-carb diet set limits for carbohydrates, but none for calories or fat. It urged dieters to choose vegetarian sources of fat and protein.

Most of the participants were men; all men and women in the study got roughly equal amounts of exercise, the study's authors said.

Average weight loss for those in the low-carb group was 10.3 pounds (4.67 kilograms) after two years. Those in the Mediterranean diet lost 10 pounds (4.54 kilograms), and those on the low-fat regimen dropped 6.5 pounds (2.95 kilograms).

More surprising were the measures of cholesterol. Critics have long acknowledged that an Atkins-style diet could help people lose weight but feared that over the long term, it may drive up cholesterol because it allows more fat.

But the low-carb approach seemed to trigger the most improvement in several cholesterol measures, including the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL, the 'good' cholesterol. For example, someone with total cholesterol of 200 and an HDL of 50 would have a ratio of 4 to 1. The optimum ratio is 3.5 to 1, according to the American Heart Association.

Doctors see that ratio as a sign of a patient's risk for hardening of the arteries. 'You want that low,' Dr Stampfer said.

The ratio declined by 20 per cent in people on the low-carb diet, compared to 16 per cent in those on the Mediterranean and 12 per cent in low-fat dieters.

The study is not the first to offer a favourable comparison of an Atkins-like diet. Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year found overweight women on the Atkins plan had slightly better blood pressure and cholesterol readings than those on the low-carb Zone diet, the low-fat Ornish diet and a low-fat diet that followed US government guidelines.

The heart association has long recommended low-fat diets to reduce heart risks, but some of its leaders have noted the Mediterranean diet has also proven safe and effective.

The heart association recommends a low-fat diet even more restrictive than the one in the study, said Dr Robert Eckel, the association's past president who is a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado-Denver.

It does not recommend the Atkins diet. However, a low-carb approach is consistent with heart association guidelines so long as there are limitations on the kinds of saturated fats often consumed by people on the Atkins diet, Dr Eckel said.

The new study's results favoured the Atkins-like approach less when subgroups such as diabetics and women were examined.

Among the 36 diabetics, only those on the Mediterranean diet lowered blood sugar levels. Among the 45 women, those on the Mediterranean diet lost the most weight.

'I think these data suggest that men may be much more responsive to a diet in which there are clear limits on what foods can be consumed,' such as an Atkins-like diet, said Dr William Dietz, of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

'It suggests that because women have had more experience dieting or losing weight, they're more capable of implementing a more complicated diet,' said Dr Dietz. -- AP

Feeling alien among Asians

[On being Singaporean.
An old article - almost a year now]

July 29, 2007

By Colin Goh
TWO weeks ago, the Wife and I moved from Brooklyn to Flushing, in New York City's borough of Queens.

Flushing is perhaps best known to the rest of the world as the site of the US Open, although we didn't move there for the tennis. If there was any particular attraction, it was probably the food. (At this point, my friends may register their total lack of surprise.)

Flushing is home to New York's largest ethnic Chinese community, and is the second largest Chinatown in the United States.

Here, I can get mee pok with ter kua (pig's liver) and other porcine spare parts at 2am, laksa with hum, char kway teow (also with hum), mee siam (alas, sans hum), Hainanese chicken rice, and even Peking duck sold at $1 a slice. There are also many Indians, Koreans and Malaysians, and of course, their respective eateries.

Surrounded by fellow Asians, we should have felt right at home. But...

The first hint that we were different came just after we'd moved in and went to the Indian restaurant at the end of our street specialising in dosa and vada, which we know as 'thosai' and 'vadai'. In Singapore, I'd have thosai at least once a week in Ghim Moh, and I was thrilled I could now get it every day, even in New York.

But when we stepped inside, everyone, both staff and customers, turned and stared at us like we were Martians. And when we sat at a table by the window, we also noticed that whenever Chinese people walked by, they'd do a double take.

The owner later told us we were the first Chinese ever to step into the place, even though the neighbourhood teemed with Chinese people.

Similarly, we never, ever saw an Indian family come for dim sum at the Cantonese restaurant or zhajiang mian at the Taiwanese cafe either. It seemed strange to us, as Singaporeans, that despite the mixed community, there was so little cross-makan traffic. Had we crossed some invisible boundary?

We had come expecting familiarity, only to find we were aliens even to fellow Asians, which somehow accentuated our feelings of difference.

This was reinforced when we came home one evening to find our next door neighbour - a Chinese man - standing outside his house, bare-shirted and thwatting his leg, I suppose, to stimulate circulation.

This was the first time we'd met. We'd always suspected Chinese people were staying next door because they'd paved over their entire garden with concrete. But what confirmed it was the very first thing he said to us, as he thwatted away.

Not 'hello', not 'nihao', but (thwat, thwat), 'Zu duo shao qian (How much is your rent?)'. And here, I'd thought Singaporeans were gauche for always asking each other which district they lived in back home.

The Wife and I looked at each other, and after an awkward pause, we told him. It seemed rude not to, especially on a first encounter. He was incredulous. 'For one room?' he ejaculated, thwat, thwat.

No, two. 'Two?' he frowned. 'Why do you need two rooms?' We explained we needed an office as we often work from home. He didn't seem to understand this concept.

We learnt that he was a construction worker from Shandong, and one of six tenants in the house, every room of which had been rented out, including the living room, apparently a common practice in Flushing.

'Rent me your other room,' he said, thwatilly. 'My lease runs out next month.' We hesitated, and he added, 'The place is too large for you!' The Wife politely said our landlord wouldn't allow us to sublet. 'Just say I'm your brother!' he persisted, completely serious. We laughed nervously and changed the subject, but he seemed to have lost interest in chatting.

When we asked if he'd ever been to the Indian restaurant at the end of the street, he shook his head. 'Indian curry is funny,' he said. 'Not like Chinese curry.'

Before leaving, he asked where we were from. Taiwan? Hong Kong? Singapore, we said. 'Ah, waidi ren,' he said, thwat. 'Foreigners.' Well, that sealed it. With a thwat, no less.

Singaporeans often debate whether we can have a national identity, or if all we can ever be is an agglomeration of fragmented communities. We also talk of having to preserve our mother tongues and cultures.

After our experience here, I'm convinced we already have a national identity, even if it's by exclusion. Chinese Singaporeans can never truly be Chinese Chinese. I'm also not sure we should try too hard to be so.

I may have my mother's tongue, but I want it to taste more than just one kind of curry.

On Human Rights

July 12, 2008
Speak up and say what human rights mean to you

By Chua Lee Hoong

HUMAN rights issues have been much in the news recently.

First you had reports of the various human rights groups meeting in Singapore to discuss Asean's plans to set up an Asean-wide human rights mechanism.

Then there was the spirited exchange between women's rights activist Constance Singam and Attorney-General Walter Woon following from the latter describing as fanatics those who seek to impose with religious zeal their own human rights notions on Singapore.

Most recently, there was the report by the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (Ibahri) slamming Singapore's human rights record.

Discuss human rights, and invariably you get a high- decibel debate. Alas, the sound and fury often mean no one ends up any wiser.

There are various points to be settled in the tangle.

# Are there human rights in Singapore?

# Does the Government respect human rights?

# What are human rights anyway?

To the first two questions, the Government insists the answer is yes. But it says, in response to question three, that the interpretation of those rights is its right, not that of organisations like Ibahri.

Its position, in short, is that on human rights, there is no extraterritorial jurisdiction.

In contrast, human rights advocates both outside and within Singapore are pushing for their own interpretation of those rights. Some are taking the opportunity offered by Asean's move towards a human rights mechanism to do so.

What exactly are human rights?

The notion that there can be universal rights transcending gender, race and national boundaries did not come about until a few decades ago.

Promulgations like the United States Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen existed 200 years earlier. They even proclaimed certain rights as 'universal' - but their definition of universality did not include blacks and women.

Today, there is still little international consensus, even though just about every country has signed on to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration is an aspirational statement written with enough wiggle room to satisfy all governments.

Freedom of expression - Article 19 in the Universal Declaration - is most commonly championed by human rights groups in relation to Singapore.

But Article 19 is just one of 30 Articles. There is also Article 29 which notes that limits may be placed on individual freedoms 'for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society'.

Several Articles deal with socio-economic rights - for example, the right to security of person (Article 13); the right to an adequate standard of living (Article 25), and the right to education (Article 26).

On these counts, Singapore has not done badly - a fact that the Ministry of Law was not shy to trumpet when commenting on the Ibahri report.

'Whatever the shortcomings of the Singapore Government, from our record, no one has doubted that our overriding objective has been to get Singaporeans better educated, to understand and be exposed to the globalised world we are now in. So we adjust our laws and systems to maximise the benefits from global forces to make Singapore a thriving cosmopolitan city, where Singaporeans and foreigners live and work in a peaceful, safe and open environment. We listen carefully to all advice and then decide the right balance for ourselves. So far, we have not done badly,' said the ministry on Thursday.

You may cringe, but you can't dispute it.

A colleague asked the other day: Why is there a tendency for human rights groups to pick on Singapore, compared to certain countries where human rights transgressions are arguably more flagrant?

Why, indeed?

Singapore's failure to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is often cited by human rights groups. Malaysia, which has not signed either, does not come in for the same degree of scrutiny as does Singapore.

One reason, perhaps, is that Singapore simply invites digs. In its more sanctimonious moments, it can come across as a Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Another, more serious, reason is that Singapore represents an alternative model of governance which could pose a hegemonic challenge to Western liberal democracy. When advocates of the latter see leaders from China and Saudi Arabia visiting Singapore to learn how to manage the media and the masses, they probably get worried.

A third, more charitable, reason is that human rights groups are simply like religious evangelists - they believe they are helping to bring a good thing to a country which does not yet have it. A hundred years ago, Americans brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ to East Asia, now they bring the gospel of human rights.

There would be nothing wrong with this, were it not for their sheer insistence that theirs is the only truth. In effect, they deny these countries the same right to self-determination that they would champion for others.

This is not to say that there are none within Singapore interested in human rights. There are groups like Aware, Maruah and the Think Centre.

This is also not to say that Singapore should brush human rights issues aside. It should not.

If you believe in natural law, you have to believe in natural rights, from which the notion of human rights is derived. There can be disagreement over the demarcation of those rights, but not over the fact that there is a core of rights which is indeed universal and inalienable.

The composition of that core is what Singaporeans have to decide. The right to security and economic well-being, to affordable health care and education? Does it include unfettered free expression? Unqualified freedom of assembly?

Attorney-General Walter Woon made a call last week which deserves to be heeded.

Referring to the human rights debate, he said: 'If we don't discuss ourselves where our society is going, then we abdicate the debate to all these fellows and the types in Singapore who follow that line.'

The silent majority had better speak up before that happens.

July 16, 2008
Human rights are universal

IN THE light of Ms Chua Lee Hoong's commentary last Saturday, 'Speak up and say what human rights mean to you', I wish to say that human rights are a universal standard of rights all societies must uphold.

Political freedoms should not overshadow economic and social rights, but the converse also holds true. Cultural relativism espoused by Ms Chua breaches this basic principle.

Countries like Zimbabwe and China use the same principle to defend their atrocities.

Ms Chua's idea of Singapore being a 'hegemonic challenge' to the West is an illusion. Singapore is singled out because our economic success is not accompanied by an increase in political freedoms, which contravenes the basic principle of human rights.

[Comment: I think that was the point Ms Chua was making. According to democratic principles, democracy begets economic success. Thus, lack of democracy would mean poor economic growth. And no, there is no principle of human rights that economic success must be accompanied by increase in political freedom. That would imply that human rights are NOT universal, but conditional - on economic success in this case.

So on the one hand we have undemocratic regime like Myanmar which are poor. And we also have more democratic societies like the Philippines, which while better off than Myanmar, is also poor. It would seem then that democracy has little or no impact on economics.

Economic growth is not because of democracy. Economic growth depends on stability. Singapore grows because the govt provides a stable, reliable, uncorrupt environment for business. Indonesia was growing well under the stable (if undemocratic) leadership of Suharto. After that, there was more democracy, but less growth. Malaysia was doing well, but now because of the political uncertainties, its growth is uncertain.

Ah, but isn't Myanmar politically stable? Yet it does not have economic growth either. So that puts paid to the theory that Economic growth depends on stability. True. Stability is a necessary but insufficient condition for economic growth. The other factors are pro-business policies, clean uncorrupt government, a good workforce, etc. In other words, find a country with strong economic growth and you should see that there is stability in that country. But just because a country is stable doesn't mean it will have strong growth.]

It is Ms Chua who is taking digs at the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute, not the other way round. I doubt the institute is interested in hegemony at all.

Lastly, the idea of Saudi Arabia and China learning from us deserves attention. Saudi Arabia is a fundamentalist monarchy and China is a communist dictatorship. If they are here to learn a new way to mask their horrendous acts in the political arena, and see us as a model in that respect, it is nothing to boast about.

Human rights are for all, and should not be violated by any government on the pretext of cultural realities.

Clement Wee

[In any case, this letter-writer just makes a bald statement (made by all Human Rights lobby groups) that human rights are universal without explaining what these rights are and why they should be universal. And does not address Article 29. In fact his last sentence (statement) contravenes Article 29, in spirit if not in content.]

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Arrest warrant on Anwar over sodomy case, M'sian govt asks for DNA

July 15, 2008

Anwar to meet police on Wednesday, easing tension

KUALA LUMPUR - A lawyer says police have issued an arrest warrant for Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in connection with a sodomy accusation by a former male aide.

Counsel Sankara Nair says the police faxed him a letter on Tuesday asking Datuk Seri Anwar to appear at the police station for questioning before 2 pm the following day. He said the letter told him an arrest warrant had been issued for his client, Mr Anwar.

'It is my understanding that the police have applied for, and have been issued, an arrest warrant for Mr Anwar and that we are expecting him to be arrested on Wednesday', he told a press conference.

'But I don't discount him being arrested earlier. It's a matter of execution. After speaking to the investigating officer, I think Mr Anwar will be arrested under the Sodomy Act', he said, adding that a team of lawyers was on standby to apply for bail if necessary.

[What kind of lawyer is this? Don't even know statutes correctly. There is no "Sodomy Act". There is only Section 377A of the Penal Code. Sloppy talk from sloppy thinking from a sloppy lawyer.]

White card immigration ruling put off till Aug 15

July 15, 2008

JOHOR BARU - MALAYSIA'S Immigration Department has postponed enforcing the ruling that requires foreigners, including Singaporeans, to fill in disembarkation forms.

The ruling was to have been enforced from Wednesday.

In a statement on Monday, the department announced that the ruling would only be enforced from Aug 15 now.

No reason was given for postponing the enforcement of the ruling, said a report in the New Straits Times on Tuesday.

Foreigners have been exempted from filling in the forms, popularly known as 'white cards' since Jan 20.

Since then, all that they have to do is hand over their passports for verification and scanning. The move was aimed at easing traffic flow at border points.

Singaporeans, especially regular visitors, have expressed dismay over the enforcement of the ruling as it will mean longer queues at Immigration checkpoints and traffic build-up.

Statistics show that some 23,500 Singaporeans enter the city every day. They spend RM5.3 million (S$2.2 million) daily on food, shopping and entertainment.

Both the Johor Tourist Guides Association and the Small and Medium Entrepreneurs Association (Southern Johor) are worried that enforcing the ruling will deter Singaporeans from visiting frequently.

[Malaysia needs to get its act together. So far their track record for policy implementation has been shoot off their mouth first, think later, change mind, say something else, think of something else, say another thing, then someone else say something, then change mind, then have some big shot say something to finally lay all the concerns and uncertainty to rest, then do something totally different from what was said by the big shot and embarrass and undermine his and Malaysia's overall credibility.]

Study finds genetic link to violence, delinquency

July 15, 2008

WASHINGTON - THREE genes may play a strong role in determining why some young men raised in rough neighbourhoods or deprived families become violent criminals, while others do not, United States researchers reported on Monday.

One gene called MAOA that played an especially strong role has been shown in other studies to affect antisocial behaviour - and it was disturbingly common, the team at the University of North Carolina reported.

People with a particular variation of the MAOA gene called 2R were very prone to criminal and delinquent behaviour, said sociology professor Guo Guang, who led the study.

'I don't want to say it is a crime gene, but 1 per cent of people have it and scored very high in violence and delinquency,' Prof Guo said in a telephone interview.

His team, which studied only boys, used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a US nationally representative sample of about 20,000 adolescents in grades 7 to 12. The young men in the study are interviewed in person regularly, and some give blood samples.

Prof Guo's team constructed a 'serious delinquency scale' based on some of the questions the youngsters answered.

'Nonviolent delinquency includes stealing amounts larger or smaller than US$50 (S$68), breaking and entering, and selling drugs,' they wrote in the August issue of the American Sociological Review.

'Violent delinquency includes serious physical fighting that resulted in injuries needing medical treatment, use of weapons to get something from someone, involvement in physical fighting between groups, shooting or stabbing someone, deliberately damaging property, and pulling a knife or gun on someone.'

Genes plus environment
They found specific variations in three genes - the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene, the dopamine transporter 1 (DAT1) gene and the dopamine D2 receptor (DRD2) gene - were associated with bad behaviour, but only when the boys suffered some other stress, such as family issues, low popularity and failing school.

MAOA regulates several message-carrying chemicals called neurotransmitters that are important in aggression, emotion and cognition such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.

The links were very specific.

The effect of repeating a grade depended on whether a boy had a certain mutation in MAOA called a 2 repeat, they found.

And a certain mutation in DRD2 seemed to set off a young man if he did not have regular meals with his family.

'But if people with the same gene have a parent who has regular meals with them, then the risk is gone,' Prof Guo said.

'Having a family meal is probably a proxy for parental involvement,' he added. 'It suggests that parenting is very important.' He said vulnerable children might benefit from having surrogates of some sort if their parents are unavailable.

'These results, which are among the first that link molecular genetic variants to delinquency, significantly expand our understanding of delinquent and violent behaviour, and they highlight the need to simultaneously consider their social and genetic origins,' the researchers said.

Prof Guo said it was far too early to explore whether drugs might be developed to protect a young man. He also was unsure if criminals might use a 'genetic defence' in court.

'In some courts (the judge might) think they maybe will commit the same crime again and again, and this would make the court less willing to let them out,' he said. -- REUTERS

'Western groups don't want Singapore to be an example'

July 15, 2008

THE office of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew yesterday issued a statement elaborating on comments he had made last Friday about human rights groups attacking Singapore's style of government.

These groups, as well as non- governmental organisations (NGOs) and the Western media, have an agenda, said his press secretary Yeong Yoon Ying.

'They do not want Singapore to be an example to other countries of how the free market plus the rule of law, and stable macro-economic policies, can lead to progress and success, but without Western-style 'liberal' democracy,' she said.

M'sia's Petronas posts record profits

July 15, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR - MALAYSIAN state energy firm Petronas on Tuesday announced a record profit of US$18.1 billion (S$24.42 billion) for 2007-08 and said it is still keen to develop Iran's Pars liquefied natural gas project.

'We have performed quite well. It is another historic set of numbers for Petronas Group,' president and chief executive Mr Mohamad Hassan Marican told reporters.

Petronas posted a net profit of US$12.9 billion last financial year, which was also an all-time record.

Mr Hassan said Petronas was still pursuing the US$2.0-billion LNG joint venture project in Iran but that it had not completed negotiations with the Iranian government due to rising costs.

'We can't come to a final decision because we need to make an assessment of the price, costs and the viability of the project,' he said.

Mr Hassan said Petronas had the resources to participate in the project on its own, after French energy giant Total dropped out of what was supposed to be a three-party development with the Iranian government.

'We are capable and able to undertake the project,' he said.

Iran has the world's second-largest reserves of natural gas.

The South Pars field in the Gulf has around 500 trillion cubic feet (14 trillion cubic metres) of gas, which represents about eight per cent of world reserves.

Petronas has a 20 per cent stake in the Pars LNG production company, which was set up in 2004 to build a liquefaction facility in Iran.

France's Total SA had a 30 per cent stake while the National Iranian Gas Export Company holds the remaining 50 per cent.

The French firm's chief Christophe de Margerie said earlier this month that it was too politically risky to invest in Iran at present. -- AFP

[This is an embarassing good news. M'sians are going to ask why no subsidy when Petronas making record profits.]