Sunday, August 31, 2008

The world's getting safer - and more dangerous

Aug 31, 2008

By Francis Fukuyama

Are we entering the age of the autocrat? It's certainly tempting to think so after watching Russia's recent clobbering of Georgia. That invasion clearly marks a new phase in world politics, but it's a mistake to think that the future belongs to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and his fellow despots.

I'm particularly interested in trying to discern the shape of the new international moment, because I wrote an essay in 1989 entitled The End of History?

It argued that liberal ideas had conclusively triumphed at the end of the Cold War. But today, the United States' dominance of the world system is slipping; Russia and China offer themselves as models, showing off a combination of authoritarianism and modernisation that offers a clear challenge to liberal democracy. They seem to have plenty of imitators.

Although Mr Pervez Musharraf has finally agreed to step down as president of Pakistan, that key US client has been ruled dictatorially since 1999. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe refuses to give way despite having lost an election. In the Andean region of Latin America, democratic freedoms are being eroded by populist, democratically elected presidents such as President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Take all these together, and various writers have suggested that we are now witnessing a return to the Cold War, the return of History or, at a minimum, a return to a 19th-century world of clashing great powers.

Not so fast. We are certainly moving into what Newsweek's Mr Fareed Zakaria labels a 'post-American' world. But while bullies can still throw their weight around, democracy and capitalism still have no real competitors.

The facile historical analogies to earlier eras have two problems: They pre-suppose a cartoonish view of international politics during these previous periods, and they imply that 'authoritarian government' constitutes a clearly defined type of regime - one that's aggressive abroad, abusive at home and inevitably dangerous to world order.

In fact, today's authoritarian governments have little in common, save their lack of democratic institutions. Few have the combination of brawn, cohesion and ideas required to truly dominate the global system, and none dreams of overthrowing the globalised economy.

If we really want to understand the world unfolding before us, we need to draw some clear distinctions among different types of autocrats.

First, there's a big difference between those who run strong, coherent states and those who preside over weak, incompetent or corrupt ones. Mr Musharraf was able to rule Pakistan for almost a decade only because the Pakistani army, his base of support, is the most cohesive institution in a state that's otherwise a basket case.

Zimbabwe is in even worse shape, with Mr Mugabe presiding over horrific economic collapse. Feeble autocracies such as Zimbabwe can threaten their own neighbours only by producing refugees desperate to escape hyperinflation and poverty.

Today's autocrats can also prove surprisingly weak when it comes to ideas and ideologies. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Mao's China were particularly dangerous because they were built on powerful ideas with potentially universal appeal, which is why we found Soviet arms and advisers showing up in places such as Nicaragua and Angola. But this sort of ideological tyrant no longer bestrides the world stage.

Despite recent authoritarian advances, liberal democracy remains the strongest, most broadly appealing idea out there. Most autocrats, including Mr Putin and Mr Chavez, still feel that they have to conform to the outward rituals of democracy even as they gut its substance. Even China's President Hu Jintao felt compelled to talk about democracy in the run-up to Beijing's Olympic Games. And Mr Musharraf proved enough of a democrat to let himself be driven from office by the threat of impeachment.

If today's autocrats are willing to bow to democracy, they are eager to grovel to capitalism. It's hard to see how we can be entering a new Cold War when China and Russia have both happily accepted the capitalist half of the partnership between capitalism and democracy. (Mao and Stalin, by contrast, pursued self-defeating, autarkic economic policies.)

The Chinese Communist Party's leadership recognises that its legitimacy depends on continued breakneck growth.

In Russia, the economic motivation for embracing capitalism is much more personal: Mr Putin and much of the Russian elite have benefited enormously from their control of natural resources and other assets.

Democracy's only real competitor in the realm of ideas today is radical Islamism. Indeed, one of the world's most dangerous nation-states today is Iran, run by extremist Shi'ite mullahs. But Sunni radicalism has been remarkably ineffective in actually taking control of a nation-state, due to its propensity to devour its own potential supporters. Some disenfranchised Muslims thrill to the rantings of Osama bin Laden or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the appeal of this kind of mediaeval Islamism is strictly limited.

In lieu of big ideas, Russia and China are driven by nationalism, which takes quite different forms in each country.

Russia, unfortunately, has settled on a version of national identity that is incompatible with the freedom of the countries on its borders; I'm afraid that Georgia will not be the last former Soviet republic to suffer from Moscow's sense of wounded pride.

But today's Russia is still very different from the former Soviet Union. Mr Putin has been called a modern-day czar, which is far closer to the mark than misguided comparisons to Stalin or Hitler. Czarist Russia was a great power with limited ambitions that became an integrated member of the European state system of the 18th and 19th centuries even as it crushed the weak states on its borders and deprived its own people of liberties. It is in this direction that I expect post-Putin Russia will evolve.

China's nationalism, on proud display at the Olympics, is much more complex. The Chinese want respect for having brought hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty in the past generation. But we don't yet know how that sense of national pride will translate into foreign policy. Apart from the flashpoint of Taiwan, China doesn't feel the type of intense grievances that Russia nurses over the shrinking of its empire or Nato's expansion into the former Soviet bloc. And Beijing will have its hands full maintaining domestic stability when the inevitable economic slowdown occurs.

China's problem today, unlike in imperial times, is that it doesn't have a well-articulated sense of what the country represents in the larger world. The so-called Beijing Consensus, which mixes authoritarian government with market economics, is popular in many developing countries, and with good reason: Under Beijing's rules, national leaders can just do business and make money, without being hectored about democracy and human rights.

But China's development model works well only in those parts of East Asia that share certain traditional Chinese cultural values. In dynastic China, no checks and balances restrained the emperor's power; instead, a sense of accountability was fostered by the moral education of rulers and by an elite bureaucracy that was oriented towards public service.

That legacy lives on in a host of modernising, developmentally minded leaders - from the Meiji aristocrats who founded modern Japan to more recent authoritarian rulers such as the late Park Chung Hee of South Korea, Mr Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, and the current leaders of China.

But this sort of paternalistic stewardship is a far cry from the forms of governance seen in much of Africa, Latin America or the Middle East, where public-spirited authoritarians have been far more rare. Africa has seen kleptocrats such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, warlords such as Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone and Charles Taylor in Liberia, and the more ordinarily corrupt rulers of Nigeria. Simply lumping China together with the world's other dictatorships makes no sense.

But for all of China's strengths, its system is not a serious challenge to the United States' animating - and winning - ideas.

All of this makes our world both safer and more dangerous. It is safer because the self-interest of the great powers is very much tied to the overall prosperity of the global economy, limiting their desire to rock the boat. But it is more dangerous because capitalist autocrats can grow much richer and, therefore, more powerful than their communist counterparts. And if economic rationality does not trump political passion (as has often been the case in the past), the whole system's interdependence means that everyone will suffer.

We should also not let the speculations about an authoritarian resurgence distract us from a critical issue that will truly shape the next era in world politics: whether gains in economic productivity will keep up with global demand for such basic commodities as oil, food and water.

If they do not, we will enter a much more zero-sum, Malthusian world in which one country's gain will be another country's loss. A peaceful, democratic global order will be much more difficult to achieve under these circumstances: Growth will depend more on raw power and accidents of geography than on good institutions. And rising global inflation suggests that we have already moved a good way towards such a world.

The totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century induced us to draw a sharp distinction between democratic and authoritarian states, a habit of mind that is still with us. But democracies don't automatically all have the same interests (just look at the clashing US and European views on Iraq), and neither do autocracies. Nor does the fact that a country is authoritarian determine the way it will behave internationally.

We need a much more nuanced conceptual framework for understanding the non-democratic world if we are not to become prisoners of an imagined past. And we shouldn't get excessively discouraged about the strength of our own ideas, even in a 'post-American' world.

Washington Post

The writer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is America At The Crossroads: Democracy, Power, And The Neoconservative Legacy.

Just a sorry excuse?

Aug 31, 2008

All kinds of claims are made in mitigation pleas but the jury's out on who should ensure that whatever is presented is not made up

By Mavis Toh

Faced with jail time or a heavy fine, a person convicted of a crime may say anything to get a lighter sentence.

In mitigation pleas, a thief may claim his elderly parents are sick and that he is the sole breadwinner.

A serial molester may say it was the tremendous stress at work or depression that drove him to prey on young girls.

While mitigation is an essential part of the criminal court process, little appears to be done in court to check on the authenticity of the claims.

A mitigation plea is made by a defence counsel after his client has been convicted, in a bid to reduce the expected severity of a sentence.

Last month, Attorney-General Walter Woon tried to put the responsibility of checking the facts laid out in mitigations on defence counsel - to hold them accountable for the claims they make to plead for a lighter sentence.

In arguing before the Court of Appeal for life imprisonment to be imposed on Aniza Essa, a woman who plotted with her teenage lover to kill her husband, Professor Woon said the judge who jailed Aniza for nine years relied too heavily on her mitigation that she was a battered wife and was suicidal.

He suggested to the Court of Appeal that the trial judge, Justice Chan Seng Onn, should have questioned the veracity of those claims if he was going to rely on them in his sentencing.

But Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and V.K. Rajah both pointed out that it would be wrong of the judge to do this as he should remain a neutral party.

Then the defence should be responsible, said Prof Woon.

But Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong said that if the defence had to prove its mitigation in all cases, whole families may need to go into the witness box to testify.

'When the prosecution keeps quiet on everything, it will be very difficult for the court to take it upon itself to say I don't accept this or that,' said CJ Chan.

He said the court would reserve judgment on the case till a later date.

In a mitigation plea, lawyers typically zero in on three areas: the offence, the offender and the sentencing norms.

The circumstances under which the offence was committed are crucial. For instance, was the accused abused, brainwashed or suffering from depression? Was he having family problems?

Character references from family, bosses and religious leaders are common. Some even get their MPs to write in on their behalf. Recently, for example, Shin Min Daily News' news editor Lim Hong Eng produced a letter from Law Minister K. Shanmugam pleading for leniency to be shown in her case. She had knocked down a motorcycle, killing the pillion rider. She was eventually sentenced to 18 months in prison but is making an appeal.

Lawyers also state whether their clients are first-time offenders and whether they were quick to make restitutions after the arrest.

Reference to similar past cases is also made, to give the judge an idea of how previous offenders were sentenced.

Lawyer Amolat Singh said most lawyers would exhibit documents such as medical reports to back up their claims, especially when it is a point that the judge is going to give considerable weight to.

But when it comes to character references, things can get tricky.

A lawyer who is a former district judge, who declined to be named, said it is hard to prove the 'offender aspect' because a lot of it is very 'personal'.

Mr Singh agreed.

'Sometimes, clients tend to exaggerate,' he said. 'If an offender says he's a filial son who gives half his salary to his mother, his mother is not going to contradict him even if it's false.'

A lawyer, who declined to be named, said that when no evidence is available to prove an important claim, he may even get his client to make a statutory declaration.

'If he says he was suffering from depression when he committed the crime but he wasn't seeing a psychiatrist, I would get him to make a declaration. At least there's some backing up,' he said.

In 2005, a man who was shot twice by a Cisco guard when he was trying to rob a Maybank branch in Bukit Timah the year before reduced several people in the courtroom to tears when he described the desperate circumstances that drove him to attempt the robbery.

In mitigation, Brian Khoo's lawyer highlighted his client's financial woes. He described the numerous power cuts in his flat and said the jobless Khoo was 'driven to desperation'.

But a check by The Sunday Times after the court case showed that the Khoos had never had their power cut and even received constant help from colleagues and neighbours, who gave food and money.

The claims made by the robber's lawyers were never challenged in court. He was sentenced to 41/2 years in jail and nine strokes of the cane. The maximum sentence was 10 years' jail and at least three strokes of the cane.

Veteran lawyer Peter Low, a former Law Society president, said that in most cases, neither the judge nor the prosecution questions the claims made in mitigations.

'Lawyers know the perimeters they should stay within, and most of the time we do back up what we claim in documents,' he said.

Yet, lawyers noted the difference a strong mitigation can make to an accused's sentence.

Association of Criminal Lawyers president Subhas Anandan said that judges, too, are human and a good mitigation can move them to reduce a sentence.

'If the sentence guideline is between six and 12 months, a good mitigation can give you a six-month jail term, and an exceptional one may even earn you five months,' he said.

But he added: 'Sometimes, when the prosecution disagrees and when we're not in a position to prove our claim, then we will - and must - take that claim out.'

In Aniza's case, her lawyer Mr Noor Marican responded to Prof Woon's arguments by saying that he did in fact make changes to parts of the mitigation that the prosecutors were unhappy with.

But the key points which Prof Woon was disputing at the appeal stage - Aniza's suicidal tendencies and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband - had not been called into question, said Mr Marican.

Mr Anandan pointed out that at times, if a mitigating factor is being challenged, a judge may even step in to tell both sides that he is not going to give that factor much weight anyway so they 'don't have to fuss over it'.

So if the mitigation is an important part of a criminal hearing, whose duty is it to verify the information used in mitigation?

Most defence lawyers and academics interviewed on this issue agreed with CJ Chan, saying the responsibility ought to fall on the prosecution to disprove mitigatory claims.

'Where the prosecution is suspicious of any fact alleged, it is free to ask for time to investigate the truth of the allegation,' said National University of Singapore criminal law lecturer Michael Hor.

Lawyers added that if the defence is to prove the claims made, there would be a 'hearing within hearing', prolonging the court sessions.

At times, when the prosecution and defence do not agree on the points in a case, a judge can also call for a newton hearing. This is a hearing held to resolve disputed points and ascertain the correct basis for sentencing.

In Aniza's case, Prof Woon said the judge could have called for a newton hearing if he was going to put much weight on her claims that she was abused and suicidal.

Lawyers said that newton hearings are rare in Singapore.

But as officers of the court as well, defence lawyers also have a duty to present to the court factors which are truthful.

How far do defence lawyers go to check on the claims made by their clients?

Mr Anandan said lawyers must be careful and should never include a mitigating factor they have doubts about.

'If I have doubts, I will ask my clients to produce evidence. Lawyers cannot put in a point under the guise of 'oh I didn't check',' he said.

'I won't put in such a point, I won't speculate.'

Send your comments to

[So if the defence puts up mitigating circumstances, and the prosecution needs time to disprove them, the process will be extended. And if the prosecution disproves the mitigation pleas, would the defence then be subject to perjury charges? They should to avoid frivolous and patently false pleas or claims.]

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Monkeys feels joy of giving

Aug 26, 2008

WASHINGTON - MONKEYS can experience the joy of giving in much the same way as humans do, US researchers reported on Monday.

Tests in capuchin monkeys showed the animals consistently chose to share food with another monkey if given the option, suggesting they are capable of empathy, the team at the Yerkes Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta found.

'They seem to care for the welfare of those they know,' Mr Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes, said in a statement.

His team tested eight female brown capuchin monkeys in pairs. They could choose a token that gave only themselves a treat or an option that rewarded both of them, called a prosocial option.

Either way, the first monkey got the same amount of food.

'Subjects systematically favored the prosocial option provided their partner was a) familiar, b) visible, and c) receiving rewards of equal value,' Mr De Waal's team wrote in their report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

'The fact the capuchins predominantly selected the prosocial option must mean seeing another monkey receive food is satisfying or rewarding for them,' he said.

'We believe prosocial behavior is empathy based. Empathy increases in both humans and animals with social closeness, and in our study, closer partners made more prosocial choices.'

Mr De Waal's team next will see whether giving is rewarding to capuchins because they can eat together or if the monkeys simply like to see the other monkey enjoying food.

'Capuchin monkeys spontaneously share food in both nature and captivity, and commonly sit next to each other while eating,' the researchers wrote. -- REUTERS

[Cynical comment: Maybe they feed the other monkeys so that they don't steal theirs? Maybe they eat together so they'll know if the other monkeys eat more than them? ]

Monday, August 25, 2008

Not guilty = innocent?

Aug 25, 2008

A MAN is charged with a crime. After a trial, he is acquitted and goes free. Does that mean he is innocent?

Not necessarily.

Witnesses may have changed their evidence or a technicality may have got in the way. The end result: The prosecution is unable to convince the judge that the man had done the deed.

And once there is a reasonable doubt as to his guilt, duty requires that the judge acquit the man.

Said Law Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament on Monday: 'It is entirely possible for a person to have committed acts which amount to a crime and yet, there may be no conviction. No serious lawyer will question this possibility.''

He was responding to two lawyer-MPs, who wanted him to clarify the position of the Attorney-General on the subject of acquittals.

The issue of guilt and innocence has been in the air since mid-May when AG Walter Woon stated that an acquitted person may be 'not guilty'' in law, but guilty in fact.

Two months later, Appeal Court Judge V K Rajah weighed in on the issue, noting that such comments could undermine confidence in the courts' verdicts and the criminal justice system which is predicated on the doctrine of 'innocent until proven guilty''.

Not so, said Mr Shanmugam.

He described the presumption of innocence as an 'important and fundamental principle'' which the Government is 'absolutely committed to upholding.''

'There is no intention to question or qualify that principle in any way. I am surprised that any doubt should at all have arisen about this,'' he said.

Nor does the Government have any intention to encroach on the functions of the Courts.

'It is for the courts, and the courts alone, to exercise judicial power and decide the question of guilt, in a trial.''

The position taken by the AG was a logical one, the same as that taken by his predecessor Chan Sek Keong, now the Chief Justice, he said.

CJ Chan had pointed out in a lecture in 1996 that the trial process was designed to prove guilt - not innocence.

Quoting from the lecture, Mr Shanmugam reported the then-AG saying that the presumption of innocence is a presumption that an accused is 'legally innocent."

'It is simply an expression, that in a criminal trial, the procesecution is obliged to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt,'' said Mr Shanmugam.

The AG's position was also consistent with jurisprudence from Commonwealth countries, such as England and Scotland.

[Yes, we appreciate the distinction, but Judge Rajah's point is also valid. There has to be closure and resolution for the accused as well. The prosecution had their day in court. And in Singapore if the prosecution can't prove their case, it is really saying something about the evidence they have. There is no wishy-washy, emotional jury for the defence to con. The law tends to be prosecution-friendly. And accused are most of the time poorly represented.

So while factually, it may well be that just because someone is not legally guilty, he may not actually be innocent. But he may also be. Then again, just because someone is legally found guilty, he may actually be innocent too.

But at some point, when due process has been exercised, there must be resolution, and there must be closure. And all that should matter is that factually, guilt was not proven and so he is not legally guilty. And that's a fact.]

Thursday, August 21, 2008

M'sia: No fireworks to cut cost

Aug 20, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR - MALAYSIA will scrap fireworks and scale back festivities on its Independence Day this month to cut costs amid soaring global energy and food prices, a news report said on Wednesday.

Usually a pyrotechnics extravaganza lights up the capital's night-sky on August 31 at the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, but this time around Kuala Lumpur is readying for a more muted and frugal event.

'For this year we have been told by the federal government to cut down on all unnecessary events,' City Hall's cultural, arts and tourism director Mohammad Sidek Khalid told the News Straits Times daily.

'We were told to spend moderately and cut down on live shows as the cost was too much to bear,' he was quoted as saying.

Customary street parades will also be scaled down in line with cost-cutting measures, the report said.

Malaysians have been hit by high energy and food prices. The government hiked fuel prices overnight by 41 per cent in June to cut a heavy subsidy bill.

In trying to cushion the impact of the price hikes, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has announced a slew of cost-cutting measures within government agencies and offered cash rebates to the public. -- AFP

[How sad. And Singapore has extra fireworks show.]

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Speculation - not fundamentals - driving up oil prices

Aug 20, 2008

By Thomas I. Palley

WHILE oil prices were surging, debate raged about the relative roles of economic fundamentals and speculation in boosting oil prices. Although prices have now fallen back from their peak, that debate must not be forgotten, for it has profound policy implications that government officials would be derelict to ignore.

If higher prices are due to fundamentals, oil markets are working as they should. But if they are due to speculation, then policymakers must act to rein in behaviour that has imposed huge and needless costs on the global economy. When the evidence is confronted, it points to speculation as a culprit.

Whereas many oil market participants have blamed speculation, most economists point to economic fundamentals. One argument economists use is that higher prices are due to the weak US dollar. Because oil is priced in dollars, a weak dollar makes oil cheaper to users in other countries, which increases global demand.

A second argument is that higher oil prices are due to lower interest rates and anticipate higher long-term prices. That supposedly reduced supply by encouraging producers to store oil in the ground and pump it later.

A third argument is that if speculation were to blame for price increases, there should have been an increase in oil inventories, because speculators do not consume oil but instead store it for later sale. Since there has been no rise in inventories, there has been no speculation.

All three arguments are weak. The price of oil has risen far more than the dollar has fallen. That means oil prices should have reduced, not increased, demand. Moreover, it is high oil prices that weakened the dollar, not vice versa. This is because high oil prices raised inflation in the US, worsened the US trade deficit, and increased the likelihood of a US recession.

Nor have there been any reports of unusual production cutbacks - the linchpin of the second argument. Indeed, the spike in oil prices actually gives independent producers an incentive to boost production. The last time real oil prices reached current levels was 1980, which shows that hoarding oil in the ground can be bad business. The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries also has a strong interest in maintaining production. It wants to keep prices lower to maintain the global economy's oil addiction and deter alternative energy sources.

Finally, the storage argument fails to recognise different types of inventory. Thus, record-high speculative prices have likely caused bunker traders to release inventory, but those releases may have been purchased by speculators who are now active lessees of commercial storage capacity. The implication is that speculators can drive up prices and increase their inventory holdings even as total commercial inventories remain little changed.

Additionally, oil market speculation may have induced 'echo speculation', whereby ultimate users buy refined products in advance to protect against future price hikes. They then take delivery on their premises so that overall refined inventories rise, but that increase is not part of reported commercial inventories.

Proving that speculation is responsible for higher prices is always difficult, because it tends to occur against a background of strong fundamentals. However, there is considerable evidence that strongly indicates rampant speculation in today's oil markets. One key sign is the documented change in the character of oil trading, with speculators (financial institutions and hedge funds) now accounting for 70 per cent of trades, up from 37 per cent seven years ago.

With regard to market fundamentals, there have been no changes in demand and supply conditions that explain the jump in oil prices. Moreover, the actual behaviour of oil prices is consistent with speculation. In June, oil prices leapt by US$11 (S$16) in one day, and in July they fell back by US$15 in three days. Such volatility does not fit a fundamentals-driven market.

Despite the oil market's size, speculation can move prices because of the inelasticity of demand and supply. Oil demand is slow to change because of behavioural inertia and fixed technology, while adjusting production takes time. These features make the oil market vulnerable to speculation.

With prices falling, the imperative to act inevitably tends to recede. That is the nature of the behavioural response to crisis and why a bad status quo can persist. But leaving the system unchanged will maintain the global economy's vulnerability to future bouts of speculation. Just consider how the current bout has raised global inflation, lowered incomes of the poor, weakened the dollar, aggravated global financial instability, and increased the likelihood of a global recession. That is an overwhelming indictment that merits urgent policy action.

The writer was chief economist with the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Saving people from peddlers of false hope [Autism]

Aug 20, 2008

By Radha Basu

AFTER their children are diagnosed with autism, many parents here drift from one therapist to another, hooked on the hope that someone, somewhere, somehow can make their little ones better. With mainstream medicine offering no cure, these parents say they have no choice but to knock on the doors of a motley crew of people who practise over 20 'alternative' therapies here.

A 43-year-old teacher The Straits Times spoke to has consulted more than 10 practitioners since her only son, now 11, was diagnosed as autistic in 1999. Under their guidance, she has pumped the boy with vitamins and drugs, pock-marked his arm with injections and even put sensors on his head to map the way his mind works. Nothing worked.

'Every therapist I went to said they had seen good results in 99 per cent of the cases they treated,' said the mother. 'But my son was always the exception.'

Autism refers to a wide range of brain-based disorders that affect a person's ability to communicate, form relationships and respond appropriately to the environment. Autistic people live in their own worlds, seldom looking people in the eye or expressing emotion.

Usually diagnosed in childhood, the condition is lifelong. That is a bitter pill that many parents find hard to swallow. Desperate for a solution, they turn to anyone who holds out hope. But hope often becomes disillusionment.

When a human resource manager took her autistic daughter to see a doctor who dabbles in alternative therapies, she was sold a $160 bottle of supplements to help with what was diagnosed as a 'weak immune system'. The mother came home, did a quick Google search and was 'shocked' to discover that the doctor had sold her a multi-level marketing product, for which sellers typically get a commission. 'Are doctors even allowed to do that?' she asked.

In another case, a mother said she spent nearly $100,000 on various alternative therapies here and overseas in the hope that her child would 'recover'. When the boy's younger sister was also diagnosed with the condition, the family ran out of money - and determination - to repeat the same cycle with the girl. They stuck to conventional treatments - like speech and occupational therapy - and took the girl to a government-subsidised autism intervention programme. Ironically, she is coping much better today than her brother.

Since these alternative remedies have no scientific basis, doctors have long harboured doubts about their efficacy. Many regard such 'complementary therapies' as placebos or pseudo science at best, and brazen quackery at worst.

Increasingly, parents here too are realising that such therapies are not just a drain on their wallets, but also may harm rather than heal their child.

In the face of their growing discontent - and an avalanche of literature on the potential harmful effects of some therapies - a government-appointed committee has begun drafting a series of guidelines on the autism therapies available here. The guidelines will highlight therapies that appear to be working, those that are not evidence-based and those that are downright dangerous.

But can more be done to protect parents from practitioners who peddle false hope? At least one country has shown the way. In January this year, the British government announced stricter regulations of various kinds of 'alternative' or 'complementary' medicine such as homeopathy, aromatherapy and traditional Chinese medicine. The move coincided with reports in the British media highlighting the questionable practices of autism practitioners. The new British regulations, however, apply to most alternative medicine practitioners, not just those who treat autism.

In April, a new regulatory body - the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council - was set up to provide a voluntary register of therapists and practitioners. The main aims of the council, its website says, are to protect patients, build trust and boost consumer confidence. It can register therapists - thereby giving them a seal of legitimacy - but also strike them off the rolls if complaints against them are found to be true.

Perhaps it's time for a similar move in Singapore as well. With 400 children diagnosed with autism annually in public hospitals alone, advocates such as Member of Parliament Denise Phua are hoping that clinics or centres that 'profess to cure people of autism' can be registered or licensed. The Ministry of Health, she added, should take the lead in initiating the move. Ms Phua, who has a son with autism, is head of the Autism Resource Centre (ARC), which helps those with autism get better education, employment opportunities and care.

The ministry 'may not be an expert on autism', said Ms Phua, but it could set up an assessment panel by working with local autism bodies such as ARC and overseas experts such as the Britain-based Research Autism.

Autism advocates insist that licences must be based on a set of objective criteria. These could include:

# Whether the effectiveness of the treatment is based on hard evidence;

# Potential risks to the patient;

# Cost of treatment;

# Knowledge and skills of the practitioner; and

# Reference checks on the practitioner.

'Licences should be provisional before confirmation and then renewable on proof of performance,' argued Ms Phua. Most importantly, a 'whistle-blowing policy' should also be put in place so that investigations can be conducted in case of misconduct.

Practitioners themselves say licences could help to separate the grain from the chaff. A homeopath said that while 'individual practitioners can fail, therapies cannot'. The difference between failure and success depends on the 'skills and experience' of the practitioner, she said, adding that she would be willing to put herself to the test by applying for a licence.

In another interview, an energy healer said that while she knows of fellow practitioners who have slipped up, her own track record has been '100 per cent successful'.

Tired of such hyperbole, parents are hopeful that licensing can help them make the best of a desperate situation - and protect their children from further harm. Wanting to see their children get better has made them vulnerable to exploitation - and heartbreak.

Licensing practitioners and penalising them for false claims may just be the wake-up call parents hooked on hope need to jerk them back to reality.

Sorry, China - Liu's pull out from the hurdles final

Aug 20, 2008

Hurdler Liu goes on TV to apologise and explain his pull-out from race
By Chua Chin Hon

BEIJING: Crestfallen Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang yesterday appeared on television to offer a personal apology to his fans and explained that his shocking withdrawal from the Olympics was due to 'unbearable' pain.

His comments, made in his first and only interview after pulling out of the heats for the 110m hurdles on Monday morning, appeared to be aimed at dousing public unhappiness over his unceremonious exit, as well as growing rumours alleging that his exit had somehow been 'staged'.

'I knew I couldn't make it when I was warming up and I couldn't even jog,' Liu, the first Chinese athlete to win an Olympic track title four years ago in Athens, said in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.

A drop of perspiration clung to the corner of his left eyebrow as he spoke in a steady voice against a white background.

Looking a pale shadow of his usual playful, confident self, the superstar hurdler added: 'I really wanted to pull through but I couldn't. It was unbearable.

'I feel very sorry. But there's really nothing I could do.'

During the interview, Liu appeared tired and wore a plain white T-shirt rather than the flashy red that has characterised the uniform of China's athletes at the Games.

Later in the day, he also pleaded for his countrymen's understanding in a letter published on the blog of Feng Shuyong, head coach of China's athletics team.

'Please believe that the hurt and sadness in my heart cannot be less than yours,' he said. 'At the same time, please believe I am the same Liu Xiang as before.'

In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, Liu had been under tremendous pressure to repeat his victory in Athens and deliver a major track-and-field gold on home soil.

Though there had been persistent talk that he was struggling with a hamstring injury, many Chinese fans still expected him to put up a good fight.

But Liu, in his CCTV interview, suggested that it would have been a career-ending move to try to race further.

'If I had finished the race, I would have risked my tendon,' said the 25-year-old. 'I could not describe my feeling at that moment. I never quit easily. I am not that type of person.'

His exit has sharply polarised public opinion in China, with coaches, state media, top Chinese Communist Party leadership and even martial arts star Jackie Chan throwing their support behind him.

Feng told a news conference on Monday that Liu's injury is an old one that flared up only last Saturday.

He added: 'We did not realise the problem was so serious that it would lead to a pull-out. Without knowing how serious the problem was, how could we have disclosed it?'

Liu's apology, however, did not appear to appease his online critics, with many postings still castigating him.

They also pointed fingers at Chinese sports officials and Liu's sponsors for allegedly 'staging' the hurdler's exit.

One version alleged that the officials, knowing that Liu was just not in sufficient shape to challenge Cuba's Dayron Robles, decided that it was better for him to quit than to lose in front of an expectant home crowd.

The allegations have not been backed by any concrete evidence, and appeared to be premised on the secrecy that surrounded Liu's injury.

If he was indeed that seriously injured, the doubters asked, why wasn't this made known earlier so that the spectators could be mentally prepared?

Conspiracy theories are swirling so wildly that Nike yesterday issued a strong denial of Internet rumours that it forced Liu to pull out.

An anonymous source claiming to be close to Nike posted an article on the Internet, saying the American sporting firm had forced him to do so.

'If Liu Xiang did not win (or even a medal), his value would drop enormously, and we could never make a return on Liu's huge fees,' the posting said.

A Nike spokesman said the company had responded to the rumours because the allegations were posted on a popular Chinese website.

After Liu's withdrawal, Nike was among the sponsors who came out in support, rushing an ad in the Chinese press.

Over a photo portrait of a clear-eyed, unsmiling Liu looking directly at the camera, the ad said: 'Love the glory. Love the pain. Love sport even when it breaks your heart.'

[With the previous article on sacrifices by the performers, and if Liu shares the same work ethic, he must have been in unbearable pain to pull out.]

Performer's sacrifices

Aug 20, 2008

BEIJING - MARTIAL arts student Cheng Jianghua only saw the army barracks he stayed in and the stadium where he performed at the spectacular Olympics opening ceremony.

But his sacrifices were minor - other performers were injured, fainted from heatstroke or forced to wear adult diapers so the show could go on.

Filmmaker Zhang Yimou, the ceremony's director, insisted in an interview with local media that suffering and sacrifice were required to pull off the Aug 8 opening, which involved wrangling nearly 15,000 cast and crew. Only North Korea could have done it better, he said.

But some news reports have raised questions about the lengths to which Beijing went in trying to create a perfect start to the Summer Games.

Chinese officials were accused of fakery for using computer-generated images to enhance the show's fireworks display for TV viewers.

Organisers also have been criticised about their decision to have a 9-year-old girl lip-synch Ode to the Motherland because the real singer was deemed not cute enough.

Performers have complained that they sustained injuries from slipping during rain-drenched rehearsals or fainting from heatstroke amid hours of training under the relentless summer sun.

Cheng and 2,200 other carefully chosen pugilist prodigies spent an average of 16 hours a day, every day, rehearsing a synchronized tai-chi routine involving high kicks, sweeping lunges and swift punches. They lived for three months in trying conditions at a restricted army camp on the outskirts of Beijing.

'We never went out during the time we were training', Cheng, 20, told sources in a phone interview. 'Our school is quite strict'.

'When we stay in school we can't go out on our own, let alone when we're at a military camp'.

In the most extreme case, Beijing organisers revealed last week that Liu Yan, a 26-year-old dancer, was seriously injured during a July rehearsal.

Shanghai media reported that she fell from a 3-metre stage and may be permanently paralysed from the waist down.

Zhang, the ceremony's director, visited Liu in the hospital and has told Chinese media that he deeply regrets what happened to her - but he has also defended the training schedule his performers endured.

He told the popular Guangzhou weekly newspaper Southern Weekend that only communist North Korea could have done a better job getting thousands of performers to move in perfect unison.

'North Korea is No. 1 in the world when it comes to uniformity. They are uniform beyond belief! These kind of traditional synchronised movements result in a sense of beauty. We Chinese are able to achieve this as well. Though hard training and strict discipline', he said.

Pyongyang's annual mass games feature 100,000 people moving in lockstep.

Performers in the West by contrast need frequent breaks and cannot withstand criticism, Zhang said, citing his experience working on an opera performance abroad.

Though he didn't mention specific productions, Zhang directed an opera at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 2006.

'In one week, we could only work four and a half days, we had to have coffee breaks twice a day, couldn't go into overtime and just a little discomfort was not allowed because of human rights', he said of the unidentified opera production.

'You could not criticise them either. They all belong to some organizations ... they have all kind of institutions, unions. We do not have that. We can work very hard, can withstand lots of bitterness. We can achieve in one week what they can achieve in one month'.

In the Olympic ceremony segment showcasing the Chinese invention of movable type, the nearly 900 performers who crouched under 18-kilogramme boxes donned adult diapers to allow them to stay inside for at least six hours, Beijing organisers said.

Some students of the Shaolin Tagou Traditional Chinese Martial Arts School in Henan province who began training for the event last May were injured in falls on the LED screen that forms the floor on which they performed and was made slippery by rain, said Liu Haike, one of the school's lead instructors.

'At one point, the children had to run in four different directions. ... When one fell, others quickly followed', Liu said, adding that the injuries were minor.

While in Beijing, the constant exposure to the dizzyingly hot summer resulted in heatstroke for some students, particularly during one rain-drenched rehearsal that stretched on for two days and two nights.

The students were kept on their feet for most of the 51-hour rehearsal with little food and rest and no shelter from the night's downpour, as the show's directors attempted to coordinate the 2,008-member performance with multimedia effects, students and their head coach said.

'We had only two meals for the entire time. There was almost no time to sleep, even less time for toilet breaks', Cheng said.

'But we didn't feel so angry because the director was also there with us the whole time.' Despite the sacrifices, the student performers were grateful for the opportunity to participate in the historic event and view it as an honour.

'All the tears, the sweat, and sometimes even blood that we shed, I now think it was quite worth it', said Ren Yang, 17, also of the Tagou school. 'When we performed that night, all that I could feel in my heart was joy. Pure joy.' -- AP

[You can sense the frustration with the west and the sense of pride Zhang has for the work ethic of the Chinese. Rightly or wrongly.]

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Foreigners benefit S'poreans

Aug 17, 2008

By Irene Ngoo

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave the reassurance that improving the lives of Singaporeans will always remain the Government's key responsibility, even as he sought to restate why foreign workers and talent are needed to keep the economy more vibrant and diversified.

Delivering his National Day Rally speech in Mandarin at the University Cultural Centre on Sunday night, he said without foreign workers, there will not be enough Singapore workers to grow the economy.

Contrary to fears of some Singaporeans and feedback from NTUC that foreign workers are taking away jobs from Singaporeans and depressing wages, he said they have instead helped to enlarge the pie.

PM Lee said the fact that Singapore's jobless rate is only 2.3 per cent - considered by economists to be full employment - and that elderly workers have found it easier to find jobs, shows that foreign workers have not taken away the rice-bowl of Singaporeans.

'We allow in foreign workers and new immigrants because doing so will benefit Singaporeans,' he said. 'Our economy has become more vibrant and diversified because of foreign workers. Without their participation, there will not be enough workers to grow the economy.'

He gave several practical examples to drive home the need for foreign workers.

The two Integrated Resorts at Marina Bay and on Sentosa Island, which are being built, will need another 20,000 workers. They will not be able to recruit Singaporeans to fill all these positions, said Mr Lee.

'In fact, they would not have decided to invest here had we required them to recruit only Singaporeans,' he added.

Foreign finance specialists are needed to help Singapore grow its financial centre. This is how London and New York have become global financial centres because they are able to draw talent from all over the world, said PM Lee.

Foreign workers keep many small and medium entreprises (SMEs) in business by lowering their costs.

'Without them, local workers and SMEs bosses will also lose their jobs,' said Mr Lee.

Outside of economics, he said foreign talent has also lifted Singapore's ranks in sports.

Of the 24 Singaporean athletes taking part in the Beijing Olympics, half of them are new immigrants who have become Singapore citizens, said PM Lee, speaking coincidentally just before the start of the Singapore-China table tennis finals at the Beijing Olympics.

In fact, the English telecast of PM Lee's speech, originally scheduled to continue after the Malay and Chinese speeches, has been pushed back to 8 pm on Monday so that Singaporeans can watch the finals 'live'.

The highly-anticipated game will star Singapore players Li Jiawei, 27, Wang Yuegu, 28, and Feng Tianwei, 21, who made history on Friday by beating South Korea to assure the Republic at least a silver, ending its 48-year Olympics medal drought.

Said Mr Lee: 'China has 1.3 billion people, we have 4 million. Based on population, China would have to win 300 medals before Singapore has the chance to win a single medal. So we cannot rely on only local talent.

'Our performance at the Beijing Olympics demonstrates this. We now have Tao Li reaching the swimming finals and the table-tennis team playing for either gold or silver in the finals tonight.

'Because we welcome talent, we can compete above our class. So we can take pride in Team Singapore, and cheer for our athletes.'

[This ability of Singapore to look beyond our shores for talent is an important practical value that needs to be filtered beyond the official, top level of Singapore society and hierarchy. Understandably, not every Singaporean recognise or accept this reality. Human nature and instinct is hard to overcome. Xenophobia and in-group bias will always be a human instinct. Part of the problem is that we are also a young nation, a fledgling society who has yet to find and be comfortably with our identity. Before we even know for sure what is a Singaporean, the identity will come under assault by foreign talents.]

Autism: Desperately seeking a cure

Aug 16, 2008

By Andy Ho

ABOUT 80 per cent of an online support group of 560 parents here have resorted to some alternative therapy for their children's autistic condition.

These run the gamut from megadoses of vitamins C and B6 or omega-3 fatty acids to gluten-free or casein-free diets. Then there are the potentially deadly therapies, including the use of Avandia and Actos.

These are drugs for diabetes that came to market in the late 1990s. But it was only last year that they were confirmed to cause, on occasion, heart failure in the young with normal hearts. (When a drug intended for a specific ailment - say, diabetes - is prescribed for something else - say, autism - that is called an off-label use. Such use is not illegal, per se.)

Traditionally, autism was diagnosed only in children who showed a profound indifference to, a lack of empathy for and social withdrawal from other people, including parents and siblings.

In 1994, however, the American Psychiatric Association expanded its definition of autism in its Diagnostic And Statistical Manual (4th edition), or DSM-IV, to encompass a broader range of disorders. Autism is now referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and includes related disabilities, such as PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified).

In the DSM-IV, the psychiatrist's bible the world over, all items on the checklist for autism - including language impairments, developmental delays, sensory impairment, personality disorders and so on - are given equal weightage. However, 90 per cent of these symptoms are not specific to autism.

As is true with all other DSM-IV disorders, the diagnosis of ASD is based solely on symptoms. There is no specific laboratory test to nail it down objectively, so there might be non-autistic kids diagnosed with ASD. The numbers diagnosed as being autistic, not unexpectedly, rose after DSM-IV - and, in tandem, so did the demand for offbeat therapies.

Here's why: There is no known cure for autism but one therapy known to help patients is that which teaches patients to imitate their teachers. This behavioural therapy is done one-on-one for up to 40 hours a week over many years. This being an arduous process, parents naturally look for short cuts.

Sometimes, fad therapies seem to work because autism, like many other disorders, displays a natural pattern: Symptoms get worse at times and diminish at others. When symptoms get really bad, parents hunt for magic cures; and when the symptoms abate naturally afterwards, the improvement is attributed to the new 'cure'. Parents want to believe.

Moreover, fad treatments are now widely discussed on the Internet. As a result, parents who are extremely motivated to help their kids become easy prey for quacks. If parents perceive their doctors to be dismissive or dogmatic, they might even abandon mainstream treatment altogether. So the Health Ministry has rightly formed a committee of experts to review available research on and issue guidelines about alternative therapies for autism by next year so parents can choose more wisely among them.

One particular therapy the committee should review is chelation, where certain chemicals are administered orally or intravenously in the hope that they will stick to heavy metals present in the body, which are then flushed out in the urine. Advocates of this treatment say the mercury (as thimerosal) in childhood vaccines is the cause of autism, so chelation to bind mercury in the body should help.

Though approved only for acute heavy metal poisoning, there are some doctors here who administer chelating agents using in-office intravenous drips. Most doctors do not believe chelation can help in autism cases. After reviewing the world's best studies, the US Institute of Medicine concluded in 2004 that thimerosal is not a cause of autism.

Nevertheless, widespread belief in the link persists. In fact, advocacy groups are now parading a US court decision in March in which a family sued the government, claiming that vaccines had caused their daughter's autism. The US government settled the suit after concluding the baby shots had 'significantly aggravated an underlying mitochondrial disorder' which caused a brain disorder 'with features of autism spectrum disorder'.

When those tiny power stations in our cells called mitochondria don't function well, many normal body functions go awry - much like a factory located in an area with frequent brownouts. What the US authorities actually conceded was that the vaccines had exacerbated an underlying condition caused by sick mitochondria in the child, who then developed symptoms found in DSM-IV's long checklist for an ASD diagnosis.

Those symptoms, it ought to be noted, can also be found in many non-ASD patients who encountered problems in their brains as the organ was developing.

Thus the child in question must have been initially diagnosed as ASD, whereas further tests revealed that she actually had a mitochondrial disorder instead. The United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has stated categorically that it was 'a complete mischaracterisation of the findings of the (court) case, and...of the science' to say vaccines cause autism.

But as the case was settled for an undisclosed sum, court documents have been sealed. Predictably, advocates smelt a cover-up.

The Singapore committee of experts has its work cut out. Sceptics, wedded understandably to hope, will scrutinise its report very carefully. We wish it well.

[Every now and again, I wonder if psychiatry has progress much beyond Freud's pscyho-analysis, and every now and again, I have to conclude that it hasn't advanced very much. Everybody is a scientist. Everyone uses Occam's razor to cut away the details to get at the simplistic explanation. What is clear is that the increasing number of Autism diagnosis is due to the expanding DSM-IV definition of autism spectrum disorder. And many of these "disorder" are nowhere near what is generally understood to be true autism. Perhaps Singapore will be brave enough to say, "we know what autism is and what it is not and most of those diagnosed as autistic are not. They have developmental delays or issues, but they are not autistic." This is like the false memory pandemic. If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you have a gun, everything looks like a target.]

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Only men are allowed to buy cucumbers

Thursday • August 14, 2008

The Daily Telegraph

BAGHDAD — Al Qaeda is losing support in Iraq because of a brutal crackdown on activities it regards as un-Islamic — including women buying cucumbers.

Besides the killings inflicted those who refuse to pledge allegiance to them, Al Qaeda has lost credibility for enforcing a series of rules imposing their way of thought on the most mundane aspects of everyday life.

They include a ban on women buying suggestively-shaped vegetables, according to one tribal leader in the western province of Anbar.

Sheikh Hameed Al Hayyes,a Sunni elder, told Reuters: “They even killed female goats because their private parts were not covered and their tails were pointed upward, which they said was haram. They regarded the cucumber as male and tomato as female. Women were not allowed to buy cucumbers, only men.”

Other farcical stipulations include an edict not to buy or sell ice-cream, because it did not exist in the time of the Prophet, while hair salons and shops selling cosmetics have also been bombed.

Most seriously, Sheikh Al Hayyes said: “I saw them slaughter a nine-year-old boy like a sheep because his family didn’t pledge allegiance to them.”

Such behaviour has triggered a backlash among Sunnis, whom Al Qaeda claimed to be protecting, the sheikh and military leaders said.

Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Albers, an American intelligence officer, told Reuters: “Al Qaeda’s very heavy-handed killing of civilians backfired on them. The Sunnis just wouldn’t stand for it any more.

“The self-described protectors of the Sunni community now kill more Iraqi Sunnis than anyone else does.”

[I guess women can't eat hotdogs either.]

Water crisis plumbs new depths

Aug 14, 2008

By Michael Richardson, For The Straits Times

The Chinese government has made a huge effort to improve air quality and beautify Beijing for the Olympics. But it cannot apply a short-term fix to another problem that visitors to the Games will not see - the steady depletion of underground water supplies in northern China, where the capital is located.

A study published in June by Probe International, a Canadian environmental research group, found that over two-thirds of Beijing's water is being pumped from beneath the ground to compensate for dwindling surface water from reservoirs and rivers that once supplied the city.

It warned that the underground saturation level, known as the water table, is dropping because water is being pumped out faster than it can be replenished. Plans for long-distance water diversion will aggravate the impending crisis unless water is used much more efficiently.

Two years ago, the Bureau of Hydrology and Water Resources in Hebei province, a major source of water for both Beijing and Tianjin, issued a similarly stark warning.

It said that only severe overexploitation of underground water was making up for the shortfall between water from rain and rivers, and rapidly rising demand from urban residents, industries and agriculture.

Water shortage is not just a local issue affecting Beijing and its surrounding areas.

Mr Tushaar Shah is an Indian hydrologist with the International Water Management Institute, part of a worldwide network of farm research centres funded by the World Bank.

He estimates that India, China and Pakistan together pump 400 cu km of water out of the ground each year, about twice as much as is recharged by rain. These three countries, with a combined population of nearly 2.6 billion, account for more than half the world's use of underground water for agriculture.

However, they are not alone.

The drilling of millions of deep wells and the extensive use of farm pumps to bring water to the surface in the past 15 years in many parts of Asia have helped raise food production - but at a long-term cost of diminished underground water supplies.

Similar overexploitation of aquifers has taken place in the Middle East, South America, the United States and Australia.

Until a couple of years ago, the world was growing twice as much food as it did a generation earlier. However, it was using three times as much water to grow this food. Two-thirds of all the water irrigates crops. For example, it takes about 1,000 litres of water to grow 1kg of wheat and between 2,000 and 5,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of rice.

By some calculations, as much as 10 per cent of the world's food is being grown using underground water that is not being replaced by rain. As global warming intensifies, the implications for water security and food production are alarming.

China is the world's biggest grain producer. More than half of its wheat and a third of its corn are grown on the northern plain. However, the water table under the plain is falling fast.

Overpumping has largely depleted shallow aquifers, prompting well drillers to tap deep aquifers which scientists say are so far below the surface that they are not replenished by rainwater seepage.

Several years ago, the Geological Environmental Monitoring Unit in Beijing reported that under Hebei province, the average level of deep aquifers was dropping by nearly 3m a year.

When farmers in this semi-arid region are unable to continue drawing water from underground aquifers to irrigate their crops, production will decline.

Officials have said water shortages will soon make China dependent on grain imports. The World Bank has warned that China faces 'catastrophic consequences for future generations' unless water use and supply are brought back into balance.

In India, the situation is worse because farming is even more critical to human survival and economic growth than in China. Nearly 70 per cent of its people rely on agriculture, which accounts for about a quarter of the country's gross domestic product. Underground water, which now supplies 80 per cent of farm water, has become vital for sustaining crops.

As the water table in many parts of India falls, water shortages will become more widespread and the cost of pumping the remaining underground water to the surface will rise.

In a country where poverty is extensive, one-third of the land is semi-arid and rainfall is seasonal and erratic, this will make it difficult for many farmers to grow enough food unless they find ways to conserve rainwater and use it sparingly.

The writer is an energy and security specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

[Water or water tech will be critical in the future. A solar-powered dragonfly could be a self-sustaining water source.]

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

$141b: US bill for Iraq war contractors

Aug 13, 2008

Such outsourcing fuels charges of overbilling, fraud and shoddy work
WASHINGTON: The United States has spent US$100 billion (S$141 billion) or more on contractors in Iraq since the invasion in 2003, a milestone that reflects the Bush administration's unprecedented level of dependence on private firms for help in the war, a government report has said.

The report - due to be released yesterday by the Congressional Budget Office - said that one out of every five dollars spent on the war in Iraq has gone to contractors for the US military and other government agencies, sources said.

The Pentagon's reliance on outside contractors in Iraq - where employees of private contractors now outnumber American troops - is proportionately far larger than in any previous conflict, and it has fuelled charges that this outsourcing has led to overbilling, fraud as well as shoddy and unsafe work that has endangered and even killed American troops.

The role of armed security contractors has also raised new legal and political questions about whether the US has become too dependent on private armed forces on the 21st-century battlefield.

The budget office's report found that from 2003 to 2007, the government awarded contracts in Iraq worth about US$85 billion, and that the administration was now awarding contracts at a rate of US$15 billion to US$20 billion a year. At that pace, contracting costs will surge past the US$100 billion mark this year.

Through last year, spending on outside contractors accounted for 20 per cent of the total costs of the war, the budget office found, according to people with knowledge of the report.

Several outside experts on contracting said that the report's numbers seemed to provide the first official price tag on contracting in Iraq and raised troubling questions about the degree to which the war had been privatised.

Contractors in Iraq now employ at least 180,000 people in the country, forming what amounts to a second, private army, larger than the US military force, and one whose roles and missions and even casualties among its work force have largely been hidden from public view.

The widespread use of these employees as bodyguards, translators, drivers, construction workers and cooks has allowed the administration to hold down the number of military personnel sent to Iraq, helping to avoid a draft.

In addition, the dependence on private companies to support the war effort has led to questions about whether political favouritism has played a role in the awarding of multibillion-dollar contracts.

When the war began, for example, KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, the Houston firm run by Mr Dick Cheney before he became Vice-President, became the largest Pentagon contractor in Iraq. After enduring years of criticism and scrutiny over its role in Iraq, Halliburton finally sold off KBR which is still the largest defence contractor in the war, and has 40,000 employees in Iraq.

'This is the first war that the United States has fought where so many of the people and resources involved aren't of the military, but from contractors,' said Professor Charles Tiefer, from the University of Baltimore Law School and a member of an independent commission created by Congress to study contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

'This is unprecedented,' he added.


What is human life worth?

Aug 12, 2008

By Euston Quah & Chia Wai Mun
AN AMERICAN'S life has become cheaper. How much cheaper? By about US$1 million (S$1.4 million), according to a US environmental body.

A public outcry erupted when the Associated Press (AP) reported on July 10 that the US Environmental Protection Agency (Usepa) had lowered the value of an American's statistical life from US$7.8 million five years ago to US$6.9 million now.

Not surprisingly, the Usepa did not make the devaluation public. But AP's Seth Borenstein discovered the devaluation after he reviewed US government cost-benefit studies over the past decade. Lowering the value of a life will affect government policies profoundly because the less a life is worth to a state, the less need it will feel for regulations to protect life.

The issue of valuing lives also cropped up in Singapore during the recent debate on organ trading. Which matters more: saving people or sticking to an ethical code? Which should we choose: more dialysis machines or more kidney transplants? Answers to such difficult question come down in the end to the worth we assign lives

The thought of putting a dollar value to a human life may provoke moral outrage but the process is necessary for good public policy. No country has an infinite amount of money and resources to spend on protecting and extending each citizen's life. At some point, choices have to be made in such areas as health care and safety regulation.

Policymakers out to get the biggest bang for their taxpayers' buck must decide how much resources they will allocate to prevent unnecessary deaths rather than, say, improve education or public housing. The value of a statistical life reflects what people are willing to spend to reduce small risks of death. It is a measure used widely to evaluate public policies in medicine, environmental regulation and transportation safety.

Everyone accepts some measure of risks in his or her life. Some of these risks can be avoided by spending money. When a person tries to avoid potentially fatal risks, or accepts compensation to take such risks, he implicitly defines a trade-off between wealth and a lower or higher chance of death.

There are many methods of valuing a life, but most centre on one idea: The value of a statistical life should roughly correspond to the value that people place on their lives in their private decisions.

Suppose workers face a one in 10,000 risk of being killed each year and that they accept this risk in return for an extra $200 in annual wages. The statistical value of life then becomes $2 million (200 x 10,000).

But this number does not imply that people would accept death if paid $2 million or that they would come up with $2 million to prevent a certain death. Rather, it captures the amount which would make people consider a small change in the risk of death.

Government agencies put a value on human life so they can calculate the costs versus the life-saving benefits when drawing up particular regulations. If they set that value too low, regulations to protect life - such as stringent airline safety and tighter pollution restrictions - would start to look like more trouble than they are worth.

The value of a statistical life tends to correspond with per capita income. With a per capita GDP of US$45,845, the US has a statistical life valued at US$3.6 million (the average of 39 studies conducted in the US on the value of a statistical life). Australia, with a per capita GDP of US$36,260, has a statistical life value of only US$2.2 million. Among newly industrialised countries, Taiwan and South Korea have the lowest - US$1 million and US$646,000, respectively. What is Singapore's?

In December last year, we conducted a study to determine the value of a statistical life here. We asked people how much they were willing to pay for a small fall in their chances of dying.

From a sample size of 800 respondents, we conducted personal interviews with residents in seven housing areas - Yishun, Redhill, Tampines, Boon Lay, Bukit Timah, Choa Chu Kang and Sengkang. We estimated the value of a statistical life here to be between S$850,000 (US$606,00) and S$2.05 million.

Being a relatively advanced economy, with per capita purchasing power parity GDP of US$49,714, the value was close to that of South Korea and Taiwan but was surprisingly lower than America's or even Australia's. However, while the figure is lower here than in other advanced economies, the sum of S$850,000 to S$2.05 million is not small when translated into public project evaluations.

Of course, other economists may disagree with the figure we arrived at. But whatever the disagreements, we should try to put a value on life here for it would help us refine public policy in a wide variety of areas.

After the Sept 11 tragedy, the US government issued guidelines for compensating the victims' families, dividing the payouts into economic and non-economic parts. It must have been extraordinarily difficult to stick a monetary figure on the intrinsic value of life in such circumstances. But the US government had to do it because the victims' families demanded some form of compensation for their loss and the public expected it.

Ultimately, the question is not whether we should take on the challenge of ascribing value to life but how we should do it.

Euston Quah is professor of environmental economics and the head of economics at Nanyang Technological University. Chia Wai Mun is an assistant professor at the same university.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Time in a bottle

Aug 9, 2008

By Janice Tay
I TAKE a picture of a vending machine (almost) every day. Sorry.

Well, I don't. But a man living on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido does. Calling himself Motomachi Nijuuyon Ken, he puts up the snapshots on a website he calls 'I take a picture of a vending machine (almost) every day. Sorry'.

But what would make a man photograph the same vending machine - and not one that sells underwear either - nearly every day for three years and counting?

Motomachi-san, who is in his 40s, writes on his blog that he has no interest in either vending machines or canned drinks. Claiming to dislike 'troublesome things', he looked about for undemanding content and 'ended up doing this'.

'I get annoyed on days when there are changes,' he adds, 'because it means work'.

Whatever the reason, as I sifted through three years of vending-machine photos, I started to keep a sort of meta- diary, a log of a log.

Aug 5, 2005: First post of the blog. A picture of a drinks machine.

Aug 8, 2005: Second posting. Another photo of the machine with the words 'No change' over it. This will become the blog's most common post title.

Sept 14, 2005: About a month after the launch of the blog, one of the drinks is... replaced! Motomachi-san commemorates the big moment with tidy blue arrows, red boxes and yellow labels.

Sept 19, 2005: A day of upheaval. Products are added, others taken away, designs changed. Even the items that remain are moved about. 'A change of this scale could well be called a revolution or a coup d'etat,' says Motomachi-san.

Feb 2, 2006: Motomachi-san notes that the display looked different on his way home, presumably from work. 'Details will come tomorrow,' he writes. 'But it's a bit sad that I've turned into someone who can tell the differences with just one glance.'

March 6, 2006: Seven items sold out. For the first time, Motomachi-san lists all the drinks in the machine, can volume and availability. Also, for the first time, he assigns a label to each product, depending on where it appears in the display. So the 300ml Fanta Grape, fifth from left in the bottom row, is C05: A sign of a man getting organised about his hobby.

March 8, 2006: Sayonara cocoa, says the title of the post. The Europe Premier Cocoa introduced in December has been ejected by Royal Milk Tea. Truly, we live in a world of transience.

March 17, 2006: With spring, life returns to the world - and heads for the vending machine. The phenomenon began four days ago, with three products selling out. Today, eight items are unavailable. 'It's the Sell-out Fest of Spring,' declares Motomachi-san.

May 10, 2006: A revolution such as we have not seen in ages. To indicate the changes, Motomachi-san scrawls red arrows all over a photo of the revitalised line-up. It looks like someone has turned the vending machine into a game of Snakes and Ladders.

Aug 1, 2006: The blog won't be updated for a week because of Motomachi-san's work commitments. 'What do you think will have happened when I return?'

His post draws more than 60 comments. 'The machine will be taller and look a little grown-up,' says one person.

'It'll have a TV attached,' says another. (No idle threat in technology-mad Japan.)

A third has an even grander vision: 'It'll have declared independence and will no longer accept Japanese currency.'

Aug 6, 2006: Motomachi-san's wife takes a picture of the vending machine and sends it to him. He puts it up on the blog with the title, 'No change', and adds: 'It's good to have a beautiful wife who takes photos well.'

Aug 4, 2008: At last, we learn the reason behind the postings. Motomachi- san writes: 'The blog turned three today. On the first anniversary of my younger sister's death, I thought about coming up with one of those silly, meaningless things that she loved and on the following day, Aug 5, 2005, started keeping these records. And that's how this blog began.'

He planned to wrap things up after a year, he says, but now aims to keep going for five: 'If you would, every now and then, come to take a look and say, 'That idiot still hasn't stopped!', I would greatly appreciate it.'

The loss of a close connection prompted Motomachi-san to forge a new one, though not something one would have expected. He simply picked an ordinary vending machine and devoted three years of attention to it.

In the process, he has helped others connect with something so ingrained in the urban landscape that we look at it without actually seeing it. He has done this by noting minute changes in a vending machine and opening up a whole new world. I now find myself wondering who on earth would buy a drink called Hokkaido Milk and Vegetables.

And because of his photos, I've watched time pass in a new way: Snow encrusting the vending machine buttons melted into summer glare, which yielded in turn to plastic maple leaves in autumn.

If you can see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, imagine what you'd find in an entire vending machine.

Motomachi-san's blog is at

[I agree with his 6 Aug 2006 post: It is good to have a beautiful wife who takes photos well. :-) It is the simple things in life that matters. I also love to see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. ]

Why they hate Singapore

Aug 9, 2008

Western detractors are getting the jitters as others copy our model
By Chua Lee Hoong
SINGAPORE is small enough to be a suburb in Beijing, but it has something in common with the mammoth People's Republic. The little red dot and Red China are both countries the West loves to hate.

There are those who wish bad things to happen to the Beijing Olympics. Likewise, there are those who have had it in for the Lion City for years.

What's eating them? The easy answer is that both China and Singapore are authoritarian states. The freedoms taken for granted in the West - freedom of speech and assembly - come with more caveats in these two places.

But things are not so simple. There are plenty of authoritarian states around, but most do not attract as much attention as Singapore and China.

The real sin: Singapore and China are examples of countries which are taking a different route to development, and look to be succeeding.

Success grates, especially when it cocks a snook at much-cherished liberal values.

As Madam Yeong Yoon Ying, press secretary to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, said last month: 'Singapore is 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.'

Don't believe her words? Read these lines from British journalist John Kampfner, writing in The Guardian last month, lamenting the spread of what he calls the Singapore model.

'Why is it that a growing number of highly-educated and well-travelled people are willing to hand over several of their freedoms in return for prosperity or security? This question has been exercising me for months as I work on a book about what I call the 'pact'.

'The model for this is Singapore, where repression is highly selective. It is confined to those who take a conscious decision openly to challenge the authorities. If you do not, you enjoy freedom to travel, to live more or less as you wish, and - perhaps most important - to make money. Under Lee Kuan Yew, this city-state built on a swamp has flourished economically.

'I was born in Singapore and have over the years been fascinated by my Chinese Singaporean friends. Doctors, financiers and lawyers, they have studied in London, Oxford, Harvard and Sydney. They have travelled across all continents; they are well-versed in international politics, but are perfectly content with the situation back home. I used to reassure myself with the old certainty that this model was not applicable to larger, more diverse states. I now believe this to be incorrect.

'Provincial governments in China send their brightest officials to Singapore to learn the secrets of its 'success'. For Russian politicians it too provides a useful model. These countries, and others in Asia and the Middle East are proving that the free market does not require a free society in which to thrive, and that in any battle between politics and economics, it is the latter that will win out.'

Mr Kampfner seems in a genuine intellectual funk. He cannot quite understand why otherwise normal, intelligent Singaporeans would trade certain freedoms for economic progress, and accept the Singapore political system for what it is.

But perhaps he has got the wrong end of the stick. The problem lies not in the Singaporeans, but in his own assumptions. Namely: If you speak English, if you are well-educated and well-travelled, you must also believe in Western-style democracy. They are a package.

I was on the receiving end of similar assumptions when I was in the United States in 1991-1992. When Americans asked me, 'Why is your English so good?', often it was not out of admiration but bewilderment. Their next question revealed all: 'Why then do you (i.e. your Government) ban chewing gum?'

Another telling indicator of Western assumptions about Singapore comes from a remark by Singapore's Ambassador to Washington, Professor Chan Heng Chee, who went to the US at the tail end of the Michael Fay saga.

One year into her posting there, in 1997, she arranged for a retrospective of the late choreographer Goh Choo San's works. Her Washington audience was awed.

'People suddenly remembered Choo San was a Singaporean. They may have known about Goh Choo San, but to connect him with Singapore was not so obvious for them,' she said.

Sub-text: World-class choreography does not fit their image of a country with corporal punishment.

So the real difficulty for the West is this: We are so like them, and yet so not like them. We speak, dress, do business and do up our homes very much the same way as them. Yet when it comes to political values, we settle - apparently - for much less.

One observer draws an analogy with Pavlovian behavioural conditioning. So conditioned have Westerners become to associating cosmopolitan progress with certain political parameters, they do not know how to react when they encounter a creature - Singapore - that has one but not the other.

So they chide and berate us, as if we have betrayed a sacred covenant.

Adding to the iniquity is the fact that countries - rich and powerful ones too, like Russia and the Gulf states - are looking to the Singaporean way of doing things to pick up a tip or two.

I can imagine the shudders of Singapore's Western detractors should they read about a suggestion made by Mr Kenichi Ohmae this week.

In an interview with Business Times, the Japanese management consultant who first became famous as author of The Borderless World, said Singapore should 'replicate' itself in other parts of the world.

What he meant was that Singapore should use its IQ, and IT prowess, to help organise effective economies in other regions, as its own had succeeded so well.

To be sure, his reasoning was economic, not political. But for those who hate Singapore, a Pax Singaporeana would be something to work against and head off.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Judge fines dying drug peddler instead of sending him to jail

Aug 6, 2008

By Khushwant Singh

A DISTRICT Court on Wednesday decided to fine instead of jail a 71-year-old illegal drug peddler, who is dying of colon cancer.

See Toh Kan Fatt, who is said to have only 15 months to live as his advanced intestinal cancer has spread to his lungs and liver, was fined $9,000 and allowed to pay it in instalments.

Since April, at least seven men, aged from 36 to 71, were jailed between a month and a year for such offences.

See Toh had pleaded guilty to selling more than 600 sexual enhancement pills from a makeshift stall in the back lane of the red-light area of Desker Road on March 10.

He told police that he had bought the tablets from a Chinese national here.

His wares included 12 Power 1 Singapore, a sexual-enhancement tablet laced with a diabetes drug. It is a variation of Power 1 Walnut, which has been linked to several deaths.

See Toh's lawyer Chuang Wei Ping asked District Judge Roy Neighbour to 'exercise mercy for a very sad old man', who probably has about 15 months to live.

Mr Chuang is representing See Toh for free under the legal aid scheme of Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore.

See Toh, who was selling the sex drugs as a livelihood, could have been fined up to $5,000 and jailed for up to two years on each of the six charges.

Since January, seven men have slipped into a coma after taking dubious sexual enhancement drugs such as Power 1 Walnut tablets. Four, including a man in his 20s, died.

[Sad case. Mercy shown. Pity about the victims. Well, the victims should have known better.]

Pasir Ris

Aug 6, 2008
Crocodile 'hunters' on the prowl in Pasir Ris Park
While PUB, NParks seek to trap reptile, nature lovers want one for the album
By Ang Yiying & Kimberly Spykerman

THE hunt is on for the crocodile spotted in the mangrove swamp near the Tampines River canal in Pasir Ris Park.

The reptile, which was more than a metre long, was first spotted in a mangrove swamp two weeks ago by retiree Ong Wee Lee, 70, a park regular.

Three days ago, he caught sight of it again. His daughter snapped a photograph, which made the headlines in the local media during the past two days.

Working jointly to trap the reptile are the PUB, the national water agency, and the National Parks Board.

Several other 'hunters' are on its trail as well: a mix of curious onlookers and nature lovers all eager to shoot it - with their cameras, that is.

Among the people combing the area for signs of the crocodile yesterday were Mr K.C. Wong and his son.

The 53-year-old civil servant said: 'I wanted to see the crocodile in its natural habitat before someone does something to it. After all, Singapore has so little wildlife left.'

Avid photographer J. Zhang, 32, who had been at the park for seven hours since 9.30am, said: 'I just came to complete my Singapore wildlife collection. Anyway, we have to respect nature and enjoy what we have.

'We should have higher tolerance and be aware of the fact that their presence means we have a healthy ecosystem.'

There have been reported sightings of crocodiles in the wild before. In 1996, it was reported that a three-man team had caught two crocodiles at MacRitchie Reservoir.

One man familiar with the reptiles here is Mr Robin Lee, the manager of Long Kuan Hung Crocodile Farm in Kranji.

He said that he had been called several times over the past few years to catch crocodiles in the wild, once by roping the reptile's neck.

Successfully trapping a crocodile requires experience and luck and he cautioned that the public should avoid going near one.

'You just never know about wild animals,' he said.

There are two crocodile farms in Singapore and neither has any escapes to report.

Mr Lee, whose farm has about 8,500 crocodiles which are bred for their skin and meat, said that the ponds are surrounded by high walls and fencing.

Over at the Singapore Crocodile Farm in Serangoon, which also holds educational tours, supervisor Sharon Neo said they have fewer than 100 crocodiles.

They are well-fed and are kept in enclosures high enough to prevent their escape, she added.

According to experts, the crocodile sighted at Pasir Ris Park is likely to be an estuarine crocodile, more commonly known as the saltwater crocodile.

It is more commonly found in the neighbouring countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Mr Biswajit Guha, the assistant director of zoology at the Singapore Zoo, said: 'The species can travel in the seas from one island to the next.'

Mr N. Sivasothi, an instructor at the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore, said that the crocodile could have come from Malaysia or could have been moving around Singapore's north-east.

Experts have advised the public to stay away from crocodiles if they see one.

Mr Sivasothi said: 'They will tend to avoid people and we should do the same.'

The public can call the PUB 24-hour hotline at 1800-284-6600 if they spot crocodiles in rivers or reservoirs.

[Okay, so the water is not clean and they don't want anyone swimming there. But a story about a crocodile is overkill no? Anyway, apparently the water's clean enough for a crocodile. ]

July 30, 2008
Avoid swimming at Pasir Ris beach for a year as water is unclean: NEA
By Shobana Kesava
THE National Environment Agency (NEA) on Wednesday advised the public not to swim at Pasir Ris beach for a year as the water is not clean.

The water there carries a high level of Enterococcus - a bacteria found in faeces.

NEA has put up signposts to warn beach-goers to avoid swimming in the area.

The bacteria levels have not risen over the years, but the water quality at Pasir Ris has been graded 'fair' under new, stringent standards set by the World Health Organisation, said NEA.

In a five-level grading, ranging from very good to very poor, Pasir Ris came out 'fair'.

Of the other six beaches in Singapore where the public can swim, all have 'good' water quality, while Sentosa Island's was rated 'very good'.

Reservoirs here were also measured for two microbes: enterococcus and blue-green algae, which causes algal blooms.

The water quality in these places is considered good enough for water contact activities, such as swimming, except Marina Reservoir, which is still under construction.

Singapore's national water agency, PUB reminded the public that no swimming is allowed in reservoirs.

It also assured the public that all water running through taps in Singapore goes through rigorous cleaning treatments.

Monday, August 4, 2008

2 S'porean mountaineers escape K2 disaster

Aug 4, 2008

By Judith Tan

IT WAS a case of better late than early for two Singaporean mountaineers attempting to climb K2, the world's second highest peak.

Both Mr Edwin Siew, Dr Robert Goh and their sherpas were not caught in the ice fall on Saturday, which swept away the fixed ropes climbers were using to make their descent.

At least 11 mountaineers died near the summit of K2 when a huge chunk of ice sheared off the mountain and hit them.

The deaths happened after 17 climbers, in different expeditions from around the world came together to scale K2's peak.

Mrs Lulin Reutens, a spokesman for the expedition, said the climb to Camp 3, located at 7,300 m, 'was a hard slog as strong winds caused temperature to fall fast'.

'Our climbers and their sherpas were about a day late in arriving at base camp and needed time to acclimatise,' she said.

And that saved them from getting into harm's way, which could have meant certain death.

Among the killed climbers were Dutch, Irish, Italian, French, Norwegian, South Korean, and Nepalese citizens.

The bodies of the 11 may never be recovered, but rescuers and the mountaineers who made it down are certain that they are dead.

The site of the accidents, about 8,047 m up the mountain, is what climbers call the 'Dead Zone' because no-one could survive if stuck in such freezing conditions with so little oxygen.

The pyramid-shaped K2, which sits on the border between Pakistan and China in the towering Karakoram range, is considered by mountaineers to be by far the hardest of the 14 summits over 8,000 metres to scale.

About 77 climbers have died on K2 since 1939.

[Singaporeans are already tardy by habit. This will just reinforce bad habits of Singaporeans who turn up late for meetings, late for wedding dinners, etc.]

Officer said bus killer ate part of victim

Aug 3, 2008

TORONTO - A POLICE officer at the scene of a grisly beheading on a Canadian bus reported seeing the attacker hacking off pieces of the victim's body and eating them, according to a police tape leaked on Saturday on the Internet.

In the tape of police radio transmissions, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer refers to the attacker as 'Badger' and says he is armed with a knife and a pair of scissors and 'is defiling the body at the front of the bus as we speak.'

'Okay, Badger's at the back of the bus, hacking off pieces and eating it,' he says at the end of the approximately 80-second recording.

The RCMP issued a statement saying it was aware that portions of the radio transmission had been leaked to the Internet but that it had not given permission to use the tape because they are 'operational police communications and as such are not meant for public consumption.'

["Not meant for public consumption"? in an article headlined, "Bus killer ate victim". Poor choice of words.]

Scientist says feathers are future of Asia construction

Aug 3, 2008

MANILA - A FILIPINO scientist says he has created a new composite building board made of chicken feathers that could be a major breakthrough for the construction industry in Asia.

The new material would be resistant to the region's armies of termites, and could also solve a major environment problem in the Philippines by providing a way to dispose of millions of kilos of waste feathers each year.

The research done by University of the Philippines Los Banos professor Menandro Acda, which is funded by the Ford Conservation and Environmental Grants programme, is being heralded as economically and environmentally sound.

In an interview with reporters, Prof Acda said the material, made of compressed cement and chicken feathers, could be widely used for housing, replacing boards now made with wood chips, which are easily ruined by hungry insects.

The composite boards are 'resistant to insect infestation such as termites because the feathers are inedible,' Prof Acda said.

'They are also not as flammable or combustible as conventional cement and wood-fibre composite boards,' he added.

Although more research needs to be done, he said the feather boards could be used for paneling, ceilings and as insulation but not for weight-bearing building components like walls or pillars.

The researcher said his work would also solve the significant problem of disposing of the 2.4 million tonnes of feathers produced each year by the Philippines poultry industry, while doing less damage to the environment.

'Conventional waste disposal methods, when applied to chicken feathers, are problematic,' he said, referring to burning, burial or recycling the feathers for use in low-quality animal feeds.

'Incineration releases greenhouse gases and the feathers take up a lot of space in landfills and take a long time to decay because of the keratin protein that make up the feathers,' Prof Acda noted.

'There is also the fear of bird flu, which makes converting chicken feathers into animal feeds undesirable.'

Prof Acda is hoping to perfect his feather board by year's end, at which point he will publish his findings.

'If the study results are good, then we will apply for a patent and publish the study,' he said.

'The next step would be to form a partnership with a company that can maximise this technology - perhaps (local food giant) San Miguel Corp which has Purefoods as a subsidiary company and, through Purefoods, operates large poultry farms nationwide,' he said.

The president of Ford Motor Company Philippines, Rick Baker, said the company was 'proud to be involved in such an exciting and ecologically relevant project.'

'Our support for this endeavour underscores our commitment to finding sustainable solutions in protecting and maintaining our environment,' he said. -- AFP

[What a bird-brained idea! I mean that in a good way...
Now when your house leaks, you don't know if it is shoddy workmanship, or because the house has a runny nose from bird flu.]