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Global Commentary
Saturday, 11 September 2004
Religion retains strong hold on societies
Topic: Society
Religion continues to play an important role in modern societies. And I am not just talking about Islamic fundamentalism.

True, the latter continues to be a source of religious militancy, not just in the Middle East but in South-east Asia as well -- witness the recent bombing near the Australian embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia that has so far left nine dead and well over a hundred injured.

However, religion remains important even in Christian Europe.

Recently, Serbia's education minister, Ljiljana Colic, ordered schools to stop teaching the theory of evolution, saying that in future Charles Darwin's theory would only be taught alongside creationism, the Bible's account of God's creation of the world. Ms Colic said the two theories were equally dogmatic.

The newspaper Glas Javnosti quoted biologist Nikola Tucic as describing the ruling as "outrageous", and showing that Serbia's Orthodox Church was interfering in politics.

"We are slowly turning into a theocratic state and in the 21st Century we are going back to the Book of Revelations," he told the newspaper. "There were attempts like this in several US states, but they were rejected. It turns out that our fundamentalists are much more successful."

However, after protests from scientists, teachers and opposition parties, the Serbian government has decided to drop the move.

The secular tradition remains strong in Europe, but at the same time, religious fundamentalism also retains a strong presence in most societies.

Posted by lim_cs at 11:44 AM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Tuesday, 7 September 2004
Tragedy in Beslan
Topic: Politics
Over 300 people were killed -- about half of them children -- by terrorists when they attacked a school in Beslan in southern Russia last week. The tragedy has brought condemnations from all over the world. It has also reminded everyone that the Russian occupation of Chechnya, for whom the terrorists are believed to have struck, remains a problem.

The Chechens have been fighting against Russian rule for a long time, often through terrorist activities. In August alone, three incidents have been linked to them: two involving the explosion of passenger planes, one involving a car bomb.

The Russian government's response has tended to be -- in the words of Jonathan Eyal, Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London -- "ham-fisted", using "brute force against the Chechens without offering a political process".

After the tragedy in Beslan, Israel offered its help with counter-terrorism expertise. However, Israel itself is mired in clashes with the Palestinians, where reprisals follow reprisals in an unending cycle of violence. For a more comprehensive solution to the Chechen problem, the Russians must look elsewhere.

As Eyal wrote in The Straits Times on 3 September, the fight against terrorism "must involve a judicious mix of force and politics". This is one lesson that the world already knows and should not need to have to re-learn.

The cost of the lesson, as in Beslan, is often too painful to bear.

Posted by lim_cs at 4:30 PM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Tuesday, 31 August 2004
President Bush struggles to maintain trust
Topic: Politics
The US Republican Party began its national convention in New York yesterday to officially nominate Mr George W. Bush as their candidate for the presidential election in November.

However, even before the convention began, protestors took to the streets of New York on Sunday in the thousands -- organisers claimed the number to be over 500,000. Some protestors carried signs saying "Support our troops -- send them home".

Disenchantment over the handling of the war in Iraq was obviously a major reason for the protest. Other protestors were angry over the lack of jobs.

James O'Toole, research professor at the University of Southern California's Center for Effective Organizations and former assistant to the secretary of health, education and welfare in the Nixon administration, has suggested perhaps a more fundamental problem that Americans have with the Bush administration.

In an article for Fast Company, O'Toole wrote:

President Bush has vacillated between contradictory approaches to leadership: realism and idealism... Realists and idealists can both be effective leaders. But one cannot be both at once. And that cuts to the heart of President Bush's problem. In the international arena, he first offered realist arguments for invading Iraq (the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction), then switched to idealist motivations (bringing democracy to the Middle East). Domestically, he pushed the idealist notion that taxes should be reduced to shrink government -- but later suggested, realistically, that a tax cut would act as an anti-recession stimulus.

Such waffling has undercut the level of trust in President Bush's administration, even within his own party... The leadership lesson for President Bush -- and for any leader -- is simple: Followers don't much care if leaders are realists or idealists, but they distrust inconstancy.
Inconsistent behaviour is a problem faced by many ambitious leaders. Intelligent, charismatic leaders usually know what their followers want them to say and do.

However, in doing what their followers want, inevitably, all leaders will make mistakes at some point in time or other. Ambitious leaders feel especially threatened by such mistakes and, in their desperation to salvage their reputations, are likely to try to justify their actions even in the face of the mistakes.

This is when they are most likely to "waffle" and shift positions, which in turn makes them appear inconsistent. And ironically, damage their reputations even more by appearing hypocritical and untrustworthy.

Posted by lim_cs at 7:28 PM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Thursday, 26 August 2004
Gene helps to burn fat
Topic: Health
Researchers have discovered how to alter a gene in mice that increased their stamina and enabled them to eat huge amounts of food without getting fat.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Ronald Evans, leader of the study, said that it could lead to a pill that gives many of the benefits of exercise without the need to exercise.

"It is a pill that, in part, mimics exercise. It mimics the metabolic activity associated with exercise," he told Reuters recently.

The gene involved is called PPAR-delta, a master regulator of different genes. Activating this gene had been shown to help raise metabolism and fat-burning.

Dr Evans and his colleagues wrote in the journal Public Library of Science Biology that they altered the PPAR-delta gene to stay in a permanently "on" position and then genetically engineered mice with it.

The genetically engineered mice were able to run an hour longer than normal mice were, and when fed a high-fat diet, the normal mice became fat, while the genetically altered mice gained no weight.

The mice grew more slow-twitch muscle fibres, which are used for endurance activity, as opposed to the fast-twitch muscles used for sprinting.

Dr Evans said he is still studying the mice to determine the impact on longevity. With obesity linked to several age-related diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, there is potential beneficial impact.

The researchers used genetic manipulation in the study, but they also gave an experimental drug called GW501516 that also activates PPAR-delta. Normal mice given the drug could also eat a high-fat diet without gaining weight.

In the fight against obesity and its associated diseases, these findings should be welcome indeed.

Posted by lim_cs at 7:27 PM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Thursday, 19 August 2004
US troop withdrawal
Topic: Politics
President George Bush has proposed bringing home up to 70,000 American troops from Asia and Europe.

"The world has changed a great deal and our posture must change with it," President Bush told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. The US needs "a more agile and more flexible force" to fight the "wars of the 21st century".

Some observers warn that the withdrawal may leave a power vacuum and create security problems in the affected regions. Others warn of the potential economic impact to the affected communities.

However, in a post-Cold War era, American troops are less needed to deter military aggression than ever before, with the possible exception of Korea, where North Korea continues to take a belligerent stance.

As for the economic impact, the host countries will have to start taking steps to mitigate the effects. The proposed withdrawal starts only in 2006 and will be phased over ten years.

The United States has little choice but to take this step. The cost of stationing large numbers of troops around the world is one that a deficit-ridden US government is no longer able to bear on a long-term basis.

In any case, the greatest threat to US security nowadays is not so much conventional warfare but terrorism. Terrorism requires a new mode of warfare. Ground troops stationed around the world on a permanent basis are of little value.

America has to divert its financial and military resources toward handling this new terrorist threat. Inevitably, some other objectives of lesser importance will have to be sacrificed.

As Tom Plate, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, wrote in The Straits Times:

America's friends in Asia need to accept the inevitable and figure out ways to climb aboard. India and Japan have already seen that; other governments have been a bit slower on the uptake.

In the end, this military-transformation world is like globalisation itself: There is not too much you can do about it, even if you do not much like it.

Posted by lim_cs at 12:09 PM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Saturday, 7 August 2004
Topic: Politics
The Straits Times reported today that a dispute has erupted between China and South Korea over the treatment of the ancient kingdom of Koguryo.

Koguryo was a kingdom that lasted between 37 BC and AD 668. At its peak, it spanned territories in both Korea and Manchuria. The latter is, of course, now part of China.

According to The Straits Times, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences had carried out the North-east Asia Project to study the history of China's north-eastern regions. The study claimed that Koguryo was a Chinese vassal state and key to China's history. Korean academics, on the other hand, consider Koguryo an independent state that was often in conflict with China.

The current dispute began when, in April, the Chinese Foreign Ministry website deleted Koguryo from its introduction to Korean history. Then on Thursday, the ministry removed all of Korean history before 1948.

This led Professor Ahn Byung Woo of South Korea's Hanshin University to say to The Japan Times: "China's North-east Asia Project is not just about Koguryo, but aims at asserting its historical claims to Manchuria and even part of the Korean peninsula in case the region turns unstable."

Even North Korea, long-time ally of China, accused the latter of "manipulating history for its own interest". Its state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun said that the Chinese claim on Koguryo was like "stealing water from another man's rice paddy".

The problem lies in the fact that Koguryo was, to a large extent, a Manchurian state, not just a strictly Korean one. If Manchuria is considered a part of China, then it is only reasonable to suggest that the history of Koguryo is an important part of the history of China.

That, of course, does not justify implying that Koguryo is not also an important part of the history of Korea, or implying that Korea has no history before 1948.

Posted by lim_cs at 3:51 PM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Wednesday, 21 July 2004
Lee Hsien Loong's Taiwan visit unleashes storm from China
Topic: Politics
Singapore Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and incoming prime minister Lee Hsien Loong's visit to Taiwan from 10-13 July provoked strong reactions from China.

On 11 July, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue expressed "strong dissatisfaction" with the visit and warned: "The Singaporean side should take full responsibility for what results from this event."

Soon after that, China cancelled People's Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan's trip to Singapore, where he had been scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the Monetary Authority of Singapore's annual lecture on 14 July.

Following the angry reaction from Beijing, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that emphasised Singapore's support for the "One China" policy and its opposition to Taiwanese independence. It also emphasised that the trip is "a private and unofficial visit".

The Chinese government was unimpressed. Zhang retorted: "Mr Lee Hsien Loong has held senior positions in the Singaporean government for many years, so his capacity cannot be changed by a simple remark."

Speculation in Taiwanese media that Lee may be trying to play mediator in cross-strait relationship aggravated Beijing's unhappiness. "The Taiwan question is China's internal affair and we have never required or needed any countries or people to pass on messages across the strait," Zhang said.

In contrast, the Taiwanese side has been sensitive to Singapore's diplomatic predicament. By and large, Taiwanese government officials did not publicly play up the visit. When asked about his impression of Lee, Taiwanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Mark Chen said: "He is a handsome man."

Nevertheless, the importance of the visit to the Taiwanese government was not lost on the media. In a 13 July report, the Taipei Times reported: "Despite the low profile of the visit and the secrecy surrounding his schedule, the media nonetheless caught the pomp and ceremony extended by President Chen Shui-bian and members of his government to the young national leader."

The Taiwanese government also did not highlight any cross-strait mediation role for Lee. On 14 July, the Taipei Times quoted a senior Taiwanese government official as saying that "[DPM] Lee demonstrated caution when touching on cross-strait and diplomatic matters. He was most certainly not serving as a negotiator between [Taiwan and China] and did not deliver a message from Beijing," the official said.

Despite the stand of the Beijing government, the official media in China was relatively restrained in its reporting. Most reported the official stand without additional comment.

It was another matter with the unofficial media.

On 15 July, the International Herald Leader headlined a story: "Lee Hsien Loong's Taiwan visit broke the Lee Kuan Yew model of striking a balance on the Taiwan Strait." Mr He Liangliang, a Phoenix Satellite Television commentator, was quoted as chiding Mr Lee for visiting Beijing in May, then making a trip to Taiwan two months later despite China's protestations.

On a CCTV4 programme that night, Professor Tao Wenzhao, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said that DPM Lee had gone overboard in trying to secure benefits for Singapore by exploiting the cross-strait situation. "The visit is absolutely unacceptable," he said.

The comments by Yan Xuetong, director of the International Relations Research Institute at Tsinghua University, probably takes the cake.

Yan wrote on Xinhuanet.com: "By taking along his defence minister on his visit, DPM Lee showed blatant support for Taiwanese independence forces. If this visit did not cause great damage to Singapore's national interests, DPM Lee will increase his support for Taiwanese independence after he takes power, in order to use it as a bargaining chip with China."

The point about the defence minister accompanying Lee on the visit is factually incorrect, as clarified by the Singapore government.

The point about Lee supporting Taiwanese independence is also unsubstantiated by the facts. Apart from the government's clearly-expressed "One China" policy, the visit itself is also not exceptional when put in the perspective of the close economic and military relations that Singapore has maintained with Taiwan since Kuomintang days, well before President Lee Teng-hui started publicly suggesting Taiwanese independence.

While it is obviously not in China's interests to encourage other countries to build up their relations with Taiwan, it is clearly in China's interests to maintain a rational approach to the issue. Otherwise, it risks lowering its international stature and credibility as a trustworthy player in the international arena.

Posted by lim_cs at 9:21 PM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Wednesday, 7 July 2004
Bird flu is back
Topic: Health
It looks like the bird flu is back.

Thailand has confirmed that 7,000 of 44,000 chickens in Ayutthaya had died in the last fortnight from the H5N1 strain of the bird flu. The surviving chickens have been culled.

On Tuesday, China had announced a new outbreak of bird flu after tests at a farm in the southeastern province of Anhui confirmed that chickens had died of bird flu. In March, China had declared it had defeated the disease after killing 9 million chickens and other poultry.

Bird flu has also appeared in Vietnam over the last three months.

In the earlier outbreak early this year, the disease ravaged flocks throughout Asia. It also spread from birds to humans, killing 16 people in Vietnam and eight in Thailand. About 100 million chickens across the region were slaughtered to halt its spread.

"It's not surprising that it has come back," said Roy Wadia of the World Health Organization in Beijing. "It stays in the environment a long time."

In April, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome -- or more commonly known as SARS -- threatened a similar comeback, making a re-appearance in China and causing one death. Fortunately, it was quickly contained again.

No doubt, health authorities in Asia have become better at controlling such outbreaks. Hopefully the latest bird flu outbreak is also quickly brought under control.

Posted by lim_cs at 9:47 PM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Sunday, 4 July 2004
Malaysia scraps rule on women visitors from China
Topic: Politics
On 30 June, the Malaysian government announced that it was scrapping a rule that required young female visitors from China to be accompanied by either their husbands or fathers when visiting the country.

Earlier last month, the Immigration Department had issued a circular imposing these conditions on women aged between 18 and 25 wanting to visit Malaysia. It also required them to produce documents to prove that they were tourists.

The rule had been implemented to address rising concerns about young women from China entering Malaysia as tourists and staying to work as prostitutes instead. Statistics compiled by the Malaysian police show that last year, 1,971 women from China had been detained for overstaying. In the first four months of this year, 654 women from China were arrested.

It is a problem that is not unique to Malaysia. Hong Kong and Singapore have also reported similar problems with Chinese women working as prostitutes.

The reason for the rescission of the rule is not clear at the moment. However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry had recently issued a travel advisory warning its citizens about snatch thefts in Malaysia.

Coincidence? Hard to say. It would not have surprised me, though, if it had been a calculated tit-for-tat measure by Beijing against Malaysia.

Malaysia's rule on Chinese women visitors seems to me to be so obviously politically insensitive that I wonder why the Malaysian authorities even passed it in the first place if it were at all interested in keeping good relations with Beijing.

Posted by lim_cs at 6:29 PM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post
Monday, 21 June 2004
Taiwan and China making war plans
Topic: Politics
Things appear to be heating up across the Taiwan Straits.

"The United States has nudged Taiwan to beef up its defence capabilities, hinting at a possible sale of Aegis-equipped destroyers to the island amid a perceived growing threat from rival China," The Straits Times reported today.

According to the report, Admiral Thomas Boulton Fargo, commander of the US Pacific Command, told a visiting group of Taiwanese parliamentarians in Hawaii that "he was worried about China's speedy military modernisation". However, he said it was up to Taiwan to decide whether or not it wanted to boost its defence capabilities.

CNN had reported yesterday that China's generals are stepping up efforts to seek approval from the Chinese Communist Party leadership for more funds and speed up the reunification process with Taiwan, including the possible use of military force.

And earlier media reports had indicated that US defence planners are speculating that, in the event of a war across the strait, Taiwan may try to hit high-value targets like the Three Gorges Dam as a way of deterring a Chinese invasion.

The US government has a one-China policy mainly to placate Beijing and hopefully avoid a war across the Taiwan Straits. Unfortunately, this policy is a double-edged sword. It also gives Beijing an excuse to go to war to assert its claim on Taiwan.

Furthermore, the US continues to arm Taiwan. This gives the pro-independence government in Taipei hope that the US will help in case of a conflict with China and encourages it to be bolder and more antagonistic toward the latter.

All these elements only increase the probability of a conflict between China and Taiwan. War may not be inevitable yet, but all parties involved should start taking measures to reduce the tension and not allow matters to deteriorate further.

Posted by lim_cs at 8:59 PM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post

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