Sunday, 26 September 2004
Kidnapping rages on in Iraq
In the wake of the American occupation of Iraq, kidnappings have been occurring on a regular basis. More than 100 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was toppled about one and a half years ago, and about 30 have been killed. Many more Iraqis have also been kidnapped.
Last week, two American civil engineers were beheaded, while another Briton is threatened with the same fate. In the same week, six Egyptians and four Iraqis working for the country's cell-phone company Iraqna were also kidnapped.
Some experts think that these kidnappers are essentially interested in the publicity. Others think that common criminals have joined the fray, working with insurgents to profit from what has been called a "hostage economy" where political groups "outsource" the seizures to criminal gangs for money.
Steve Casteel, the United States' senior adviser to Iraq's Interior Ministry, says that the terrorists use kidnapping to intimidate and enforce their will as well as impose a sense of insecurity on Iraqis.
The media's role in promoting the kidnappings have also come under scrutiny. Most media companies outside the Arab world are now refraining from showing the most graphic and horrific scenes -- that is, the beheading -- but the mere reporting of these events give the terrorists the publicity they seek.
As Lord Tebbit, the former Tory Cabinet minister who was himself a victim of terrorism in the Brighton bombing 20 years ago, said: "We let this dominate the news agenda. It's meat and drink to the hostage takers."
Andrew Neil, the broadcaster and former editor of the Sunday Times, agreed, although he rejected calls for censorship. "We are playing into the hands of the terrorists... It seems to me they're rather sophisticated: they can see our TV on the web and our tabloids, and they know how it's playing. Having said all that, I see no alternative. In a free country with a free press we have to cover the news."
Ultimately, stemming the kidnapping has to come from improved law and order in Iraq itself. How that is to be done is the key question.
Christopher Beese, chief operating officer of ArmorGroup, a security company operating in Iraq, is not very confident that the question can be easily answered. "The Iraq situation is new. They are not looking for money," he said. "We have a new dimension facing us. It may well be that we do not find an answer to it."
Casteel, however, believes the police will prevail if they "stay the course". But he cautioned that that could take a long time.
Monday, 20 September 2004
Eating habits and age
A study by nutritionists at the University of Newcastle has found that adults eat twice as much fruits and vegetables as they did when they were children and take in less fat and sugar.
The study, which is published in the academic journal Appetite
, looked at the eating habits of 200 children aged 11 and 12 and then revisited the same people in their early 30s.
The finding should not come as too much of a surprise. For one thing, adults are more aware of the health consequences of a poor diet. And the fact that the consequences are more imminent for them should provide them with greater motivation to improve their eating habits.
Of course, knowing that adults eat more fruits and vegetables and less fat and sugar than children is one thing. The other question is whether they should actually start younger.
Animal studies have shown that extremely low-calorie diets produce considerably extended life spans. Significantly greater life-span extensions are achieved when the low-calorie diets are started young than when started in adulthood.
It is likely that a similar difference should apply to the high fruit/vegetable and low fat/sugar diet.
However, animal studies also show that undernutrition in young animals also cause stunted growth. That is obviously not ideal for our children.
It is not necessarily true that what is healthy for adults is also healthy for children.
Saturday, 11 September 2004
Religion retains strong hold on societies
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.
Tuesday, 7 September 2004
Tragedy in Beslan
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.
Tuesday, 31 August 2004
President Bush struggles to maintain trust
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.
Thursday, 26 August 2004
Gene helps to burn fat
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.
Thursday, 19 August 2004
US troop withdrawal
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.
Saturday, 7 August 2004
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.
Wednesday, 21 July 2004
Lee Hsien Loong's Taiwan visit unleashes storm from China
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.
Wednesday, 7 July 2004
Bird flu is back
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.
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