Thursday, November 29, 2007

People are equal in dialogue - Inter-religious dialogue

Catholic News. 25 Nov 2007

When Catholics engage in interreligious dialogue

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Believing in Science as an article of faith - irrational!

Taking science on faith
By Paul Davies

SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, however, is based on faith. The term 'doubting Thomas' well illustrates the difference.

In science, a healthy scepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is seen as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into 'non-overlapping magisteria', as American palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.

You couldn't be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of sub-atomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion - all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not enquire into their provenance.
The laws were treated as 'given' - imprinted on the universe like a maker's mark at the moment of cosmic birth - and fixed forever. So, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You must believe these laws won't fail, that we won't wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.

Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from 'that's not a scientific question' to 'nobody knows'. My favourite reply is: 'There is no reason they are what they are - they just are.'

The idea that the laws exist without reason is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality - the laws of physics - only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.

Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.

A second reason that the laws of physics have now been brought within the scope of scientific research is the realisation that what we have long regarded as absolute and universal laws might not be truly fundamental at all, but more like local bylaws. They could vary from place to place on a mega-cosmic scale.

A God's-eye view might reveal a vast patchwork quilt of universes, each with its own distinctive set of bylaws. In this 'multiverse', there is life only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe - one just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.

The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn't so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith - namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm.

Isaac Newton first had the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians see God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: The universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable meta- laws that exist without reason or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

The writer is the director of Beyond, a research centre at Arizona State University, and the author of Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right For Life.

Copyright: New York Times Syndicate

Water Safety


Team 'decided not to wear life jackets to paddle faster'
They found water calm and were confident during practice, says association president
By Carolyn Quek


A BIG LOSS: Photos of the dead dragon boat team members were placed outside a tented area at the mortuary where their bodies were taken to yesterday. They are Messrs Jeremy Goh (from left), Chee Wei Cheng, Stephen Loh, Poh Boon San and Reuben Kee. -- ST PHOTO: LIM WUI LIANG

PHNOM PENH - SINGAPORE'S dragon boat team wore their life jackets when they trained on the Tonle Sap before their race last Friday.
They found the water calm enough and were confident even using a different kind of boat for the Cambodian water festival race.

So after a discussion, they decided that they would be able to paddle faster and better without their life jackets, Rear-Admiral (Retired) Kwek Siew Jin, president of the Singapore Dragon Boat Association, said yesterday.

'They felt that conditions were benign enough for them not to have to wear the life jackets,' he said.

Speaking to reporters here, he said that had he known, he would not have allowed them to discard their life jackets.

In Singapore, for sure, that would not have been allowed. But life jackets were optional in the Tonle Sap race, and the team went with their decision.

RADM Kwek stressed that the paddlers were all very experienced, had a good assessment of the situation and were all strong swimmers.

'I tell you, these people are very comfortable in the water, with several years of experience. Otherwise, they can't make the national team,' he said.

'Look at the size of the captain. All of them have been training for years. If they are not rowing, they are training on weights.'

He said there would be 'a very thorough investigation', less to find fault than to find out how the tragedy could have been averted.

One answer, he said, might be to insist that paddlers wear life jackets in all competitions in future, no matter where they race and what the rules of the competition are.

RADM Kwek said that the 22 team members represented the cream of the crop in the sport, chosen from different dragon boating squads in Singapore.

They had hoped to make next month's South-east Asian Games in Thailand in the traditional boat race event, but the Singapore National Olympic Council turned them down.

Among other things, athletes or teams aiming for selection were expected to better or equal the third-placed timing of the last SEA Games to qualify.

The senior vice-president of the dragon boat association, Member of Parliament Lam Pin Min, said yesterday that the paddlers were invited by the Cambodian government in September to take part in the Tonle Sap races.

He said the team would probably have gone to Tonle Sap even if they had been selected for the SEA Games as it would have given them additional exposure.

RADM Kwek said the national squad members shared a fierce love and dedication for the sport, and spent so much time practising or working out that many were hardly home.

So when five of the men went missing on Friday, the others were devastated.

'In dragon boating, especially, the team spirit is very strong,' said RADM Kwek.

The deaths had left the surviving paddlers too distraught to speak to the media, he said, explaining why team members had refused to say anything to reporters all weekend.

The team is scheduled to leave Phnom Penh for Singapore this morning.

'We initially wanted them to go home as early as possible, but they requested to stay on because they wanted to know the fate of their team members,' he said.

He said the deaths of the five men were a great loss not only to their families, but also the sport.

'We were building up the national team. We hoped in the next few years, they could be good enough to compete internationally. Now, we have lost the services of five really good sportsmen,' he said.

He said he did not know all of the dead men personally.

'I usually meet them as a team, and you know how they all look the same - all big-sized and all beautifully built.'

carolynq@sph.com.sg


ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY LEONARD LIM IN SINGAPORE




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The Mekong river - The Economist

The sweet serpent of South-East Asia
Dec 30th 2003
From The Economist print edition

How much longer will the Mekong remain the world's last great unspoilt river?

EVERY October, on the night of the full moon, small globes of light rise from the Mekong river along the border of Laos and Thailand. One theory holds that methane drawn from the riverbed by the gravitational pull of the moon causes the “Naga fireballs”, as locals call the phenomenon. The devout, on the other hand, consider it a sort of spiritual firework display to celebrate the end of Buddhist Lent, while sceptics say that it is all a hoax, perpetrated by Laotian monks to put the fear of god into their flock.


Then there are the bizarre creatures that navigate these shifting currents: catfish the size of cows, dome-headed dolphins, crocodiles with a taste for royal blood—and relatively few people. Uniquely for such a big river in the heart of tropical Asia, the biggest city along the Mekong's banks—Phnom Penh—has a mere 1.1m inhabitants. That makes the river unusual in another respect: the pressure of a burgeoning population and fast economic growth is only just beginning to make its mark on the Mekong. But the outcome could be all too familiar: a poor compromise between conservation and development.

For centuries, the Mekong has disappointed those who have dreamed of turning it into a major artery of trade and industry. At times, overland routes have rivalled maritime ones as a conduit for east-west trade in Asia, but the sea has always provided the simplest way of getting from north to south. Thus Marco Polo probably crossed the Mekong on his way home to Europe from China in the 13th century, but did not travel along it. At any rate, he considered the river so inconsequential that he did not mention it in his account of the journey.

About the same time, 1,600km (1,000 miles) to the south, the only major civilisation to be built around the Mekong, the empire of Angkor, was reaching its apogee. Its Cambodian heartland sustained a population of at least 1m through rice farming along the shores of the Tonle Sap, and fishing in its waters. But the Mekong played a part in the empire's trade only in so far as it provided an outlet to the sea. The Chinese merchants and ambassadors who visited Angkor in its heyday came by boat from China's coast and then up the Mekong from the delta, not downriver from the Chinese province of Yunnan.

Four thousand obstacles
They did so in part because the Mekong is not navigable much beyond Phnom Penh. In the dry season, when the river is low, boats must dodge endless jagged reefs and shifting sandbars. Even when the water level crests, the many rapids of Si Phan Don, or “Four Thousand Islands”, in what is now southern Laos, form an insurmountable obstacle to shipping. Over a stretch of 30km, the Mekong divides into a muddled network of streams and channels, tumbling over cascades and shoals.

But the main reason this huge river has always been such a commercial backwater is the scanty population along its course. The biggest expanse of flat, well-watered and fertile land in the basin lies around Tonle Sap lake, but the devastating annual flood makes intensive agriculture difficult there. Depending on the strength of the rains, the surface area of the lake can swell to up to ten times its normal size during the monsoon. But the water recedes quickly when the rains stop, so the land is alternately flooded and parched.

No wonder, then, that the most powerful countries in the region took shape in more hospitable river basins: China on the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, Thailand on the Chao Phraya, Vietnam on the Red, and Burma on the Irrawaddy, leaving the lower Mekong to much-diminished Cambodian kingdoms. North of Cambodia, the Mekong flows through the periphery, not the centre, of all these countries.
European explorers, who began snooping around the Mekong in the 16th century, took hundreds of years to work that out, though. In the 1590s a party of Iberian conquistadors overthrew the Cambodian king and set themselves up as governors in the Mekong delta. A Dutchman, Gerritt van Wuysthoff, struggled upriver as far as Vientiane in 1641. But as late as the 1860s, when France conquered Vietnam and Cambodia, colonial officials knew nothing of the river's northern reaches. They still hoped that it might provide a lucrative back door to China, and in 1866 sent an expedition to explore both the Mekong's course and its commercial potential.

The leader of the expedition died en route, and the survivors brought back grim reports of impassable rapids and lawless hinterlands. But the optimists pressed on. They seized control of Laos in 1893, and tried to turn the Mekong into a thoroughfare linking all their colonies in Indochina. To get round the rapids in Si Phan Don, they built a railway across the river's two southernmost islands, Khon and Det, close to the Laos-Cambodia border. Goods could be shifted from boat to train at the southern terminus of the railway on Khon, below the rapids, and carried to a vessel above them, at the northern end of Det.

The scheme was more a triumph of engineering than of economics, however. Chinese merchants still found it cheaper to send goods to Laos overland via Thailand. After the second world war, the railway—the only one in Laos—fell into disuse. By now, villagers on Khon have prised up most of the tracks for use as fencing. Water buffalo graze on the grass that has sprouted on the old railway bridge linking Det and Khon. Not far off, a rusty French locomotive lies abandoned in a bog.

In the 1950s and 1960s, America, too, dreamed of harnessing the Mekong to enrich Indochina, and thus dent support for the region's communist insurgents. Its allies in the region, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam, set up an agency called the Mekong Committee to co-ordinate joint development projects. Plans were drawn up to dam the Mekong, and engineers got as far as surveying several sites before the ever-intensifying Vietnam war put an end to such schemes.

Thanks to all these disappointments, the Mekong remained almost untouched until the 1990s. The first dam on the river, at Man Wan, in China, was not completed until 1993. The first bridge across the lower Mekong (ie, outside China) was built a year later, between Vientiane in Laos and Nong Khai in Thailand. To this day, much of the river feels deserted. Between the town of Stung Treng, in northern Cambodia, and the Laotian border, hardly a house can be seen. There is so little traffic on the road that runs parallel to the river north of the border that “you could sleep on it,” as one local remarks. Farther north still, along some stretches of the river near Luang Prabang, only odd patches of cultivated land give any hint of human settlement.

But that is changing fast. The population of Cambodia is growing by 2.6% a year, and that of Laos by 2.3%—among the highest rates in Asia. Growth is lower in the Thai and Vietnamese parts of the basin, but they have long been more densely populated. Economic growth is even faster: 5-6% in 2003 in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, 7-8% in China and Vietnam.

Build and destroy
To accelerate this trend, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is promoting a scheme to integrate the economies of the “greater Mekong sub-region”. Two north-south highways are under construction to link China and Thailand, one via Laos and the other via Myanmar. So are five east-west routes linking Thailand and Vietnam, three via Laos and two via Cambodia. A tie-up of electricity grids and telecoms networks is also getting under way.

The ADB may find it as difficult to make the region boom as the French and Americans did. But one element of the current development drive is bound to leave its mark on the Mekong: dam-building. According to the International Rivers Network, an anti-dam group, some 100 large dams are proposed for the Mekong basin.

China has already completed two on the Mekong itself, has started work on a third, and plans at least four more. By the time the Mekong enters Vietnam, it has already formed a delta, leaving no opportunity for dam-building—so the government is building five dams on the one big tributary that strays across its mountainous border with Cambodia instead. Thailand, too, has dammed the main tributaries that flow across its territory. The biggest dam enthusiast of all is dirt-poor Laos, which hopes to enrich itself by building enough hydropower projects to become the battery of South-East Asia.

This barrage of dams generates valuable electricity, aids irrigation and regulates flooding—but in the process does irreparable damage to what was, until recently, the Mekong's most valuable resource: its fisheries. The Mekong and its tributaries yield more fish than any other river system. The annual harvest, including fish farms, amounts to about 2m tonnes—or roughly twice the catch from the North Sea. The Mekong is home to over 1,200 different species of fish, more than any other river save the Amazon and the Congo. Over 1m people in Cambodia depend solely on fishing to make a living, while in Laos 70% of rural households supplement their income by fishing.

The abundance of fish stems from the Mekong's seasonal ebb and flow. During the monsoon, when the plains around the river and its tributaries flood, the habitat for fish suddenly increases by as much as ten times. Moreover, much of the flood-plain is actually forest, which provides a particularly nutritious array of rotting leaves for the fish to feed on. Many species in the Mekong have evolved to take advantage of this delectable smorgasbord. They spawn at the end of the dry season, so that the coming floods can carry the fry to the flood-plain. The bigger the flood, the greater the feast on offer, and so the fatter and more numerous the fish.

More dams, however, mean smaller floods. Most hydroelectric plants aim to generate the same amount of energy year-round. That requires a consistent flow through the turbines, which in turn requires rainwater to be held in a reservoir for use in the dry season. The same drawback, of course, applies to dams designed for flood control. Dams for irrigation, meanwhile, have a doubly damaging impact on fisheries: they not only hold back water, but also encourage the conversion of forest to farmland in the flood-plain.

Irrigated rice-farming, which is two or three times more productive than the rain-fed sort, is growing rapidly throughout the basin, albeit from a low base. In Laos alone, the area under irrigation increased eightfold in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the Mekong River Commission, the latter-day successor to the Mekong Committee, calculates that flood levels have fallen by almost 11% since 1965.

Fishermen all along the Mekong are already complaining of falling catches. For now, at any rate, the problem stems more from the growing number of fishermen than from falling numbers of fish. The Mekong River Commission calculates that the fish catch actually doubled in Cambodia between the 1940s and the 1990s. But over the same period, the number of fishermen (along with the population as a whole) has more than tripled, leading to a decline of 44% in the amount each one takes home.

To make matters worse, even if the catch as a whole is stable, certain species are clearly dying out. The Siamese crocodile, which used to pluck picnicking princesses off the riverbank, according to French explorers, has already disappeared from the main river. Perhaps a few hundred remain in the forested highlands of Laos and Cambodia—but they too are threatened by hunting and habitat loss.

A similar fate awaits the Irrawaddy dolphin. According to Isabel Beasley, an academic, there are only about 70 of these dark grey, snoutless creatures left in the entire Mekong basin. These few survivors, she explains, follow the fish in the dry season to deep pools in the bed of the river near Kratie, in Cambodia. Despite their scarcity, they can easily be spied at these spots, breaking the surface in gentle arcs in pods of three or four. But fishermen also follow the fish, and often snag the dolphins unintentionally in the large-mesh nets they leave unattended for days at a time. As mammals, they need to come to the surface to breathe at intervals of roughly 20 minutes. So any that are caught in nets have usually drowned long before the fishermen return to inspect their catch.

Suffering catfish
The reasons behind the dramatic decline in other species are murkier. Take the giant catfish, the world's largest freshwater fish, which can grow up to 3 metres (10 feet) in length and weigh up to 300kg (660lb). It used to be found throughout the Mekong basin, but has completely disappeared from most areas. In Chiang Khong, traditionally a prime fishing ground, the catch declined from 69 in 1990 to two in 2000, and none since. Unlike smaller species, which reach reproductive age within a year, giant catfish take about seven years to mature, and so are seven times more vulnerable to over-fishing. They also migrate upstream to spawn, though no one knows where, exactly, they go, and therefore whether the proliferation of dams is playing a part in their demise.

In general, the Mekong is so little studied that the effects of any development project are hard to predict. China, for example, is paying for a scheme that involves blowing up reefs in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, to provide a navigable channel for ships of up to 150 tonnes. But halfway through the blasting, the Thai government has suspended the project, for fear that the faster flow of an unimpeded current would increase erosion and thus alter the midstream boundary with Laos. Fishermen also worry that, since the reefs may be prime breeding-grounds for fish, including the giant catfish, the catch of all species will plummet if their habitat is destroyed.

That fear is not far-fetched. Something similar happened in 1994, when Thailand, with money from the World Bank, completed a hydropower dam on the Mun river, a major tributary of the Mekong. Since then, the fish catch directly upstream has declined by 60-80%, according to a study by the World Commission on Dams. The same study argued that, thanks to cost overruns and lower-than-expected generation at peak times, it would have made more sense to build a gas-fired plant.

To avoid a similar fiasco, the World Bank is insisting on umpteen studies and safeguards for the Nam Theun II, a big dam it is financing on a tributary of the Mekong in Laos. But the authoritarian rulers of China, Myanmar and Vietnam do not always mull over big projects so carefully, and no cost-benefit analysis at all is made of the thousands of small dams, irrigation schemes and land clearances that are undertaken each year throughout the basin. Anyway, governments in upstream countries are unlikely to give much thought to the impact of projects on lowly fishermen or farmers beyond their borders.

In theory, that is the job of the Mekong River Commission. Its members, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, are slowly drawing up pacts on the exploitation of the Mekong and its tributaries. In 2001 they agreed to exchange data on water flows. A pledge to notify one another about big projects came next, and then a system to check up on such declarations. Next year, if all goes according to plan, they will fix the minimum amount of water each country must discharge downstream and, in 2005, rules on water quality.

But none of these pacts will amount to much so long as China and Myanmar refuse to join the Mekong River Commission. Officials from downstream countries—somewhat hypocritically—say that China's dam-building schemes threaten the whole basin. But for upstream countries, of course, membership of the commission would bring many restrictions and few benefits.

China has, however, been keen to rid itself of the image of a budding regional bully, and has courted South-East Asian countries with trade concessions. It also needs the acquiescence of downstream countries in schemes such as the reef-blasting. In 2001 it agreed to the minimal step of sharing data on water levels with the commission, to provide an early-warning system for floods. After all, say officials at the commission, co-operation among the riparian states, like the river itself, should flow in both directions.

Writer's dilemma

Writers bloc
Scriptwriters in Singapore are often an unknown lot, but they are hopeful things will change
By Boon Chan


NOT SEEN BUT HEARD: Ms Tan Wei Lyn (left) and Ms Bon Sek Yieng (right) are behind the Golden Horse-nominated original script for the movie, Just Follow Law, while Mr Lionel Chok (centre) wrote for drama series, Random Acts, which aired on Arts Central. -- ST PHOTO: ALAN LIM

UNDER One Roof, Growing Up, Don't Worry Be Happy - they are are all well-loved local TV series.
While audiences would have little trouble coming up with the actors associated with these shows, they would be hard put to name a single writer responsible for the scripts.

So who are these people who keep viewers glued to the goggle box? While members of the Writers Guild of America - some of whom are the wordsmiths behind hits like Desperate Housewives - continue to strike for better terms, how are scribes in Singapore faring?

President of the Screenwriters Association (Singapore) (SWA) Woon Chet Choon estimates that there are 'dozens' of full-time writers here, largely with MediaCorp, and about 200 part-time ones.

The SWA was set up in 2000 by Daniel Chan, then a film lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. The association currently has over 1,000 names in its mailing list.

While an average writer in the US might make about US$50,000 (S$73,000) a year, a part-time one here would be lucky to clear $5,000 from writing alone.

Ms Tan Wei Lyn, 35, who co-wrote the Golden Horse award-nominated original script for Jack Neo's Just Follow Law, says: 'Realistically, to feed yourself as a scriptwriter in Singapore, you can't venture far from TV.'

A fresh graduate can expect to make about $2,500 a month as a full-time writer at a TV station and command $5,000 and up with five years of experience under his belt.

Freelance director and writer Han Yew Kwang, 32, says: 'If you're really hardworking, you could make $5,000 a month writing five episodes for a TV show, but then you probably won't enjoy the writing process'.

But the likelihood of a new writer being able to land such a deal is quite low. You need to make a name for yourself, then people would come and look for you, says Ms Tan.

However, Ms Bon Sek Yieng, 42, fellow co-writer for Law, feels it is probably easier to make a living as a scriptwriter now compared to the past.

TV stations used to have a monopoly on the production of programmes, but there has been an 'opening up' and independent production houses now handle a greater volume of work which they, in turn, farm out to freelancers.

Another challenge faced by writers here is that there are no industry standards on payment and contract terms. Contracts often do not stipulate the number of drafts to be delivered and writers sometimes do not see a paycheque until a script is finalised or when the production is completed.

Freelance writer-director Lionel Chok, 34, says his wish-list includes 10 per cent of the payment delivered for a first draft and a limit of five drafts.

He once did eight drafts for a TV programme and 'it was three months of work but I could not command three months of pay'.

He concludes that it's very difficult to make a living as a full-time writer, and a person would have to dabble in all platforms including writing for magazines and corporate videos.

One of the benefits for members listed on the SWA's website is to 'provide a unified voice for the screenwriting community in promoting fair practices within the industry'. But Mr Woon admits that the SWA is not meant to be a guild or union, and has been more concerned with raising standards of writing here.

Gaining recognition's tough

WHILE monetary remuneration is a key concern of writers, it is only part of the equation.

Ms Tan says: 'It's hard to gain recognition for writing, while you can tell good acting and directing.'

Of her nomination for Best Original Script, she says that any recognition is a good thing, and hopefully more writers here will get more exposure.

The director of development and head writer of animation studio Peach Blossom Media, Mr Andy Logam-Tan, 37, says: 'There is somewhat less respect for people in the creative line as a rule because it is difficult to measure results.'

Still, he is encouraged that people have begun to make a genuine effort to look at the product, rather than the rate of output, of writers.

Then there is the question of creative control.

Mr Han, who worked for four years at TV stations here, says writers can sometimes initiate a project, but when it goes into production, the producer and directors take over and the writer has to let go creatively.

Ms Tan concurs to an extent: 'In the old days, the director used to be king but people are realising that it's hard to start from a blank page.' But while there is 'a growing appreciation for writers, we are also easy targets. When something doesn't work, it's the writer's fault'.

To Ms Chen Sew Khoon, 47, a story planner for MediaCorp's Mandarin drama serials, scriptwriting is not an individual but a team effort. There has to be give and take and writers may not be aware of the reasons for changes, such as production limitations.

Mr Chok puts it this way: 'Writers understand that there can't be 100 per cent creative control; even in the United States, it's a question of how much creativity you can try to inject into any project.

'If you want it to be 100 per cent yours, make your own short film or play.'

The write steps

MOVING ahead, there are scenarios that writers would be glad to see realised in the industry.

Mr Tan notes that 'we have not had a situation as in the States where a writer runs the show'.

Again, unlike in the US, Mr Han observes that it is not common to have a creator credit for projects. A bigger problem might be the lack of a proper long-term scriptwriting course, he adds.

That is why Ms Tan is returning to MediaCorp to head the English comedy and drama division. Having benefited from a more structured system as a novice writer which included a scriptwriting course and being assigned a mentor, she is keen to help train more writers now.

The growing awareness of the importance of content creation is also reflected in official schemes to encourage writing.

The Singapore Film Commission's (SFC) Script Development Grant was launched in December 2003 to help writers develop their stories into feature film scripts. A grant of $6,000 is given to each successful applicant and the total number of recipients as of July this year was 54.

Mr Man Shu Sum, the Media Development Authority's (MDA) broadcast and film development director as well as SFC director, also recognises there is a need for scriptwriters to improve their skills through training by professionals.

To this end, MDA has organised scriptwriting and script-consulting masterclasses and workshops for local writers.

For Mr Tan, writing should be seen as a decent money-earning job, and writers' salaries should be matched to comparable professions like engineering. 'After all, this is what writing is, to design and construct a product.'

If the industry developments in Hollywood can be said to resemble a potboiler, then perhaps the situation here is still very much a work in progress.

bchan@sph.com.sg



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'Realistically, to feed yourself as a scriptwriter in Singapore

Taming Inflation

Taming inflation
With inflation hitting a 16-year high of 3.6 per cent and likely to go up to 5 per cent next year, Erica Tay looks at what can be done to rein in rising prices


IF IT seems that eating out and getting around town has become more expensive these days, the latest hard data from official number-crunchers confirms that indeed it has.
Prices in October, as measured by the consumer price index (CPI), are 3.6 per cent higher than a year ago - the fastest rise in 16 years.

The rate of increase in the CPI - known as the headline inflation rate - has literally been making headlines as Singaporeans gripe about higher food prices and bigger petrol bills.

Hawker centre meals cost 2.8 per cent more compared to a year ago, statistics show.

Restaurant food costs 5.1 per cent more, and transport expenses have also gone up by the same percentage.

Staying at home and eating in? That is not getting cheaper either.

Prices of non-cooked food have crept up 5.6 per cent over the past year, with prices of dairy products and eggs up 9.9 per cent.

Is there any respite for workers who find that they are buying less with the same pay cheques?

What can policymakers do to tame rising inflation?

To understand how to tackle inflation, it is important to understand what is causing rising costs in the first place.

The drivers include July's goods and services tax hike, higher oil and food prices worldwide, and wage and rental increases fuelled by Singapore's red-hot economy.

These factors all play a part in explaining why a plate of chicken rice now costs $3 instead of $2.

But while they all result in higher prices, dealing with each factor requires a different prescription, say economists.


Good and bad news

THE good news is that inflation is set to come down by the end of next year.

The bad news? It is likely to climb higher before coming down.

Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang recently told Parliament that inflation could go as high as 5 per cent in the first quarter of 2008 before moderating for the rest of the year.

On Monday, the Monetary Authority of Singapore predicted inflation for all of next year to range between 3.5 and 4.5 per cent.

'We think inflation will surge past 5 per cent early next year, and average 4 per cent for the whole of 2008,' predicted United Overseas Bank economist Suan Teck Kin.

An inflation rate of 5 per cent will be Singapore's highest in more than two decades, surpassing the 4 per cent peak seen in July 1991, noted Standard Chartered Bank economist Alvin Liew.


A perfect storm

A CONFLUENCE of factors is fanning inflationary pressures on several fronts, said Mr Suan.

Since July this year, one factor has been the 2-percentage- point hike in the GST.

That has the effect of lifting inflation for 12 months, until June next year, after which the effect will wear off, he said.

Another reason for escalating prices has been the sizzling economy.

Rapid expansion has been using up spare capacity in the economy and putting a squeeze on the supply of labour and other resources. Higher wages and rents then get passed on as higher consumer prices.

'The economy is not just getting hotter. It has gotten too hot,' said Citigroup economist Chua Hak Bin.

Singapore is running at full employment and this is driving up wages, he noted.

A shortage of commercial space is pushing up business rents, and new buildings, although under construction, take time to be completed.

Housing costs, too, are on the rise.

A hike next January in the annual assessed values of HDB flats by the tax authorities will push the CPI up by 1.5 to 2 percentage points, estimated Dr Chua.

Besides these domestic factors, along came other unexpected pressures.

The price of crude oil - a raw material for petrol and plastics - has shot up to a whisker shy of US$100 a barrel.

Also, the cost of food and commodities has been surging globally.

As HSBC economist Robert Prior-Wandesforde puts it: 'Prices are being pulled higher by an almost perfect storm of rising energy and food commodity prices, higher rents and the impact of July's GST rise.'


The impact

WHAT are the implications of accelerating prices?

For one, real wages and real interest rates will be hit, explained DBS Bank economist Irvin Seah.

If salaries go up by 5 per cent a year, but consumer prices rise by 5 per cent too, it brings workers back to square one, as their purchasing power stays the same.

Second, if inflation outstrips interest rates earned on deposits, the purchasing power of savings will be eroded, giving rise to 'negative real interest rates', he explained.

A pick-up in inflation would leave low-income workers more vulnerable, said Dr Chua.

Mr Seah said: 'The lowest income group will be hardest hit. The inflation faced by this group has typically been higher, and the recent spate of increase in food prices and hike in bus fares will certainly hurt their pockets a lot more than the rest.'

Mr Liew added: 'Although wages have generally been rising, lower-income workers typically don't get as much wage growth as the top earners, so their real income may go down quite a bit.'


What can be done?

ONE way to combat rising prices is for the central bank, which manages the Singapore dollar's exchange rate against a basket of currencies, to tighten monetary policy - that is, to let the Singdollar strengthen at a faster pace.

'External sources of inflation are something we can do little about, except by appreciating our currency,' said Fortis Bank strategist Joseph Tan.

'A faster rising Singdollar makes imports cheaper, and more drastic tightening might be called for at the next policy review in April,' he added.

But Citigroup's Dr Chua said monetary policy is unable to directly tackle domestic price pressures, particularly coming from a tight property market.

Initiatives have been taken to increase the supply of commercial and residential property, he noted.

Recent government moves to alleviate the squeeze on resources by postponing public projects were useful, said Mr Suan.

Mr Prior-Wandesforde pointed out: 'While denying that the economy is overheating, the government has clearly shown its concerns for the future via the various measures designed to cool the housing market as well as the delays in several construction projects, an increase in immigration and a contraction in real government spending as reported in the national accounts.'

On the demand side, policies to further cool the property market may be needed, said Mr Tan.

'There are different ways you can skin the cat, and the cat, in this instance, is the property market,' he said.

Aside from big-picture policies, economists also advocated that more be done in the Budget early next year to help low-wage earners cope with rising costs.

'There can be rebates targeted at low-wage families,' Mr Liew said.

Mr Tan pointed out: 'In the next Budget, we will need to look after those in the lower-income bracket. They are the ones typically caught out by higher inflation.'

ericatay@sph.com.sg


Nov 25, 2007
INBOX
Dance music too sexy for kids

I CAUGHT some performances at the Asian Children's Festival held outside the National Library on Nov17.

At first, I enjoyed the performances presented by the children, but my enjoyment turned to dismay when a group of girls, who looked to be around seven to nine years old, came on stage and danced to the song, Buttons, by the Pussycat Dolls (right).

With its sexual connotations, it is an inappropriate song for any young child to dance to, let alone to be presented as an item in a festival that was meant to celebrate the joy of being a child - and watched by many other youngsters.

Was the National Library Board (NLB), as the main organiser, aware of the implications of the song?

One could simply laugh it off as a 'small, trivial thing' and say the children were not aware of the hidden meaning of the song, let alone remember it.

I beg to differ. To carelessly underestimate a child's tendency to be influenced by the media he is exposed to is a huge oversight.

I hope the NLB and future organisers of such children's events will seriously take into account the age of the audience they are catering to.


Ruth Lee Ting En (Ms)

Sg education system - Give a pat on the back

RECORD PSLE SCORE
Singapore's education system works
By Koo Tsai Kee, For The Straits Times

THIS year's Primary School Leaving Examination results are heart-warming. Natasha Nabila Muhamad Nasir, a Malay girl from a working-class family attending a Christian school in a Gifted Education Programme class, tops the nationwide exam in grand style. Her score of 294 is a record that will remain for some time to come.
While her results are remarkable, the messages behind her achievement are familiar ones. Singapore is a place where everybody can do well. The elites do not have a monopoly on success. And success is not entrenched in the old establishment.

The first message is clear. The elites' children do not have a monopoly on good grades. The elites - having attended 'good' primary schools themselves - may cash in on their affiliation points and enrol their children in their old schools. But at the end, it is intelligence and, above all, diligence and motivation that produce good grades.

Every year, I see top PSLE students coming from working-class families. They worked themselves up from neighbourhood schools to GEP schools and then on to good secondary schools. Natasha is one such example. Our system gives them a chance for upward mobility. The system doesn't ask where you live and where you come from. It only asks if you are capable and willing to scale the peaks of excellence. The best schools are those that open the gate as wide as possible to the ablest and the most determined regardless of race, language, religion or wealth.

Money cannot buy intelligence, nor pedigree ensure clever children. Sure, money alone can buy some advantages; and pedigree can indeed give the child a head start. But the random nature of reproduction has shown that successful parents do not always have clever children.

The GEP has been much maligned. Changes are always welcome. But without the GEP, many outstanding students from working-class families in neighbourhood schools would not have been able to move to the good schools. They have no affiliation points to use, they cannot afford to live near good schools. In that sense, the GEP is a gold standard for transparency in enrolment. Only the motivated and intelligent need apply.

However, if parents think the GEP is a gift, they are mistaken. It is true that GEP students as a group do very well, but it is also well known that some fall by the wayside. The reason is clear. GEP students - however intelligent - do not have a passport to good results. Some GEP students could have come in by chance. Others may not be suitable for the academic rigour, while yet others find their interests elsewhere. Everybody has to prove themselves once again at the PSLE. The competition is re-set every few years.

In my daughter's primary school, 17 pupils obtained over-270 marks in this year's PSLE. Of the 17, only 10 came from the GEP, the rest came from mainstream classes. But what is noteworthy is that eight out of the 10 GEP students who scored over 270 marks had come from neighbourhood schools.

The second message is the multiplying strength of diversity and social harmony. Children of all races and religions, across economic profiles, study together happily in the same environment. St Hilda's Primary did not pre-qualify only Christians. If it did, it would have lost Natasha. Nor is the school exclusively for members of the establishment and the rich. Natasha's father is a technician and her mother a full-time housewife.

And our system doesn't bankrupt families' savings. Tuition fees are so low they are even affordable to poor new immigrants. Scholarships allow them to go to the best universities.

The third message is that the system works. If it didn't, if it only produced exam-smart kids, then how does one account for the success of modern Singapore? What fuels this metropolis? The answer is smart Singaporeans. With limited natural resources and limited human resources, it is the quality of the people that matters. Quality education delivers quality people. Nothing else does.

Sometimes, news can be misleading. A headline in The Sunday Times told of how the international school United World College beat top local schools at The Arena debating competition. That attracted attention and created a noisy chatter. But no headline noted that UWC was beaten in another school debate series.

But really, headline news does not matter to most people. What really matters is how the average student performs. The average is the centre of gravity of our system. In the Natasha story, her score of 294 is outstanding, but it is the average score of the average PSLE student that vindicates our system.

Here, it should be noted that the average literacy level in Singapore is very high. And the average Singapore student has consistently done well in international benchmarking tests. This is the system which many international educators have been trying to approximate.

It is a system that works. It delivers the Singapore dream.


The writer is Singapore's Minister of State for Defence. This article, however, is written in a personal capacity.

Waging War against diseases

Nov 24, 2007
Waging war against infectious diseases
Top scientist says S'pore can't be free of these diseases unless region does its part
By Shobana Kesava

INFECTIOUS disease expert Duane Gubler, 68, puts himself in the front line in the war he wages.

He has been infected at least thrice with dengue, thrice with malaria and even deliberately infected himself with the filiarisis worm which causes elephantiasis - to better understand the disease.

He caught the two mosquito-borne diseases while trying to lure mosquitoes into biting monkeys, and while out in the field.

The former director of the vector-borne infectious diseases division at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is now here to take research in these areas to the next level.

'The world is about 30 years behind in infectious diseases research because we thought we conquered them in the 1960s...Resources were moved into the war on other diseases like cancer.'

Ironically, scientists have discovered that certain cancers such as stomach cancer are, in fact, caused by the infectious diseases that have been neglected for decades.
Professor Gubler runs the Asia-Pacific Institute of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases in Hawaii.

He is, from this month, concurrently heading the signature research programme in emerging infectious diseases at the Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School (Duke-NUS).

His plans for Singapore are ambitious - to set up the 'world's best laboratory for research and reference on Asian infectious diseases'.

Tens of millions will go into the laboratory, and with government support, money is not an issue, he said.

Good research will rope in funding from groups like the National Institutes of Health in the US and the Gates Foundation, he said.

The Government has declared its commitment to a concerted effort to fight infectious diseases. It will work with regional countries.

Duke-NUS will have about 70 investigators looking at areas such as metabolic disease, and will train students from the region too.

Field laboratories will also be set up in Asian countries, such as China and Vietnam, where there are emerging infectious diseases.

A key goal will be to develop an early warning disease detection system across Asia.

Singapore cannot be free of infectious disease, Prof Gubler noted, unless the region does its part.

While it is not known what the next epidemic will be, he is almost certain it will be a 'zoonotic' - a disease transmitted from animal to man - as was the case with severe acute respiratory syndrome, which was traced to civet cats.

Prof Gubler plans to spend most of his time in Singapore from next September, until the lab runs smoothly.

He said: 'Not only Asia needs it but the world needs it.'

skesava@sph.com.sg

Art in his soul

Nov 24, 2007
Art in his soul
Writer-painter Gao Xingjian has thrown himself into his work after recovering from a serious heart condition. The peace he feels now has translated into softer paintings, which are on show here
By Adeline Chia, ARTS REPORTER

NOBEL laureate Gao Xingjian has been working with a vengeance the past year. He takes no holidays, does not rest on weekends and burns the midnight oil.
He says it is to make up for time lost in 2002 when he took two years to recover from a near-fatal condition which caused his major arteries to harden. It resulted in a creative dry spell.

The Paris-based writer-painter-film-maker, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2000, is in Singapore until Monday for a packed schedule of speaking engagements.

Gao, 67, also graced a ceremony last night to mark the donation of one of his paintings to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM).

This is his first trip out of Europe since he fell ill in 2002. He is accompanied by his wife, Chinese writer Xi Ling, 44. The couple have no children.

In an interview with Life! on Thursday, he says he is also pushing himself hard to make up for what he calls his 'wasted youth' in his native land. Censorship and political oppression limited his output then, he says.
He was thrown into a re-education camp during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s and was persecuted by the Chinese government for his 'antiParty' plays. He eventually moved to Paris in 1987 and became a French citizen in 1998.

Now, every waking hour is a race against the clock. He says: 'I spend most of my time creating works now. I have no holidays, no free weekends.'

Looking a little drawn but alert during the interview at the Fullerton Hotel, he recounts softly in Mandarin that the last time he set foot in Singapore was in 1988, when he was invited here by the late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun.

He says wistfully: 'It feels like yesterday.'

His interior universe

ANOTHER reason for his visit is to open his solo exhibition at the iPreciation gallery at the Fullerton. It features 22 works he created between 2005 and last year.

Most of the monochrome Chinese ink on paper works are on loan from private collectors in Europe and Asia, with five for sale.

Most of the works have abstract landscapes represented by washes of black and grey, and large areas of luminous white.

Gao says he is calmer and more peaceful now, so these works are in lighter, softer and more harmonious shades than his previous ones, which had more contrasting tones.

With titles such as Interior Universe and Black Thoughts, they are windows into his inner life.

'I rubbed shoulders with death and survived,' he says. 'God is merciful.'

Better health has also allowed him to paint larger works.

In fact, his donation to SAM is the largest painting he has ever done. Day And Night measures 1.9m by 4.7m and is on show at the museum's ongoing exhibition called The Big Picture Show.

He donated the painting to thank the museum for putting up an exhibition of his works in 2005 - his first retrospective in Asia - and to give scholars and arts lovers a chance to see his work without going to Europe.

The painting, which shows solitary and grouped figures in a balanced background of black and translucent grey - was completed in 10 days in a flash of inspiration. Gao, with a wide grin, calls it 'a miracle'.

Six years of hard labour

THIS new-found serenity seems a long way from the political claustrophobia in China he endured in his younger days.

He was encouraged to write, paint and play the violin by his actress mother and his father, a senior bank officer. A French language and literature student in the Beijing Institute of Foreign Languages, he later worked as a translator.

He is tight-lipped about his personal life, but he is known to have been married twice before. It has also been reported that his first wife denounced him to the authorities during the Cultural Revolution.

He had to burn 'kilos and kilos' of essays, plays and novels to avoid arrest. Nonetheless he was made to attend re-education camps and did hard labour in the fields for six years.

In 1981, he was resident playwright at Beijing People's Art Theatre, but his satirical plays such as Bus Stop (Chezhan) caused him to be blacklisted by the Chinese government.

Frustrated with censorship and political oppression, he left China in 1987 to settle in Paris, where he published a steady stream of short stories, novels and plays.

His seminal work, Soul Mountain (Lingshan), was completed in 1989, and is a meandering 81-chapter epic portraying an individual's search for roots, inner peace and liberty. The Chinese government denounced it as 'very, very average' but it received warm reviews abroad.

After the suppression of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in June 1989, he renounced his membership in the Chinese Communist Party. His books were then banned in China.

On what drives his creative impulse through the ups and downs, he says: 'I faced a lot of oppression in China, but the only way to determine your own value as an artist is to create. Not through speeches or political action, but to say something using art.'

But he takes pains to distance himself from his experiences in China.

He says: 'The past seems so far away. I consider myself having three lives. The first is in China, where I encountered difficulties at every turn. The second life is in the West, where I consider myself a global citizen. That ended after winning the Nobel Prize, when I faced a lot of stress and fell sick.

'The third life is now, after I've risen from the shadow of death. That's why I treasure it. China seems like a completely different realm from now.

'I don't think about the past. I don't want to.'

Besides, the workaholic has more urgent things to think about.

Since June, he has been working relentlessly on a book of essays, On Creating, which tackles the themes of his works and 'the relationship between the intellectual and society in the 21st century'.

He figures that 'if anyone were to do a summation of my work I might as well do it myself'.

Other issues keep him busy.

He says: 'We are in the 21st century. We are facing new questions and crises, such as environment issues and global warming. Those old questions of the 20th century, of revolution and aesthetics, they are over.'

After the interview, he gamely autographs a catalogue and poses for pictures before doing another interview, one of many during his packed schedule.

He says: 'With so much to do, what is there to reminisce about? People ask why I don't write my own memoirs. I never even think of it.'

chiahta@sph.com.sg

Geeky MDA Video

http://youtube.com/watch?v=lBUBNVDLFdY

Yo, check this, MDA is in da 'hood!
By Alfred Siew

YES, yes, y'all, they don't stop!
The top brass in the Media Development Authority (MDA) have pulled in 20,000 views on the video-sharing website YouTube in just two days.

It is a feat few local acts manage. A video of opposition leader Chiam See Tong during the last General Election - considered well watched - has been viewed only about 11,000 times.

The MDA video, classified under 'comedy' on YouTube, features the agency's senior people jabbing their fingers in the air and rapping about a vibrant Singapore.

It was produced to showcase the agency's work on the media scene.

The brainchild of MDA communications director Cassandra Tay, the four-minute clip was first shown at a staff conference in April.

It was also screened at the reception areas of offices and to new staff.

The rap video was so well received that it was later sent to those in the industry in a memory drive together with the agency's annual report.

A version was also put on its website.

The public cottoned on after newspaper reports this week and so far, at least six copies of the video have been put up on YouTube.

Read the full story in Saturday's edition of The Straits Times Life!

Teen Sexuality

Nov 23, 2007
S'porean students are a sensible lot, health survey shows
By Sharon Loh, Assistant News Editor

IN the first such national survey, health authorities here have found that Singaporean teenagers are by and large a sensible lot who mostly don't smoke because it is harmful, don't engage in sex because of disease and unwanted pregnancies, and who try to eat the required servings of fruit every day.
The survey of 3,844 Secondary One to Four students was conducted by the Health Promotion Board (HPB) between April and August last year.

The survey findings, released by HPB on Friday, found that just four out of every 100 15 and 16-year-olds have had sexual intercourse, a far cry from previous surveys by other groups, which polled 20 out of every 100. Top of the reasons for not having sex was the fear of getting sexually transmitted diseases or HIV, followed by the fear of pregnancy, being too young and upsetting their families.

The survey also found that the number of kids who have tried cigarettes dropped from 26 per cent in 2000, to 19 per cent last year. The percentage who had smoked at least one stick a day in the previous month also dropped from 11 per cent to 9 per cent.

But there were some dark spots among the bright. Of the teens who have had sex, one quarter had engaged in intercourse more than 5 times in the last 12 months.

The median age for having sex was 15, which meant that half of those teens were even younger when they started. And nearly two thirds said they had sex because 'it just happened'.

When it comes to cigarette smoking, the prevalence has remained unchanged from 2000, with 2 per cent of all youths regular smokers. More than half picked up the habit before the age of 12.

Exercise also does not figure high on teens' priorities, with only one out of 5 exercising 30 minutes a day for at least 5 days in the week. Boys were more than twice likely to exercise than girls. They were also more likely to eat the recommended servings of fruit and vegetables a day than girls.

Sugary and deep fried foods are also a big hit, which could have an impact on later health. More than half (52 per cent) have deep fried foods more than twice a week, and 29 per cent have sugar-laden drinks more than once a day.

A key part of the survey, on mental health, is yet to be completed.

In the meantime, teens deal with stress by tuning out the world. The top ways of de-stressing are to listen to music, watch television, play computer games and surf the Internet, ahead of talking to someone about it.

HPB said the survey provides baseline data for any youth health initiative the government may embark on later.

----------

Most teens shun sex and smoking, survey shows
Poll of 3,844 Sec 1 to 4 students shows they love junk food and exercise little
By Tessa Wong
Poll of 3,844 Sec 1 to 4 students shows they love junk food and exercise little
By Tessa Wong


UNHEALTHY DIETARY HABITS: The survey found that only 24 per cent of teens eat two servings of fruit and vegetables daily. They are also fond of sugary and deep-fried foods. -- ST FILE PHOTO

THE first nationwide survey of its kind has found that the average secondary school student is level-headed about sex and smoking, preferring to abstain from both, but is also a couch potato who loves his junk food.
The Student's Health Survey, by the Health Promotion Board (HPB), polled 3,844 Secondary 1 to 4 students from 51 schools between April and August last year.

It focused on practices and attitudes towards smoking, sex, diet and exercise. A mental health component is still being evaluated.

Many habits which persist in adulthood are formed in one's teens. The survey provides baseline data for future youth health initiatives to mould these habits, said HPB's chief executive officer Lam Pin Woon.

1. A mixed picture emerged from the survey:

2. Four per cent of all Secondary 3 and 4 respondents said they have had sex.

3. Half of this group had sex before they were 15, and one-quarter of them had sex more than five times in the past 12 months.

4. The number of teens who are regular smokers remains at 2 per cent. Fewer are likely to try smoking, 19 per cent compared with 26 per cent in 2000.

5. But half of teen smokers pick it up before the age of 12, and 19 per cent of them do not think it is harmful.

6. At least 70 per cent of students knew they should eat two servings each of fruit and vegetables daily. They are also fond of sugary and deep-fried foods.

7. Exercise was not a top priority. Boys were more than twice as likely to exercise than girls.

Respondents were given anonymous questionnaires to fill out in class while a teacher was present.

Overall, the survey shows that teens are at a vulnerable stage of life when they need guidance, said experts.

The answers for why they have sex - 'it just happened', 'it felt good' - indicate a lack of self-restraint in dealing with sexual feelings, said youth counsellor Carol Balhetchet.

'They cannot decipher or rationalise for themselves what they should do, and just go with the flow,' she said.

Dr Balhetchet felt the figure for sexually active teens seemed low, compared with other surveys, and said respondents might not have told the whole truth to avoid embarrassment.

Nutritionist Anna Jacob said health is often not a teen priority.

'They are in a critical stage of growth, and burn calories like crazy. It's a natural reflex to eat high-calorie foods...' she said.

The only result released for mental health found that most teens dealt with stress by tuning out the world. They would rather listen to music, watch television, play computer games and surf the Internet, ahead of talking to someone about it.

This is natural, said teens.

'Some people feel better when they're alone and can get to grips with their situations,' said Rameza Khan, 15, a Coral Secondary School student.

But youth must be careful not to isolate themselves, Dr Balhetchet warned.

twong@sph.com.sg


Median age when they have sex
Four per cent of 15- and 16-year-olds have had sex. The median age of these teens losing their virginity is 15.

Two per cent of those polled are regular smokers. The median age of them having their first cigarette is 12.

At least 70 per cent of students know about the daily recommended intake of fruit and vegetables. But only 24 per cent follow that guideline.

Only 19 per cent of teens exercise regularly. Boys exercise more than girls.

Bring Tina Back

'Please bring Tina back'
A critically ill woman wants to see her daughter who has been missing for two years. The family wrote to Life! following a story on missing persons
By Sandra Leong

THE family of a 74-year-old woman now critically ill in hospital is trying to fulfil her desperate plea: find her missing 32-year-old daughter Sutinah Hussein, once named one of Female magazine's 50 Most Gorgeous People.
Ms Sutinah, or Tina for short, is the youngest and favourite daughter of Madam Merdik Basari, a mother of seven.

However, she last saw her glamorous daughter during Hari Raya Puasa in November two years ago.

The unmarried account executive and occasional model went to her parents' HDB flat in Jurong East to help her mother prepare food for the festivities, and has not been seen since.

All this while, Madam Merdik has pined for her, even staying home on weekends in case her daughter came by. Then, earlier this month, she suddenly told her family: 'Bring Tina back or I won't forgive you.'

The plea took on a new urgency after Madam Merdik fell ill last Saturday night.

She was admitted to Singapore General Hospital after complaining of blurry vision and giddiness.

At 4am on Sunday morning, doctors told her family that she had a life-threatening haemorrhage in her brain.

She is in an intensive care unit, breathing with the help of a machine and has to be monitored by medical staff hourly.

Madam Merdik's fifth daughter, administrative assistant Asmah Hussein, 39, says of her mother's plea: 'She must have known she was going to be sick, that's why she said that.'

Her mother's condition, adds the visibly tired woman, is only '50-50'.

The family posted a Missing Persons report with the police on Monday.

They also wrote to Life! on Tuesday in response to a LifeStyle article two weeks ago about the missing persons' phenomenon in Singapore, which also ran with a call for families of missing persons to share their stories.

Since Madam Merdik was admitted to hospital, about 15 family members, including her husband Hussein Musdi, 84, have kept vigil outside her ward. He was too shaken to be interviewed.

'My mother needs Tina's touch,' says Madam Asmah. 'Maybe with Tina here, she will feel better.'

After that Hari Raya Puasa visit, Ms Sutinah stopped visiting altogether. A few months later, she disconnected her mobile phone number, effectively severing all ties with her family.

Madam Asmah says: 'There was no argument. She just disappeared.'

She may have vanished from her family, but her face was all over Singapore - she appeared in that fateful November's edition of Female, as No. 45 on its 50 Most Gorgeous People list. The strikingly beautiful woman appears clad in a sexy bustier top and figure-hugging jeans.

Asked why she and her siblings did not try to look for their sister through the publication, Madam Asmah says with a sigh: 'She's a grown-up. We thought she wanted a good life and freedom.'

Indeed, Ms Sutinah was no stranger to vanishing acts - before this disappearing act, she had also gone missing before that for about a year, but later said she had been living with friends.

This time around, the situation is different with Madam Merdik critically ill.

On Monday, Madam Asmah's brother Osman Hussein, 52, finally filed a missing person's report with the police, and even approached the Crime Library, a voluntary group that helps search for missing people, for help.

The police confirmed that a report was lodged. A spokesman noted: 'Once family members lodge a missing person's report, we would investigate the case thoroughly, assessing the information and taking into consideration the age, mental and health conditions of the missing person and the situations under which the person has gone missing.

'People will go missing for many reasons, and some may even do so deliberately for their personal motive.'

Checks with the Central Provident Fund board have showed that Ms Sutinah has no record of employment for the past 11/2 years.

She is believed to be in Singapore, however. The Immigration & Checkpoints Authority has also told the family that she last travelled in and out of the country in August this year. Her Friendster account lists her location as 'west and east on this island of Singapore' but is not accessible to strangers.

Madam Asnah is worried that her sister may have mixed with bad company. 'Maybe someone is making use of her,' she says. 'Someone who says 'you must belong to me' and she is scared to leave.'

She describes Ms Sutinah as outgoing, jovial and 'havoc but soft-hearted'. Popular with men, she had many boyfriends but had brought only one home, four years ago - a wealthy, French-Arabian man whom she was then living with. Madam Asmah says the couple talked about marriage but eventually broke up.

At her time of disappearance, she may have been dating a Caucasian man.

Madam Asmah believes that her sister may have left home because she was ashamed of her family background.

'All her friends were high-class types.'

She sadly adds: 'Tina, come back and visit your sick mother. Even if just for five minutes. If after that, you want to go, you may go.'

sandral@sph.com.sg

The Prayer - PSLE Results: ST

Nov 22, 2007
Top PSLE student sets new record with 294 score
By Ho Ai Li
ST HILDA'S Primary pupil has scored a record 294 in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), beating the previous high of 292 set in 1993.
Natasha Muhamad Nasir, 12, eclipsed the record set by Nanyang Primary's Justin Lau in 1993.

Her score was 'outstanding', said the Singapore Examination and Assessment Board (SEAB) spokesman, as it was a good six points ahead of the next highest score of 288.

At St Hilda's on Thursday, Natasha, flanked by her younger sister and mother, smiled shyly as reporters shot questions at her. In the background, her father was recording the scene with a camcorder.

'I was worried if I could get 4A*s,' she said. The Gifted Education Programme (GEP) pupil had found the Science paper 'tedious'.

And on the day of her first PSLE paper on Oct 3, her maternal grandfather, 74, underwent surgery for his heart at the Singapore General Hospital.

Natasha, who was very close to him, spent the PSLE exam period shuttling between hospital and home.

'He taught me a prayer to say before the exam. I would say it before each paper,' she said.

He died on Oct 30.

'I would like to dedicate my results to him. Before I sat for the PSLE, he prayed for me,' she said.

Natasha, who plays the piano and violin and is in the Scrabble club, already has a place in Raffles' Girls Secondary and plans to be a paediatrician in future.

Her parents have left nothing to chance when it comes to bringing up Natasha.

When she was still in her mother's womb, they would would read aloud to her and played music for her to listen.

Her mother, Ms Zaharah Othman, 44, quit her flight stewardess job after Natasha was born so that she can give her 'quality time'.

When Natasha was three months old, she bought her an encyclopedia set. By two and a half years, she could read a book on her own.

Ms Zaharah and her husband, Mr Muhamad Nasir Atan, 47, a Singapore Airlines technician, live in a five-room Pasir Ris flat, but they volunteered at Gongshang Primary in Tampines to get Natasha a place in the popular school.

She went to St Hilda's when she got into the GEP at Primary Four.

The last time a Malay pupil topped the PSLE was two years ago, when Adil Hakeem Mohamad Rafee from Rosyth School scored 282.

Besides Natasha, another 14 pupils scored at least 286 in the PSLE this year.

Natasha was the top Malay student, while Vanessa Malishree Dharmaratnam from Raffles Girls' School (Primary) was the top Indian pupil with a score of 285.

Top Eurasian Santa Maria Priscila Nicole from CHIJ Katong Primary scored 272.

In all, some 49,817 Primary 6 pupils sat for the PSLE this year, a drop of 1.6 per cent over last year.

A total of 48, 665, or 97.7 per cent of the pupils, did well enough to move on to secondary school.

Of these, 63.5 per cent are eligible for the Express, 22.2 per cent for the Normal (Academic) and 12 per cent for the Normal (Technical) course.

Technocrats - Nov 20 ST

British scientists slam shoddy science in ads
Group worried that advertisers are using technical-sounding terms to hoodwink shoppers

LONDON - WHEN biologist Harriet Ball noticed that a popular vitamin B-enriched yogurt made by Nestle promised to 'optimise the release of energy', she queried the company about its claims and found they had no evidence to support it.
Ms Ball belongs to a group of more than two dozen British scientists who became so fed up with advertisers' seemingly bogus claims that they started a campaign to debunk bad science.

Those who have run afoul of scrutiny by them include French cosmetic company Clarins and pop star Madonna.

The group, Voice of Young Scientists, published a report last month chronicling their encounters with 11 companies.

'These are just a few of the products that particularly annoyed us,' said Ms Alice Tuff, coordinator of the group.

It found that none of the companies investigated had proof to support their assertions. Products ranged from a cleanser purported to wipe the body clean of parasites to Himalayan salt lamps that supposedly relieve asthma.

Ms Tuff said they were not intentionally trying to show up the companies.

'All we wanted to do was track down the evidence,' she said. 'We were really shocked that we didn't find anything at all.'

The scientists are worried that advertisers are increasingly employing technical-sounding language to hoodwink consumers, while in some cases their pseudo-science has caused alarm about supposed health threats, with no supporting data.

In the Clarins case documented by the group, Britain's Advertising Standards authority ruled that the French cosmetics company had needlessly worried people about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation waves in marketing their 'Expertise 3P spray'.

Clarins claimed their spray protected skin against pollution and the effects of artificial electromagnetic waves.

Company officials did not answer calls seeking comment on how the product works.

The advertising authority judged that Clarins had not proven that electromagnetic waves could damage skin in the first place.

Last year, the group chastised Madonna for her attempts to 'neutralise radiation' by using a mystical Kabbalah fluid that allegedly decontaminated nuclear waste in Ukraine.

Voice of Young Scientists is part of Sense About Science, a charity that promotes better understanding of science in the general public.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

When the Earth overheats

Nov 20, 2007
When Earth overheats
SCIENTISTS of the United Nations climate panel, who have just released their concluding report on Earth in peril from its inhabitants, must wish they were industrialists and government leaders. They would then have the executive authority to take remedial action on climate deterioration, to go with the conviction borne of scientific certainty. But if they were politicians and business leaders, each with agendas not fully theirs to define, they would be liable to temporise until looming disaster becomes their successors' problem. The United States refused to even ratify the Kyoto Protocol because compliance, according to the Bush White House, would damage the nation's industrial competitive advantage. China, as a designated developing nation, is not subject to the emissions caps. It wishes to be permitted to industrialise untrammelled by modern-age environmental remits, although it is beginning to see that its role in planetary protection will soon be as pivotal as America's.
This broadly is the inertia gap that will continue to exist between the scientists' scary scenarios of climate change and the will of nations and their wealth-creators to ameliorate, not so much undo, the half century of damage to Earth's natural rhythms. No government regards as extreme the scientists' assertion that unrestrained burning of fossil fuels and forests would raise temperatures and sea levels, and damage climate systems that sustain agriculture and water supplies. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said in unveiling the panel's report at the weekend that all humanity must take responsibility for the ravages that come with climate disruptions. A clearer perspective came from the head of the panel, Mr Rajendra Pachauri, who said it would be too late to ward off catastrophe if governments did not act in the next several years.

Concerted action is still possible, though not highly probable. An indication could come next month in Bali, when some 180 nations will discuss ways of achieving emissions controls beyond the Kyoto standards. China, India and Brazil - the developing bloc's fastest growing - have a role not less vital than America's. A coal burner, like China, can be allowed flexibility to comply but it should come within the global framework. Asean is setting an example by including climate protection among its goals. Meantime, old industrial nations and emergent economies could be more inclined to discipline their industries and consumer habits if they are psychologically primed to think they are controlling the release of greenhouse gases to secure their people's future, not so much the health of the planet. One is self-serving, the other sounds like a platitude. Politicians can still be brought around.

Respect the Royal Family and Speak the Right Language

Nov 21, 2007
Spanish court fines men for burning king and queen's photos
SPAIN - TWO Catalan nationalists who burned photos of Spain's king and queen were convicted on Tuesday of insulting the royal family and fined euro2,700 (S$5,789) each.
The ruling was handed down by Judge Jose Maria Vazquez Honrubia of the National Court, the same magistrate who last week fined two cartoonists who depicted Crown Prince Felipe having sex with his wife in a drawing that ran on the cover of a humour magazine.

This time, the judge said the two defendants - Jaume Roura and Enric Stern - committed 'grave insults' to the Spanish crown by burning photos of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia at an anti-monarchy and Catalan separatist rally in Girona as the royal couple visited that Catalan city on Sept 13.

'They can have whatever ideas they want, but they cannot attack the basic institutions of the state,' Judge Vazquez Honrubia said.

The defendants admitted burning the photos - Stern doused them with gasoline and Roura set them on fire - and said they did so as a protest against the monarchy.

Like other Spanish regions, Catalonia has its own language and distinct culture and is home to strong nationalist sentiment. One of the parties in the regional government is outright pro-independence.

The judge interrupted the proceedings at one point because the two men insisted on speaking Catalan rather than Spanish in answering questions from their lawyer and the prosecutor.

In the end, Judge Vazquez Honrubia let this continue but cut the defendants off when they tried to make their final statements in Catalan, the official language in the powerful and wealthy region of northeast Spain.

The prosecutor had originally sought jail terms of a year and three months but ultimately sought just a fine. The judge agreed.

The photo burning and sex cartoon are part of a spate of recent cases in which King Juan Carlos, a soft-spoken figurehead who shuns publicity, has seen himself or his family thrust into the limelight.

On Nov 10, the king told President Hugo Chavez to 'shut up' at a summit in Chile after the Venezuelan president called a former Spanish prime minister a fascist, sparking a diplomatic spat that is still simmering, with Venezuela threatening to review Spanish investment in that country.

Last week, the Spanish royal palace announced that the king's eldest child, Elena, is separating from her husband, banker Jaime de Marichalar. They have two small children.

Spanish newspapers are calling 2007 the king's 'annus horribilis'. -- AP

Friday, November 23, 2007

Acing EM3

Nov 23, 2007
Missed 2 years, but he aces EM3
By Ho Ai Li
HE WAS a dropout but not a typical one. And 12-year-old Nazir Khan Abdul Mutalib proved it when, after returning to his school, he emerged as one of its 18 top EM3 pupils.
Nazir, the fourth of six children of an odd-job worker and a housewife, had spent most of his Primary 3 and 4 years away from school.

There wasn't enough money for him to go to school. Also, he stayed home to look after his younger siblings.

But after persistent visits by his Huamin Primary teachers, he returned to class in Primary 5. The teachers 'wore him down' with encouragement.

They also helped him get financial aid for his books, fees and meals. He was also made a prefect.

Yesterday, Nazir learnt he had scored Grade 1 in all his subjects and an aggregate of 129. Huamin principal William Pushpam said he was not surprised by Nazir's results, as he has been 'very consistent' and 'diligent'.

In fact, he had done well in lower primary and only went to the EM3 stream, which offers foundation courses, because of all the schooling he had missed.

His Primary 5 and 6 form teacher, Mrs Geetha Velmurugan, knew he had grit.

'From day one, he started working. He aims very high and is very competitive,' she said.

To stretch him, she set high targets, like giving him work meant for those in the more demanding EM2 stream.

Nazir, who plays hockey and floorball for Huamin, hopes to pursue a sports career in future. He is gunning for a Normal (Academic) place in Northland Secondary, known as a hockey powerhouse.

Disabled girl tops her school in PSLE - 23 Nov 2007

Disabled girl tops her school in PSLE
Despite many obstacles, she scores an aggregate of 278
By Sumathi V. Selvaretnam


HIGH HOPES: Evergreen Primary's Loh Jia Wei, who gets around in a motorised wheelchair, suffers from a muscle-wasting disease and fractured her thigh bone in August last year. Her determination to fight the odds has paid off and a philanthropic organisation is exploring ways to help her through a scholarship or bursary. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

AT THE tender age of three, Loh Jia Wei was found to have muscular spinal atrophy, a muscle-wasting disease.
A physically weak child, she missed out on most sports.

Then she became wheelchair-bound after fracturing her thigh bone in August last year.

She also felt faint during her Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) this year.

But Jia Wei, 12, persevered. With the results out yesterday, she topped her school, Evergreen Primary. Her aggregate score of 278 was the highest among her school's Primary 6 cohort of 487 pupils.

Jia Wei said: 'My teachers had high hopes for me and I did not want to disappoint them.'


She also attributed her success to the strong support that she received from her family.

When she missed school for a month in January after surgery to strengthen her spine, her form teacher, Madam Linden Ng, 41, visited her home once a week to help her with her schoolwork.

Madam Ng said: 'She took pride in every task or project. She really pushed herself.'

In August last year, Jia Wei's mother, Madam Loke Wai May, 44, left her job as a human resource officer in the civil service to take care of her only child.

Because Jia Wei's motorised wheelchair does not fit into the family car, Madam Loke and her Filipino maid had to wheel her from their home in Woodlands Drive to her school at Woodlands Circle every day.

Jia Wei's top PSLE result was all the sweeter since her medical condition made her tired after studying for more than an hour at a stretch.

She said: 'If I write for too long, my hand gets tired.' Despite this, she completed over 20 assessment books.

Jia Wei's father, Mr Loh Yap Song, 48, an executive in a label-printing company, was visibly delighted at his daughter's achievements.

But he had one worry. He said: 'She wants to go to Raffles Girls' School which is some distance away. Her wheelchair will fit only in a London cab. Transport will cost over $1,000 a month.'

Mr Loh can take heart.

Aware of her potential and family circumstances, the Tan Chin Tuan Foundation (TCTF), a philanthropic organisation, is exploring ways to help Jia Wei and two other disabled PSLE pupils at her school, through scholarships funds or bursaries.

TCTF CEO Eric Teng added that it will be setting aside funds to champion similar deserving causes that may arise in other schools.

sumathis@sph.com.sg

Monday, November 19, 2007

We're British, we don't do mottos

Britain's quest for a national motto
By Mark Rice-Oxley
LONDON - THE French have their 'Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite'. The Americans have 'In God We Trust'. Even tiny countries like Antigua and Fiji have their national mottos, stirring calls to nationhood, faith, solidarity.
Not so Britain. Until now, that is.

Keen to redefine an increasingly diverse nation and its values, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government has launched a quest for a new motto, a 'statement of values' as ministers call it.

Mr Brown himself betrayed a Latin predilection when, upon first taking office in the summer, he said that he lived by his school's hallowed maxim, 'usque conabor' (I will try my utmost).

And yet officials may prefer to stick with that rather than go with some of the suggestions that have been pouring in the past week to the BBC and the Times, both of which are conducting their own soundings into what the new motto should say.

'Once Great: Britain,' offered one contributor. 'At least we're not French,' read a second. 'Americans who missed the boat,' quipped a third.

While some did genuinely try to come up with more sincere efforts, most were mocking in tone.

'It's stirring up a good characteristic of the British, and that is a sardonic humour towards any attempt by government to do unnecessary and pompous things,' says Sir Bernard Crick, a former government adviser on citizenship.

Mr Brown though believes he has good reason to play the British card: rising nationalism in Wales, Scotland and England, and disenchanted ethnic minorities are picking at the seams of British unity.

He has already floated ideas like a new 'national day' and new citizenship rules.

But philosopher and author A.C. Grayling thinks a new motto is not the way to go about this.

'It's characteristic of how we have done things, a rather cheap, slogan-based solution to what are more complicated problems,' he says.

Author Chris Cleave, who writes about contemporary Britain in his fiction, thinks something from Shakespeare might do the trick: 'I like 'Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.'(from Measure For Measure).'

The government says it has had plenty of worthwhile suggestions and that it now plans a consultation process on what the 'statement of values' should be and how it should be used.

But clearly Mr Brown will have to try his utmost to convince his nation that it is a worthwhile exercise.

For, as one blog contributor put it recently: 'We're British; we don't do mottos.'

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Man who pushed girlfriend onto MRT track gets 2 more years


Nov 13, 2007
Man who pushed girlfriend onto MRT track gets 2 more years
Court of Appeal ups his jail term from one to three years after prosecution appealed.
By Selina Lum



THE spurned man who had been handed one year in jail in May for pushing his former girlfriend into the path of an oncoming MRT train on Tuesday had his sentence upped to three years after an appeal by the prosecution.
But 26-year-old Kwong Kok Hing, a permanent resident who returned to Malaysia after being released from prison, was not in court to hear his increased sentence.

Kwong now has up till Dec 3 to surrender to the authorities, failing which the prosecution can apply for a warrant of arrest against him.

His lawyers, Mr Shashi Nathan and Mr Adrian Wee, have phoned Kwong's parents to break the news.

'They are obviously upset but we have explained to them that the decision is extremely fair,' said Mr Nathan.

'They are going to have a family discussion and we have advised them to ask Kok Hing to come back.'

The Court of Appeal - Justices Andrew Phang, V. K. Rajah and Tan Lee Meng - will deliver detailed reasons for their decision at a later date.

But it was clear that the main issue troubling the judges was: exactly what mental condition Kwong suffered when he shoved Ms Jenny Low Siew Mui, 26.

Dr Tommy Tan, then of the Institute of Mental Health, opined that Kwong has suffered from dysthymia - characterised by a chronic depressive mood - since he was in school.

But Dr Y. C. Lim of Raffles Hospital said Kwong suffered from reactive psychosis - a sudden display of psychotic behaviour triggered by a stressful event.

Justice Phang noted: 'When it comes to sentencing, the precise disorder is important because because it's a significant consideration. The accuracy of the diagnosis may become crucial.'

The judges also expressed concern that two different pictures have been painted of Kwong.

'Who is the real Mr Kwong?' Justice Rajah wondered aloud three times.

On Sept 14 last year, Kwong pushed Ms Low off the platform just as a train was pulling into the Clementi MRT station.

She had ended their turbulent two-year relationship a few days earlier but he wanted to patch things up.

Ms Low narrowly escaped death when she made a dash for safety just a split second before the train hurtled past her. Her act of agility, captured by a CCTV camera, was played in court.

On May 23, Kwong pleaded guilty to one charge of attempted manslaughter and was sentenced by Justice Choo Han Teck to one year in jail, backdated to the date of remand.

In effect, with one-third remission, Kwong, who hadspent eight months in custody, walked out of court a free man the same day.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

More S'pore couples divorcing earlier - nov11

More S'pore couples divorcing earlier
But despite more calling it quits, local rates still relatively low
By Lee Hui Chieh
NOT only are more marriages here ending in divorce, more married couples are calling it quits sooner too.
But Singapore still has one of the lowest divorce rates compared with Hong Kong, Japan and Britain.

The latest Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) figures showed that 3.8 per cent of couples who were hitched in 2002 divorced after being married for fewer than five years. This is a slight increase compared with 1987, when 2.6 per cent of couples married that year dissolved their union before five years.

As for marriages that did not make it past 15 years, the figure was 12 per cent for those who walked down the aisle in 1992. It was 10 per cent for the 1987 cohort.

Revealing the figures yesterday, Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Yu-Foo Yee Shoon noted: 'Our generation has more divorces than our parents' generation.'

The absolute numbers also showed an uptrend. Divorces and annulments hit a record high last year of 7,061, up from 6,909 in 2005.

Is the 'L' word a dirty word in today's job market?

WHEN I was a young supervisor many moons ago, it pained me whenever one of my subordinates threw in his resignation letter.
All I could think about was the wasted years spent training the person - and who was on track to becoming a better journalist before some other passion or better-paying job came along.

Over the past few years, however, I have become ambivalent about staff turnover, so much so that I appear somewhat heartless at not showing some heartbreak when people quit.

There are two things a boss cannot fight: love and God. People get married and want a slower pace of life or they move abroad to be with their spouse. You can't blame them.

Or they decide to become pastors or full-time church workers and do missionary work in Indochina. You can't blame God either.

Then there are those who go for a myriad of reasons, including money.

Not many of us expect to stay in the same job or at the same company forever. The conventional wisdom is three career changes in a working lifetime.

You quit after five years or so in one job before you get 'golden handcuffed'' to your desk and become too expensive for anyone else to hire, and later, when it looks like a young punk is about to replace you.

Then you read about how tight the labour market is, so much so that some lucky people can change three or four jobs in a year, and move up the money rungs each time.

And you wonder if you are being silly for staying on in your job.

Did these lucky fellows do right or wrong by jumping to the next boat which offers a more comfortable cruise? This is job mobility after all. If you are in demand, you move to the highest bidder.

How do you argue against market forces?

I know some employers would cite career development prospects or quickly up salaries to beat the market.

Some pull at heart-strings, referring to friendships that have been forged at work or resorting to the old lie that the quitter is simply indispensable to the corporation.

Last but not least, they bring up the L issue - loyalty.

These tactics, especially the L word, no longer work for this generation of workers in a seller's market.

It would be no surprise if the winners of the retail superstar awards move to another job soon, despite labour chief Lim Swee Say's pleas not to 'job hop''.

Is it wrong to job hop for a 20 per cent increase in salary? Too little, some would say. What about a doubling of salary?

I wish Mr Lim would expand a little on what he meant by the short-sightedness of job hopping and poaching.

Why would the pursuit of retail excellence suffer if people change jobs?

The prospect of being offered higher salaries might well induce service staff to work harder in the hope that one day they will get that phone call to move to a better-paying place.

Then service staff will gradually find a raising of salaries all round, within their own company and without.

There is of course the old warning that the grass is not always greener on the other side. But you can always stay a year, collect your bonus and quit.

As for that lament about contract work which leaves out fringe benefits, well, it makes it easier for workers to quit too - and jump to another contract job.

So how should salaried workers view the red-hot market and its enticements?

And what has happened to this word called loyalty? In this day and age, it seems to be an old-fashioned notion at odds with aspirations to make more money and do better in life. Some people actually scoff at the notion that people stay in a job, or even in a country, because of loyalty or a sense of obligation and duty.

In fact, we are in a bit of a bind. Because employers don't expect staff to stay long anyway, they pay little attention to doing stuff that will encourage them to stay.

The L word can be thrown back in the employers' teeth if one considers how easy it is to cut pay, benefits and terminate employment when the economy is down. Loyalty cuts both ways.

Employers often neglect this aspect of the work environment, cutting down on staff welfare for example, to meet some bottom-line target. People must feel attached to a cause and covered by company care - or at least have a boss who has a bigger vision than the next quota to be met.

Mr Kalaichellvan Krishna of Jack's Place steakhouse chain is refusing job offers because he thinks of the patrons who frequent his restaurant. Good for him.

Ms Liza Coelho must feel quite chuffed that customers forsake stores in town to go to her Dorothy Perkins' outlet in Parkway Parade. Perhaps, they are the reason she will stay on too.

They are loyal to the customers, and hence loyal to their companies. They see their jobs as bigger than a pay cheque.

So how will their loyalty be rewarded? A bigger pay cheque would be nice. That's because there is one problem with loyalty - it is sometimes taken for granted.

Dig a little deeper and you will find that people do not always leave for material inducements. They leave because there is nothing to make them stay. And because the L word is no longer in fashion.

bertha@sph.com.sg

Logic and loyalty
Some people actually scoff at the notion that people stay in a job, or even in a country, because of loyalty or a sense of obligation and duty.
In fact, we are in a bit of a bind. Because employers don't expect staff to stay long anyway, they pay little attention to doing stuff that will encourage them to stay.