Tuesday, December 21, 2010

HOMOSEXUALITY IN CONSERVATIVE COUNTRIES

This week, Malaysians were shocked by news that a Muslim man, Azwan Ismail, had posted a video on YouTube admitting he was gay, but that he had learned to accept itself and urging other Malaysians to do the same. His video shone the spotlight on an ongoing campaign in Malaysia to push for greater tolerance of homosexuality. More importantly, Mr. Ismail has once again highlighted how difficult it is to be homosexual in Malaysia and other conservative countries.

Since the video broke, Mr. Ismail has received death threats, and Malaysia's Islamic clerics have responded with typical narrow-mindedness. Harussaini Zakaria, Perak Mufti, said Mr. Ismail has "derided his own dignity and Islam in general". Jamil Khir Baharom, Cabinet minister for Islamic affairs, said officials might take "appropriate action to prevent this from spreading because it would hurt Islam's image"
Baharom's response that Mr. Ismail will be persecuted exemplifies the narrow mindedness of the Malaysian establishment.

The fact is that such a response to homosexuality is a worldwide phenomenon. 74 countries worldwide have laws banning homosexual activities. There are Christian countries, Muslim countries, economic powerhouses and rural backwaters in that list. In January of this year, Malawi's first gay couple were put on trial, where they were mocked by the public and face a jail sentence of up to 14 years if convicted.
A map of countries outlawing or criminalizing homosexuality. Countries of all types are in the list, but the unifying feature is a a resistance from religious or faith based groups.

By and large, negative reactions to homosexuality have come from religious groups and religiously minded individuals. The Abrahamic religions all view homosexuality as forbidden (haram, in Islam), exemplified by the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is worth noting, however, that, according to Wikipedia "homoerotic themes were present in poetry and other literature written by some Muslims from the medieval period onward and which celebrated love between men. In fact, these were more common than expressions of attraction to women."

To me, however, there is no reason for the religions of the world to criticize homosexuals, or to push governments to declare it illegal. My reasoning is very simple: those who are gay do not harm their fellow man. The idea that they somehow erode the traditional definition of marriage is daft: allowing gay people to marry will not reduce the marriage rate among heterosexual couples. If a man and woman want to marry, they will marry, even though their next door neighbour is gay and is going to marry a man.

Is anyone seriously saying that love between a man and a woman is so weak that they don't marry just because gay people are allowed to marry?
So what if gay couples can be legally married? How will that reduce the marriage rate between heterosexual couples? If a gay man is forbidden to marry a man, he won't marry a woman!

In fact, allowing gay people to marry would encourage the creation of families, which, after all, are beneficial to the growth of children, should the couple choose to adopt. We are all familiar with the benefits of families eating, playing and working together. The kids have a stronger foundation in forming relationships, are more confident about themselves, etc. These benefits remain even though the parents are both of the same sex.

Now, on to religions and homosexuality. If religions do believe in mercy, love, and justice to fellow man, then, why do they push for bans on homosexuality? If the image of God that religions wish to project include a God that is forgiving, loving, just and merciful, religions should not press governments to ban homosexuality. Personally, I believe that the responsibility of religious bodies is only to ensure that their own flock do not become homosexuals and that those confused about their sexuality are given love and a helping hand.

I am not saying that religious bodies should accept gay marriage. What I am saying is that civil same-sex marriage should be allowed. For example, if a gay couple wants to marry, they can have a civil marriage, recognised by the state. Religious bodies would not marry them, because the Bible and the Quran do prohibit same sex marriages. The point of this post is simply to argue that religious bodies should not impose their views on everyone else. If the Church (or Mosque) doesn't want to marry a gay couple, don't marry them, but don't campaign to stop them being married under civil law.
If the image of God we really want to project is an image of love, let us also love and accept gay couples, and allow them to marry legally. If religions don't want to marry them, don't marry them, but don't campaign to stop them being married by the state.

If God really has a problem with it, then He will take action when we reach the Pearly Gates.

This view will not be accepted by most religious leaders, except maybe by the progressive pockets of organized religion worldwide. I myself am having some doubts about my stand, because I am a relatively devout Catholic. However, I can accept this view because I know the Church is an organization of love, justice and unity. This is simply the true practice of what we preach.

Friday, December 17, 2010

WHERE IT STANDS NOW

Right now, biotechnology is still widely regarded as an up-and-coming industry in developing countries, despite the fact that the industry has experienced three "waves" (green, red and white). In developed countries, it is an established, but fast growing sector, with governments having long promoted the industry, especially in the US and continental Europe.Curious little proteins called enzymes are the engine for the growth of white (industrial) biotechnology. Firms like Novozymes have recognzed this, and set up operations all over the world.

In the US, the main hub for biotechnology is the state of California. As with Silicon Valley, businesses and government have united to create a highly conducive atmosphere for biotechnology firms. For example, the Stem Cell Initiative promises 3 billion USD over 10 years (beginning 2006) from the Californian government for stem cell research in the state. The voters also seem enthusiastic about biotechnology: several public referendums on banning GM crops in California were rejected by the public with wide margins (61-39% in Butte County).

The third biggest biotech hub in the US, North Carolina, benefits from its educational excellence designed towards science careers, particularly biotechnology. While the state has invested about 1.2 billion USD over the past 10 years in biotech, biotech firms like the state because of the research triangle formed by North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina and Duke University. But its not just a fanciful name, the triangle is home to the North Carolina Biotech Center.The community college system prepares students for technician jobs, and short courses in specific skills are also offered.
Duke University in North Carolina is one of the reasons why the state is such a thriving biotech hub. Countries wishing to expand their biotech industries should learn from this.

The US federal government has also been keen on biotechnology. While President Bush didn't exactly hold science in high esteem, President Obama has reached out to scientists, overturning stem-cell funding restrictions by executive order. The US stimulus programme allocated 8 billion USD to 12,000 research projects nationwide. A significant portion of the money has gone to keeping researchers salaries paid, but let's not underestimate that. There is no benefit to scientists going jobless, especially when they're trained in such a useful field.

Europe, meanwhile, really supports its' biotechnology sector. There are a total of 234 biotechnology parks in Europe; the UK alone has 56, France, 51. As of 2005, the 27 European member states invested 1 .208 billion Euros in the sector. While the recession did affect the industry, governments were quick tor respond: Norway gave the biotech industry a 300 million Euro bailout fund. On top of that, major business-enzyme players are present in Europe, while renewable raw materials are abundant in the continent.
The citizens of Europe have a misguided and irrational view of GM crops, which is holding back the sheer potential of Europe to contribute to new crop varieties and greater farm yields.

In Europe, white biotech is best known, partly because green biotech has a bad rap with the public. Part of the reason is the environmental effects of white biotech, which Europe seems very keen on; noting that carbon emissions could be cut by 17-65%.

Asia does not want to be left out of the field. India, while having instituted a moratorium on BT Brinjal, remains hopeful that biotech will help it pull off a second Green Revolution. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently set up a working group to look into ways to reduce food inflation; one of the group's recommendations was increased biotech investment. China, meanwhile, sees double digit growth in biotech, with the sector projected to reach a size of $ 9 billion by this year. The Chinese government, meanwhile, has given tax incentives (50% tax deductibility) and invested in quasi venture capital companies, causing total venture capital investment to rise by 22% from 2005 to 2006.

Other parts of Asia, like Malaysia, have immense natural potential for biotechnology research; after all, there are lush tropical rainforest throughout Asia, which provides raw materials for medical and industrial biotech. Malaysia, for example, is one of the 12 Mega Biodiversity sites in the world, and is working to capitalize on that.
Southeast Asia's lush tropical rainforests provide abundant source materials for biotechnology research. It is a great pity, then, that governments do little to check logging.

All in all, countries are seizing the exciting new opportunities in the field, although numerous obstacles remain. Some are plagued by hostile public reception to biotech, others by cumbersome bureaucracy, corruption and low intellectual-property protection.

However, it will not be good if the government meddles overmuch in the sector, this kills competition and is wasteful. Governments should provide the proper support mechanisms for science based businesses, and step back so innovation and competition set the field on fire.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

HOW DO YOU FIX AN ECONOMY?

The American economy remains stuck in the doldrums, with unemployment remaining near 10% and continued weak credit despite near-zero interest rates. The housing market remains weak.

This does not seem likely to improve anytime soon, thanks largely to misplaced concern about the deficit and more deadlock anticipated in Congress. With Republicans opposing anything that adds on to the deficit, (although the $858 billion was allowed to pass just because it came as tax cuts), the government might be deprived of some of its best tools for cutting unemployment and restoring growth.

If congressional Republicans choose to beholden themselves to the hypocritical, anti-intellectual Tea Party Movement, the economy is on course for very poor economic growth.

The consensus among wise folk is that the US needs more fiscal stimulus. The initial $800 billion package was, odd as this may seem, too small and scattershot. Christina Romer, chairwoman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, calculated the US needed $1.2 trillion of it. Plus, the meltdown was worse than thought when Romer was running the numbers

The bottom line here is simple: the government should dole out more money for infrastructure projects, small and medium businesses, and manufacturing. With more people employed, more taxes are paid and, depending on the project, GDP is increased in other ways, for example, constructing new solar plants encourages further investment by corporations and reduces fuel expenditures. The extension of the Bush tax cuts also encourages consumption as well as hiring.

The breakdown of the first stimulus plan. Congress must make sure the second one is more focused on job creation, skills training and small business support.

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics writes in Newsweek (Issues 2011 edition) that "the cost of not spending is even higher". As he points out, workers lose their skills, and "human capital will be destroyed" if the country experiences high unemployment for years.

More importantly, the American economy needs to be rebalanced. There are two ways of doing this. Firstly is by moving the economy away from the dodgy financial services that started the whole mess in the first place. Worse, the swelling of the financial sector came at the expense of the manufacturing sector.

Data on Wikipedia shows the financial sector producing between 12-15% of total sales, receipts or shipments, ahead of construction (less than 6%) and not far behind manufacturing (just above 18%).

Shuttered factories testify to the slow but sure death of the manufacturing sector in the US. It is worth noting that the worst period of American job creation was during 2001-2007, the Bush years.

The second (probably more effective) way to rebalance the American economy is to boost exports. For too long, the US economy has been focused on domestic consumption, with too little income coming from exports. This does not make sense, because US know how (when sensibly utilized) produces beautiful, cutting-edge products that people desire. Plus, with US consumers also drowning in debt (household indebtedness stood at 132% of income in 2009) , they can no longer be counted upon like they once were as a source of growth.

So why then do these facts abound? The US Congress has not ratified free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and worst of all, South Korea. PayPal reports that only 14% of US merchants sell to overseas customers.

US exports clearly should be beefed up. Trade with developing markets like South America and Asia remain small, and will stay that way until more free-trade agreements are signed and approved.

The solution, then, is for the Obama administration to support more small businesses, which create the vast majority of jobs. Congress must also remove barriers to international trade, and thus encourage firms to sell to the rapidly growing middle class overseas.

These steps will not be easy to get through Congress, simply because 'stimulus' has become a four-letter word to voters. But Obama can use the silver tongue he wielded during his campaign here too.

He could point out that he's kept the tax cuts. He could also point out that the returns from the public investment (that's a nicer word than stimulus), would raise future income and tax revenues, which would help trim the debt. The bottom line is, spending now might be the best way to reduce debt in future.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A HALF HURRAH

Sorry for leaving the updating this late. I just finished my SPM, which is THE public exam in this country.

I couldn't believe my eyes when I turned to the world section of the newspaper and saw this:
UN CLIMATE DEAL WINS WIDE BACKING

The 2010 Climate Conference in Mexico took place amid widespread pessimism that governments had the will to unite to stop global warming. Instead, the world was pleasantly surprised.

After all, 2009's Copenhagen Climate Conference was nothing but a sugar-coated failure. And now this? At the 2010 conference in Cancun, Mexico?

This deal is actually a kind of Green Climate Fund, in which rich countries help poor nations mitigate, and cope with climate change. The Mexico-brokered proposal includes measures for sharing clean technologies, helping protect tropical forests, and helping poor nations adapt to the effects of global warming.
Under the Green Climate Fund, the fact that there will be global cooperation to preserve rainforests is heartening, as biodiversity will also benefit from the move.

Probably most inspiring was this line in the article "the United States, China and dozens of other countries rallied around the plan...". These countries were, as recently as weeks before the conference playing what seemed to be an endless blame game. Rich countries demanded the poor join them in taking action, while developing countries, led by China, demanded developed countries do their bit first, and kept using poverty as an excuse.
The expression on Nicolas Sarkozy's face displays perfectly how frustrating the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference was.

It is true, of course, that many underdeveloped countries need financial and technical aid to address global warming. But it's also true that many developing countries are rich enough to start, with many in better fiscal positions than the West. Brazil, China (who spent 45 billion dollars to polish its image for the 2008 Olympics) and India, for example, can tackle global warming without a fund. That said, the fund should be directed to poor countries, not developing countries. (I'm sure you understand the distinction).
The 45 billion USD that China spent on the Olympics could be used to build about 189 photovoltaic solar plants, each producing 53 MW of power to 15 000 homes.

The reason this is a half-success is that no binding deal to cut emissions by fixed amounts came out of the talks. Developed and developing countries simply agreed to postpone this (and their accountability dispute) to 2011. Plus, Bolivia remained opposed to the deal, meaning the decision cannot be formally adopted. No one (except for the negotiators, perhaps) is happy about this particular outcome.

Still, the fact that countries can act together is a huge boost to those of us who were losing hope. But there's more to do. Developing countries should start cleaning up their act (and not ignore their problems just because they were pointed out by an also-guilty developed country) while developed countries should take the lead, because regardless of who started the warming, all of us will have hell to pay.

Friday, August 27, 2010

B SAVE THE WORLD

No, B is not a superhero, nor is it the initials of a certain American politician. It does stand for a cause which I'm quite interested in, and hope to join when I'm older and have the necessary qualifications.

B- biotech. And yes, it can save the world, if we let it.

Now, lets see how. First, in agriculture. Biotech enables plants to yield more food for human consumption, both by directly increasing yield and making plants more pest reisistant. This means that rising food demand can be supported by fewer plants, which means less forests need to be cut down for agricultural space. Obviously, more forests are better, because they absorb (sequester) the world's carbon emissions. At the same time, it provides water-catchment areas that ensures rivers flow even in times of drought, further boosting agriculture.
While genetically modified food's impact does need to be further studied, if no scientific evidence that they harm the environment is found, it does need to be allowed and encouraged. Too many people die of hunger each day.

Mark Lynas author of "High Tide" says 30% of the world's land could become unfarmable in the next few decades, so maximizing what's there is key.

Plus, biotech would also help in the medical field, especially in cheapening and speeding up drug production. Genetically modified yeast and E. Coli bacteria are used to produce synthetic insulin or antibiotics. Thanks to medical biotech, we now have diagnostic devices that define suitable patients for certain biopharmaceutical products. For example, the drug Herceptin was approved with a matching diagnostic test to treat breast cancer in women whose tumour cells are detected to express the HER2 protein.
Medical biotechnology stands to treat countless diseases, especially those involving bacterium and viruses.

Still, the coolest application of medical biotech is the one known as pharming. In pharming, genes containing code to produce pharmaceuticals are transplanted into a host animal or plant that ordinarily does not have that gene. As a result, the host species then actually PRODUCES the medical product, which can then be refined into a marketable drug.

Last, but perhaps most relevant to our times is the applications of biotechnology in industry, known as white biotechnology. The main projected application of white biotech is the fermentation of organic matter to produce alternative fuels. In the ethanol industry, biotech could single-handedly turn the industry green, as enzymes could break down cellulose in all types of plants to produce cellulosic ethanol, which is a far better alternative to current ethanol which requires refining the sucrose in corn and sugarcane.
How cellulosic ethanol is produced. Biotechnology would increase the speed and efficiency of the process, while reducing its' costs.

They rely heavily on fossil-fuel inputs, so much so that by some estimates, they produce more carbon than the amount of gas they replace. And they require the loss of large areas of forests, which, when cut down, release carbon as well. Plus, to harvest sugarcane, workers burn the field first to make the cane easier to cut. Need I say more?

The potential applications of biotechnology, whether green, red or white, would transform our world significantly. It would lift millions out of poverty, stop the wastage of energy, and above all, sever our ties to fossil fuels, maybe forever.

This article is the first in a series on biotechnology. In the next one, we'll look at where the field is hottest, and what governments and companies are doing for it now.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

SAVING SABAH

The government's plans for a coal-fired power plant in Sabah has generated widespread concern, not least because of the simple fact that, well, it's coal, stupid.

Of course, the economic arguments that the government has put forward to support the proposal cannot be denied. Sabah does need power, and 300 MW of the stuff is very tempting. And coal is the cheapest power source out there. Plus, the government and the national utility, TNB, would like us to believe that the plant is going to be clean, with neglible carbon emissions.
I'm surprised anyone can keep a straight face and say the words "clean coal". Malaysians must be spared such tripe.

Of course, I don't buy this rubbish that a coal-fired plant can be "clean". That's rubbish. If our dear minister, Peter Chin Fah Kui (who, ironically is Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister. Shame on him), ever held a piece of coal, he'd know that.

Sabah has rivers, sunlight, waves and oil-palm plantations, all of which could produce power in an eco-friendly and economically viable way. One of the most promising methods, burning waste from oil-palm plantations (which is different from using the oil-palm fruit as ethanol, as I'm opposed to), is supported by research from the Asia Biomass Office.

They estimate a ton of EFB can generate about 1,330 kWh of electricity. 6.6 million tonnes of EFB would generate about 8,423GWh. With current price of electricity at about 6 cent/kWh, power generation using 6.6 million ton of EFB will be about 1.72 billion ringgit sales per year.
While I remain opposed to using palm oil ethanol as vehicle fuel (due to the food vs. fuel debate and the ineffectiveness of the ethanol itself), burning plantation waste for electricity is fine in very small, regulated amounts.

Plus, studies by Sabah Environmental Protection Association show that based on the location of the oil palm mills, most are in clusters, small power generating plants of about 10MW plant each could be built in Beluran, Kudat, Semporna, Kunak and so on to supply clean, renewable energy to the east coast.

Solar energy might hold more promise. With solar-thermal scientists now researching new technologies like reflective mirrors of lightweight polymer and not glass, and techniques like molten salt being used to capture heat for nighttime generation, the world is on the cusp of a new solar revolution. The Solana Generating Station in Arizona, scheduled to go online in 2012, will have 3 sq. miles of parabolic mirrors generating 280 MW of power.
A solar thermal power plant. It involves using mirrors to focus sunlight on a receiver where the heat will boil water to get steam for turning a turbine.

It would be a shame if Malaysia, blessed as it is with abundant sunlight (4-5 kilowatt hours of solar radiation hits each square metre of Malaysia every day) fails to capitalise on these technologies. Even Germany, with only 1-2 kilowatt hours of such radiation, has become the world's solar leader, thanks to a system that enable regular homeowners to earn cash by putting solar panels on their roofs and selling the excess power to the grid. Mr. Peter Chin should know these facts, unless he's forgotten his portfolio.

Yet, the fact that the second Terms of Reference report was pushed through by the government despite little amendment to the heavily biased first report shows that the relevant ministry cannot even be trusted to do its' job. To be fair to the environment, and Sabah's people (whose taxes are being directed to air pollution), the government should scrap the whole silly idea.
Mr. Peter Chin is proving inept at doing his job. Which Green Technology Minister supports a coal-fired plant?

I distinctly remember our Prime Minister promising to slash our carbon intensity by 40% at the Copenhagen summit. And what about that much talked about slogan "Rakyat Didahulukan, Pencapaian Diutamakan"?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

THE FIRST FOOTBALL POST

I was checking football results on yahoo!sport the other day, working while checking the internet feed for the Italy-Slovakia match. (Sure, like I kept working, in the end, I just watched the damn match, and saw the last 3 goals being scored).
Slovakian substitute Kamil Kopunek lobs in the winning goal against defending champs Italy to knock them out of the World Cup


Anyway, this is one of the comments I saw:

"You Europeans think you're so great. Wait ten years. The Asians and Americans will dominate this sport, just like they do the Olympics."

Could it happen?

Maybe.

Why not? Firstly because football isn't a part of Asian, or American culture the way it is in Europe or South America. In those regions, football is a way of life! Football is everywhere over there, and kids pick up the game from a young age. Football in those regions is associated with immortal cultural elements in ways which are near impossible to replicate in Asia or the US. Take the Brazilian samba, or the fact that English-Irish nationalism was evident in British football fans in the 80's and 90's. In a country where football is known as "soccer" dominating this sport in such an environment is a tad laughable, at least for the moment.
Brazilian football is as much a part of the samba as samba is a part of the beautiful game.

And then of course is the area of technical ability, which is something that needs lots of time and stringent management to develop properly. In this area, the Asians are most likely to lose out. The Asian leagues are beset by corruption, mismanagement, and a lack of professionalism by the players. In Malaysia, for example, the local football governing body is managed by politicians and royals who know absolutely nothing about managing a football squad. Youth training schemes also need to be beefed up to spawn success, as the example of Germany has shown. Its current crop of young heroes (I still can't believe the 4-0 rout of Argentina), came about as a result of reforms undertaken after the team's early exit from Euro 2000.

Lukas Podolski is just one of the many young players currently taking the World Cup by storm, proof that the German youth system is paying off handsomely.

The US team, while they had a great run, had forwards who often seemed at sea, and who never seemed to take the game to the opponent from the starting whistle. They instead woke up after conceding opening goals, and even then relied overmuch on Landon Donovan. Their strikers, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore were virtually silent.

Landon Donovan celebrates after rescuing the US yet again. No team can rely so much on one man and expect to win a tourney, let alone the World Cup.

Against Argentina, the South Koreans defensive flaws were opened up painfully, as the Argentine forwards latched on to numerous defensive lapses to end up with a 4-1 victory. An observation of the German side throughout the tourney reveals a fresh squad whose strikers are always willing to fall back and mark opposing strikers tightly. The Brazilian's (who were extremely unlucky to lose to Holland) had their defenders coming forward too, like Lucio, Juan and most notably, Maicon.
Maicon in action in Brazil's 3-0 rout of Chile. Asian and American teams need equally versatile players; strikers should not hang around upfront waiting for pinpoint passes.

These achievements are not impossible for Americans or Asians. But they will require a radical shift in mindsets and the focus of football development in both regions. They have made great strides over the past 50-odd years, but to go further and "own this sport" more must be done.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

WE ARE TO BLAME

People have been making lots of noise about the recent oil spills, especially the one in the Gulf of Mexico.

The one near Singapore has been largely forgotten, after all, since when has the general Malaysian public placed concern over the environment?

Environmentalists and the American public mainly feel anger at BP, whose oil derrick exploded and started the leak in the first place. But there is also a growing chorus of protest against the way US President Barack Obama has handled the crisis, which I feel is a bit unfair, seeing as the President has declared that all clean-up costs are to be borne by BP.

But, strangely, few people have blamed our reluctance to wean ourselves off oil as a cause.

Think about it. Who continues to support and believe climate change denying politicians? Who continues to drive SUVs and waste electricity? The fact remains that the public is as much to blame as BP is, but of course, few would dare say this out loud.

Branching out from this is the fact that the disaster highlights a new need for a flat out carbon tax. And unlike what certain populist politicians claim, it will not hurt the poor, after all for every gallon of gas the poorest 20% of households use, the richest 20% use 3-4 gallons. And like Al Gore proposed, the tax could be offset by reducing other taxes (like sales taxes, and GST to the poor)

The bottom line is, oil needs more than ever to be phased out quickly, and not just because of global warming. There isn't much enjoyment in eating oil-poisoned tuna either.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

PPM- THE LATEST DEADLY DISEASE

Here's a particularly troublesome paradigm that I've noticed among people, especially that very curious breed that calls themselves voters.

Its called Populist Political Mentality.

The premise is very simple. To victims affected by this disorder, it means that whoever is in power must give them what they want (not need) as quickly as possible, else, regardless of what else this government did for them, they'll not vote for it. Another defining characteristic of this group is the complete unwillingness to sacrifice short-term benefits for extreme long-term gain, as well as being extremely gullible to populist statements by irresponsible politicians and thus, judging by their hearts and never with their heads.

These people are the American 'Tea-Partiers', who would rather let people die due to a lack of health insurance just because they feel the government shouldn't interfere in personal healthcare. These people are the Greeks who vote a new government in to slash the debt, yet riot when the government talks about going thrifty to save cash. These people are also, tragically, the Malaysians who would never allow prices to be raised, despite the deficit reaching 47 billion ringgit last year.

Populism does go a long way in helping to fish for votes, especially from Low Information Voters. But its real cost is terrible. It causes a rapid cooling of political favor towards a certain candidate once he's been elected and finds out that getting parliamentary approval can be slow and agonising. At the same time, people become more willing to vote for the next flashy opponent who comes with all style and little substance (insert Sarah Palin joke here). And it means that these opponents (like the US Republicans) will keep blocking necessary legislation to keep up the image of the bold, upstart opponent.

In Malaysia, PPM often causes displays of hypocrisy in people, who typically complain of higher prices, yet spend on things like smartphones for all the kids before they start school, etc, etc. Sure, there's nothing wrong with buying goods, but when there is a debt crisis looming that could affect you much worse in future, why complain about reduced subsidies and yet splurge unnecessarily?

When countries go bankrupt after excessive borrowing to support a PPM infested population, bad -no, terrible- things happen to its people. Stock markets worldwide crash, the people lose ALL forms of government benefits, salaries are trimmed and the currency becomes worthless, driving up prices far more than they would have been had subsidies been slashed earlier on.

PPMs effects vary depending on the kind of policy attacked by the government. In more advanced democracies, where people argue about the environment, healthcare, nuclear energy and such, an attack would be something like climate change doesn't exist, or bluefin tuna should continue to be fished. Either way, the effects are destructive, silly and unnecessary.

So, lets start acting with a little bit more maturity, and be prepared to make some sacrifices and judge things by what is being said, not how loudly people say it.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

GREENWASHING- PART I

Going green is one of the hottest issues around right now (apart from the recent string of celebrity sex scandals). Almost every major company (and a few definitely un-major ones) now have some product, service or initiative that promises to be green.

But are they?
The comic is a perfect example of greenwashing- its meaning, and its dangers.

There is plenty of evidence to prove plenty of these wrong. Resoundingly so. So much so that the term greenwashing was coined to refer to the "practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly, such as by presenting cost cuts as reductions in use of resources.It is a deceptive use of green PR or green marketing"- quoted from Wikipedia.

Anyway, one of the biggest greenwashing scams are the cleaning up of rivers through the throwing of EM mudballs into rivers. The story goes that the microbes in the mudballs digest the pollution in the rivers. Hundreds of politicians (who really should know better, but hey, they ARE politicians), corporate figures (who need to be seen doing SOMETHING "green" for the dullards who are pressmen), NGOs, old wives (who need something to do in their retirement) and school kids (this is one reason why many grow into classic Malaysians), gather round and hurl balls of mud into rivers, then go home feeling all saintly because they made a difference.
Note the number of wealthy looking Malaysians and incredibly misled do-gooders. Wonder why none of the reporters had the sense to report the truth.

Some difference. It turns out that EM mudballs have to be thrown continually into a river to produce even a small effect, and this results in a tremendous cost to those involved. Money which could be spent really going green- like installing LED bulbs, or replacing the company cars with Priuses. In the worst case scenario, these disillusioned masses of old wives, CEOs and government officers could be doing serious damage to river ecology by throwing billions of microorganisms into the river and turning it into a giant microbe reactor site.

What if some sort of mutant emerges from Sungai Kinta and swallows up SMK. St. Michaels?
SMK. St. Michaels, located next to the banks of Sg. Kinta, where a massive, environmentally unfriendly project is going on. Lets hope they don't start throwing EM balls in there to 'go green'.

Another great lie we are all swallowing is the so-called green efforts by petroleum companies. I'm sure you've seen those wonderful chalk-drawn ads by Shell showing a complex but meaningless diagram that supposedly ends up with a bottle of green natural gas.

Excuse me?
Very nice, but can anyone at Shell tell us what in the name of Charles Darwin does this have to do with going green?

In case the numskulls at Shell haven't noticed, NG isn't much greener than petroleum. How about pouring those precious ad dollars into solar power at Shell offices? And that includes showing us how much of their money they put in, not one ad about some obscure wind plant somewhere .Or what about really throwing its' full weight behind a climate deal, instead of leaving world leaders afraid to offend the big oil companies with tough environmental laws? And, no, "clean coal" doesn't count as going green.
This is coal, and clean coal will only exist if the world's entire population became blind.

If you've actually held a piece of coal, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

TRIAL BY FIRE- PART TWO AND THE FUTURE

The UTP Inter-School Debate Finals were on March 3rd. Our school very graciously agreed to send a busload of around 40 Form 1 and Form 2 supporters. Delightful little creatures they were, although they casually ruined our chances of getting any shut-eye.The gallant debaters of SMI after qualifying for the finals. From left- James, me, Kenny and Fred, the reserve.

So, the debate. It was close, but that was to be expected, given that our opponents were Malay College Kuala Kangsar. They are exceptionally good, with a powerful command of English and a heavy assortment of facts, figures and ideas.

They were proposing the motion "Health, Safety and Environment Education should be Introduced in Schools." Which left us opposing, a somewhat tougher battle. And the result?

Since many already know it, I'm just going to come out with the fact that we lost.

It was close, very much so, and we did speak well, and the judgement could have gone to us as well. But we could have done a whole lot better, by focusing more on certain key issues, and by explaining some a little more clearly. I, personally, could have touched on a number of more powerful rebuttals. But well..

Thanks to all who helped. The school for their support, our teacher advisors, Mr. Rajan and Mr. Waran, our family members, and the supporters who went with us. Apologies for not turning in a win. And to the rest of the squad: I'm proud to have spoken with you all. You guys rock!

Its' ok though. Second place isn't too bad, considering. And it turns out that the main Parliamentary English Debate competition is back on. So, onward.

(Many parts of this post have been written with a lot more optimism than I really feel)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

WHEN WILL WE ACT?

Michaelians will have probably realized (unless they've been living under the art room) that we have a giant hornet's hive hanging off a water pipe. For the uninitiated, it's on the pipe of the highest floor next to the Form Six office's window. All you need to do is look up around that area. Trust me, you can't miss it.

Anyway, it's been there for awhile now, and it really looks... dangerous/ creepy/ gross. But this might be because I'm kind of terrified of buzzing, flying things.

The point I'm trying to make isn't that I'm a wuss. It is a polite request as to when (or if) the school plans to remove it. I need hardly remind anyone of the hazards of having the thing next to a window which offers access to several of the school's nicest teachers. (Mr. Rajan, Pn. Fairoz, and Pn Tan Cheng Choo come to mind.)

Like so many problems in this country, will we wait for it to kill/ seriously injure someone, before we act? School safety is one thing that cannot be messed with, but the fact that hundreds of schools and educational facilities have termite infested boards, faulty beams, bad bridges (think Kuala Dipang) and electrical wiring from Dato' Maharaja Lela's time.

Many a time, even if someone does die, the issue becomes hotter than Megan Fox, before becoming colder than an ais kacang again. Whatever the problems involved in these situations, be it corruption, a close-one-eye attitude, or simply lack of funds, they have to be looked into and stopped quickly.

Those who embezzle funds for school infrastructure should be punished more severely than normal corrupt officials. I mean, we're talking students here! What happened to modal insan? If lack of funds is an issue, then it's time we cut wastage, especially in terms of government electricity consumption.

(Maybe government offices are instructed to leave lights on to provide profit for TNB. Just a thought.)

Here's to the removal of that nest, and to similar problems in all schools. There's no point in having laptops in schools if a six-legged creature brings down the building.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

TRIAL BY FIRE- PART ONE

The Universiti Teknologi Petronas Inter-School Debate was on Saturday. We competed with a previously untested combination (me, Kenny Liew, James William Foong), who went with drastically underprepared points (we're Michaelians). And the result.....?

I'll tell later. (Aren't I a sadist?)

Anyway, we discovered that we were the ONLY non-fully governmental school there. The others were all MRSMs, Sekolah Berasrama Penuh, or Sekolah Menengah Sains. So there I was, fully expecting to get screwed (again) because our speeches had been prepared the night before.

The semi final topic hadn't even been discussed! And these schools typically employ powerful points, backed up with a carpet bomb of facts and figures. Plus, they smile when they speak too.

Michaelian debaters will know that I'm usually the mad one in a temper on stage.

But we managed to keep our cool, and thanks to wonderful last minute preparations and spectators (they helped us prepare for the semis while we debated in the 3rd round- it was conducted a la round robin), plus the fact that we- especially me- toned down the hard, fast style.

(I smiled & spoke gently in a debate for the first time! Ever!)

We won all four rounds, and qualified for the finals! Those are on March 3, which means I'll be skipping exams!

We're up against MCKK, and if we keep up the new and improved style, we can win! About time we won something, too...

A big thank you to everyone who helped, especially Mr. Rajan, the spectators (my brothers and Thomas Liew) and the reserve speaker (Frederick Pereira)- who also drained the battery of the speakers' iPod, DSLR camera and Acer laptop. God bless you all. Wish us luck!!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

THE MALAYSIAN ECONOMY

The Malaysian economy has been facing severe problems in recent years, which started becoming apparent after the departure of the engineer of the best growth period in Malaysian history- Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohammad.

By the numbers- official figures show that approved investment for the first nine months of last year totaled RM19.1 billion, of which RM12.2 billion was foreign direct investment. That is a far cry from the RM62.8 billion of approved investments in the previous year, with just over RM46 billion in the form of foreign capital.
The KLSE shows a drop, which is an apt metaphor for the future of Malaysia's economy.


Sad huh?

The problems are deep and far ranging- starting with a climate that has failed to keep attracting investors. Previously, we could boast of low labour costs, a good business environment, and general harmony in the nation. No more. Other countries now have even cheaper labour markets, like China and Vietnam. Harmony in the nation is more endangered day by day, even without ethnic tensions. Just look at our crime rate, which has proved able to spook high-tech operations in the country's industrial areas- the heist of 47 million ringgit worth of Intel chips from an air cargo terminal in Penang comes to mind.
Bayan Lepas International Airport, a key entry point for foreign investors needs to beef up security if it doesn't want to be overlooked.

Worse, the idea of operating in the country is becoming a bit of a joke among multinational companies. Friendlier investment climates are found in locales like Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. This is due to revolting bureaucracy, which means it is terribly difficult to start and do business. The Ease of Doing Business Index, published annually by the World Bank, ranks Malaysia 23rd in its 2010 list, a 2-place drop from 2009. Singapore ranked 1st in 2010, and 2009, while Indonesia recorded a 7-place jump from 2009.

Reversing the trend starts with the government. It needs to slash away the huge rainforest of red-tape (they're bigger than our REAL rainforests!) It needs to fix infrastructure, especially security related ones, at ports and other transport points, like airports and highways. And they need to create an education system that produces critical and creative thinkers, instead of students who simply memorise and regurgitate huge volumes of facts. This spurs the change to a real knowledge based economy (computers, services and solutions) instead of simply constructing hard drives, semiconductors and shoes.
In January 2009, Intel- the world's largest chipmaker- announced that it was shutting down operations in Malaysia. Personally, I'm not surprised.

If Malaysia is to keep its economy humming steadily in the years to come, these changes are necessary. More necessary is an immediate end to denial of the problem. And I wish that, like so many issues in this country, it won't be swept under the carpet after a brief outcry.

Friday, January 29, 2010

UGLY TRUTHS

Malaysia has not regained pre-1997 levels of growth, despite the government insisting all is well with the economy. Corruption and patronage have taken firmer hold- as may be indicated by the Port Klang Free Zone controversy. Investors are turning wary of strained ethnic relations in the country, and the baton of 'new Southeast Asian economic powerhouse' has shifted to... Indonesia!
Shocking, especially when you consider that Indonesia has 17.8 % of its population below the poverty line (as of 2007).

Not only that, the Malaysian government is showing a powerful resistance to moving with the times. Rote learning still forms the core of the education system and, bowing to the desires of backward elements in the society, Maths and Science will be taught once again, in Bahasa Malaysia. Plus, the modernization of teaching methods have been slow and unwieldy, and the quality of young teachers being produced yearly is steadily dropping.
This is UPSI- Malaysia's most recognizable teacher training university. Failure to keep its' standards high has led to a drop in teacher quality, and, we all know what happens then.

But, rather than addressing the problem, the government refuses to even acknowledge it, tweaking the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (the most important public exam) to produce a steady 'rise' in the number of top scorers.

Malaysian economic woes also reflect a lack of willingness to change. The government has eyed green technology and energy efficiency warily, with plans slowly getting underway to green Putrajaya and Cyberjaya. Plus, in this country, the Sarawak government has the what, idiocy, temerity, gall (?) to classify coal as a renewable energy source! The government is also the first to cry foul when the West points out environmentally unsound practices here, but shakes its legs when the allegations are proven true. Which is why you'll never here of the Malaysian government trying to go further in grass-to-fuel research.
Palm oil plantations destroy forests- we only have 56% of our forest cover remaining-, reduce biodiversity, and endanger the culture of the Malaysian indigenous people.

It'll have to be eco-unfriendly palm oil, due, perhaps, to national pride.

One of this country's biggest problems -inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations-, however, isn't purely the fault of the government. Nor is there a whole lot the government can do about it- apart from resisting boneheaded courses of action, like fighting over a word to fish for votes.

The solution starts with us ordinary Malaysians, people like you and me. We are the ones who must shelve our default skepticism and at least give 1Malaysia a chance. With everyone I talked to, the immediate response was '1Malaysia is just a show'. Worse, parents subconsciously teach their kids to only mingle among those of their race/ religion, and spout all kinds of racist rhetoric at home. Really, I can think of no other reason as to why self-imposed segregation is observed in each and every Malaysian public school.
Malaysian schools are no longer places for interracial mingling. No surprise, then, that the colours in this photo aren't mixing.

Not only that, the way we treat people and the environment is also fast becoming rotten. We like to say we are a warm, friendly people, but here's the truth.We admire anyone with a lighter skin and blue-er eyes than us, yet shun the poor migrant worker. We hail the white tourist, but scorn the African student.We pity endangered animals only in the lunar calendar and on tee-shirts, yet kill and eat them as soon as we can. We complain about the hot weather, but burn our rubbish and choke the sky with our SUVs.
The SUV is one vehicle that should have never been invented. It pollutes the sky and burns a hole in the pocket. All it does well is boost the ego, as if we need more of that.

So really. It's not all the government's fault. How about we quit complaining, and start thinking of more than ourselves? Of more than oursleves and our exotic dinners, fancy cars and big houses?? How about we spare a thought for the marginalized and poor, the destitute and downtrodden, and of course, the environment? Is it too much to ask that we, government included, use our brains and hearts equally?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

WHEN PUSH TURNS TO SHOVE

My best friend said a very.... interesting (?) comment today in school. I forget how the conversation went, but it ended up like this "... you'll probably want to be the President of Greenpeace one day."

And that got me thinking.

Greenpeace is THE environmental NGO out there, yet its methods are often controversial, usually involving direct action. This ranges from sit-ins to the blocking of whaling vessels and criminal damage on coal-plants. To the average person, such activities do seem rather radical- after all, its 'just' the environment, but to me, (except the last bit) all of their activities are justified, for the public continues to ignore environmental concerns in favor of tiger-bone, ivory and sharks- fin soup.

But, where do we draw the line? Where does direct activism become eco-terrorism? Can it really be justified in the name of the environment? As forecasts for the state of our biosphere becomes ever more dire, does it become right to bomb, maim or kill in defence of the planet? Consider the fact that human lives are going to be sacrificed by depleted mountain glaciers, melted ice and more extreme weather events

It does not. Not for me. Because the value of human life is the same as the value of animal and plant life all over the world. This means that if you're fighting to save species, destroying your own to call attention and grab the headlines does seem rather bird-brained.

And what would happen if we set an oil-palm headquarters alight? Carbon dioxide is released, isn't it? It therefore becomes more illogical to destroy the environment in the hope of saving it.

Still, deploying vessels to physically block whaling craft is quite alright. And shooting animal poachers is also fine. Maybe we should consider the death penalty or life imprisonment for poachers and illegal fishermen.

In the meantime, lets accept that since its the Year of the Tiger, that great beast deserves our respect. Why waste money eating its parts when the science says there're no benefits whatsoever? You wouldn't want a tiger to eat you, right?


THE ALLAH ISSUE

Government response to the attacks have been rather positive, but these cops need to catch the perpetrators fast.

When Malaysia makes it into international newsmagazines, its almost always for the bad stuff. Piracy and the loss of mangroves in National Geographic, human trafficking in Newsweek, and the Perak political crisis in The Economist. Not to mention rampant deforestation in many NGOs reports and websites. Well, we just got in The Economist, thanks to the Allah controversy, and the burning of churches.

Aren't we famous?

My belief is that Catholics should be allowed to use the word Allah, simply because, in the Middle East, where Christianity came from, Allah simply means 'God'. For 600 years after that, Arab Christians and Jews continued to use it to mean God, and when the Prophet Muhammad founded Islam, the preexisting word for God was then taken to be used by Muslims worldwide. There is, thus, a shared history of the word Allah for the 3 Abrahamic religions, and it should stay that way.
This is Allah, a beautiful name for a beautiful God in three beautiful religions. Check out the Wikipedia article for full details on the word.

In Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, Christians are allowed to freely use Allah in their worship and even public posters and banners. Even Arab Christians use the term to mean 'God'. According to Gwynne Dyer, a journalist for the Salt Lake Tribune "... Malaysian Muslims should take a lesson from early [Arabian Muslims]...[the Christians] were quickly conquered by Muslim armies, but were not forcibly converted... improbable that they had to change the word they used for God". (Read the article here)

The government likes to say that when we use Allah, we will confuse the nation's Muslims. However, since the Herald already carries the word TERHAD, how are Muslims supposed to get to read it? Plus, I believe this nation's Muslims are intelligent enough to know the difference in the contextual usage of the word. Those believing that the word's usage is somehow their right (!) are lacking judgement, maturity and are an affront to the intelligence of Malaysian Muslims. A simple history review (provided Free Of Charge above),is enough for this country's educated Muslims to understand the truth.

Like the Economist's article, I believe that the current controversy is no more than the effort of the government to woo Islamic hardliners after losing more of their support to PAS in the last general election. Prominent intellectuals, like Universiti Malaya's Azmi Sharom also believe in this scenario. By contrast, PAS has become a voice of moderation saying that the other Abrahamic religions be allowed to use Allah to mean God in Malay. The 1Malaysia concept has thus come under serious threat, because whoever wins, gaping wounds have been opened. And these can't be stitched up easily.
If the whole issue is indeed a tactic by UMNO to win votes, then the 1Malaysia concept is as good as dead.

In short, this issue has to play out in the courts with all parties maintaining cool heads. Reiterating my support for the Herald, I would like to point out that if the Herald loses this case, which word do we lose next? Amen?