Tuesday, December 21, 2010


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


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


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


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:

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.