Nation 2  


Spirited Singapore keeps ‘ghostbuster’ busy
SINGAPORE (AFP) - The corner looked empty.
“There’s an old woman standing there, wearing an old blue dress, and she has curly hair,” professional exorcist Chew Hon Chin told his stunned client in the brightly-lit living room.
“Let’s ignore her for now. Let me clear your house of dirty stuff first and I’ll move her out later,” the 64-year-old Chew told housewife Zhang Qiao Zhu, who hurriedly led him to one of the flat’s bedrooms.

Inside, the stern-faced Chew produced a pair of metal rods bent at a 40-degree angle, stared at the black balls swaying gently at each end and finally pointed to a closed cupboard.
“There is a blue towel with a striped pattern inside,” Chew told Zhang in Mandarin.
“Take it out and remove it from the room.”
Zhang, 56, complied meekly, not questioning Chew’s pronouncements or his apparent ability to peer through closed wardrobe doors to identify “tainted” objects within.
Zhang called Chew when she sensed there was something strange in her neighbourhood, or more specifically her house, after feeling someone -- or something -- choking her every night whenever she tried to sleep.

Chew exorcises ghosts and repels curses for a living, and the word “Ghostbusters” is spelled out in English in a red sign with gold lettering above the entrance to his shop.
The stout man with tinted spectacles and a crisp crew cut says business is good in predominantly ethnic-Chinese Singapore, where religion and superstition remain deeply rooted despite mass affluence.

Chew, who says he handles three to four cases a day, offers services from “luck enhancement” costing 88 Singapore dollars (68 US) to “deceased appeasement” at “100 dollars per soul” -- although more difficult spirits command prices reaching into the thousands.
But the BMW-driving former nightclub owner said had to pay a high price to get where he is.
Chew said he acquired his skills after being cured of a curse placed by a vengeful former employee whom he had sacked.

He vomited blood, mosquitoes and metal filings for more than 10 years, Chew claimed.
After his recovery, Chew said the supreme Taoist deity known as the Jade Emperor visited him, made him a “godson” and told him the secrets of divining and exorcism, which entailed 108 days of meditation on a deserted island in neighbouring Indonesia.
But unlike the characters from the Hollywood movie, Chew does not use fictional technology in his ghostbusting efforts.

“I have the eye of the heavens -- when you come into my office I can immediately see the bad things behind you,” the devout Taoist told an AFP reporter, pointing to the supposed location of a “third eye” on his forehead.
Chew said this enhanced vision allows him to detect malevolent energy emanating from specific items which he describes in painstaking detail to customers visiting his shop.
At a recent house visit, Chew used his metal rods to pinpoint what he said was the spirit’s location, then flung coarse salt into a small bronze urn filled with burning charcoal.
A helper tossed in onion skins to produce an acrid burst of smoke.
“Ghosts are afraid of this smell, when the salt crackles it’s like an explosion to ghosts and they will run,” Chew said confidently.
He took his clients to a quiet clearing in suburban Singapore, where he lit a ring of fire around them and instructed them to step over it. After the ritual, the clients were soaked in a tub of herb-spiced water.

“Fire burns away all the evil from your body, water cleanses the soul,” Chew said.
Chew’s shop, situated in a shopping mall a 15-minute drive from the financial centre, also doubles as a ghostly jail, with sealed plastic “cells” containing objects discovered during his work lining a wall beside an elaborate altar to the Jade Emperor.
Vials containing dark liquids, macabre finger-sized dolls and wooden carvings of faces beneath an ominous sign saying: “Nice to see, fun to touch. Once broken, more business for us!”
Chew was sanguine about his close proximity to the spirit world,
“As a policeman or soldier, I should not be afraid of criminals or war. As a ghostbuster, I should definitely not be afraid of ghosts, in fact ghosts should be afraid of me!”

Hate mobs thrive in booming social media
BANGKOK (AFP) - A teenager involved in a car crash that killed nine people in Thailand deserves “no happiness forever”, according to just one of more than 300,000 Facebook users who support a page set up to condemn her.
“Only your death is worthwhile for what you have done,” said an angry post on the site.
“Are you still a human?” asked another.
One of the members of the cyber hate campaign threatened to rape the youngster if he saw her.
The 16-year-old girl, from a wealthy Thai family, faces charges of reckless driving resulting in death and driving without a licence, after her car crashed with a public minibus on a Bangkok tollway last month.
Soon afterwards a photo emerged that appeared to show the girl leaning on a roadside barrier, calmly using a BlackBerry smartphone, having escaped serious injury.
She was quickly accused in Internet forums of idly chatting to friends as victims lay dying nearby, which her family denied.
Her photos and contact details were posted online and she reportedly received death threats.
While the exact circumstances of the crash are unclear, the outrage unleashed on Facebook, Twitter and other websites has highlighted the murky phenomenon of cyber “hate mobs” on popular social networking sites.
Behind this trend is what is known as “Internet disinhibition”, said Adrian Skinner, a clinical psychologist in Britain who has researched behavioural differences on the web.
“It’s now well established that some people can behave in a much less inhibited way on the Internet, and the primary reason is that they feel there’s no return, no comeback,” he said.
He explained this “lowered sense of responsibility” was coupled with the fact that writing online involved much less effort than taking to the streets in a revenge-seeking crowd -- a more likely option in the pre-Internet age.
“A mob can form much more easily because of electronic communication,” he said.
“It’s much easier for this phenomenon of an ‘e-mob’ to grow.”
Membership of Facebook in Thailand more than doubled last year and now stands at about 7.4 million -- 11 percent of the population -- according to Socialbakers, which compiles data about the site.
The boom was fuelled by fierce debate over the kingdom’s political crisis, which triggered deadly opposition protests in Bangkok in April and May last year.
“These tools allow us to express our feelings, ideas and thoughts easily,” said Supinya Klangnarong, coordinator of the cyber campaign group Thai Netizen network, who thinks evolution of Internet usage is happening “too quickly”.
“Expressing ourselves is good but we need to know the boundary of expression and how to use social media positively,” she said.
“We need a standard to control what is creative expression and what is intimidation.”
The issue is not unique to Thailand, however, with numerous examples of Internet hate campaigns emerging across Asia, which was named by Facebook in September as the fastest-growing region for new subscribers to the site.
In China, where traditional media is heavily censored, the web has become a key way for people to air their views and vent their anger, with many using Facebook and Twitter through proxy servers because they are officially blocked.
There are scores of cases of people -- celebrities, officials or ordinary citizens -- who have been at the receiving end of disapproval or anger on the Internet, particularly where corruption or abuse of power are concerned.
In one of the most famous recent examples, Zhang Ziyi, a Chinese movie star, received a barrage of online criticism after it was revealed she had only given part of a promised donation to victims of the huge 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
The incident took a toll on the actress, known for her roles in Memoirs of a Geisha and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and she apologised in a teary interview. The entire one million yuan ($152,000) was eventually paid.
The Internet has now become such a medium for people’s wrath in China that it has triggered the so-called “human flesh search” phenomenon, where netizens hunt down and reveal the identities of perceived offenders.
Their targets have included young women who crushed rabbits to death in graphic videos posted on the web.
In South Korea, netizens have come up against the law for what Korean President Lee Myung-Bak has described as “improper Internet witch-hunting”.
His comments were sparked by the case of popular hip-hop singer Tablo, who faced a fierce web campaign from November 2009 when bloggers cast doubt about his educational background.
Police launched a criminal probe, concluding that Tablo’s academic credentials were authentic, and referred 14 bloggers to prosecutors on libel charges.
The case highlighted “the tyranny of the cyber mob that gets a high from spreading ungrounded rumours,” a major South Korean newspaper, the JoongAng Daily, said in an editorial in October.
“The situation shows a dark shadow that arches over the Internet age.”
Scotland to sample Shackleton’s Antarctic whisky
WELLINGTON (AFP) - Three bottles of whisky abandoned in Antarctica by British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton more than a century ago will be sent to Scotland for scientific analysis, reports said.
The bottles of Mackinlay’s whisky were part of a cache recovered last year from beneath Shackleton’s Antarctic hut, built in 1908 as part of his failed attempt to reach the South Pole, national news agency NZPA reported.
It said the whisky would be sent to the Whyte & Mackay distillery in Scotland, which now owns the Mackinlay’s brand, where it would be analysed in an attempt to recreate the original recipe.
The wooden crate containing the whisky, marked British Antarctic Expedition 1907, was frozen solid in the minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures but the whisky in the bottles was still liquid.
Two more crates of whiskey, along with two of brandy, were also discovered but they were left under the floorboard’s of Shackleton’s hut.
The whisky is believed to have been bottled in Scotland in 1896 or 1897, making it among the oldest in the world.
The Antarctic Heritage Trust shipped the crate to Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, where it was painstakingly thawed in controlled conditions, allowing historians to access the bottles inside.
NZPA said that under an agreement with the trust, Whyte & Mackay was entitled to three of the bottles, which had been taken from a crate containing 11, and they would begin their journey back to Scotland on Friday.
The crate originally held 12 bottles but one was missing when it was found, raising the possibility that a member of Shackleton’s expedition had been helping himself in a bid to ward off the polar chill.
NZPA said an Australian whisky expert estimated the bottles could bring 90,000 New Zealand dollars (69,000 US) each on the open market.
French wine bible expands into China
PARIS (AFP) - One of the world’s top wine magazines, Revue du Vin de France, plans to launch a monthly Chinese-language edition in the spring, the Marie Claire publishing group revealed.
Speaking in Paris, its publisher Jean-Paul Lubot said the wine market in China was undergoing “a real explosion” and that Revue du Vin wanted to be part of the action.
“One part of the magazine will be dedicated to wine and its consumption in China, to be produced by a team of Chinese journalists,” added editorial chief Denis Saverot.
“The other part will deal with great wines from France and carry articles from Revue du Vin, translated and adapted into Chinese.”
Founded in 1927, Revue du Vin is regarded as one of the world’s premier wine magazines, alongside Decanter in Britain and Wine Spectator in the US.
The Marie Claire group, with 73 titles in 35 countries, operates in China in partnership with SEEC Media Group, a holding company that deals in advertising and book and magazine distribution.
More and more French wine is being exported to China, notably from Bordeaux. Together with Hong Kong, it has become that southwestern region’s biggest market in value terms.
Kazakhstan may skip presidential polls

ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AFP) - Kazakhstan’s parliament voted to hold a referendum on prolonging the rule of President Nursultan Nazarbayev to 2020 and scrapping two elections, in defiance of US criticism.
Deputies in the upper and lower houses backed constitutional amendments to permit a referendum allowing the strongman leader, 70, to remain uncontested as president until 2020.
The vote came after a petition backing the referendum was signed by an astonishing five million Kazakhs -- one half of the electorate and one third of the population.
Supporters of the plan say it will guarantee the stability of Central Asia’s richest state for the next decade but the opposition and the West have raised concerns that it will create an authoritarian and unaccountable regime.
The ruling party Nur Otan -- which controls every single seat in the Mazhalis lower house -- had urged all political forces in the country to unite to support the plan.
If the referendum is passed -- a virtual certainty after the petition -- Kazakhstan will skip planned presidential elections in 2012 and 2017, a prospect that has already caused international concern.
Earlier this month, the US embassy in Astana took the unusual step of issuing a statement condemning the idea of holding the referendum, saying it “would be a setback for democracy in Kazakhstan”.
Nazarbayev, who was not present at the debate on Friday, vetoed the proposal this month. But this appears to have been a merely token gesture and in a quirk of the Kazakh constitution, the parliament has the right to overturn his veto.
The president has ruled Kazakhstan for its entire history as an independent state and will be 80 in 2020. If he is still in power then, he will have ruled Kazakhstan for three decades.
The president is hailed by his supporters as a national hero equivalent to India’s Mahatma Gandhi or Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk who presided over the growth of his energy-rich nation into a political and economic power.
But critics complain Kazakhstan has become an authoritarian state under his rule, with official media slavishly loyal to the president and opposition activists subject to harassment and even imprisonment.
The authorities were less than amused by the 2006 comedy hit “Borat” about a fictional Kazakh journalist and have now embarked on a tireless campaign to promote the glitzy new image it wants the world to see.
Along with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who rose to power at the same time, Nazarbayev is the longest-serving leader in the former Soviet Union.


Royal College Union celebrates 120 years
One of the oldest schoolboy alumni fraternities in Sri Lanka symbolises unity in diversity
The Royal College Union (RCU), one of the oldest Old Boy alumni fraternities in Sri Lanka, counts 120 years of dedicated excellence to its alma mater Royal College and society at large.
The RCU, founded in 1891 with a few old boys, has grown today to comprise around 11,000 members, speaking volumes for its longevity, commitment, and solidarity.
Since its inception, the RCU has had 33 honorary secretaries in office, with many distinguished past Royalists been office-bearers of the union.
The RCU works closely with the Royal College principal and school authorities, with the aim of promoting the advancement, progress and welfare of the students and also the interest of its members.
It continues to promote educational, cultural, social and economic welfare of college students.
Throughout its colourful history, a host of events and activities have lent personality to the union.
Last year, RCU was engaged in a spate of activities to mark the 175th anniversary of Royal College, witnessing a host of religious, interesting social and sporting events.
The RCU champions academics, gifting scholarships through the Loyalty Pledge Management Committee to students demonstrating academic excellence, and, or, requiring assistance for continuity at Royal College and also at the University level.
The support rendered by the Union is most often reciprocated by the college and its students, for example Royal College being appointed the ‘Best Innovative Microsoft School in 2010’.
Royal College also boasts of superior results at GCE O/L and A/L examinations consistently.
The annual EDEX exhibition is a hallmark of educational excellence, extending support to empower youth to be globally competitive, whilst offering them choices, options and opportunities, upon completion of their secondary education.
The partnership that RCU has with sports at Royal College is noteworthy, and many sporting events championed by the Union have resulted in sporting accolades. In the sporting arena the best recognition and glory have included the fields of rugger, cricket, swimming, water-polo, rowing, boxing, to name a few.
The Skills Centre of the RCU also caters to a host of activities that encourage and promote skills and talents of the Royal College students and is also open to the public. New initiatives include the RCU audio, video, and print studio that will cater to young Royalists who wish to pursue careers in media.
The convention facilities also cater to RCU member meetings, and its state-of-the-art facilities are open to the public to conduct professional events and social functions.
The J R Jayewardene Pavillion and Cricket Complex and the Royal College Sports Complex are also managed under the aegis of RCU for the benefit of the past and present Royalists.
The RCU also has close links with its fellow alumni association branches overseas, and maintains links with other old boy and old girl associations in Sri Lanka.
To mark its 120th anniversary, the RCU will have a multi-religious ceremony tomorrow (January 17) at 7am followed by a fellowship breakfast.
The RCU will also be organising more celebratory events to mark this milestone.
Indians growing richer and less healthy: Study
NEW DELHI (AFP) - Indians are growing richer, but they are also adopting unhealthy lifestyles that could take years off their lives and threaten economic growth, a major study said.
In a wide-ranging review of India’s under-resourced health system published in the British magazine The Lancet, studies by a clutch of top doctors flagged some particular medical downsides linked to economic progress.
“Rapidly improving socioeconomic status in India is associated with a reduction of physical activity and increased rates of obesity and diabetes,” said a paper on chronic diseases and injuries led by Vikram Patel from the Sangath Centre in Goa.
With more money in their pockets, Indians are exercising less, indulging in fatty foods and risking injury by driving more and faster on the country’s notoriously dangerous roads, often under the influence of alcohol.
“The emerging pattern in India is characterised by an initial uptake of harmful health behaviours in the early phase of socioeconomic development,” Patel’s paper said.
The scourges of the newly wealthy, whose ranks swell by millions each year, can only be tackled with education. The authors said bad habits decline once consumers become aware of risks to their health.
Overall in India, the poor remain the most susceptible to disease and are burdened by the effects of paying for care in a country whose health indicators lag behind its impressive economic growth figures.
The study also said it was vital that India, with its young and fast-growing 1.2 billion population, took steps to prevent injuries and illnesses such as heart or respiratory diseases, cancer and diabetes.
These problems, which suck up resources in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, can be reduced cost effectively through education, the use of drugs and patient screening, as well as higher taxation on tobacco and alcohol.
The study said India was in the early stage of a “chronic disease epidemic,” with as many as one in five people suffering from a chronic illness, while one in 10 has more than one disease.
“Many chronic diseases can be treated with inexpensive generic drugs and lifestyle modifications,” Patel’s paper said. “And if action is not taken now, the avoidable suffering and deaths will have an adverse effect on economic development.”
Other studies published in The Lancet urged India to do more to reduce inequality and to meet a target contained in the title of the series: “India: Towards a Universal Health-care System by 2020.”
According to research led by S V Subramanian from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, health costs push 39 million Indians back below the poverty line each year, with millions of others forced into even greater penury.
The authors were critical of Indian healthcare noting that payments by individuals account for 71.1 percent of spending on health, with insurance and the public sector taking up a very small proportion of the burden.
The review’s seven studies, which were presented at a symposium in New Delhi recently called on India to raise public health spending from 1.1 percent of GDP to 6.0 percent -- financed by new taxes on tobacco, alcohol and fatty foods.
“India’s continued economic growth will be at risk if adequate steps are not taken quickly to invest in the health of its citizens,” the authors said in a statement.
The studies on infectious diseases, reproductive health, chronic diseases and injuries, health care and equity, human resources for health, and financing healthcare can be found on The Lancet’s website.
Sudan partition poses challenges for China
JUBA, Sudan (AFP) - The looming partition of Sudan after this week’s independence vote in the south poses challenges for China, which faces dependence for nearly five percent of its oil imports on a new country long suspicious of its ties with Khartoum.
A full 80 percent of the oilfields in Sudan, which the state-run China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has pumped billions of dollars into developing, lie in the south.
Beijing’s arms deals with the Khartoum regime and its dogged defence of it in international forums have resulted in the former rebels who are set to lead the new state having much closer relations with Western countries that provided aid during the 1983-2005 civil war and spearheaded efforts to end the conflict.
China did open a consulate in the southern regional capital Juba in 2008 three years after the peace deal.
But it has only been in the past few months that it has fully woken up to the imminent prospect of independence, sending a delegation of senior Communist Party leaders to the south last October and upgrading its representation to ambassador level the following month.
“The Chinese, supported by CNPC, have mounted a charm offensive in the south which has consisted of bringing several dozen political leaders... to China to visit CNPC and view the Chinese economic model in general,” a Western diplomat in south Sudan said.
“CNPC has also built a computer lab at Juba University which cost several million dollars,” the diplomat added.
“That has had some success in changing the atmosphere in the south towards them.”
But southern leaders are not without fears of their own. They rely on income from oil output, the lion’s share of it by CNPC, for 98 percent of government income, and desperately need the Chinese production to continue uninterrupted.
In an interview, southern oil minister Garang Diing promised: “We will respect all our contracts signed before the (2005) peace agreement.”
Confirmation of CNPC’s rights to its concession will not come without a price, though, as south Sudan moves to draw up a national oil policy for the new state.
Long-standing grievances about CNPC’s environmental and human rights policies and its lack of financial transparency are likely to lead to the imposition of higher standards for firms operating concessions and to tighter monitoring.
NGOs such as Global Witness have documented contamination of the wetlands of Upper Nile and Unity states, where CNPC operates, with chemicals and untreated water from the oil extraction process, leading to deaths from drinking polluted water.
“In the contracts with China during the war, lots of things were not taken care of, like the protection of human rights and the environment,” the southern oil minister said.
“This has left many people displaced that need compensation,” he said. “In terms of environment, there is water contamination.”
Diing is likely to find support for imposing tighter standards from Western oil majors as he pursues his longer-term ambition of diversifying south Sudan’s oil sector and government receipts.
A spokesman for France’s Total, which holds a huge concession in the south that has remained untapped because of the civil war and US sanctions against Khartoum, said the firm would insist on the “enforcement of our standards in environmental matters, ethical behaviour and transparency”.
But in the short term, Western oil firms are likely to continue to be deterred from investment by the sanctions imposed against Khartoum in 1997 four years after its blacklisting as a state sponsor of terrorism.
“We need to diversify the capital from some Asian countries -- China, Malaysia and India -- especially to get Western experience, the best technologies and the best practices,” Diing said.
“The problem with the Western companies is the sanctions.”
Washington has indicated that it will begin to ease some of the measures if Khartoum respects the outcome of the independence vote. And it is assumed that the newly independent south Sudan will not itself face sanctions.
But sanctions against the north’s state-owned oil company Sudapet, which has an interest in the CNPC-led consortium, will remain in force, preventing any Western firm with a significant US shareholding from taking up an interest in its concession.
The south will also remain dependent on the pipeline to Port Sudan in the north which CNPC helped build to get the oil to market.
And just six months before the date set for southern independence by the 2005 peace deal, there is still no agreement between north and south on what payment for use of the pipeline and refineries will replace the existing 50-50 sharing of receipts.
Alex Vines, director of regional and security studies at Britain’s Chatham House think tank, says that the pipeline gives Beijing every incentive to use its ties with Khartoum to ensure that there is a velvet divorce and no disruption to the flow of oil.
“It will try and maintain good relations with both north and south, and will use its good offices behind the scenes to encourage amicable relations,” he said.
“The last thing China wants is renewed conflict in Sudan.”
He Wenping, a professor at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agreed.
“While the south has more oilfields, it still has to depend on the petroleum pipelines and oil refineries in the north,” he told China’s Global Times.
“Oil used to be controversial between the two parts, but it may be the glue in the future.”
Hi tech pays tribute
to Eiffel Tower’s
19th-century origins

PARIS (AFP) - Arguably the most widely recognised structure in the world, the Eiffel Tower was designed to stand for only 20 years -- and some predicted it would collapse long before then.
Even as it was being built for the 1889 Universal Exhibition, a professor of mathematics sagely calculated that when the tower was two-thirds complete, its legs would buckle and the whole thing would come tumbling down, crushing workers and houses alike.
Today, the Eiffel Tower is not only standing but remains in rude health, testifying to the soundness of Gustave Eiffel’s design and the strength of “puddle iron,” the hand-made wrought iron of the late 19th century, say engineers.
Specialists at the Technical Centre for Mechanical Industries, or CETIM, have put together a high-powered computer model based on the 18,000 pieces that comprise the world’s greatest iron edifice and the emblem of Paris.
On screen, the tower has been exposed to hurricane-force winds, lashing rain, extreme heat, cold and thick snow, and each time emerges unbowed, they say.
“We have applied the most demanding test standards currently set in Europe and have found that the tower is in excellent shape,” said Stephane Roussin, a former French naval officer in charge of structural safety at Eiffel Tower Operating Co., or SETE.
“We have even doubled its weight to see what happens. The tower moves but is not destroyed.”
SETE commissioned the model in 2008 to fine tune its maintenance programme -- to get a better idea of the 324-metre tower’s weak and strong points as important projects are carried out.
In 2011, the tower will get its 19th coat of paint, and next year sees an overhaul of structures on its first floor. The tower itself weighs around 8,500 tonnes, to which some 3,000 tonnes (restaurants, lifts, TV antenna and so on) have been added.
Computer simulation has become standard practice for modern-built buildings, such as the Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and for bridges, such as the Millau viaduct in southwestern France.
But creating the model for the Eiffel Tower presented a technical challenge of a completely new kind.
One thing was that the realisation that its materials -- puddle iron (iron that is super-heated, beaten by hand and then folded over) and rivets -- perform quite differently from modern-day steel, concrete and bolts.
“We had to start from scratch,” said Roussin.
Materials scientists carried out mechanical and chemical tests on samples of puddle iron to assess its resilience, and stress engineers revisited Eiffel’s own drawings to calculate how the tower would perform under load from the natural elements.
Outwardly simple, the geometry of the tower itself posed some mighty number-crunching problems.
The programme had to take into account a range of weather conditions on a latticework of 18,000 metal pieces and the tower’s additions, calculating the load vertically, horizontally and in 3D: in all, the model has an astonishing million variables.
The tower has shrunk by some 13 centimetres (5.5 inches) over the past 120 because it has settled under its own weight, says Roussin.
Looking to the future, the experiments show the tower’s sensitivity to higher temperatures, so global warming is likely to become a bigger source of concern in decades to come.
Even so, the specialists say they are highly confident Paris’ “Old Lady” will be around for the next two or three centuries.