Sep 15, 2009

Citizens in the Vice Trade Up Against Strong Foreign Competition

ST Sep 15, 2009
Tougher rules for new hotels
By Kor Kian Beng

THE Government will come down hard on new hotels that rent rooms by the hour, as it tightens the rules for these places which are often seen as hotbeds of prostitution.

Newcomers applying for an operating licence have to justify why they are offering such rates. In addition, they have to install closed-circuit television systems, and hire guards to preserve the safety of their guests and look out for possible illegal activities.

Hoteliers with an eye on offering such rooms in residential areas will face an even harder time. They are required 'to engage the community and respond to concerns of residents', said Mr S. Iswaran, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, without elaborating.

He announced the new measures in Parliament on Monday. Singapore Tourism Board's director of resource development, Ms Rebecca Lim, said the new rules take effect immediately but apply only to new hotels.

In the debates about foreigners versus citizens in Singapore, the sad plight of our local prostitutes is often neglected.

In the first place, the fact that you've chosen to be a prostitute will often mean that you're already hard-pressed to find any better way of making a living. Unfortunately, nowadays you not only have to compete with other Singaporean prostitutes, you also have to compete with prostitutes from different countries.

And the competition is growing.

When I was a DPP many years ago, I would come across criminal cases involving foreign prostitutes every now and then. (Prostitution itself is not a crime in Singapore - however, prostitutes tend to show up in criminal cases from time to time, either as victims or witnesses). Back then, foreign prostitutes tended to be either from Thailand or the Philippines. Nowhere else, really.

Nowadays, the Thais and the Filipinas are still here, but there are also foreign prostitutes from a much more international background. Even Wikipedia, the world's most popular online encyclopaedia, comments on the wide range of prostitutes' nationalities at Orchard Towers - "They are primarily from Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Russia, Ukraine and a few from mainland China and South America".

The ladies from China even give newspaper interviews now and then. And the wide selection of nationalities available at Geylang recently won praise from a German expatriate.

How did all these women get here? It cannot be the case that the Singapore government has not noticed their presence. Perhaps the PAP has been too liberal with its foreign talent policies.

Sep 12, 2009

Medical School and the Uselessness of Being A Citizen

Not too long ago, I gave an example of how Singapore discriminates against its own citizens, in favour of foreigners, when providing opportunities for higher education. The New Paper picked up the story, and followed up by interviewing the Vice-Dean of the NUS Law Faculty.

J, a reader of my blog, just emailed me to share his own story. J's account relates to his own application to Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School (which is located at the Singapore General Hospital but is part of NUS).

Based on what J says, this does not really strike me as an example of Singapore discriminating against Singaporean students, in favour of foreign students. This is more an example of the authorities treating foreigners and Singapore citizens exactly on par (in other words, citizenship has no advantages). It is also an example of the Singaporean tax-payer's money being used to pay for the education of foreigners.

It's important to understand that unlike, say, Harvard in the United States, NUS is not a private university, operating on its own private funds. If NUS were a private university, then it should be fully entitled to make its own decisions as to whose education it wants to subsidise. However, NUS is funded by taxpayers' money (YOUR money, and mine).

Therefore I feel that it's important that this issue receives some scrutiny. Well, at least my blog will help to raise some public awareness.

Anyway, J's email is reproduced in full below. I've made a few editorial changes, mainly for clarity (and also to make J's identity less traceable).
Hi Mr Wang,

I read your post on education in singapore some time back. Recently, I have been busy with my application to Duke-Nus Graduate Medical School. It is the second medical school in singapore and is funded by the Ministry of Health. They conducted a series of admission seminars recently ... I [also] had a long chat with the admissions officer ....

From both the seminar and the admission officer i came to know that:

(1) there are thousands of applicants each year with a very significant proportion of students from overseas

(2) there are NO QUOTAS reserved for singaporeans

(3) foreigners ARE eligible for our tuition fee loan of up to 90% of course fees.

(4) Foreigners CAN serve their bond in their countries if their families are not in singapore (although this is subject to approval, it makes you wonder why bond them at all?)

.... I really begin to wonder if my very own country whom I had sworn to protect when I was 18 is really worthy of my protection.


Sep 10, 2009

Mediums and Channels - A Look at Some Other Worlds

ST Sep 10, 2009
Need for more education and understanding of Taoism

I REFER to Tuesday's report, 'Teen medium 'made suicide pact with six friends' '. It grieves me, as a fellow Singaporean and a Taoist, that two young people lost their lives in such a manner.

Mediums, or tangki as they are known in Taoism, have existed in Chinese history for the past few thousand years. Mediumism is a form of Taoist 'art'. Many are fascinated by its mysterious facade but, at the same time, such reports never fail to add to its negative image in modern society.

The deaths of the two teenagers heighten an urgent need for more education in Taoism, as well as the need for Taoist practitioners, followers and devotees to further understand the religion itself.

Tay Hung Yong

Mediumship is a common aspect of Taoism. Every year, in modern Singapore, there are public events where you can see Taoist mediums at work. Some of these events attract large crowds (hundreds of people). This link provides extensive information about tang ki practices in Singapore.

Also, on the same topic, here is a book in English - Ritual is Theatre, Theatre is Ritual: Tang-ki: Spirit Medium Worship. The book is not of a sensationalist nature, but is a genuine attempt to document the local tang ki culture (including the weird stuff). In fact, the author Margaret Chan based the book on her PhD dissertation at the University of London.

One caveat here. I believe that even if any particular type of paranormal activity (not just mediumship) is genuine, in practice there may be many instances where it's just a charlatan at work, or where the persons involved are just mistaken or mentally ill. So it is best to remain critical.

I also believe that in general, any genuine paranormal phenomenon should transcend cultural borders. The phenomenon would not be limited to, say, a specific ethnic group living in a particular part of the world, and having a particular set of cultural practices and beliefs. For example, in my preceding post, I had discussed near-death experiences. If NDEs were reported only by, say, villagers from Papua New Guinea who practise animist religion, then that is a reason to doubt the authenticity of NDEs. On the other hand, if NDEs are a worldwide phenomenon, and if they are reported by people of different ages, races and religions (and also by atheists), then this suggests that NDEs, whatever they are, are not merely the result of social/cultural conditioning.

(In case any of you are wondering, yes, NDEs are indeed reported globally by people of different ages, races and religions. And yes, staunch atheists have had NDEs too).

Back to mediumship. Does it transcend cultural borders? Well, mediumship in Taoism comes with definite cultural trappings (eg specific rites, mantras, costumes etc). The following short documentary film - here - shows actual footage of tang ki's at work, in Singapore, and you can clearly see the influence of Chinese culture here.

However, mediumship does definitely transcend cultural borders. In some other parts of the world, it is more commonly known as channelling. I have come across modern-day (actual or alleged) examples of mediumship/channelling in countries as diverse as Kenya, Brazil, Taiwan and the United States.

Some channels and mediums are quite public personalities - they write books, participate in conferences and regularly allow themselves to be filmed. In one instance that I'm aware of, the channel (Joao de Deus, nicknamed John of God) allowed scientists from Harvard to measure his brainwave frequencies while he was channelling his "angels". The results shocked the scientists, because his brainwave frequencies were completely normal before and after he commenced channelling, but were accelerated to highly abnormal levels while he was actually channelling.

The channelling phenomenon is sometimes just that - a purported spirit comes through, and begins to speak and answer questions, through the medium's body, often in an altered voice, and often delivering information which the medium himself seems unlikely to have had any way of knowing. However, quite regularly, a variety of other paranormal phenomena may occur at the same time. For example, in Taoist mediumship, the medium may allow himself to be hit or beaten with instruments such as a metal rod or even knives, and yet he will apparently suffer no pain and his body will show no signs of injury.

You may recall that recently, the Singapore courts had to deal with the bizarre case of Amutha Valli and the pastor at Novena church. Amutha, an Indian woman now in her 50s, had apparently been able, since the age of 12, to regularly go into trances and channel some kind of "snake spirit". She would then hiss and slither like a snake. In the late 1980s, the entire team of psychiatrists at the National University Hospital had already seen her.

The court case, spanning two years, involved Amutha suing the pastor at Novena Church, for some trauma she had allegedly suffered, while he was performing an exorcism on her. It was a long, complicated case which received a lot of media publicity. In the end, Amutha lost, on the ground that she could not prove that the pastor had actually caused any damage or harm to her.

I also see the "speaking in tongues" phenomenon in Christianity as another example of channelling/mediumship. This phenomenon continues to exist today and is ancient - the Bible itself describes it. Of course, the Holy Spirit is the entity being channelled there. Channelling (or mediumship) continues to be regularly practised in Christianity today, in an entire branch of Christianity known as the Spiritualist Church.

I don't know what other mediums and channels may be channelling. From the different accounts, it seems that a wide range of different entities come through. Some could be powerful and benevolent, some could be stupid but harmless, some could be ... dangerous and evil.

Many entities which do come through (assuming that that's what really happening) seem willing to state their names, introduce themselves and explain their own background. Some are happy to do extensive Q&A sessions too (including the local tang ki's and their spirits). In the US, Lee Carroll channels an entity which calls itself Kryon. Kryon was invited to give a speech, and did indeed give a speech, to a United Nations delegation in New York City in March 2006.

For my next post, I may briefly discuss what happens if the mediumship process becomes involuntary, and the spirit will not leave the medium's body. If I do discuss that, I will refer to a certain recent book written by a psychiatrist. In this book, the psychiatrist explains the difference between mental illness and demonic possession, and extensively describes two cases of demonic posession which he personally witnessed, studied and filmed.

Before anyone starts scoffing, I should say that this particular psychiatrist's qualifications include a B.A. degree magna cum laude from Harvard College; and an M.D. degree from the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He was also formerly the Assistant Chief of Psychiatry and Neurology Consultant to the Surgeon General of the US Army, and had attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, before resigning to pursue a career in private practice.

My main point here is that the man's personal credentials are very solid. This doesn't mean that we should necessarily believe everything he says. But it does mean that it could be imprudent to immediately dismiss him as an outright quack.

Sep 4, 2009

The Necessity of A Physical Brain For the Existence of Consciousness

I admit to being in a somewhat mischevious mood. Then again, my blog has always been thought-provoking. :D
ST Sep 3, 2009
Devotees pray for the dead
By Yen Feng

WHETHER it was the sight of more than 5,000 altars filling the great hall or the memory of a dear family member, no one could be sure.

But it was enough to draw tears from the thousands of devotees who bowed their heads in prayer at the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, off Sin Ming Avenue, on Thursday.

From noon to 9pm, Buddhists took part in Ullambana, the annual traditional custom of praying for departed family members on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month.

Temple staff said more than 5,000 requests had been put in this year by devotees to set up the temporary altars. It took volunteers three days to complete the spectacular ceremonial hall, filled with rows of identical tables brimming with sweet offerings.
Praying to the dead provides consolation for the living. Apart from that, the prayers serve no purpose. After all, the dead are already ... dead. Right?

Well, let us take a few moments to seriously examine this matter. Why might we believe that death is the end of our brief existence? Probably because we think that consciousness is dependent on the physical brain. If the brain has failed and begun to rot away, then that's presumably the end of the story.

But wait. What if the existence of consciousness is not dependent on the brain?

One good starting point for analysis may be the near-death experience. They used to be rare, but interestingly, are said to have become much more common ever since the development of modern cardiac resuscitation methods.

NDEs are a certain range of experiences that some people report having, at the time when they were clinically dead or otherwise very close to death. (Of course, they only report these experiences after they've been successfully saved, for example, by doctors in the emergency ward). What is an NDE like? Here's an excerpt from Wikipedia:

The traits of a classical NDE are as follows:

- The notice of a very unpleasant sound or noise.
- A sense/awareness of being dead.
- A sense of peace, well-being and painlessness. Positive emotions. A feeling of being removed from the world.
- An out-of-body experience. A perception of one’s body from an outside position. Sometimes observing doctors and nurses performing medical resuscitation
- A "tunnel experience". A sense of moving up, or through, a passageway or staircase.
- A rapid movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light. Communication with the light.
- An intense feeling of unconditional love.
- Encountering "Beings of Light", "Beings dressed in white", or other spiritual beings. Also, the possibility of being reunited with deceased loved ones
- Being given a life review.
- Being presented with knowledge about one's life and the nature of the Universe.
- A decision by oneself or others to return to one’s body, often accompanied by a reluctance to return.
- Approaching a border.

In the more dramatic NDE cases, the person even reports floating out of his body, and being able to observe, in very specific terms, what was happening at the accident scene/hospital ward; his account is then later verified by other eyewitnesses.

Although NDEs are uncommon, they are common enough for some of their characteristics to have crept into our everyday language. For example, you have probably come across phrases such as "the light at the end of the tunnel" or "I saw my whole life flash before my eyes". These are literal descriptions of some characteristics of NDEs.

The most obvious challenge to NDEs is, of course, that they are hallucinations, nothing more than the crazy, addled perceptions of a person whose brain is all mucked-up, because he was already dying.

But let me offer an excerpt of a counter-argument by a researcher on the topic. Dr Peter Fenwick is, among other things, Consultant Neuropsychiatrist emeritus at the Maudsley Hospital in the UK; Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry; and Consultant Neuropsychiatrist at the Radcliffe Infirmary Oxford; and Honorary Consultant Clinical Neurophysiologist at Broadmoor Hospital. Here's Fenwick, in his own words:

"So, now we come to the really important question: what happens when an NDE
occurs during a cardiac arrest, and why is this important?

The first point is that signs of cardiac arrest are the same as clinical death. There is no detectable cardiac output, no respiratory effort, and brainstem reflexes are absent. If you are in this state and I put a tube down your throat, you will not cough. You will have dilated pupils. Your blood pressure has fallen to zero. You are, in fact, clinically dead. Even if I start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), I cannot get your blood pressure any higher than 30 millimetres of mercury, and this is not going to produce an adequate blood flow to your brain.

A number of studies show that the longer CPR is continued, the more brain damage occurs. So it is not an ideal intervention. We know that after a cardiac arrest, both NDErs and non-NDErs suffer brain damage, but we do not know whether the amount of brain damage in the two groups is the same or different. During CPR, you are not going to be able to perfuse – that is, force an adequate amount of blood through – the brain. When the heart does finally start, the blood pressure rises, and there is a slow resumption of circulation and lots of technical reasons why your brain function does not return instantly. And the point to remember is that your mental state during recovery is confusional.

What should be clear to you now is that it is not a good thing to have a heart attack. In their 1999 study of cardiac arrest and brain damage, Graham Nichol and his colleagues found that out of 1,748 cardiac arrests patients, only 126 survived (Nichol, Stiell, Hebert, Wells, Vandemheen, and Laupacis, 1999). Most units range between 2 and 20 percent resuscitation rates. Eighty-six of Nichol’s survivors were interviewed, and most of the people who were resuscitated had evidence of brain damage.

Simultaneous recording of heart rate and brain output show that within 11 seconds of the heart stopping, the brainwaves go flat. Now, if you read the literature on this, some sceptical people claim that in this state there is still brain activity, but, in fact, the data are against this in both animals and humans. The brain is not functioning, and you are not going to get your electrical activity back again until the heart restarts.

The flat electroencephalogram (EEG), indicating no brain activity during cardiac arrest, and the high incidence of brain damage afterwards both point to the conclusion that the unconsciousness in cardiac arrest is total. You cannot argue that there are ‘‘bits’’ of the brain that are functioning; there are not. There is a confusional onset and offset, and there is no brain-based memory functioning. Everything that constructs our world for us is, in fact, ‘‘down.’’ There is no possibility of the brain creating any images. Memory is not functioning during this time, so it should be impossible to have clearly structured and lucid experiences, and because of brain damage, memory should be significantly impaired, and you should not be able to remember any experiences which occurred during that time."
In layman's terms, what is Fenwick saying? Firstly, he referrs to NDE cases involving cardiac arrest patients. In these cases, the brain completely stops working and there should be no way that it can enable the patient to continue experiencing anything. Even if the patient does have any experience, he should not be able to remember it and report it later. That's because his memory has already stopped functioning. After all, the person's brain has shut down completely.

The fact however is that cardiac arrest patients can and do have NDEs. During these NDEs, they hear, see, move, feel and think (or distinctly perceive themselves doing so). They may even perceive themselves as having conversations with "Beings of Light"or long-deceased relatives. All of these perceptions indicate that the patient's consciousness is still operating very actively. Furthermore the patient is later able to remember his experience om detail, and can give a clear, lucid account of it. This indicates that his memory was still functioning at the time when his brain had shut down.

What does this suggest?

That ... consciousness can exist without a physical brain.

Sep 2, 2009

The Oddness of Thoughts and The Illusion of Free Will

Recently, a colleague said that since I am "very experienced" in writing poems, I must find it "very easy" to write new poems. This is untrue. With more experience, I do find it easier to edit a poem. Editing is a technical skill and one gets better at it, with practice. But the creation of a new poem remains, for me at least, as difficult as it has ever been.

This is because to create a new poem, you need inspiration, which comes when it comes, and goes when it goes. It's extremely unpredictable. Inspiration is not a matter of skill or experience and it is beyond the poet's control. At best, you can spend more time waiting in front of a blank computer screen, so that when inspiration does come, you are ready to seize it, type fast and make a new poem.

Thoughts (not just poetic thoughts, or creative thoughts, but thoughts in general) are very odd things. Most people never realise this. That's because they have never really spent time observing their own thoughts. In fact, the only people I know who regularly observe their own thoughts are people who meditate (and they are a minority).

If you meditate, you will quickly learn that the human mind is one big mess. Most of the time, it does not function in any manner that can remotely be described as logical or systematic. Instead the mind hops randomly from topic to topic, sometimes operating in words, sometimes with images, often moving in circles, often contradicting itself, and easily getting pulled in different directions by sensory data.

On a 20-minute MRT ride, your mind can easily talk to itself about 10 different topics, without producing even one useful idea or one new conclusion. It can flit from past to present to future, from memory to imagination to fantasy, within the space of two seconds. You are not in control. The mind runs itself. It secretes thoughts, much like the way a gland secretes hormones. It's an invisible organic process. Most human beings have as much control over their own minds as they do over their own glands - that is to say, hardly any control at all.

What has all this got to do with free will?

There was a neuroscientist - his name was Benjamin Libet. He hooked people up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, which showed what was happening in their brains. Libet's experiments revealed that a surge of brain activity took place before the person had the conscious intention to do something. This suggests that the intention was not consciously formulated, but rather came from the unconscious, and then entered conscious awareness, and that furthermore, by this time, the decision whether to carry out the intention was already made.

Libet's experiment means that unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts, and free will plays no part in their initiation. There is no free will. The following excerpt from this article will help to explain:
Coffee or tea with lunch? Which pants to wear to work? Which movie to watch? Your mind might be made up before you know it. Researchers have found patterns of brain activity that predict people's decisions up to 10 seconds before they're aware they've made a choice.

In the 1980s, psychologist Benjamin Libet of the University of California, San Francisco, caught people's brains jumping the gun on consciousness. A few hundred milliseconds before a person thought he or she decided to press a button, brain areas related to movement were already active. The result was hard for some to stomach because it suggested that the unconscious brain calls the shots, making free will an illusory afterthought.
In other words, you never have free will. You can put down your pen, wave your arms, sing a song or sell your shares. But you never get to decide to do these things. You only perceive yourself as making the decision. In truth, the decision was already made, even before you perceived yourself as making it.

By analogy, you are like a robot which falsely perceives itself as having artificial intelligence and decision-making ability. In fact, the robot is completely controlled by a secret software program which the robot does not even suspect exists.

More later, perhaps.