Best of our wild blogs: 4 May 13

Random Gallery - Chocolate Sailor
from Butterflies of Singapore

Bryozoans and Hydroids Workshop Day 5
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The three questions the recent episodes have thrown up

Straits Times 4 May 13;

What counts as dabbling in politics

THERE is a fine dividing line between the personal, social and political.

At least, this is what the events of the last two weeks suggest, from the friction between the Government and former AMP board director Nizam Ismail, to the censure of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for their continued pressing of the SMRT bus drivers' claims of ill-treatment while in police custody.

And just how those areas are delineated within civil society itself has become the subject of debate online and in the media.

Past government statements have reflected a view that that which is "political" can be distinguished from that which is not.

Several observers, though, say that most issues can easily become political. Sociologist Tan Ern Ser from the National University of Singapore, for example, says: "In a broad sense, any action or speech which voices or champions the rights or interests of any individual, group or community is necessarily political.

"So it is difficult to stay clear of politics completely."

Furthermore, the term "political" can be subjective, such observers argue.

For instance, Dr Kevin Tan, former president of the Singapore Heritage Society, says heritage and nature lovers may feel they are not being political in calling for Bukit Brown cemetery to be preserved.

"This is what we do, " he says.

But is it political, he asks, if the groups come up against a government agency?

While the Government tends to be wary of civil society's intentions, he says, "I'm not saying that civil society groups are there as suspicious bloodhounds sniffing out some kind of pernicious act on the part of the State...

"The State doesn't have all the answers, and if we think you're getting it wrong, somebody's got to tell it to you".

But even if most issues can become political, what matters equally is just who is doing the advocating and by what means. Attempts to mobilise over an issue by causing friction, rifts or tension within society are clear infringements, say analysts.

Another issue that has arisen is: When is the relationship between politicians and civil society considered partisan?

Dr Kevin Tan feels that once a group mass-mobilises the public in support of an election candidate, it strays into partisanship.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin notes that in Europe, NGOs are overtly partisan. But this is accepted in Europe's political culture.

"Singapore does not have that culture and Singaporeans want to be very clear on the role of NGOs - although the lines may blur in the future."

In the wake of Mr Nizam's resignation from AMP, Maruah president Braema Mathi wrote a Forum letter asking if there were "partisan double standards", given that some PAP MPs serve as directors and advisers to such groups receiving state funds.

Some clarity has arisen from the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth's reply that the same rules apply to all, including PAP MPs who serve with these groups: "Their role is to help achieve the particular social, cultural or educational goals of these bodies, and not to exploit these bodies for their own political ends."

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad agrees with this stance of equal treatment of all MPs, regardless of their party. Citing his own experience, he says that as a former Mendaki board director, he made sure not to use the group as a platform to campaign for the PAP.


Can one speak in one's personal capacity

MR NIZAM Ismail, the former director of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), did preface his speeches at the White Paper protest and a Workers' Party (WP) forum by saying he was speaking in his personal capacity.

Is this disclaimer valid? Does it ensure sufficient distance between his views and AMP's?

In his statement issued after Mr Nizam's resignation, AMP chairman Azmoon Ahmad acknowledged the disclaimer but said Mr Nizam's stand was "erroneously perceived as a reflection of AMP's official stand".

This view - that perception matters - is echoed by many whom Insight spoke to.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam notes that each case was different.

"The test is: How would a reasonable person view it? What is the impression left in people's minds?" he says.

He cites how he had to watch what he said when he was a senior partner at a law firm, before he entered Cabinet.

"If I go out there and talk about a certain law, it's not credible to say these are not the views of my law firm," Mr Shanmugam says.

President of Taman Bacaan Abdul Halim Kader agrees that Mr Nizam's long association with AMP has made it very difficult for people to make a distinction.

"When people refer to Nizam, they tend to say, 'Nizam from AMP'," he says.

Some have drawn parallels between this case and another earlier this year, of Mr Li Yeming, who wrote to Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao in his personal capacity criticising WP chief Low Thia Khiang for what he saw as the latter's anti-foreigner views.

Mr Li was vice-chairman of a committee in the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA). His offer to resign from his post - after the letter drew strong online reaction - was deemed unnecessary by SFCCA.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin says the two cases differ in that Mr Li's comments may have been seen as "one-off", and hence did not "fundamentally prejudice" his position in SFCCA.

Other observers argue that in an age when more people are performing multiple roles, it may be unrealistic not to allow them to switch hats freely or, at times, to speak purely for themselves.

Associate Professor Reuben Wong from the National University of Singapore notes how establishment figures like Ambassadors-at-large Tommy Koh and Chan Heng Chee, who wear many hats, are able to speak in their "personal capacity".

Veteran civil society activist Kevin Tan agrees. He says that to disallow the disclaimer is to impose an unacceptable restriction on individual autonomy.

Dr Tan, who is associated with many groups, adds that he often explains to his audience which capacity he is speaking in - personal or otherwise.

But it is a grey area and if there is a risk of misunderstanding, it is far better to err on the side of caution, say others.

This was why former Nominated MP Imram Mohamed stepped down as AMP director when he entered Parliament in 1994.

"I would be expressing my own views in Parliament and I didn't want people to think I was speaking on behalf of AMP," he says.

He returned to AMP after his NMP term ended.


What of groups that get govt funding

THERE are civil society groups - and there are civil society groups.

The Government has long maintained that two distinct categories exist - and an NGO in one is judged differently from that in another.

At issue is whether the group receives funding, as then Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo pointed out in 1999 in an interview with - incidentally - an AMP publication. He said: "If (groups) accept public money, then there must be public accountability. The issue of how the money is spent would be debated in Parliament and subject to questioning by MPs.

"If only private money is involved, you are autonomous. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that you want public money but you should not be questioned. After all, the money belongs to the people of Singapore."

After Mr Nizam Ismail resigned from AMP last week, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim reiterated that oversight was necessary whenever money was handed out. He said: "Our concerns are about how government funds are being used. Money which is given by the Government to Malay-Muslim organisations must be for the purpose of voluntary work that will help the community move forward. It is not for the purpose of creating a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics."

Most observers interviewed do not dispute this. An elected government has the power to set the ground rules on the use of public funds and exercise discretion over disbursement, they contend.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin argues that every group is, after all, accountable to any provider of its funds, even if this is not the Government. "Just like a church - you take money from your congregation, you're answerable to the congregation. So you have to steer towards what the congregation want, because that's what they give you money for," he says.

An NGO that takes public money is automatically transformed, in some sense, into "an extended arm of the Government", in that it is performing a role the Government wants it to.

"It comes with a price - let's face it. Otherwise, don't take money. Then you have complete independence."

Taman Bacaan president Abdul Halim Kader agrees, and likens the funder-fundee relationship to that of father and son: "Your father gives you money to go to school. If you go the wrong way, will your father continue to support you? No. He will correct you, scold you and caution you."

Adds Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser: "The expectation is for the organisation to use the funds to help uplift the community through welfare and educational programmes."

Civil society activist Braema Mathi says funds for existing programmes approved under a group's ambit should not be cut. She acknowledges that a withdrawal of future funding

can be legitimate if there is a breach in the terms of reference, but says the process should be made transparent.

Civil society activist Kevin Tan agrees that the Govern-ment has the discretionary power to turn off funding to a group at the next review for no reason other than it has been critical of government policies. "But this surely does not augur well for a more vibrant and participatory society," he adds.

Whether cuts are fair or not, observers agree that having to even consider the question implies that donations from private sources are lacking - a point of some lament.

This problem is a bigger one in the Malay community, according to Mr Abdul Halim, as it lacks "millionaires and billionaires", unlike the Chinese and Indian commu-nities. "We still need the support of the Government in every way. When we can stand on our own feet, then maybe it's fair for us to move forward on our own, with less sup-port," he says. "But not now."


When activists cross a line
Straits Times 4 May 13;

Andrea Ong and Elgin Toh explore some of the rocky terrain that civil society groups navigate in terms of crossing the border into partisan politics

WHEN does social activism become political or partisan?

The question, often a tricky one to answer in the Singapore context, has come into sharp focus again recently.

Last week, lawyer and activist Nizam Ismail resigned from his leadership positions with the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) after he said he was told the Government had taken issue with his online comments and his participation in two political events in his "personal capacity".

The message conveyed to him, he said, was that he should "tone down" his activities or the Government would cut AMP's funding. Otherwise, he should disassociate himself from the self-help group.

AMP and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim have denied government interference in the group's management.

The Government then said Mr Nizam was using AMP as a platform for pursuing partisan and racial politics, a charge he has denied in his blog.

The episode created a stir, coming in the same week that the Home Affairs and Manpower ministries issued a strongly worded statement responding to some NGOs and individuals backing two ex-SMRT bus drivers alleging police abuse while in custody for instigating an illegal strike.

Noting that the Government had already refuted the drivers' allegations, the joint statement said: "In the guise of protecting vulnerable foreign workers, the NGOs and individuals have in fact exploited them for their own political ends."

The two incidents have raised questions about the state's relationship with civil society and the space within which these groups can operate.

While civil society typically pursues goals and interests that the state alone may not be able to fulfil, history has shown that there are no-go zones that the Government is acutely sensitive to. These OB markers bear the labels of "politics" and "race", which are perennial concerns in Singapore society, though civil society activists point to the shifting sand definitions of these terms that have been problematic for them.

State-society relations

THE latest incident is not the first time the Government has used the label of being partisan or political to express disapproval with players who have strayed out of bounds. In 1994, writer Catherine Lim was censured by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong after she wrote an article on an "affective divide" between the Government and Singaporeans due to its top-down approach to governing.

Mr Goh said Dr Lim had gone "beyond the pale", adding that those who wished to comment regularly on politics should enter the political arena.

Observers interviewed said the Government's stance that politics and political comment belong purely to the realm of party politics does not seem to have changed since this 1994 episode.

The Government's underlying concern, articulated by former Information and the Arts Minister George Yeo in a 1999 interview with an AMP publication, is that groups or individuals could be fronts or "puppets" for others to achieve their political aims. This stems from the People's Action Party's (PAP's) political battles in the 1960s and 1970s with the leftists who used organisations like trade unions and cultural associations to mobilise people.

Later on in the 1980s, a few Catholic priests who published booklets criticising the trade unions and labour laws and spoke up against the 1987 Operation Spectrum were labelled a "political pressure group". The same term was used in 2008 by the Government to turn down a suggestion by the Law Society to allow it to comment on issues not submitted to it.

Said Mr Yeo in 1999: "Invisible dalangs pull strings and make things happen on the wayang stage. If this is the way politics is conducted in Singapore, we will never achieve democracy because the real protagonists do not show their hands or identify themselves.

"So, over a period of time, we have taken the view that if you are a civic organisation, whether you are an organisation like AMP or whatever, if you want to get yourself involved politically, please get into the political arena and not hide behind a religious group, a tuition class, or a theatre troupe."

These considerations are part of the terrain that civil society groups have to navigate. Academics have noted that there are few explicit laws guiding what such groups can do or say. But in an interview with Insight this week, Law Minister K. Shanmugam shed some light on how people can navigate the different spheres.

As individual citizens, everyone has their political rights to express views, he says. But as a recent statement by the Attorney- General's Chambers states, action will be taken when statements or actions are made which insult races or religions, or suggest the Government is using race or religion for its own purposes.

The Government will also take action against any statement or action that seeks to undermine the independence of the judiciary.

The law is also clear that those who seek to engage in party politics need to set up political parties to do so, says Mr Shanmugam.

As for NGOs and other associations, they are registered with the Registrar of Societies (ROS) and are bound to keep within the ambit of their Constitutions.

The Societies Act was amended in 2004 to allow groups whose activities do not touch on race or religion, or civil and political rights or the governance of Singapore, to be automatically registered.

The ROS has the discretion to refuse registration to groups outside this category though some groups have called for more transparency in this respect.

On what registered groups can do, Mr Shanmugam says: "The issue is whether their Constitution allows it or does not allow it, and also whether they misuse the funds that are given to them. If they are funded for a specific purpose, they go and take the money and do something else, that obviously will be frowned upon."

While the law might be clear, civil society groups say they also have to read the signals sent by government leaders.

National University of Singapore sociologist Chua Beng Huat has argued, for instance, that the Government prefers the term "civic society" over "civil society" as the former emphasises the civic responsibilities of citizens rather than their civil rights.

This has led to the growth of organisations that are viewed as "junior partners" to the state rather than innovating or complementing the state in their own right.

In a 2011 article for the Civil Service College journal Ethos, current Nominated MP Laurence Lien called for a more mature civil society but argued that many non-profit organisations are more like "subcontractors" delivering social services on behalf of the Government.

Over the years, however, there have been signs of a gradual loosening of the reins.

In 1991, Mr Yeo made a seminal speech in which he compared the state to a banyan tree that needs to be carefully pruned so civic institutions can thrive. And in 2004, just before he took over from Mr Goh as Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong called for greater civic participation in a Harvard Club address.

He also signalled a change from the past in the rules of engagement. "The Government will not view all critics as adversaries. If it is a sincere contribution to improve government policies, but one which we do not agree with, then our response will be dispassionate and factual, pointing out where we think the criticism is mistaken but encouraging the critic to continue to stay engaged or even counter-argue.

"But a criticism that scores political points and undermines the Government's standing, whether or not this is intended, is another matter altogether," said PM Lee.

Speaking to Insight this week, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) Lawrence Wong reiterated that criticism from NGOs was not automatically unacceptable to the Government.

"We welcome feedback from all NGOs on government policies even if they may be critical, as this helps us to improve public policy for the benefit of all Singaporeans," he said, but added: "NGOs should not be used as a cloak for partisan political objectives.

"Similarly, while individuals in the NGOs are free to express their views, they should not use their organisations to pursue a partisan political agenda. Otherwise we may end up with religiously based VWOs or ethnic-based groups being used for political purposes. That's something we cannot afford to risk in Singapore.

"Ultimately, we need to strengthen Government-NGO partnerships through regular conversation and engagement, and over time, build mutual respect and understanding of the complementary roles of each of the parties."

Cases of SMRT and AMP

SET against this backdrop, how should the recent altercations with Mr Nizam and the NGOs involved in the SMRT bus drivers' case be viewed?

Mr Nizam's case is arguably more complex, as the Government's reaction can be traced to the history of AMP and the times its aims have somewhat diverged from the PAP government's.

Responding to Mr Nizam's resignation, Dr Yaacob said public money should not be used to build "a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics".

Indeed, AMP's website says it is a charitable organisation. It runs community services such as bursaries and micro-business programmes. AMP leaders have also stressed in the past week its aim of being a non-partisan platform.

But what might make the PAP government uneasy is any hint of AMP forming an alternative leadership for the Malay community.

At its founding in 1991, AMP suggested this was possible, and in 2000 it called for a non-partisan "collective leadership" picked by the community. The implication: The Malay MPs may be deficient in leading the community.

The proposal was flagged by the Government for entering the arena of racial politics. Mr Goh said it was "clearly a political challenge to the Malay MPs" and would lead to other communities pressing for their own interests. AMP dropped the idea.

Last year, AMP proposed a Community Forum (ComFor) to re-position Malay-Muslim organisations to "engage a national, inter-ethnic, issue-oriented agenda".

PM Lee urged it to "have a care if you are venturing into civil society issues which are not primarily to do with the Malay-Muslim community" - and its primary task of tackling social and economic issues. AMP later dropped the idea.

In two letters to The Straits Times Forum Page last week, MCCY charged Mr Nizam with pushing for racial politics by trying to revive and repackage the "collective leadership" idea in ComFor.

One of the letters also took issue with the "strident postings" on his blog and a Facebook group.

The waters were muddied further when stories appeared, first in Malay community newspaper Berita Harian and then online, raising questions about Mr Nizam's private life and financial situation.

This provoked a reaction within the community, prompting Mr Nizam to lament that he had been the subject of "hatredness".

Mr Nizam has also rejected the charge of racial politics, while he and AMP chairman Azmoon Ahmad have clarified that AMP shared the ComFor idea openly with the Government before its formal proposal. MCCY, however, noted that "Mr Nizam played a leading role at the convention and championed this idea strongly".

Others have defended him from the charge of racial politics. Former AMP chairman and NMP Imran Mohamed notes that AMP was founded as a race-based group. He, Mr Azmoon and other Malay leaders have signalled their desire to close the matter and heal the rift. But observers say AMP's historical instincts of wanting to be an alternative leadership may surface from time to time.

Another set of advocacy groups taken to task by the Government were those who took up the cause of the SMRT bus drivers jailed for instigating strikes.

The Government suggested the groups - including Maruah and Think Centre - did not truly care for the workers' rights, but wanted to score political points. When one worker alleged police abuse, the groups hindered investigations "while continuing to cast aspersions on the integrity of the police", the Government said. The groups have denied the charges.

For now at least, it does not appear the Government plans to accuse the groups of violating their own Constitutions. The groups also do not receive public money.

More dialogue needed

THE last two weeks have thrown up specific questions on Government-civil society engagement. (See sidebars). What is clear though is the greater need for dialogue.

Associate Professor Reuben Wong from the National University of Singapore sees two consequences arising from Mr Nizam's case and the SMRT strike case.

One is that questions may now be raised about AMP's autonomy, which is a lose-lose situation for both AMP and the Government as "civil society is most effective when it is seen as autonomous".

Two, the Government may need to give reassurances to civil society and not alienate it as a bloc, he says.

Increasingly as society becomes more diverse, the Government may need the support of civil society groups to carry the ground on some policies, he notes. He cites the mandatory weekly day off for domestic helpers - a legislation which kicked in this year - which was unpopular with some Singaporeans but was strongly supported by NGOs.

Recent events, say analysts, have highlighted the need for even more engagement, to talk about issues like how to define a space for civil society groups not interested in partisan politics. Far better to engage openly than to force dissenting voices to go anonymous online, they add.

As to how best to work out these rules, Mr Yeo said with some prescience in 1999 that the public should decide.

"Some lines are hard to draw in advance but, over a period of time, we can establish certain conventions. Sometimes we have a controversy, a big incident that sparks a public debate. After a while the dust settles and a common understanding emerges. This is a 'common law' way to establish the standards for our society."

Past clashes
Straits Times 4 May 13;

Beyond the Nizam Ismail incident, friction between the Government and civil society has occurred from time to time, sometimes with implications for future engagement. A look at some past instances:

1986 - Mr Francis Seow was elected president of the Law Society. He then made statements critical of the Government on a range of issues, including, for instance, the lack of press freedom, as - he said - was reflected in the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act.

Then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said the society had "gone political".

The Government then moved to tighten the Legal Profession Act, restricting the society's role so it could only "assist the Government in all matters affecting legislation submitted to it" - effectively preventing it from commenting on matters not submitted to it.

In 2008, the Law Society hinted it would prefer to have this law changed. The suggestion was quickly shot down by the Law Ministry, which said: "We do not want to revert to the situation in the 1980s where the Law Society behaved like a political pressure group."

1993 - Civil society groups Roundtable and The Socratic Circle were registered, but only after they acceded to requests by the Registrar of Societies to amend their Constitutions to limit their activities to members.

"We agreed to the changes because we thought it best to get registered," said founding member of Roundtable Raymond Lim, who later became transport minister.

In 2000, the registrar began to allow the Roundtable to invite non-members to its events, but they had to be invited by name.

A year later, police investigated the group for "providing public entertainment without a licence".

It had publicised one of its events on a website, in an apparent contravention of the invitation-only clause in its Constitution.

The group's members, however, explained it had advertised the event to ask those interested to write in for an invitation - and only those with invitations were let in.

No charges were filed.

1997 - Gay activist Alex Au's application to register a gay rights group called People Like Us was turned down by the Government.

The Registrar of Societies gave no reason for his decision. But he noted that the law gave the registrar the power to decline applications for groups that are prejudicial to public peace, welfare and good order or are likely to act against the national interest.

A second application in 2004 was also turned down.

2010 - Human rights group Maruah is gazetted by the Government as a political association - a move that bars it from accepting foreign funding.

Maruah president Braema Mathi said the group was surprised by the move. It had been careful not to admit members of political parties or to politicise the issue of human rights, she said.

She added that Maruah's growth would be constricted by the funding rule, and that its plans to hire paid staff and set up an office would be hurt.

The Registry of Societies said that "given Maruah's objectives and activities, there is a need to ensure that Maruah does not become used by foreigners to interfere in our internal affairs".

Other groups that have been gazetted as political associations are The Online Citizen (TOC), Think Centre, Singaporeans For Democracy and Open Singapore Centre.

Singaporeans For Democracy reacted to being gazetted by shutting down, citing the restrictions on funding and the additional paperwork requirements.

But TOC persisted. The first website to be labelled a political association, TOC criticised its gazetting as "unreasonable, arbitrary and incorrect". It pointed out, however, that its activities were self-funded anyway.


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A more level playing field? Change how the field is used

Straits Times 4 May 13;

Cheong Suk-Wai meets a thinker in this fortnightly column, which alternates with her book review column The Big Read

For all of his adult life, American geographer Edward Soja has been championing spatial justice, or transforming urban areas to improve the quality of life of the poor

ASK American geographer Edward Soja why he has devoted his entire adult life to championing the idea of spatial justice, and he says: "I guess you could call it trying to increase happiness everywhere."

That is because his life's work has been to watch closely for ways in which cities are developed, lest they lead to prime land becoming playgrounds for the rich while the poor are left to languish in ghettos, steeped in pollution.

The focus of spatial justice is squarely on cities because its overcrowded environs intensify resentment and the sense of unfairness among people.

He was in Singapore recently to talk about spatial justice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He had first visited Singapore in the 1980s and then late last year, to talk to architectural students of the National University of Singapore about his work.

Professor Soja, 73, says: "I try to get people to realise that planning and deciding public policies all shape public places, and sometimes create bad spaces.

"But, more importantly, if we have made things worse, we can make things better too!"

His main argument is that by scrutinising how people interact in living spaces, you will begin to see all kinds of injustices, such as the best schools and roads being usually in the wealthier neighbourhoods. "This is a geography we have created," he points out. "It is not something natural or inevitable."

So understanding the dynamics that lead to, and entrench, inequalities will help you map out what he calls "the uneven geography of power and privilege" and enable everyone to see immediately which areas within a city need the most attention.

The one thing to remember, he says repeatedly during this interview, is that spatial justice cannot result in complete equality.

"That's never going to happen," he stresses, because living on Earth's uneven surface - with those on mountains much poorer than those in valleys - creates its own inequalities.

"Friction and distance in geography are the main elements that lead to unequal human development," he notes. "So where there is space, there will always be inequality."

More seriously, he points out, once certain segments of society gain an advantage over an area, they not only prolong that advantage, but also sometimes extend it over wider areas.

"Whether it be occupying a favourite position in front of a TV set, shopping for food, finding a good school or finding a location to invest billions of dollars (in)... human activities not only are shaped by geographical inequalities but also play a role in producing and reproducing them."

The point then, he says, is to improve life for the disadvantaged slowly but surely, while "embarrassing the wealthy" into lowering the barriers between them and the have-nots.

He muses: "One of the great myths that have to be dispelled is the idea that progress is a zero-sum game, that to improve the poor, the rich have to suffer terribly."

For example, he points out, Singaporeans should acknowledge that part of their country's stunning wealth today "came from the shoulders of its immigrant population", given how much cheaper it has long been to hire foreigners for work here.

The rub is, he adds, the problems of the poor rarely get most people's attention, and this lack of visibility makes it all the more harder to get justice for them, spatial or otherwise.

In that, Prof Soja has a cautionary tale to share: In 1996, a California court compelled Los Angeles' public transport authority to put the needs of poor commuters above those of the rich for 10 years. That was after the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (BRU) sued the authority for discrimination because it spent more money building highways than subways or buying more buses. This meant that those who owned cars benefited more than those who were dependent on public transport.

Unhappily, Prof Soja adds, the footnote to this landmark case was that in 2000, when a Spanish-speaking Hispanic man in Alabama sued the transport authority there because the all-English driving test discriminated against him, the US Supreme Court ruled that any American who alleges discrimination had first to show that the discriminating party intended to be unfair.

Worse, the same court added, no private person or organisation could sue the US government for discrimination. That stopped the impact of BRU in its tracks.

So, yes, spatial justice is still very much a work in progress.

In that vein, he pooh-poohs economists who reason that most people today are jobless because the Information Age has rendered their jobs obsolete and that is why they have dropped out of the market. "That's silly because there are so many other things causing it, including changing geographies in cities that are creating new inequalities."

For example, few would link a spike in divorces, suicides and spousal and child abuse to the daily drudge of commuting to and from work. But Prof Soja's long and deep studies of his home base Los Angeles show that spending four hours to travel from one's home to one's office, and back, exerts such a toll on one's self-worth that it is a major factor in families breaking up.

So by, say, finding ways either to reduce time spent travelling or to enable employees to live closer to their workplaces, the bonds of family are less likely to fray.

Prof Soja's parents were uneducated Polish immigrants. His father drove a taxi while his mother was a housewife. From the age of 10, he says, he was fascinated by maps and travel stories, although he travelled "only in my mind". Now a married father of two and grandfather of three, he is a distinguished don in urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles as well as the London School of Economics.

In December last year, the 109-year-old non-profit society Association of American Geographers awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Honour for reshaping the relationship between people and the city.

Pioneering Singaporean architect William Lim says of Prof Soja, who is his friend: "For more than 30 years, Edward has shaped spatial justice such that it is now a respected conversation topic."

THE BIG IDEA IN HISTORY: When space did and did not matter

THE idea of justice, or what is morally right, developed through lively discourse among city-dwellers in Greece. Plato, for one, considered a just man one who fit in with his surroundings and gave others the precise measure of what they gave him.

By 600 BC, the Greeks had also conceived the idea that by just living in a city, a person was entitled to advantages denied to those in the boondocks.

Thus was spatial justice understood for some 2,000 years until the turn of the 19th century, when the rise of nation-states overshadowed cities. Also, Western thinkers tucked justice firmly under the law, which ignored justice's spatial dimension.

Such ignorance continued till after World War II, when the post-war surge in economic activity resulted in riches being distributed very unequally, especially in cities, where intense living heightened tensions.

That led to the restive 1960s, when many American and European workers and students revolted against such injustice.

They heeded French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, who said everyone had a "right to the city" and so all should rise up to claim that.

Around that time in Britain, Welsh social planner Bleddyn Davies used "territorial justice" to point out how public services tended to favour the rich. In 1973, his compatriot David Harvey took that further, urging everyone to find ways to redistribute social advantages more fairly.

In the 1990s, buoyed by the resurgence of cities as prime engines of global economic growth, thinkers began advocating spatial justice again.

In 2004, the United Nations' global meet, the World Urban Forum, enshrined Lefebvre's right to the city in its World Charter For The Right To The City.

THE BIG IDEA IN ACTION: Using space to foster inclusiveness

IF YOUR neighbour wants to build a condominium and you cannot bear the resulting dust and noise, there is currently no formal way for you to object to his plans.

"It's entirely in the hands of the authorities," says law don Jack Lee of the Singapore Management University, a public law expert who has given talks on spatial justice.

Planning how space is used in Singapore is very much a "top-down" affair, he notes, because while you have to leave your neighbour be, the law here compels urban planners to invite comments from the public on the nation's masterplan.

Spatial justice is mainly about, but not limited to, physical space. Pioneering Singaporean architect William Lim says that the Government, and Asians in general, should make the idea a plank of public policy to foster inclusiveness.

"We need to measure the inclusive benefits of successful governance, not just by the often insensitive and flawed measurement of GDP (gross domestic product), but by how well we satisfy basic human needs, minimise unhappiness and foster dignity," he says.

Best of all, he stresses, spatial justice can be practised immediately. For example, he says, the Housing Board should leave the void decks of HDB blocks void for residents to gather and interact there freely, and not rent decks out as shop lots.

But Assistant Professor Lee says that while the Government has not flagged spatial justice as a key to inclusiveness, it is already very much into engaging with Singaporeans on such prickly points as building old folks' homes on residents' doorsteps.

That said, he cautions: "Things could get messier and less efficient if the Government has to consult all regularly.

"Consultations take time, and you won't be able to rush things through any more."

Why spend more time with strangers than with family?


What the lack of spatial justice in city life does< "You start spending four hours every day in transit, often in buses rather than your own car. And you begin to see some of your fellow travellers more than your spouse or children. So you can see easily how tremendous the socio-psychological impact will be on people." The rich "The argument is that they are the ones who are generating the jobs - they are not! It's the middle class, who are being squeezed, who will spend the money to generate jobs." The mental block that most justice campaigners have "Those inclined to the Left have tremendous difficulty in developing spin because spin is sometimes loose with the facts and socialists don't want to be loose with the facts." Singapore "The last time I was here, there was a lot of talk about how social housing and other public policies had evened things out here. But it now surprises me to hear that Singapore is one of the most economically unequal economies in the developed world." The Canadian Kalle Lasn, who instigated the Occupy movement "He wants students of economics everywhere to rise up whenever their professors teach them the crap which creates enormous inequalities and argue against such nonsense." What it is like for academics to fight for justice "It's difficult because universities do not reward working with the poor very much."

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Hold off on culling monkeys

Straits Times Forum 4 May 13;

LONG-TAILED macaques are part of Singapore's native wildlife and must be managed in a well-informed manner ("AVA moves to control monkey problem"; Monday).

Increasingly, houses have been built near nature reserves, encroaching onto the home ranges of macaques who prefer using the forest edge and surrounding areas. Residents can take steps to live responsibly with wildlife.

I have spent many hours following monkeys, and there are simple ways to prevent conflict.

When around macaques, do not carry food or items that they associate with food, especially plastic bags. Canvas bags or backpacks are less likely to elicit unwanted approaches.

Walk calmly around macaques and maintain a respectful distance. Do not leave open windows unsupervised, and install mesh screens to prevent macaques from entering homes.

The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) has the ability and responsibility to develop sustainable strategies for managing human-wildlife conflict.

Trapping should not be the primary response to complaints; instead, complainants should have exhausted all necessary precautions to prevent macaque conflict on their properties.

Human behavioural change is crucial to resolving the conflict between residents and wildlife.

Indiscriminate culling will not solve the conflict and can harm the long-term health of wildlife populations, of which we are only beginning to understand.

I urge the AVA to hold off on culling operations until scientifically informed decisions regarding the necessity, location and scale of operations can be made; consult local primate researchers for help.

Our native wildlife should be treasured, appreciated and scientifically managed, especially in and around their last refuge - our nature reserves.

Amanda Tan Wei Yi (Miss)

Learn to co-exist with wildlife
Straits Times Forum 4 May 13;

THE monkey "problem" reported in Monday's article ("AVA moves to control monkey problem") was brought about by humans.

Over the years, we have been destroying and reducing their habitat. It is inevitable that some wildlife, like wild boars and snakes, will wander into roads and houses built on land where they used to roam.

Nevertheless, where there is tension between monkeys and humans, I can understand the need to "rehome" the former. But to "euthanise" them is both cruel and inhumane. It adds to the signals from government agencies that exterminating wildlife that poses an inconvenience to us is the only way to solve "problems".

Those who complain about wild creatures coming into close proximity with them should try to find ways to co-exist with the animals, or move elsewhere.

Daniel Koh Kah Soon

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Singapore 'can be cruise hub like Miami'

Cruise giant opens regional HQ in plans to 'create the Caribbean of Asia'
Melissa Lin Straits Times 4 May 13;

THE world's largest cruise company opened its regional headquarters in Singapore yesterday, with bosses predicting that this part of the world can become "the Caribbean of Asia" - using Singapore as a Miami-style hub.

Carnival Asia, part of Carnival Corporation which boasts a fleet of 101 ships, will be based at the Marina Bay Financial Centre as it looks to develop in the region.

Chief executive Pier Luigi Foschi estimated that the number of cruise passengers in Asia could hit 3.7 million in 2017 and double to more than seven million by 2020.

In 2011, the total was 1.7 million.

He said: "There's good weather here, lots of islands to visit and a lot of experiences. (South-east Asia is) not too different from the Caribbean in terms of these basic conditions.

"(We want to) create the Caribbean of Asia using Singapore as a major hub, as Miami is for the Caribbean."

Mr Foschi added that the office is the first step towards that long-term vision and the industry faces many challenges in the region - such as convincing governments to invest in infrastructure like docks and changing the habits of Asians who like to book holidays at the last minute. Cruise operators plan their packages at least a year in advance.

Carnival plans to expand here by growing its Costa Cruises and Princess Cruises brands.

Yesterday, its Costa Atlantica, which can carry 2,680 passengers, made its maiden call in Singapore.

It will offer three- and four-night cruises to Malaysia and Thailand over the next two months.

Speaking at a celebration event on board the ship, Second Minister for Home Affairs and Trade and Industry S. Iswaran called on all members of the industry, including travel agents and other related businesses, to work together with cruise companies.

"I believe there is scope going beyond the corporate office to look at areas where we can develop links, in terms of onshore programmes, supporting services, as well as in training and development of manpower for a growing industry in this part of the world," he said.

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Water research body to get $132m in funds

Grace Chua Straits Times 4 May 13;

THE institute researching ways to improve Singapore's water systems is to receive $132 million in new funding.

The Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute (Newri) made the announcement yesterday as it opened a new base and laboratory at Jurong West's CleanTech Park. The lab will look for low-energy ways to treat water, deal with waste and solve related environment problems.

Part of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the institute is to get the investment from industry, public agencies and research grants from funding bodies.

NTU president Bertil Andersson said the money will fund its work in water management, membrane technology, waste and other applications.

The sum brings the five-year-old institute's total funding to $400 million until the end of 2016 - though Newri did not say what proportion of the $132 million will come from each source.

Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, the guest of honour at the event, said water "has always been an existential issue for us in Singapore" and that providing the energy needed to treat it is a major factor. "Short of a breakthrough in energy," he said, "the only thing we have left is energy efficiency."

Technologies such as those inspired by nature that can reduce the energy needed to clean water are vital, he added.

Newri, which was previously located at NTU's campus in Jurong West, has so far produced five start-up companies including Aquaporin Asia, which develops membranes with embedded proteins that mimic the way kidneys filter water.

It also collaborates with multinational firms and smaller enterprises such as home-grown Eco-Wiz, which markets small digesters that hotels and restaurants can use to turn food waste into compost.

NTU to receive S$132m over next 3 years for water research institute
Sharon See Channel NewsAsia 3 Apr 13;

SINGAPORE: Over the next three years, the Nanyang Technological University will be getting another S$132 million for its water research institute, bringing its total funding to about S$400 million by the end of 2016.

The funds are from the government, as well as multinational corporations and small and medium enterprises, signalling closer collaboration with industry.

Sewage and industrial wastewater may not seem that different to the layman.

But researchers have said industrial wastewater normally contains waste that is specific to the industry, which then requires specialised treatment systems.

The new wave in water purification techniques now is how to refine biomimetic membranes - said to be the next generation of membranes which are based on proteins.

The challenge for researchers is how to lower energy consumption in the process of purifying water.

Professor Ng Wun Jern, executive director of the Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute (NEWRI), said: "Ironically, to treat wastewater - because it needs energy to do so - there is in fact an impact on the environment. So if you are going to use a lot of energy to treat wastewater, then on the one hand, you save the world by producing cleaner water, but on the other hand, you may cause some damage because of the energy footprint.

"So the challenge now is how do we treat industrial wastewater adequately and yet be able to do it with as little energy as is possible, and ideally perhaps even to recover energy from the industrial wastewater."

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, said: "We have translated a vulnerability in terms of access to water basically into now, a question of energy because with reverse osmosis, as long as I have energy, I can produce water, so water per se is not the limiting factor, but energy is.

"And short of a breakthrough in new renewable and cheap and plentiful energy... the only thing we have left to rely on is energy efficiency. And that is why biomimetic membranes are going to be crucial.

"This combination of academia and industry in the real world space where there are real demands and needs... is an example of translating what was a strategic vulnerability into a global opportunity, and that is why this is so important."

Professor Ng added: "The future would increasingly belong to systems that mimic nature more and more. So on the one hand, we will continue to work on engineering systems because we have to be relevant to the economy now, but at the same time, we will put part of our efforts to look into systems that mimic nature, and this could probably be ready for applications perhaps in 10 to 15 years' time."

NEWRI has also moved into its new premises at JTC CleanTech Park, a business park catered to green firms.

- CNA/xq/ms

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Culprit behind massive shrimp die-offs in Asia unmasked

Bacterium responsible for Early Mortality Syndrome of Shrimp – Crucial first step in finding effective ways to combat the disease
FAO 3 May 13;

3 May 2013, Rome - In a major breakthrough, researchers at the University of Arizona have identified the causative agent behind a mysterious disease that has been decimating shrimp farms in Asia.

The disease, known as Shrimp Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS) or Acute Hepatopancreatic Necrosis Syndrome (AHPNS), has over the past two years caused large-scale die-offs of cultivated shrimp in several countries in Asia, where 1 million people depend on shrimp aquaculture for their livelihoods.

In 2011, the Asian region produced 3 million tonnes of shrimp, with a production value of $13.3 billion.

Infected shrimp ponds experience extremely high levels of mortality early in their growing cycle — as high as 100 percent death rates in some cases.

So far, the cause of the illness has baffled scientists, animal health authorities and farmers, making prevention and treatment difficult.

But now the identity of the culprit has been cracked: a strain of a bacterium commonly found in brackish coastal waters around the globe, Vibrio parahaemolyticus.

A team of researchers at the University of Arizona have managed to isolate the strain and use it to infect healthy shrimp with EMS/AHPNS — a scientific method known as Koch's Postulate and the epidemiologist's equivalent of a smoking gun.

"We succeeded in isolating a pure culture of the V. parahaemolyticus strain and reproduced the EMS/AHPNS pathology in our laboratory," said Prof. Donald V. Lightner of the Aquaculture Pathology Laboratory at the University of Arizona (UA). "The high virulence of this agent to shrimp may be due to a phage which affects this particular strain of V. parahaemolyticus," he added.

The effort to study EMS, identify its pathology and respond to EMS was supported by a coalition of partners including UA; FAO; the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE); the World Bank; the Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia-Pacific (NACA); the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA); the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of Viet Nam; CP Foods; the Minh Phu Seafood Corporation; Grobest Inc. and the Uni-President Feed Company.

This breakthrough finding by UA of a bacterial aetiology is a crucial first step in finding effective ways to combat EMS.

EMS/AHPNS initially surfaced in 2009. By 2010 outbreaks had become serious. In China in 2011, farms in Hainan, Guangdong, Fujian and Guangxi suffered almost 80 percent losses. In Thailand, shrimp production for 2013 is predicted to be down 30 percent from last year due to EMS. Production on some farms in eastern parts of the country has been cut by 60 percent.

FAO first fielded a mission to Viet Nam through its Crisis Management Centre for Animal Health to investigate the disease in 2011 which pointed to an infectious agent and since 2012 is implementing an emergency technical assistance project in Viet Nam.

No risk to human health

Some rare strains of V. parahaemolyticus do cause gastrointestinal sickness in humans — through the consumption of raw or undercooked shrimp and oysters — but only strains carrying two specific genes cause human disease.

Just 1-2 percent of wild V. parahaemolyticus strains worldwide contain these two genes — and the strain identified by Lightner and his team as responsible for EMS is not among them.

"The strain of V. parahaemolyticus we isolated appears not to have the genes that confer virulence to human infections," said Lightner.

"There have been no reports of human illness being associated with EMS, and these new findings would tend to confirm that EMS-infected shrimp do not pose a health risk to people," added Iddya Karunasagar, a seafood safety expert at FAO.

Only shrimp vulnerable

EMS affects two species of shrimp commonly raised around the world, the Giant Tiger Prawn (Penaeus monodon) and Whiteleg Shrimp (P. vannamei).

Clinical signs of the disease include lethargy, slow growth, an empty stomach and midgut and a pale and atrophied hepatopancreas (an internal digestive organ that serves the function of a liver), often with black streaks. Within 30 days of a pond being stocked large-scale die-offs begin.

So far countries officially reporting EMS include China, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam.

But anyplace where P. monodon and P. vannamei are cultivated is potentially at risk. This includes most of Asia and much of Latin America, where shrimp farming is also important, as well African countries where shrimp are cultivated (Madagascar, Egypt, Mozambique and Tanzania).

Disease spread would appear to be linked to proximity to already-infected farms or the movement of infected live shrimp, usually juveniles used to stock ponds.

Lightner's team was unable to reproduce EMS using frozen and thawed shrimp samples, suggesting freezing kills the responsible bacterium. Since international shrimp trade is mostly in frozen form, there is apparently no or very low risk of disease transmission from these products.

Dealing with EMS

Now that EMS's causative agent is known more research is urgently needed to have a better understanding of how the disease spreads from farm to farm and implement appropriate countermeasures.

At the same time, FAO is engaging with partners to organize a concerted, inter-regional effort to address the disease.

For shrimp farmers, reliance on already-established aquaculture and biosecurity best practices will help prevent EMS-related problems. These include:

• Post-larvae shrimp used for stocking should be purchased from reputable sellers, be accompanied by animal health certificates prior to being introduced on-farm, and subjected to a temporary quarantine prior to stocking.

• High quality feed should be used, and environmental stresses avoided, to keep shrimp healthy.

• The health of pond environments should be carefully maintained and young shrimp should be closely monitored. Any illness should be immediately reported to the proper authorities.

• Regular fallowing of aquaculture ponds should be considered as part of a routine on-farm program of aquatic animal health, as this practice has been shown to break pathogen life cycles.

Off farm, any movement of live or unfrozen shrimp products should also comply with established best practices.

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Hong Kong struggles to combat waste crisis

Laura Mannering (AFP) Google News 3 May 13;

HONG KONG — An army of road sweepers and refuse collectors keep the streets clean in the heart of Hong Kong -- but on the outskirts, growing mountains of waste are testament to what campaigners say is an environmental crisis.

While the city may look well-kept, its three huge outdoor landfill sites are piled high with rubbish and are set to reach capacity by 2020, according to the government's Environmental Protection Department (EPD).

Some predictions say the first will be full in a year or two.

"We need to have a clear roadmap for waste reduction, otherwise our rubbish will be on the streets in seven years' time," environmental scientist Professor Jonathan Wong, of the Hong Kong Baptist University, told AFP.

The majority of the 13,000 tonnes of rubbish dumped at landfills in Hong Kong each day is termed 'municipal solid waste' (MSW), generated by households, business and industry.

With a population of more than 7 million, Hong Kong is sending 1.3 kilograms of MSW per person to landfills daily. Most of it is 'domestic waste' - rubbish from homes and institutions including schools, as well as refuse collected by public cleaning services, from food to furniture.

Its per capita generation of domestic waste is significantly higher than other leading Asian cities, including Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei.

The public's attitude to consumption has been partly blamed for the problem.

"Hong Kong is a fast-moving city and people want to keep up with the trends, whether it's clothing or iPhones," said Angus Ho, executive director of Hong Kong environmental NGO Greeners Action.

"They may have a perfectly good piece of furniture but they will dump it for a new one because there is no sense of responsibility - there's a habit of consuming and disposing of things."

Ho, along with other campaigners, also blames government inertia for Hong Kong's mountains of rubbish.

The EPD published a 10-year framework for managing the city's waste in 2005 but has been criticised for failing to implement much of the plan and for having no concrete schedule for instigating it.

Currently it is working on another waste management "blueprint", expected to be released in the coming weeks.

In a statement to AFP, the EPD acknowledged Hong Kong "has a waste crisis".

It added that this can only be dealt with "by taking multi-pronged actions, ranging from waste reduction at source to enhancing waste recovery, as well as building a comprehensive and modern waste treatment infrastructure that can handle different types of waste".

The government and green groups believe that waste charging for households and businesses according to the amount they dispose of is the key to reducing the amount of rubbish generated - such schemes have worked well in Taipei and Seoul.

But successive administrations have been hesitant to take on the public, commerce and political opponents to push through that policy.

"The government doesn't want to do anything too drastic and creative because they will face a hard time in LegCo (Hong Kong's legislative council)," Edwin Lau, director of Friends of the Earth Hong Kong, told AFP.

"An effective framework is there - they don't need to reinvent the wheel. They just need to get it rolling," he said.

Lau says the HK$0.50 (US$0.06 ) plastic bag levy, introduced in 2009 and which currently covers 3,000 shops including supermarkets and convenience stores, shows how effective a charging system can be in changing people's behaviour.

The EPD says use of plastic bags at the retailers under the scheme has reduced by 90 percent.

Plans have also been discussed to extend current landfills and build an incinerator, both proposals which are unpopular with residents and some environmentalists.

While the government stalls on the bigger picture when it comes to managing the city's waste, smaller-scale groups are trying to get the message across at the grass roots.

Hong Kong Recycles is a non-profit organisation set up last year which issues four reusable bags to its subscribers so that they can separate their paper, plastic, metal and glass for recycling - the bags are picked up from their doorsteps once a week.

Although some apartment blocks in the city already have recycling bins, they are often too small for the number of residents.

"A lot of Hong Kong people do care about the environment and want to recycle, but they don't want to walk down to a community centre or to wheelie bins with their rubbish. We thought of a way to make it easier for them," said operations manager Joshua Tan.

Subscribers pay HK$25 ($3) a week for the service and there are currently 250 clients, including corporates, plus a waiting list, says Tan.

Retail company director Marc Dambrines, 39, who has lived in Hong Kong for 17 years, said he signed up because HK Recycles was able to explain clearly to him where his rubbish would go and how it would be used.

"It's easy to recycle, but often you don't know what happens at the end of the process," he said.

Hong Kong already recycles around half of its waste, but Professor Wong says compulsory recycling should be introduced as part of any government waste reduction plan.

"The government and people need to join hands now to cope with the crisis," he said.

For many in Hong Kong however, the frenetic pace of daily life means thinking about waste is not high on their list.

"Most people don't worry about it. I think about how much my household produces, but sometimes convenience is a priority," said 40-year-old housewife Ophelia, who believes waste charging would make a difference.

"It would give me a push to do better," she said. "Chinese people are very money-minded. If we're charged for something we will be more careful."

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New bird flu poses "serious threat", scientists say

Kate Kelland Reuters 1 May 13;

(Reuters) - A new strain of bird flu that is causing a deadly outbreak among people in China is a threat to world health and should be taken seriously, scientists said on Wednesday.

The H7N9 strain has killed 24 people and infected more than 125, according to the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO), which has described it as "one of the most lethal" flu viruses.

The high mortality rate, together with relatively large numbers of cases in a short period and the possibility it might acquire the ability to transmit between people, make H7N9 a pandemic risk, experts said.

"The WHO considers this a serious threat," said John McCauley, director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Influenza at Britain's National Institute for Medical Research.

Speaking at a briefing in London, experts in virology said initial studies suggest the virus has several worrisome characteristics, including two genetic mutations that make it more likely to eventually spread from person to person.

"The longer the virus is unchecked in circulation, the higher the probability that this virus will start transmitting from person to person," Colin Butte, an expert in avian viruses at Britain's Pirbright Institute, said.

Of the some 125 people infected with H7N9 so far, around 20 percent have died, approximately 20 percent have recovered and the remainder are still sick. The infection can lead to severe pneumonia, blood poisoning and organ failure.

"This is a very, very serious disease in those who have been infected. So if this were to become more widespread it would be an extraordinarily devastating outbreak," Peter Openshaw, director of the center for respiratory infection at Imperial College London, told the briefing.

Scientists who have analyzed genetic sequence data from samples from three H7N9 victims say the strain is a so-called "triple reassortant" virus with a mixture of genes from three other flu strains found in birds in Asia.

Recent pandemic viruses, including the H1N1 "swine flu" of 2009/2010, have been mixtures of mammal and bird flu - hybrids that are likely to be milder because mammalian flu tends to make people less severely ill than bird flu.

Pure bird-flu strains, such as the new H7N9 strain and the H5N1 flu, which has killed about 371 of 622 the people it has infected since 2003, are generally more deadly for people.

Human cases of the H7N9 flu have been found in several new parts of China in recent days and have now been recorded in all of its provinces.

Last week a man in Taiwan became the first case of the flu outside mainland China, though he was infected while travelling there.

The H7N9 strain was unknown in humans until it was identified in sick people in China in March.

Scientists say it is jumping from birds - most probably chickens - to people, and there is no evidence yet of the virus passing from person to person.

Jeremy Farrar, a leading expert on infectious diseases and director of Oxford University's research unit in Vietnam, said the age range of those infected so far stretched from toddlers to people in their late 80s - a range that appeared to confirm the virus is completely new to the human population.

"That suggests there truly is no immunity across all ages, and that as humans we have not seen this virus before," he said.

"The response has to be calm and measured, but it cannot be taken lightly," he said.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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