Sunday, March 28, 2004

In pursuing a healthy lifestyle, don't forget age as a factor 

That people tend to gain weight as they get older is a well-known fact. This is because of both the age-related decline in metabolism as well as lifestyle. While most people are aware that weight is significantly affected by lifestyle -- namely diet and exercise -- I suspect that the effect of age is not often well appreciated.

The Sunday Times ran a story today about a banker who was formerly a US Marine but is now overweight at 71.8 kg and needs to lose 10 kg in two months. It provides details on his diet and how it needs to be changed to enable him to lose the requisite weight. For comparison, it also wrote about two fit and healthy so-called "hot bods", including how they exercise and eat. Clearly, the moral of the story is to follow the examples set by the latter, not the former.

Would the overweight banker achieve "hot bod" status by following the latter two's exercise and dietary regimens? Hard to tell. For one thing, while the banker's current diet reportedly sees him consuming 3,000 to 5,000 calories a day, the amount of calories consumed by the "hot bods" is not mentioned. What I could discern is that they don't seem to be too restrictive. One of the "hot bods" actually says that he doesn't really watch his diet; he eats "whatever is available for me".

What I did notice was that the banker is 34 years old, while the "hot bods" are 26. That makes the comparison seem a little unfair. It also makes it easier to understand why one of the "hot bods" can afford to eat "whatever is available". As I mentioned earlier, one tends to gain weight with declining metabolism as one ages, and the banker is reported to have gained much of his excess weight in the last seven years. That suggests that he started gaining weight at 27. Neither of the "hot bods" has even reached that age.

To be fair, the article doesn't directly suggest that the banker can look like the 26 year-olds just by following their exercise and dietary regimens. But to be fair to the banker, comparison with 34-year-old "hot bods" would probably have been more appropriate, except that such "hot bods" are also likely to be harder to find.

The other thing that caught my eye was that the article quoted the banker as saying: "I grew up eating prata, man. I never thought what my mother was feeding me was unhealthy."

Now, while I won't suggest that eating prata is necessarily healthy, the statement does bring up another common confusion. What your mother feeds you is often healthy, but only because mothers feed you when you are young. For youngsters, healthy foods include body-building foods like milk, eggs and even red meat. For adults, as growth hormones decline and the body can no longer effectively metabolise their nutrients, such foods become the very causes of age-related diseases.

Of course, the general thrust of the article is still correct: Health is more likely to be attained by a moderate diet and regular exercise. But I just couldn't help feeling that, like many other articles on exercise and diet I've read, the effect of age itself has not been given due consideration.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Singapore's couples and China's orphans 

Governments have always to be careful of unintended consequences of their policies. For example, Singapore's birth control policy in previous decades proved too successful and almost certainly contributed to the dearth of babies today.

It's worse when a policy actually backfires, like the Singapore government's policy to push wages up in the early 1980s. That instead helped push Singapore into a recession in 1985.

Which brings me to today's The Straits Times report on the new scheme that will be run by Fei Yue Community Services and Touch Community Services for the adoption of children from China.

In this scheme, prospective parents can only state their preference in terms of gender, age and whether they want a child from Guangdong or Chongqing province. The China Centre of Adoption Affairs (CCAA) will then match them with children from state-run orphanages. The prospective parents can only reject the match on medical grounds.

According to The Straits Times report, many of the couples who attended a forum on the scheme were upset. They wanted some choice in the kind of child they would be adopting.

However, Fei Yue's deputy director, Mrs Seah Kheng Yeow, reportedly rejected the criticism by saying that adopting a child is not like buying a commodity. "Singaporeans want everything to be nice, good and cheap," she said. "But you're dealing with human beings here."

I thought her choice of words is ironical. Precisely because a child is a human being and not a commodity, parents would want to choose carefully. Parents must be able to have an affinity and to bond with their children. Random matches are not likely to achieve this end. And precisely because a child is not a commodity, you can't just sell him or her off if you're not happy with the match.

This adoption arrangement is analogous to a couple going on a blind date after which they must get married unless there are medical grounds not to.

Some of the prospective parents in the programme are already reconsidering whether they want to proceed with the adoption. That would be unfortunate for the orphans.

However, couples hoping for a child from China may not have much of a choice but to accept this arrangement. The new arrangement has been agreed on by the Singapore and Chinese governments, and all adoptions from China must go through it. How successful it will be remains to be seen.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

From the frying pan into the fire 

Three men had apparently carried out an armed robbery in Johor, Malaysia, before fleeing in a motorboat to Pulau Tekong on Thursday. They were eventually caught separately, one on Friday and two today, after the Malaysian police had alerted their Singapore counterparts.

Pulau Tekong is actually a military camp belonging to the Singapore army. It's ironic enough that anyone would consider escaping from the law by running to Singapore. By fleeing to Pulau Tekong, the robbers were really pushing their luck.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Learning the right lesson 

Last Wednesday, Jiang Tao, an 18-year-old Chinese national playing for Sinchi FC in Singapore, died after being struck by lightning while training at the Jurong Stadium.

In yesterday's The Sunday Times, Jeffrey Low wrote an article with the headline "A lesson for S-League from untimely death". Yes, I thought, there is a lesson to be learnt: footballers should not train in the rain.

Well, it turned out that Low intended to say that Singapore footballers should learn to emulate the dedication exhibited by Jiang in striving for excellence, coming all the way to Singapore from China to achieve his ambition in football. And ultimately dying for it.

I'm not sure that Low got his priorities right, though. Personally, I think it's much more important to teach footballers and coaches to avoid lightning risk during training to prevent another tragedy.

Getting struck by lightning is a life-and-death issue. Football isn't.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Baby talk in Parliament 

The on-going debate in Parliament is supposed to be about the budget, but has been dominated by views on Singapore's procreation problem: Singaporeans are not producing enough babies.

It's a serious problem: Singapore's fertility rate last year was only 1.26, well below replacement rate. At this rate, the country will age rapidly, leading to an imbalance between working-age and elderly people. That in turn may strain the country's economy and finances.

For the debate so far, what is heartening to me is that it has gone beyond just concentrating on financial incentives. Where the government has tended to simply throw money at the problem in the past -- the so-called baby bonus is a good example -- many of the Members of Parliament who have spoken up in the current debate have pointed out that the issue involves intangibles as well. These include things like the pressures of the education system, child-care arrangements and social attitudes.

It's a complicated problem, and thankfully recognised as such. Potential harm resulting from some of the suggested incentives have already been identified. For example, some MPs warned that longer maternity leave, as suggested by some, could actually discourage employers from hiring women.

Most rich, modern societies tend to have declining fertility rates, and Singapore has proven to be no exception. If Singapore fails to reverse the trend, it certainly won't be for want of trying.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Singapore job market picking up 

On the front page of today's The Straits Times, it is reported that the number of jobs available at Career 2004 is twice as many as last year. For every two exhibitors last year, there are five this year.

However, while it is true that the job market may be picking up, it may not be good enough for job seekers. The Straits Times also reported that "for every job on offer, there were more than seven job seekers yesterday and there may be 300,000 or more after the 10,000 jobs".

Also, in the Money section of The Straits Times, it is reported that Singapore's Purchasing Managers' Index for February was 53.1. Although above the 50-point level which marks economic expansion, it is down 0.7 point from January. And while overall manufacturing employment continues to be healthy, employment in the electronics industry shrank for the first time in six months, and stocks of finished goods in the industry climbed, forming a potential overhang of finished goods that could dampen employment in the electronics sector.

While the worst may be over, it's still a far cry from the good old days of plentiful jobs looking for workers. Those days, in my opinion, will not come back for a long time to come.