Father’s diet has effect on health, weight of his children, new studies show

Two independent studies by teams in China and North America have found evidence to suggest that a father’s diet can influence the health and weight of his children. — AFP pic

Two independent studies by teams in China and North America have found evidence to suggest that a father’s diet can influence the health and weight of his offspring.

Published in the journal Science, both studies looked at the effects of different diets of male mice on their offspring.

The first study, by a group of researchers in China, took sperm from two groups of mice, one receiving a high-fat diet and one receiving a normal, healthier diet, and used it to impregnate female mice. Once the offspring were born, the team monitored their weight, level of glucose intolerance and insulin resistance.

The results showed that although the offspring of the males who were fed the high-fat diets did not gain more weight than the offspring fed the normal, healthier diet, they did show a decreased resistance to insulin and a glucose intolerance, both factors in the development of diabetes.

In the second study, researchers from the US and Canada instead fed mice a low-protein diet and compared the results to a control group. In their study, the team found changes to a group of genes responsible for the development of stem cells, which in early life can develop into many different types of cells within the body, as well as repair and replace body tissue; however, no other changes were found.

The results go against the previous assumption that the only impact males have on their offspring is from their DNA, and support the findings of other recent studies which suggest that the diet and lifestyle habits of males, like females, can have an important effect on their offspring’s health.

A 2013 study by McGill University found that when male lab mice had a diet that was low in vitamin B9, also known as folate, they fathered offspring with a 30 per cent higher rate of birth defects, compared to the offspring of mice who had consumed sufficient amounts of folate.

The results led the team to conclude that although women are often encouraged to take folic acid supplements to reduce the risk of miscarriage and birth defects, “(the) research suggests that fathers need to think about what they put in their mouths, what they smoke and what they drink and remember they are caretakers of generations to come.”

A 2014 study from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, also showed similar results when the team of researchers mated two groups of male rats with slim, healthy female rats. One of the groups of male rats was fed a high-fat diet, while the other received a normal, healthy diet.

The results showed that the offspring born to the obese fathers who were fed a high-fat diet showed a genetic predisposition for obesity and changes to the pancreas, the organ responsible for producing insulin and regulating blood sugar levels, both important factors in diabetes.

And in the first study to be conducted on humans, after collecting medical information from both parents, as well as DNA from the umbilical cords of newborn babies, a team from Duke University, USA, found a link between obesity levels in fathers and an increased risk in their children developing health-related cancers. — AFP=Relaxnews

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Scientists Finally Discover How the Obesity Gene Works


Scientists have finally figured out how the key gene tied to obesity makes people fat, a major discovery that could open the door to an entirely new approach to the problem beyond diet and exercise.

The work solves a big mystery: Since 2007, researchers have known that a gene called FTO was related to obesity, but they didn’t know how, and could not tie it to appetite or other known factors.

Now experiments reveal that a faulty version of the gene causes energy from food to be stored as fat rather than burned. Genetic tinkering in mice and on human cells in the lab suggests this can be reversed, giving hope that a drug or other treatment might be developed to do the same in people.

The work was led by scientists at MIT and Harvard University and published online Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine.

The discovery challenges the notion that “when people get obese it was basically their own choice because they choose to eat too much or not exercise,” said study leader Melina Claussnitzer, a genetics specialist at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “For the first time, genetics has revealed a mechanism in obesity that was not really suspected before” and gives a third explanation or factor that’s involved.

Independent experts praised the discovery.

“It’s a big deal,” said Dr. Clifford Rosen, a scientist at Maine Medical Center Research Institute and an associate editor at the medical journal.

“A lot of people think the obesity epidemic is all about eating too much,” but our fat cells play a role in how food gets used, he said. With this discovery, “you now have a pathway for drugs that can make those fat cells work differently.”

Several obesity drugs are already on the market, but they are generally used for short-term weight loss and are aimed at the brain and appetite; they don’t directly target metabolism.

Researchers can’t guess how long it might take before a drug based on the new findings becomes available. But it’s unlikely it would be a magic pill that would enable people to eat anything they want without packing on the pounds. And targeting this fat pathway could affect other things, so a treatment would need rigorous testing to prove safe and effective.

The gene glitch doesn’t explain all obesity. It was found in 44 percent of Europeans but only 5 percent of blacks, so other genes clearly are at work, and food and exercise still matter.

Having the glitch doesn’t destine you to become obese but may predispose you to it. People with two faulty copies of the gene (one from Mom and one from Dad) weighed an average of 7 pounds more than those without them. But some were obviously a lot heavier than that, and even 7 pounds can be the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy weight, said Manolis Kellis, a professor at MIT.

Related: More U.S. Adults Are Now Obese than Overweight

He and Claussnitzer are seeking a patent related to the work. It was done on people in Europe, Sweden and Norway, and funded by the German Research Center for Environmental Health and others, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Researchers can’t guess how long it might take before a drug based on the new findings becomes available. But it’s unlikely it would be a magic pill that would enable people to eat anything they want without packing on the pounds. And targeting this fat pathway could affect other things, so a treatment would need rigorous testing to prove safe and effective.

The gene glitch doesn’t explain all obesity. It was found in 44 percent of Europeans but only 5 percent of blacks, so other genes clearly are at work, and food and exercise still matter.

Having the glitch doesn’t destine you to become obese but may predispose you to it. People with two faulty copies of the gene (one from Mom and one from Dad) weighed an average of 7 pounds more than those without them. But some were obviously a lot heavier than that, and even 7 pounds can be the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy weight, said Manolis Kellis, a professor at MIT.

Related: ‘Healthy Obesity’ Turns Unhealthy Over Time

He and Claussnitzer are seeking a patent related to the work. It was done on people in Europe, Sweden and Norway, and funded by the German Research Center for Environmental Health and others, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

“It’s a potential target” for drug development, said Dr. Sam Klein, an obesity researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. He called the work “an amazing study” and “a scientific tour de force.”

Dr. Rudolph Leibel, an obesity expert at Columbia University in New York, used the same term — “tour de force.” Still, some earlier research suggests the FTO gene may influence other aspects of obesity such as behavior and appetite.

“It’s possible there are several mechanisms being affected,” and that fat-burning is not the whole story, he said.

Read This Next: There Are 6 Types Of Obesity — And Each Should Be Treated Differently

– Associated Press

New economic thinking

Fung Global InstituteLAST weekend, over 400 top economists, thought leaders, three Nobel Laureates and participants gathered in Hong Kong for the fourth Annual Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) conference, co-hosted by the Fung Global Institute, entitled “Changing of the Guard?”

So what was new?

In the opening session, Dr Victor Fung, founding chairman of Fung Global Institute, quoted Henry Kissinger as saying, “Americans think that for every problem, there is an ideal solution. The Chinese, and Indians and other Asians think there may be multiple solutions that open up multiple options.”

That quote summed up the difference between mainstream economic theory being taught in most universities and the need to build up a new curriculum that teaches the student to realise that there is no flawless equilibrium in an imperfect world and that there is no “first-best solution”.

Instead, what is important is to teach the aspiring economist to ask the right questions, and to question what it is that we are missing in our analysis. It is important to remember that theory is not reality, it is only a conceptualisation of reality.

Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek, one of the leading thinkers on open societies and free markets, explained why the practice of mainstream economics is flawed. In 1977, he said, “A whole generation of economists have been teaching that government has the power in the short run by increasing the quantity of money rapidly to relieve all kinds of economic evils, especially to reduce unemployment.

Unfortunately this is true so far as the short run is concerned. The fact is that such expansions of the quantity of money, which seems to have a short-run beneficial effect, become in the long run the cause of a much greater unemployment. But what politician can possibly care about long-run effects if in the short run he buys support?”

Sounds familiar on present day quantitative easing?

In his 1974 Nobel Laureate Lecture entitled “The Pretense of Knowledge”, Hayek showed healthy scepticism: “This failure of the economists to guide policy more successfully is closely connected with their propensity to imitate as closely as possible the procedures of the brilliantly successful physical sciences an attempt which in our field may lead to outright error.”

Hayek understood what is today recognised as quantitative model myopia. What cannot be easily measured quantitatively can be ignored. Then it is a small step to assume that what can be ignored does not exist. But it is precisely what cannot be measured and cannot be seen the “Black Swan” effect that can kill you.

In other words, economists must deal with the real world of asymmetry information, that there exists Knightian uncertainty, named after University of Chicago economist Frank Knight, what we call today unknown unknowns.

Unknown unknowns arise not just from accidents of Mother Nature, but from the unpredictability of human behaviour, such as market disorder, which is clearly complex and ever-changing.

If unknown unknowns are common in real life, then a lot of the economic models that appear to give us precise answers may be wrong. In other words, for every question, there is no unique answer and the solutions are “indeterminate”.

George Soros, who helped found INET, explained his theory of reflexivity based on the complex interaction between what he called the cognitive function (human conception of reality) and the manipulative function (the attempt by man to change reality).

His theory of reflexivity in markets differs from mainstream general equilibrium theory in one fundamental aspect. General equilibrium models assume that market systems are self-equilibrating, going back to stable state. Borrowing from engineering systems theory, we now know that this is a situation of negative feedback a system that gets disturbed fluctuates smaller and smaller till it returns to stable state.

The trouble with nature and markets is that positive feedback can also happen. The fluctuations get larger and larger until the system breaks down. Nineteenth century Scottish scientist James Maxwell discovered that steam engines can explode if there is no governor (or automatic valve) to control the steam building up.

At about the same time, English bankers learnt that banks can go into panic regularly without the creation of a central bank to regulate the system. Markets therefore need a third party the state to be the system “governor”. Free market believers think that the market will take care of itself. John Maynard Keynes was the first to recognise that when free markets get into a liquidity trap, the state must step in to stimulate expenditure and get the economy out of its collective depression.

In the 21st century, we have evolved beyond Keynes and free market ideology. Belief in unfettered markets has created a world awash with liquidity and leverage, but the capacity of advanced country governments to intervene Keynesian style has been constrained by their huge debt burden.

Larry Summers has pointed out that Keynes invented not a General Theory, but a Special Theory for governments to intervene to get out of the liquidity trap. The fact that we are still struggling with the liquidity trap means that economists are searching for new solutions, such as borrowing from psychology to explain economic behaviour.

The INET conference introduced the thinking of French literary philosopher, Rene Girard, and his theory of memetic desire, to explain how social behaviour more often than not get into unsustainable positive feedback situations, either excessive optimism or pessimism. How do you get out of such situations? Girard introduced the concept of sacrifice. We will have to wait for the next conference to explore this new angle.

Intuitively, all life is a contradiction. The sum of all private greed is not a public good. It does not add up. Someone has to sacrifice, either the public or a leader.

Schumpeter’s great insight about capitalism is that there is creative destruction. He only restated the old Asian philosophy that change is both creative and destructive. But out of change comes new life.

In sum, contradictions are creative. What is new is often old, but what is old can be new.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng is president of Fung Global Institute.

Intellectual property ownership


The Government is spending a huge sum of money on research and development, especially in the areas of pure sciences, engineering, medical sciences and social sciences, including education, management, and sociology field.

The search for knowledge is the ever evolving nature of human beings, especially academicians whose livelihood depends on the depth, variety and impactful research they are embarking on.

Government-sponsored research grants always encourage developing human capital by involving potential postgraduate students in the research together with their academic supervisors who have sound track record of research and publications in their research domain.

Usually, the academic supervisors with their vast experience, exposure and reading in the areas of their interest, will co-develop the research framework with their postgraduate candidates in the initial stage of the research.

The postgraduate candidates may further fine tune the research framework and perform further rigorous testing before it is ready for data collection.

Once the data collection is completed and fruitful findings are established, the research framework becomes the intellectual property of the designers and the authors once it is published in a peer reviewed and high impact journal.

The issue of ownership of the intellectual property arises when it comes to primary authorship and supporting authorship if it is submitted for a journal publication or chapters in a book or even for a book publication.

There are many schools of thought to explain this, but, one thing to be remembered, treasured and cherished by those involved in the research is the synergised teamwork and wonderful relationship between the postgraduate candidate and the mentor that had created such a valuable intellectual property.

Can we allow such a noble relationship to be smeared or broken by raising ownership issues of the intellectual property and sequencing the authorship for the journals and books? Does the authorship sequence have any value if the relationship is broken or belittled?

Since there is no single doctrine to dictate who should be the primary author and the secondary author or third author, as all these involve emotions and ego. The act of producing a film based on a storybook is a good analogy.

When producing a film based on a good story, the whole team – director, photographer, stuntman, etc, put in effort to make the movie a success.

For example, the film Harry Potter, directed by David Heyman originated from a book written by J.K. Rowling.

In academic research, the postgraduate candidate should own the thesis which is the storybook in the case of a film.

When it is published in a journal, the authorship and its sequence of authorships should be based on the roles such as who had directed the development of the whole paper that should be given the primary authorship.

Then comes the respective individuals who created each component to make a manuscript for the journal publication.

If the academic supervisor crafted the whole manuscript and had received contributions from the postgraduate candidate and other researchers to satisfy the readership of a journal, then the academic supervisor can be the main author.

The origin of the research thesis is still owned by the postgraduate candidate, and he or she can take turns to craft another manuscript after learning the ropes of writing to a journal which needs mindful amendments a few times before it gets published.

The important matter here is all will be given due recognition based on the efforts to create a wider readership.

Therefore, the intellectual property ownership and authorship sequence issue should not overcrowd or destroy the research spirit that has primary importance in the development of human capital in the country.
Academicians have been working very hard towards that goal since the establishment of the universities.

DR SHANKAR CHELLIAH Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang

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Distinguishing research authorship and ownership rights

Distinguishing research authorship and ownership rights


Distinguishing authorship

I REFER to the letter “Quality time supervising post-graduates” (The Star, Feb 16 – attached below) where the writer said: “The supervisor obtains grants for his research and allows you to use the money to do your research. There is no reason why he should not claim first authorship”.

This was one of the responses to the letter “Stop practice of ‘free riders” (The Star, Feb 7- also attached below) which criticised the alleged practice of supervisors claiming authorship for students’ works.

It appears that there is a failure to appreciate the difference between authorship and ownership.

“Author”, as defined under section 3 of Malaysia’s Copyright Act 1987, means “the writer or the maker of the works”. It does not refer to a person who pays for the work.

In our present context, authorship can only be acquired through some scholarly input into the work. Money cannot buy authorship.

Authorship must not be confused with ownership.

The latter refers to one’s property right in the work, which includes the right to exploit it for profit.

For example, an author and a publisher may co-own a work. But the publisher is not the author.

Likewise, the supervisor who has provided the funding may acquire ownership, but not authorship.

Being an author attracts certain rights.

No person may, without his/her consent, present the work without identifying the author or under a name other than the author’s.

This is one of the author’s “moral rights” recognised by the law (section 25), which cannot be overridden without the author’s consent even if the work is subsequently sold.

Of course, where the supervisor constructs the framework for the research (more common for sciences than for social sciences) and divides its components to be researched by her students, the supervisor may appropriately be regarded as an author. There is scholarly input on his/her part.

What about the credit due for supervision given?

This will depend on the common understanding between the supervisor and the student.

In normal circumstances, the supervisor’s comments on a student’s work does not give him authorship since it is either given gratuitously or in pursuant to the supervisor’s obligation as a supervisor.

As the legal holder of moral rights, the student may as a matter of courtesy offer to include the supervisor’s name. But this is a matter of discretion rather than obligation.

Supervision is a selfless task. In my subject area, at least, supervisors conventionally disclaim authorship (or rather, they do not assert).

To acknowledge their generosity and sacrifice, it is common to explicitly express our gratitude to them in our work.

A close and personal relationship, which will last for many years (or decades) to come, arises from such mutual respect.

ALVIN SEE Assistant Professor of Law  Singapore Management University

  • B.C.L., University of Oxford, 2010
  • C.L.P., Malaysia, 2009
  • LL.B. (First Class Honours), University of Leeds, 2008


Quality time supervising post-graduates

I REFER to the letter “Stop practice of free riders” (The Star, Feb 7 – attached below) by Pola Singh.

The writer has missed the point by many miles. He has called supervisors by many idioms! One of which is “lembu punya susu, sapi dapat nama”.

He has misunderstood the whole process of postgraduate education. I don’t think there are any supervisors who will force a student to work under him like a “slave”. It is the student who chooses to work with a particular supervisor.

The graduate student–supervisor relationship is very personal and close. Yes, the student has to do all the work under the close supervision of the supervisor. The supervisor obtains grants for his research and allows you to use the money to do your research. There is no reason why he should not claim first authorship.

Of course in any publication there is no need for the supervisor to put his name first, but the corresponding author must be your supervisor. You cannot be the corresponding author simply because you will not be able to answer the reviewers’ queries as well as he.

If you can, then you don’t need the postgraduate degree and you don’t need the supervisor.

Many professors and supervisors spend hours discussing, correcting and guiding many students to their postgraduate degrees.


PROF FAROOK ADAM School of Chemical Sciences 
Universiti Sains Malaysia Penang

B. Sc. (with Education) (USM) 1981) M.Sc. (USM) 1992 D.Phil. ( Sussex ) 1998   



Stop practice of ‘free riders’
I FEEL compelled to write after hearing the tales of graduate
students pursuing their doctorate degrees at local universities who are exasperated with their professors for making use of them for their own ends.

Graduate students, particularly those doing their doctorate degrees, are at the mercy of their professors who demand this and that.

Topping the list of unreasonable demands is the co-authorship of papers based on the research done by the student for his PhD dissertation.

It is the student who painstakingly prepares the literature review, formulates the hypothesis, collects and analyses the data, draws up conclusions and makes recommendations.

Yes, the conscientious professor guides the student all the way (which in any case is part and parcel of his work) but when it comes to the publication of a manuscript based on the research findings, guess who gets all the credit?

Professors take for granted that in an unequal relationship, they will get credit for the hard work put in by the student and this is manifested by putting their name as the first author of the research paper.

No straight-thinking student would challenge this. In the worst case scenario, the student’s name does not even appear on the manuscript.

It’s akin to the saying “Lembu punyi susu, sapi dapat nama”.

Call this a form of exploitation but it is taking place all the time.

This imbalance of power leads some to label the students as “slaves”.

No matter how friendly and accommodating professors are, they still hold considerable power in deciding when the student will graduate.

Some nasty professors demand that the thesis be rewritten again and again and this frustrates the student who will do everything and anything to complete his doctoral degree as soon as possible.

We can understand why students are so afraid to bring such matters up to the higher authorities. In the process, they suffer in silence and the problem remains buried deep in the ground.

And it’s hard to say “no” to a professor’s unreasonable demands because grad students need the support of faculty members, who may happen to be members of their dissertation committee, to pass and approve their thesis.

Many of the department heads are so busy and sometimes overburdened with their administrative duties that they have hardly any time to do serious substantive research.

But as they aspire to go higher they need to beef up their resume by coming up with more publications. This will also increase their prospect of promotion and getting the elusive JUSA (super scale) post.

Guess who does all the “donkey work” for them? And yet some of these selfish professors do not even acknowledge the contribution of the student, although their contribution in the preparation of the paper has been minimal.

It’s easy to know who the culprits are.

Just ask the academicians to submit a list of their publications and notice the number of times the name of the professor is listed as the first author followed by the students.

Sometimes, the subject matter or topic of a paper is the same but the student’s name is left out entirely.
This practice of “free riders” in the academic circle has to stop.

Graduate students cannot be forever exploited. Vice-chancellors should not condone such practices which are regarded as a norm not only in Malaysia but also in developed countries.

A system has to developed by the Higher Education Ministry to ensure students get due credit for the work they have done.

What can be immediately done is to send a circular that a professor cannot take ownership of an article or paper that has been prepared entirely by the graduate student based on his dissertation work.

If it is warranted, the professor’s name can be listed not as the first author but as co-author.

POLA SINGH  Kuala Lumpur

Singapore start-ups struggle to woo investors, failure to launch

VC_Start Up

Singapore’s decade-long push to become a hotbed for entrepreneurs is stuck at stage one.

The city-state of 5.3 million people ranks No. 1 in the world in ease of doing business and fourth in starting one, according to a World Bank study. It offers low taxes, easy-to-obtain seed money to start a business, and a well-educated, English-speaking workforce in the gateway to Asia.

It just takes one day and S$315 ($260) to register a business in Singapore. Yet, the country has struggled to attract international investment money for its own start-ups.

VC_tee shirt

Venture capital firms are put off by the small size of the market, lack of big ideas that can be a global success and an uncertain exit strategy. Only 50 out of 301 venture capital firms based in Singapore are interested in local investment, according to the Asian Venture Capital Journal Research.

Of the 70 high tech start-ups the government has invested in over the past two years, just 10 received follow-on private funding from investors locally and abroad, according to the National Research Foundation, the government arm responsible for research and development.

“There is a real shortage of venture capital firms investing in Series A in Singapore,” said Leslie Loh, an entrepreneur-turned-investor, referring to the first round of funds raised by start-ups after seed capital.

“VCs are looking at countries like India and China where there is a larger domestic market.”

Only 2 percent (about $15 million) of the total venture capital investment in Asia is aimed at Singapore, according to Asian Venture Capital Journal Research’s data for 2012. Japan,

China and India topped the list of big VC investments in Asia.

“In the early stage there is a big push (by the government). But if you look at the whole ecosystem for helping companies grow, there is a gap in the growth stage,” said Wong Poh Kam, a professor at National University of Singapore’s business school.

“For a Singapore company to be able to achieve global success, it needs to have sufficient follow-on venture capital funding.”


Pampered by government funds at the early stage, when start-ups can tap up to S$500,000 in grants, companies are finding it hard when they go looking for millions of dollars from venture capital firms for Series A funds.

Of the 374 venture capital investments in Asia in 2012, Singapore accounted for just 24, according to AVCJ Research.

“If there are no success stories, VCs do not think there is a compelling reason to be here,” said Wong.

But that success depends on big money from venture capital firms, leaving start-ups stuck in a vicious cycle.

Andrew Roth, co-founder of Perx, which makes a digital loyalty card application, said one of the first questions he heard from investors when he went looking for funding was, “What is your net operating income?”

Roth says he would not have been asked that question if he was in Silicon Valley, where investors care more about the functioning of the product and its ability to gain scale.

“The mindset has to change,” said Roth, who is currently in the process of raising a second round of funds from individual investors and funds. “It is a younger ecosystem so investors are so much more risk averse.”


Singapore start-ups are also forced to think globally right from day one as a product aimed at a small domestic audience is not going to bring them a lot of success.

Henn Tan, head of Trek 2000 International Ltd, the company that introduced the ThumbDrive USB flash drive in 2000 and ranks among the few globally known success stories of Singapore, said it is difficult for Singapore to produce entrepreneurs.

“Because fellow Singaporeans are being subjected to regimented life from early years…there are too many rules and regulations for the young generation to think out of the box without being reprimanded,” Tan said.

The problem of raising funds beyond the government-created cocoon raises the question of whether its involvement in the start-up scene is actually a good thing.

Some think the government initiatives allow undeserving start-ups to get easy money, while others say the lack of private funds just proves that the government has to be active in providing a catalyst to start-ups and entrepreneurs.

The government says it needs to support start-ups at the early stage because that’s where the most risk exists.

“When the landscape is one which sees the vibrancy that you see in California and where multitudes of VCs have taken root and (are) able to manage a portfolio from early stage to growth stage to pre-IPO, then we can take a step back,” said Low Teck Seng, CEO of the National Research Foundation.

But he also warned against too much government involvement. “If the government funds what the industry thinks is not worth funding, then we will not be doing justice to public funds.”


Other than state-run or state-backed companies such as Singapore Airlines Ltd and Keppel Corp Ltd, the world’s largest oil rig builder, there are only a few big home-grown companies from Singapore.

There was Creative Technologies Ltd, whose PC audio cards, speakers and MP3 players were a hit in the early 2000s, but it fell out of favour with increasing competition. The company has posted 21 straight quarters of losses and voluntarily delisted itself from the Nasdaq in 2007.

For Perx’s Roth, who moved from New Jersey to Singapore to start his company, the attraction is the presence of global firms that set up an Asian base here, providing a steady stream of potential customers.

The fact that Singapore is home to high-flying business executives also helps. Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin invested in Perx early on. He sits on Perx’s board, and meets with Roth and his team once a month, Roth said.

“It’s hard for Singapore to claim to be an entrepreneur hub for (the) whole of Asia,” said NUS’s Wong. “A more realistic target would be for Southeast Asia.” ($1 = 1.2182 Singapore dollars)

(Editing by Emily Kaiser) (Reuters)

How can universities powering Malaysias’ ivory towers?

It is time we look at how our universities can be true to their noble calling as a mirror of humanity’s great heritage rather than be in danger of choosing show over substance.

A UNIVERSITY is a temple of learning and a storehouse of the knowledge and wisdom of the past. It is a receptacle of art, culture and science and a mir=ror of humanity’s great heritage. At the same time it is a laboratory for testing out a new vision of the future.

In more than four decades as a teacher, I have witnessed the ebb and flow of many educational movements. Some of them give me the feeling that we are choosing show over substance.

> Industrial links: In order to refute the charge that universities are ivory towers with no appreciation of societal needs, all universities have forged close relationships with the professions, industries and commerce. Curricula are devised to satisfy Qualifying Boards and potential employers. Students are required to do periods of apprenticeship. Captains of industry are often recruited as adjunct professors.

All this is laudable. At the same time it must be realised that our orientation towards industries and the professions distorts university education in some ways. A balance is needed.

> Lack of liberal education: The role of universities is to advance knowledge and build characters and not just careers. In their obsession with narrow professional goals and employability of graduates, many universities adopt curricula that are bereft of the arts and humanities. This paucity and poverty is accentuated because, unlike many countries, professional courses in Malaysia do not require a degree at entry point.

If a university is true to its worth, it must provide holistic education and produce well-balanced graduates who have professionalism as well as idealism, an understanding of the realities as well as a vision of what ought to be. Merely supplying technically-sound but morally-neutral human cogs in an industrial wheel to contribute to high production figures, will not in the long range lead to enlightened development of human capital or of society.

> Research: The crucial, core factor in a university’s eminence is qualified academicians with proven research abilities and a solid commitment to lead and inspire their wards to travel up the mountain path of knowledge.

A university cannot become an acclaimed university unless it possesses a large number of scholars who are the voice of the professions and who not only reflect the light produced by others (knowledge application) but are in their own right a source of new illumination (knowledge generation).

However, emphasis on research is leading to a number of adverse tendencies. Teaching is being neglected. Committed teachers are being bypassed in tenure and promotions in favour of entrepreneuring researchers.

Instead of singling out and supporting good researchers wherever they are found, the Malaysian approach is to anoint some universities with RU status and shower them with special grants. Innovators in non-research universities are thereby prejudiced.

> Research has various components: Capacity, productivity and utility.

The first (capacity) can be developed. Sadly, often it becomes an end in itself. The second (productivity) does not necessarily follow from the first. The third (utility) is often lacking. A great deal of research has no impact on the alleviation of the problems of society. Prestige and profit override public purpose. We need better criteria for research grant eligibility.

> Seeking best students: At the risk of sounding heretic, I wish to say that this modern obsession with seeking “the best students” is not conducive to social justice. Highly motivated, intelligent and articulate students make teaching a pleasure.

But what is even more satisfying is to take ordinary students and convert them into extraordinary persons; to mould ordinary clay into works of art.

It is submitted that entry points should be flexible. They should be based on holistic criteria. They should take note of initial environmental handicaps. They should be cognizant that equitable access to knowledge is a factor in sustainable development. They should further the university’s role to assist in social and economic progress; to cut poverty; to help the disadvantaged.

Entry points are less important than exit points. How a student ends the race is more important than how he/she began it.

All universities should be required to run some remedial programmes for under-achievers and to practise affirmative action for all marginalised sections of the population.

> Over-specialisation: Our system is committed to teaching more and more on less and less. Production of enough professionals and technocrats for the industries and the job market is an overriding role. However there is clear evidence that half or more than half of the graduates end up in roles outside of their university training.

In an age of globalisation, economic booms and busts, and high unemployment rates, there is a growing disconnect between what students study and what their subsequent careers are.

It is therefore, necessary to train students for multi-tasking, multi-disciplinary approaches; to have split-degree courses; and to produce graduates who have career flexibility and who are able to adapt to different challenges at work.

> Community service: Universities must serve society and not just by producing graduates for the job-market. All university courses must have an idealistic component and must straddle the divide between being people-oriented and being profession-oriented.

The curriculum must be so devised that staff and students are involved in the amelioration of the problems of society, in schemes for eradicating poverty, protecting the en-vironment, providing fresh water, storm control, protection from disease, adult education and free legal, medical, commercial and technical advice.

Tailor-made, short term courses for targeted groups should be devised to enrich lives. These courses should have no formal entry requirement. Town-gown relationships should extend to links with NGOs, GLCs and international groups that are involved in wholesome quests like environmental sustainability.

> Globalisation: Internatio­nalisation of knowledge is crucial for humanity’s advancement. However, to be truly global, we must not ignore citadels of excellence in Japan, Korea, China, India and Iran. It retards our progress and prevents us from addressing problems peculiar to our clime that our tertiary education suffers from a debilitating Western bias. Our course structures, curricula, textbooks, and icons are all European and American. It is as if the whole of Asia and Africa is and always was an intellectual desert. The opposite is true.

Asian universities must build their garlands of knowledge with flowers from many gardens. That would be true globalisation.

By Prof Shad Saleem Faruqi

> Shad Saleem Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM 

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