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India's 'hugging saint' celebrates 60th birthday -- with hugs


Amritapuri (India) (AFP) - India's "hugging saint", who has hugged more than 32 million people around the world, celebrated her 60th birthday on Friday in the company of disciples from around the globe.

The celebrations for the charismatic spiritual leader, known as Amma or "mother" to her millions of devotees, have stretched over three days at her ashram complex in Amritapuri, on a stretch of coastline in southern India's Kerala state.

The guru, formal name Mata Amritanandamayi, hugs people in her globe-trotting crusade to spread "selfless love and compassion", according to her website.

As part of the birthday celebrations she dispensed her trademark hugs, was serenaded by songs of "Happy Birthday" and announced a series of charitable initiatives.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh praised Amma in a message, saying that "her life is dedicated to society".

"Coming here and seeing all of the people makes me realise how many people need Amma. She is not just hugging people, she is changing lives," tweeted Eliza Shackelford, an American who was at the celebrations.

Ten years ago, Amma, marking her 50th birthday, hugged thousands of people non-stop for 24 hours, according to media reports.

Disciples at the ashram on Friday washed Amma's feet in a sign of love and devotion.

The ceremonies also included a marathon prayer for world peace.

Amma travels the world, regularly going to the United States, Britain and other destinations, hugging people.

The plump, smiling guru, says she is connected to an "eternal energy source" which means that she is never tired.

She grew up in a Kerala fishing community, the eldest daughter of a low-caste family. According to her official biography, she started hugging people when just a child "to comfort them in their sorrow".

While born to a Hindu family, she embraces all faiths and calls herself a "servant of god".

She launched her ashram several decades ago and it receives millions of dollars a year in donations. She operates a large charitable organisation which provides health care, education and disaster relief. - AFP

Fast-ageing population a cause for concern


SINGAPOREANS are living longer and not having enough babies to replace themselves, meaning the swiftly ageing population has fewer working citizens supporting the growing pool of elderly.

These worrying trends, which emerged from the latest population figures released yesterday, can exert significant pressure on Singapore's economy, society and governance in future, said experts. They added that those working may have to toil longer and pay more taxes, and the Government will need to invest more in elder-friendly facilities.

These will be in demand by a growing number of Singaporeans, with those aged 65 and above forming 11.7% of the citizen population this year, up from 7.8% in 2002.

This year's Population in Brief report also showed that the old-age support ratio – which is the number of citizens in the working age band of 20 to 64 needed to support one older citizen – is decreasing rapidly.

It has fallen from 8.4 in 2000 to 5.5 today. But a better picture emerges when permanent residents are included, with the ratio at 6.4 this year, down from 8.7 in 2002.

According to World Bank data, Singapore has the highest proportion of older residents and the fastest ageing population in South-east Asia.

It is greying much faster than other developed nations such as Australia, the United States and most European countries, though the rate is on a par with Hong Kong's and slower than Japan's and South Korea's.

Economists and demographers say this will mean greater demand for health care and elder-care services, and elder-friendly infrastructure such as barrier-free accessibility features in transport and housing.

DBS economist Irvin Seah said that with the Government inevitably spending more, it will mean a "heavier financial burden on the working population, which in turn may mean higher taxes".

But Selena Ling of OCBC said that the state may continue with its redistributive tax model, where the rich pay more through wealth and asset taxes.

"Singapore has been financially prudent, we can afford to draw down on our reserves as well," the economist added.

An ageing population will also require a slight "re-orientation" of the economy, she said.

This would involve a greater focus on developing medical services and attracting more workers to the sector, as well as increasing productivity and the use of technology in jobs so that people can continue to work as they age.

Still, some population statistics gave cause for cheer. More Singaporeans are getting married, with 23,192 marriages involving at least one citizen last year, up from 22,712 the year before.

Singapore residents are also continuing to have more babies.

After hitting an all-time low of 1.15 in 2010, the total fertility rate (TFR) was 1.2 in 2011, and 1.29 in last year's Dragon Year – though it is still below the replacement rate of 2.1.

This upward trend was seen across all three major races, with the biggest increase among the Chinese. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network


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