Ahad, 25 Ogos 2013

The Star Online: World Updates

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The Star Online: World Updates

At trial, Chinese prosecutor demands Bo be severely punished


JINAN, China (Reuters) - Chinese prosecutors demanded a heavy sentence for ousted top politician Bo Xilai on Monday, the fifth day of his landmark trial, saying his "whimsical" challenge to bribery, graft and abuse of power charges flew in the face of the evidence.

Bo was a rising star in China's leadership circles when his career was stopped short last year by a murder scandal in which his wife Gu Kailai was convicted of poisoning a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who had been a family friend.

Bo, who was Communist Party chief of the south-western metropolis of Chongqing, has mounted an unexpectedly feisty defence since the trial began on Thursday, denouncing testimony against him by his wife as the ravings of a mad woman.

He has repeatedly said he is not guilty of any of the charges, although he has admitted to making some bad decisions and to shaming his country by his handling of his former police chief Wang Lijun, who first told Bo that Gu had probably murdered Heywood.

Wang fled to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu in February last year after confronting Bo with evidence that Gu was involved in the murder. Wang was also jailed last year for covering up the crime.

Summing up the evidence on the fifth day of the trial, the state's prosecutor said Bo should not be shown leniency as he had recanted admissions of guilt provided ahead of the trial.

"Over the past few days of the trial, the accused Bo Xilai has not only flatly denied a vast amount of conclusive evidence and facts of his crimes, he has also repudiated his pre-trial written testimony and materials," the court cited the prosecutor as saying.

"We take this opportunity to remind Bo Xilai: the facts of the crimes are objective, and can't be shifted around on your whim," it said, without saying which of the four prosecutors had made the remarks.

The trial has heard many salacious allegations against Bo, with transcripts, although these are probably highly edited, being carried on the court's official microblog.

The prosecution has alleged that Bo took more than 20 million yuan (2.1 million pounds) in bribes from two businessmen, embezzled another 5 million yuan from a government building project, and abused his power in trying to cover up Gu's crime.

Details have been presented of a villa on the French Riviera bought for the Bo family by businessman Xu Ming, who also paid for foreign trips by Bo and Gu's only son, Bo Guagua, offering a glimpse into the lifestyles of China's elite politicians.

Bo said that he had initially admitted to Communist Party anti-corruption investigators that he received bribes as he had been "under psychological pressure".

Bo also said he been framed by one of the men accused of bribing him, businessman Tang Xiaolin, who he called a "mad dog".

The prosecutor said Bo's lack of contrition would count against him.

"The severeness of the accused's crimes, and that he refused to admit guilt, don't match the circumstances of leniency, and (he) must be severely punished in accordance with the law."

Despite Bo's gutsy defence, a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion as China's courts are controlled by the Communist Party. State media, which speaks for the party, has already all but condemned him.

Bo could theoretically be given the death penalty for the charges, though many observers say that is unlikely as the party will not want to make a martyr of a man whose left-leaning social welfare policies won much popular support.

(Writing by Ben Blanchard)

Yosemite wildfire grows, fuelling dangerous winds


(Reuters) - A colossal wildfire raging across the western edge of Yosemite National Park swept further into the park on Sunday and forced the evacuation of some its camps due to heavy smoke, according to a park spokesman.

The blaze on Sunday had come within 2 miles (3.2 km) of a key reservoir that supplies most of San Francisco's water.

The so-called Rim Fire, which has burned 134,000 acres (54,000 hectares), caused the closure of the White Wolf area of the park on its western side, said Yosemite spokesman Tom Medema. Thirteen of 74 camps were occupied and evacuated, he said.

The flames had consumed 15,000 acres (4,850 hectares) within Yosemite, a park known for its waterfalls, giant sequoia groves and other scenic wonders, by Sunday afternoon, up from just over 12,000 acres in the morning, he said.

"There's no eminent risk from the fire but the smoke impact is so heavy that we're evacuating those areas," Medema said.

He did not know how many people were evacuated but said that one of the camps had 25 occupants.

Officials said they have no plans to shut down the entire park or its top attractions.

The fire was threatening power and water supplies to San Francisco, about 200 miles (320 km) to the west. On Sunday, it moved to within 2 miles of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which serves 85 percent of San Francisco with water, according to San Francisco Public Utilities Commission spokesman Tyrone Jue.

The fire had been 4 miles (6.4 km) from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir the day before.

Jue said reservoir water remained clear on Sunday, despite threats of ash contamination.

"There are strike teams and crews in place right now to assist with fire protection" near the reservoir, Jue said.

The fire also passed through two power structures that help supply San Francisco's public facilities with electricity. Utility crews planned to make repairs on Sunday, Jue said.

The utility commission has been drawing on power reserves and purchasing electricity since Monday due to the downed power structures.

Jue said San Francisco power has not been disrupted.


The fire had grown by 9,000 acres (3,640 hectares) by Sunday morning. It has produced dangerous weather patterns by fuelling thunderous pyrocumulus clouds that can alter the wind direction rapidly, potentially trapping fire-fighters, forest officials said. Smoke columns are rising more than 30,000 feet (9 km), said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dick Fleishman.

"That's a real watch-out situation for our fire-fighters when they see that kind of activity, they know that the wind could actually move that fire right back on them," Fleishman said. "That's been happening every afternoon."

Started on August 17 in the Stanislaus National Forest, the fire remained largely unchecked with extreme terrain and increased wind hampering efforts at containment, Medema said. Seven percent of the wildfire is now contained, he said.

The fire is consuming brush, oaks and pines and has threatened some giant sequoias in the park, Medema said.

Officials have closed parts of the park's north-western edge throughout the week, including the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir area, Lake Eleanor, Lake Cherry and the Tuolumne and Merced giant sequoia groves.

The fire was still 20 miles (32 km) from Yosemite Valley, the park's main tourist centre, Medema said Sunday morning. More than 2,800 fire-fighters were on the front lines on Sunday.

California Governor Jerry Brown on Friday declared a state of emergency for San Francisco, saying the fire had damaged the electrical infrastructure serving the city and forced the Public Utilities Commission to shut down power lines.

The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir provides water to 2.6 million customers in the San Francisco area and Brown in his declaration said the city's water supply could be affected if the fire harms the reservoir, most likely by contaminating its water with ash.

San Francisco could draw on water from neighbours if the supply is compromised, Jue said.

Yosemite, one of the nation's major tourist destinations, attracted nearly 4 million visitors last year. The park has been posting updates and alerts on its website. (http://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm)

The blaze in the western Sierra Nevada Mountains is now the fastest-moving of 50 large wildfires raging across the drought-parched U.S. West. The blazes have strained resources and prompted fire managers to open talks with Pentagon commanders and Canadian officials about possible reinforcements.

A 111,000-acre (44,920-hctare) fire near the resort town of Sun Valley in central Idaho was 82 percent contained on Sunday as the number of fire-fighters assigned to the blaze was reduced to several hundred from a high of 1,800, officials said.

At its height a week ago, the blaze forced the evacuation of 2,250 homes in upscale developments in a scenic river valley known for a world-class ski resort and for premier hiking and biking trails that wind through the Sawtooth Mountains.

The Rim Fire had destroyed 11 homes, 1,000 outbuildings and four commercial properties by Sunday.

Evacuation advisories were lifted for roughly 2,500 residences in two Tuolumne County communities in California on Saturday, but at least 2,000 households were under evacuation advisories, Fleishman said.

The 2013 fire season has already drained U.S. Forest Service fire suppression and emergency funds, causing the agency to redirect $600 million meant for other projects like campground and trail maintenance and thinning of trees to reduce wildfire risks, agency spokesman Mike Ferris has said.

(Corrects the number of outbuildings destroyed in paragraph 28 to 1,000 from 12)

U.N. experts in Syria to visit site of poison gas attack


BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.N. weapons experts are due on Monday to inspect a site where poison gas killed many hundreds of people in Damascus suburbs, amid calls from Western capitals for military action to punish the world's worst apparent chemical weapons attack in 25 years.

Syria agreed on Sunday to allow the inspectors to visit the site. The United States and its allies say evidence has been destroyed by government shelling of the area over the past five days, and the Syrian offer to allow inspectors came too late.

Washington has faced calls for action in response to Wednesday's attack, which came a year after President Barack Obama declared use of chemical weapons to be a "red line" which would require a firm response.

Obama has been reluctant to intervene in Syria's 2-1/2-year-old conflict and U.S. officials stressed that he has yet to make a decision on how to respond. A senior senator, Republican Bob Corker, said he believed Obama would ask Congress for authorisation to use force when lawmakers return from summer recess next month.

Secretary of State John Kerry said in a round of phone calls to his foreign counterparts that there was "very little doubt" the Syrian government had gassed its own citizens.

The State Department said Kerry emphasised this in calls to the foreign ministers of France, Britain and Canada as well as to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russia, a major ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has suggested rebels may have been behind the chemical attack and said it would be a "tragic mistake" to jump to conclusions over who was responsible.

The White House said Obama and French President Francois Hollande "discussed possible responses by the international community".

British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed that "such an attack demanded a firm response from the international community," Cameron's office said.

Syria watchers said the government's decision to allow the inspections may have been an attempt to stave off intervention.

"My view is that the Syrian government's apparent agreement to the U.N. inspection has been triggered by the growing possibility of military action," said Malcolm Chalmers, Research Director at the Britain's Royal United Services Institute.

"I think that is why they are doing it."

In London, Foreign Secretary William Hague said evidence of a chemical attack could have already been destroyed by subsequent artillery shelling in the areas or degraded in the days following the strike.

"We have to be realistic now about what the U.N. team can achieve," he told reporters.


The United Nations said Damascus had agreed to a ceasefire while the U.N. experts are at the site for inspections.

Syria confirmed it had agreed to allow access to the inspectors, who arrived in Syria to investigate smaller chemical weapons allegations just three days before the huge incident, which occurred before dawn after a night of heavy bombardment.

Medicins sans Frontieres said at least 355 people were reported dead in three hospitals from symptoms of poisoning. Assad's opponents have given death tolls ranging from 500 to well over 1,000.

The experts' mandate is to find out whether chemical weapons were used, not to assign blame, but the evidence they collect, for example about the missile used, can provide a strong indication about the identity of the party responsible.

If the U.N. team obtains independent evidence, it could be easier to build an international diplomatic case for intervention. Former weapons investigators say every hour matters.

The team has been waiting in a Damascus luxury hotel a few miles from the site of what appears to have been the world's worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein's forces gassed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1988.

Syria's information minister said any U.S. military action would "create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East".

He said Damascus had evidence chemical arms were used by rebels fighting to topple Assad, not by his government. Western states say they believe the rebels lack access to poison gas or weapons that could deliver it.

Assad's closest ally Iran, repeating Obama's own previous rhetoric, said the United States should not cross a "red line" by attacking Syria.

Two and a half years since the start of a war that has already killed more than 100,000 people, the United States and its allies have yet to take direct action, despite long ago saying Assad must be removed from power.

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Christopher Wilson)

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

The Star Online: Business

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The Star Online: Business

MRCB Q2 earnings up 12.6% to RM5.81m (Update)


KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian Resources Corp Bhd's (MRCB) earnings rose 12.6% to RM5.81mil in the second quarter ended June 30, 2013 from RM5.15mil a year ago mainly due to recognition of profit on finalisation of successfully completed projects.

It announced on Monday its revenue fell 45% to RM185.73mil from RM341.51mil. Earnings per share were 0.42 sen compared with 0.37 sen.

"With the completion of the acquisition from Nusa Gapurna Development Sdn Bhd which adds 23.4 acres of prime development land in the Klang Valley for the group and together with the current unbilled sales of about RM1.4bil from the existing development of The Sentral Residences and Q Sentral office, the group is expected to be on track for further growth," it said.

MRCB said the lower revenue in Q2, 2013 from Q1, 2013's RM262mil was mainly due to the lower contribution from its engineering and construction division arising from the lower contribution from Kuala Lumpur Sentral projects and from infrastructure and environmental division due to completion of existing projects. 

For the first six-months, its earnings fell 59% to RM11.06mil from RM27.31mil in the previous corresponding period. Revenue fell 33% to RM447.76mil from RM670.13mil.

The lower revenue and profit before taxation recorded for the current cumulative quarter was mainly due to the revenue and the related profit recognition from the Kuala Lumpur Sentral Lot G office towers and hotel development.

MRCB said these projects were sold on en-bloc in the preceding year cumulative quarter with construction duly completed in early 2013.

"The current on-going development on Lot B (Q Sentral office) and Lot D (The Sentral Residences) which are on strata sales still at their early stage of construction," it added.

Amgen Seeks To Bolster Drug Pipeline With US$10.4bil Onyx Buy


NEW YORK:  Amgen Inc struck a deal to buy cancer drug maker Onyx Pharmaceuticals Inc for about $10.4 billion on Sunday, as it moves to restock its product pipeline in response to declining sales of its flagship anemia drugs.

The acquisition - which ends a two-month-long auction of Onyx - represents the fifth-largestbiotechnology deal in history. It gives Amgen full rights to Kyprolis, the new multiple myeloma drug that analysts expect to reach annual peak sales in excess of $2 billion.

The world's largest biotechnology company will also gain a revenue stream from the liver and kidney cancer drug Nexavar that Onyx shares with Bayer AG <BAYGn.DE>, as well as royalty payments on Bayer's much newer colon cancer drug, Stivarga, and potential future royalties on an experimental breast cancer drug being developed by Pfizer Inc <PFE.N>.

Thousand Oaks, California-based Amgen has faced growing pressure to beef up its drug developmentpipeline as safety concerns have trimmed sales of its flagship anemia drugs, Aranesp and Epogen. Also, patents on four of its five top-selling drugs are set to expire starting in 2015.

Cancer medicines are the holy grail for many drugmakers because current products have limited effectiveness and the companies can charge steep prices for new biotech treatments.

Amgen said it will pay $125 per share for Onyx, a 4.2 percent increase from the $120 a share it offered in June. Onyx said that bid significantly undervalued the company and put itself up for sale.

The companies expect the deal to close in the beginning of the fourth quarter. Amgen expects it to add to adjusted net income in 2015.

Discussions between Amgen and Onyx hit a snag earlier this month after Amgen sought access to data from Onyx's ongoing clinical trials, people familiar with the matter told Reuters previously. A source familiar with the matter on Sunday said that Amgen believed it had done extensive due diligence and was comfortable with the purchase.

Onyx shares closed at $116.96 on Friday. They closed at $85.50 on June 28, before reports of Amgen's $120-a-share bid surfaced.


The Onyx deal is Amgen's biggest since its $16 billion acquisition of Immunex in 2001 which gave it the rheumatoid arthritis drug Enbrel, now one of Amgen's biggest-selling products.

It is also by far the biggest deal under CEO Bob Bradway, who assumed the top spot in May 2012. He has done a handful of much smaller deals, the biggest to date being a $1.16 billion acquisition ofMicromet.

Large pharmaceutical companies have increasingly been looking to acquire smaller biotech firms to gain access to new drugs, as they face significant revenue losses stemming from expired patents.

This helped drive up the volume of healthcare M&A in the first six months of 2013 more than 30 percent compared with the same period last year.

Recent deals include generic drugmaker Actavis Inc's <ACT.N> $8.5 billion acquisition of Warner Chilcott <WCRX.O> [ID:nL2N0E10FH] and Human Genome Sciences' $3 billion sale to GlaxoSmithKline Plc<GSK.L>.

The Onyx deal is expected to give Amgen a much higher profile in oncology. Several of its current drugs offer supportive care for cancer patients, such as treating anemia or decreases in white blood cells caused by chemotherapy.

Another of Amgen's newer medicines, Xgeva, helps prevent fractures in patients whose cancer has spread to the bone. Its one product that treats cancer, the colon cancer drug Vectibix, has been largely a disappointment.

Analysts expected Onyx revenue to reach $878 million in 2014, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Mark Schoenebaum, an analyst with ISI Group LLC, projected that an Onyx acquisition would increase Amgen non-GAAP earnings by 5 percent in 2015, and boost them as much as 15 to 20 percent in 2018.

Lazard was the lead financial adviser to Amgen, while Bank of America Merrill Lynch acted as co-adviser and lead arranger for the company's financing. Centerview Partners was Onyx's financial adviser

Law firms Sullivan & Cromwell and Goodwin Procter were legal counsel to Amgen and Onyx, respectively.

- Reuters

KLCI kicks off new week on firm note


KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's FBM KLCI started the new week on Monday on a firm note, with Axiata and Maybank among the gainers, as investors took heart from the stronger Asian markets.

At 9.05am, the KLCI was up five points to 1,726.07. Turnover was 64.62 million shares valued at RM31.53mil. There were 150 gainers, 50 losers and 101 counters unchanged.

BIMB Securities Research expected the local market to trend higher following a positive performance on Wall Street.

However, it cautioned investors should be aware with the weak US economic data. 

"Expect to see immediate resistance at 1,725/32 while support at 1,715/07," it said on the outlook for the KLCI. 
Axiata rose eight sen to RM6.60 and Maybank seven sen to RM10.02. BAT was the top gainer, edging up 68 sen to RM62.98 with just 100 shares done.

MISC added 10 sen to RM4.78 and Globetronics seven sen to RM2.75 while AFG and KPS gained six sen each to RM5 and RM1.90.

MAS was the most active with 7.25 million shares done, adding 0.5 sen to 33 sen.

Lii Hen was the top loser, down 16 sen to RM1.71 while Genting Malaysia fell eight sen to RM4.12 and Astro three sen to RM2.89.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

The Star Online: Nation

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The Star Online: Nation

Nazri says it as it is


Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz recently drew flak for appointing his son Nedim as one of his special officers, leading to allegations of nepotism. Speaking to The Star about the controversy, the outspoken Umno politician stood his ground against his critics.

Your son has attracted attention in the past, and before this issue there were allegations that he was linked to a wealthy businessman. How is he taking all this?

My son is just a normal Umno member. He is not an active politician. It is not my son these people are really upset with, it's me.

> Why?

Because I am an unorthodox Malay politician. One possible reason why I am different is that, unlike many of us Malaysians who are thin-skinned, I am thick-skinned. What people say about me does not bother me. Sometimes it is the reason why people are upset with me. For example, I have the fullest respect for freedom of expression. I fully subscribe to Voltaire, who said "I may not agree with what you say but I will defend your right to say it." However, if you want to respect freedom of expression, then don't get angry when I exercise my right of reply. They are hard on me, no problem. But when I respond to them in equal measure, they take it personally and get very angry.

> Your critics say it is inappropriate to have your son working in your office as it smacks of nepotism. What's your response?

I am being transparent. I put his name on my ministry website so people can know about it. If I wanted to conceal things and it turns out his name is not listed anywhere, then yes, you can say something is wrong.

> Why is your son working for you and what does he do?

My son has been a volunteer in all my general election campaigns since 1999, when he was 16 years old. Some of the Umno Youth members are shy to approach me, but would seek out my son if they need my help. He serves as a "bridge" between youths in my constituency and me. When I was appointed deputy minister and later minister, youths elsewhere also became interested in seeking my help. I can't tell them I can only help them if they are from my constituency, so that's why I appointed him. As my special officer, he is in charge of helping me reach out to young people.

> He is paid from your pocket and does not draw a government salary?

Yes. As a minister you can appoint anyone as a special officer but you will be the one paying the salary. Anyone can check whether he is on the government's payroll or on mine. The officially gazetted officers assigned to a minister are senior private secretary, private secretary, press secretary, special officer in charge of parliament affairs and special officer in charge of NKRA. The gazetted officers have clearly defined jobs but there are other things that need to be done, that's why I appointed my son as a special officer to reach out to youths.

> Your son does not use government facilities when carrying out his duties?

Some people think that he must surely be using government facilities, but for what he's helping me with, he doesn't even operate from an office. He meets up with them at coffee outlets and uses his own mobile phone.

> There are now calls by your critics that you should contest for a supreme council position (Nazri is currently an appointed member of the council, which is Umno's top decision-making body) in order to affirm your political legitimacy. Will you run?

What for? I have not been contesting a supreme council position post for the past 10 years. Why do I want to come back now? These people say that if I want to retain my ministerial position, I must contest. Firstly, they are not the Prime Minister. Secondly, Cabinet appointments are not made based on whether or not you are an elected supreme council member. I first contested for the supreme council in 1990 when I was 36 years old and I won despite being a nobody. To me, after 2008 what's important is you win the general election, not who gets what party position. I have no ambition to go higher and I am happy as I am.

After 35 years in politics, how can I still be thin-skinned? I've gone through my share of facing the press, being criticised. You cannot please everybody. At the end of the day, as a minister you have to make decisions regardless of what people say about you. Don't dilly-dally. Say it as it is.

Dad: Sanjeevan out of danger


PETALING JAYA: MyWatch chairman R. Sri Sanjeevan is out of danger but is still unable to communicate.

His father, P. Ramakrishnan, said Sanjeevan could move his eyes but could not speak or gesture yet as he has a tube down his mouth and was heavily sedated.

"The doctors said he has suffered some trauma that may cause him to not remember certain things.

"I don't know when he will be able to talk to me. But he is improving and that's all I care about," he said, adding that Sanjeevan was being fed milk through the tube.

Sanjeevan, who heads the anti-crime watchdog group MyWatch, was shot by someone riding pillion on a motorcycle in Bahau, Negri Sembilan, on July 27.

Doctors successfully extracted the bullet after 18 days. He had earlier developed a critical blood clot in his heart and lungs.

The bullet has been sent to the Cheras forensics department. Sanjeevan remains in intensive care at the Serdang Hospital.

Ramakrishnan claimed that Negri Sembilan police officers were still waiting around his son's ward.

"I just found out that a few days ago, some policemen from there had been interviewing the doctors here about my son," he said.

Ramakrishnan said he had been given assurances by Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar and Federal CID chief Datuk Hadi Ho Abdullah that Bukit Aman had taken over investigations into Sanjeevan's shooting from the Negri Sembilan police.

This came after Ramakrishnan made a highly-publicised police report demanding that Negri Sembilan police stay out of the investigation into his son's shooting.

He claimed that he had reason to believe some policemen from the state were involved in the attempt on Sanjeevan's life.

Muhyiddin: Discuss candidacy first


ALOR SETAR: Umno members who wish to offer themselves as candidates in the party's division elections must discuss with their respective divisions first before announcing or registering their candidacies.

Party deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who proposed this, said the move would avoid unpleasant incidents such as having too many vying for the same position.

"I know that what I propose is easier said than done but if such a step is taken, the election process can run smoothly," he said after attending the Kedah Umno Hari Raya open house here yesterday. "This way, our main objective of choosing leaders who can lead the party and the community effectively can be achieved."

Present at the event was his wife Puan Sri Norainee Abdul Rahman as well as Mentri Besar Datuk Paduka Mukhriz Mahathir and wife Datin Norzieta Zakaria.

Muhyiddin hoped his proposal would be adopted in good faith.

"I do not want to be misinterpreted as preventing anyone from contesting. But, at the end of the process, we wish to produce leaders who are well respected and accepted.

"Our party election is not only observed by Umno members as the Malay community and the non-Malays are also watching us. The non-Malays also want Umno to remain strong because if Umno is strong, the Barisan Nasional coalition is also strong," said the Deputy Prime Minister.

He said the party election was a platform to find new strong leaders to improve Umno's image at a time when the party was facing new challenges.

"It means there is a need for sacrifices. What I am saying is in general.

"I do not deny the contribution made by senior leaders and when the time comes, I too will have to make way."

Before ending his visit, Muhyiddin visited former Kedah Mentri Besar Tan Sri Azizan Abdul Razak at the Sultanah Bahiyah Hospital's intensive care unit.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

The Weight Of A Human Heart


SHORT stories have a difficult time winning a reader's heart. They have to be swift, as, knowing that it is a short story, our attention span will be short. They have to engage readers with a myriad of messages, only one of which is ultimately revealed in full – not bluntly, but subtly, subtly enough to enthral readers with a sense of fulfilment, that they are wise enough to get the underlying message.

It is a game of hide and seek, and within such a small number of pages, reader and writer must come to the same conclusion. Most of the time, they don't, however. But that is the true joy of short stories – writers keep readers guessing, and readers think they have guessed right. "Ah, I get it. The wife goes to meet her lover and ends up dying in a car crash," the reader will exclaim.1

"Maybe," the writer will chuckle, half wishing the reader has really got it, and half feeling happy that his idea remains opaque. 2

As this after all is a game, the tone has to be playful, and the voice, personal and stylish. At times, a short story writer will have an embedded story told in footnotes (as I have quickly learned to do in this review).

Readers, their eyes traversing between the top and the bottom, become even more intrigued. Not that this technique gives a clearer understanding of the writer's mind, sadly. It muddles it.

"Ah, the parents are so romantic," a reader blurts out a revelation.

The writer now guffaws, "You fool, read the footnote. They dance like two strangers trying to pass each other in a narrow corridor!" 3

But the reader thinks he is smart to have figured out what he thinks he has figured out. And he reads on. With no time to waste, he most likely is wrong – but it doesn't matter, really.

Together, short stories form a collection, and the order in which they are arranged is important. The most impressive piece must take the lead, lest readers give up on the entire book upon reading the first few lines of the first story. Readers, more inclined to big dramatic novels, tend to be less forgiving of short story writers.

"They can't write a full novel, hence a collection of short stories," readers will mumble, their hands quickly turning the pages and their eyes darting from one page to another impatiently. 4

"What I have in there will blow you away," the writer cries. 5

Indeed! If you are such a reader, of such a sceptical disposition, do allow me to recommend this collection of short stories: The Weight Of A Human Heart. It is a book that's heavy not because of its slight number of pages but because of the wonderful short stories the writer weaves with his heart.

The writer must be whole-heartedly in love with language and literature. It is a love that is reflected in every paragraph and in every story throughout the entire collection. This is a love letter to English, as a language, and a paean to literature, as a source of enjoyment.

The writer's mastery of language is not at all pretentious, though. He is a scholar at times and a comedian at others, taking readers on rambunctious rides in stories that poke fun at the English language and literature, the very things that he honours.

In the story entitled Four Letter Words, a son talks about his dad whose life can be succinctly covered in nine four-letter words, none of them decent.

I highly admire the writer's penchant for trickery. He is a writer who winks towards what might be allusions to his thoughts, and distracts readers with stories that are all at once colourful, playful, humorous, heartbreaking, melancholic, bitter, and affectionate. In the end, readers care less about the codabut more about how intoxicated they are by the beautiful stories that take place in Europe, Africa and Asia, and the writer's incredibly poignant reflections on loss, hardship and frailty of the human spirit.

Obviously discontent with constraints that force boring stereotypes on literature, this writer is highly creative and he pushes the limits by making up arbitrary literary experiments never before seen or heard of, making literature entertaining and exhilarating. 6

I am smitten by the writer 7 and his debut. It is a wondrous literary feast I so want to devour yet so wish I could savour slowly. Why not make this your entrĂ©e, your main course and your dessert? You will be utterly pleased.

1. The wife of the narrator in the story entitled Africa Is Crying had actually gone to see the gorillas before the car crash.

2. In fact, he thinks Africa, being the wife's true love, has ironically devoured her, and he, equally ironically, chances upon the scene of death, not knowing it is the wife's deathbed.

3. The parents of the narrator in Footnote are boring individuals and they were virgins when they married.

4. I too used to have such shallow presumption.

5. That's the writer of this collection of short stories bellowing, and what he says is true.

6. Have you read a story in which another story reveals itself in the footnote? There is one in this collection.

7. Ryan O'Neill, an Australian writer and a metaphor for good storytelling.



"EVERYONE lives in two worlds.

"There's the real world, with all its annoying facts and rules. In the real world, there are things that are true and things that aren't. Mostly, the real world sucks.

"But everyone also lives in the world inside their own head. An inscape, a world of thought.

"In a world of thought – in an inscape – every idea is a fact. Emotions are as real as gravity. Dreams are as powerful as history."

So says Maggie Leigh, a rather unusual librarian with a special gift involving Scrabble tiles.

Protagonist Victoria "Vic" McQueen finds her way to Maggie at the point when she really needs someone to tell her that her gift of being able to find lost things by crossing a long-gone bridge on her Raleigh Tuff Burner bicycle doesn't mean she is crazy.

Maggie explains to Vic that there are certain strongly creative people in the world who are able to use objects unique to each person to cut the "stitches" between the real world and their own inscape, and bring them together to express their own particular gift.

For Maggie, it is getting otherwise unknown information through her Scrabble tiles. And for Vic, it is finding lost objects by riding along the Shorter Way Bridge, which was destroyed when she was eight, on her bike.

However, like all such "gifts", there is a price to pay for using them, a fact Vic is unaware of until she meets Maggie.

The problem is, the price is not always an obvious one.

Vic, whose adored father eventually leaves his unhappy marriage and family, grows up to be a troubled teen. One day, when she is 17 and attempting to run away from home, she rediscovers her old Raleigh bicycle, long thought to have been disposed of when she was 13. In a fit of teenage pique and self-pity, she rides it to find trouble across the old Shorter Way Bridge, and find it she does.

At the Sleigh House on the other side of the bridge, she meets Charles Talent Manx III, another gifted person like herself, but who uses his gift for a more sinister purpose. Charles, whose special object is his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, likes to take innocent young children in his car to a special place in his mind that he calls Christmasland, where they can have "fun" and be "happy forever".

And he has been doing this for a very long time now.

Naturally, he is very interested in Vic, who has similar talent to him, but she succeeds in escaping and getting him arrested by the police, although at great cost to herself and others.

This deed reverberates throughout the next several years of her life, affecting her mental and emotional state, and her family life. For Charles is not so easily defeated, and with the help of accomplice Bing Partridge, he eventually comes back to get his revenge on her.

Vic was not exactly an easy protagonist for me to like, or even sympathise with at times. Author Joe Hill writes her quite realistically, and without compromise. He also applies the same grey brush, but inversely, to the story's villains, Charles and Bing. By the end of the story, you can understand how they came to be how they are, and more importantly, to understand how they view themselves.

The concept of inscapes, and being able to cross the divider between the real world and our in-ner thoughts where anything is possible, is not original but it has always been one to fascinate me. And I appreciate how Hill uses the concept in this story as a tool to explore what consequences can come of our actions, and how some gifts come with an unavoidably high price.

Readers interested in such a concept should check out this book.

Similarly, if you understand the meaning behind the book's title NOS4R2 (or NOS4A2 in the United States version), which is also the licence plate number of Manx's Wraith, and are interested in that genre, then this story might be of interest to you.

Also, fans of Stephen King might want to take a look at Hill's work, as the two have a link. (If you don't already know the link, you can check out the Acknowledgements at the back of the book for strong hints – I'm not telling!)

There are also various literary references incorporated into the story – kind of like the "Easter eggs" that animated features are famous for – if you can spot them. For an example, look out for mention of the Frobisher sextet from the novel and movie Cloud Atlas.

And as a bonus for readers who really do read everything, Hill has included a short extra something right at the back of the book, just like the after-credit scenes in certain movies.



Stephen King serves up a murder-mystery that's sweet, fluffy and a tad lightweight, but you'll savour every little strand.

IT has been a long time since a Stephen King book grabbed my attention from the start and held it right through to the end. Once a voracious reader of all things King, I haven't been a fan of the man's later works, ever since I left 1999's meandering Hearts In Atlantis half-read.

Of the ones that followed, Cell (2006) was all right, mainly because it fell into one of my favourite categories of fiction, the apocalyptic novel. Aside from that one, though, I've been somewhat reluctant to tackle any of the author's more ... imposing tomes out of a reluctance to be disappointed any further.

Still, word that he is coming out with a sequel to The Shining – one of his best ever – entitled Doctor Sleepthis September piqued my interest. And as an appetiser, he would be serving up an entry in the Hard Case Crime series entitled Joyland a couple of months before that.

(HCC, in case you didn't know, is a murder-mystery imprint started in 2004 by Charles Ardai featuring old as well as new stories by prominent crime/mystery writers like Donald E. Westlake, Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain and Erle Stanley Gardner. Joyland is numbered book #112, though the official website lists only about 90 titles.)

So, about Joyland, King's second HCC contribution after 2005's The Colorado Kid (which became the basis, kind of, for the TV series Haven): I picked this one up on my recent book-buying spree during the Hari Raya holidays and finished it more or less overnight. The book is an absorbing read, and the credit for that is due more to King's accomplished storytelling skills than to its story, such as it is.

For a "Hard Case Crime" book, you see, Joyland has actually got very little in the way of crime. Sure, there is a murder-mystery at the centre of things, but it doesn't appear until we're well into the book and then fades out again until it resurfaces much later.

Mostly, Joyland is about a conflicted 21-year-old college student named Devin Jones, who gets dumped by his girl almost at the same time he gets a summer job working in the titular amusement park in North Carolina.

Where the book really scores high marks is in its depiction of carnival life, the parlance and little behind-the-scenes nuggets of information, in capturing the things that go into creating the mass illusion – call it magic if you must – that makes such places so special in people's lives and memories.

As Dev gets inducted into the world of "selling fun", so too is the reader drawn into this hard but happy life, made especially eager to find out what kind of shape this likeable protagonist's early adulthood will leave him in for the rest of his life. A parade of interesting supporting characters troops past us as we follow him on this odyssey, most of whom it's easy to like, and some easy to loathe; though the revelation of the killer's identity left me somewhat dismayed.

There is a supernatural element in here that is somewhat jarring when you consider the core theme of the HCC imprint is supposed to be "hard boiled crime" after all. But then, this is a Stephen King book, so we shouldn't be surprised to find its murder-mystery spiced with ghosts and people who have the "Shining".

One of these psychic types, a boy suffering from muscular dystrophy, has a key role to play in Dev's life, and the relationships that develop here – between him and the doomed young Mike Ross, as well as with his strong-willed, free-spirited mother Annie – are predictable and yet among the sweetest aspects of this coming-of-age tale.

The mystery revolves around the murder of a young woman some years ago. It happened right in Joyland one busy night, in its Horror House attraction. The killer was even caught on film by the numerous camera-wielding "Hollywood Girls" (a fine example being on this book's rather lurid cover) who prowl the park taking and selling souvenir snapshots, and yet he was never identified.

Talk in the park is that the Horror House really is haunted, by the victim's ghost. And when Dev and his pals start poking around, they realise that she was not the murderer's first victim....

The come-and-go mystery is maintained in the reader's peripheral view thanks to King's tried-and-tested skills in the use of foreshadowing. Most of the time, though, you will simply be caught up in the brilliantly conjured sights and sounds of Joyland as seen through the eyes of an earnest young man with a huge hurt in his heart.

There is pure storytelling magic to be savoured in little Mike Ross's inevitable visit to the park, and through so much of the book besides – not least of which is the heart-rendingly beautiful final page. Could be I'm just getting maudlin in my advancing years, but this ability to evoke extremes of emotion in his readers is one of King's true gifts.

It also could be that I found this such a compelling read because it's just around a third, maybe even a quarter, the length of some of the writer's other opuses and so I knew I wouldn't have far to slog. I prefer to think that it's because he's firing on all cylinders here. The pleasure of reading Joyland is a good sign indeed for Doctor Sleep.

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Dazzling opening for Night Festival


HUNDREDS of people crowded the front of the National Museum of Singapore, as the Singapore Night Festival opened with dazzling displays of fire, lights and acrobatics.

Close to 80 free events, from dance performances and art installations to film screenings will be held throughout the civic district over this weekend and the next.

The event will continue tonight and on Aug 30 and 31, from 7pm to 2am.

Stretching from Plaza Singapura to Raffles City and Waterloo Street to Armenian Street and Fort Canning Park, this is the largest night festival yet, and it will cost its organisers, the National Heritage Board, more than S$1mil (RM2.5mil) to produce.

Angelita Teo, 41, festival director and director of the National Museum of Singapore, said it was hoping to draw as many people as last year, when 476,000 attended.

One of the highlights was French dance troupe Compagnie Retou­ramont's performances, which featured dancers moving rhythmically across the museum's facade.

Nearly 100 local artists are performing at the festival this year. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network

Two measures to help Malay Muslims


TWO new measures were announced by the government to help the Malay-Muslim community shrink the income gap and increase its social mobility.

One will give tuition subsidies to Malay students at another four tertiary institutions: Lasalle College of the Arts, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), Yale-NUS College and the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine at Nanyang Technological University.

The other will hand the Malay/ Muslim Community Development Fund a higher grant of up to S$2.6mil (RM6.7mil) a year to help more low-income families in their community. Currently, it is S$1mil (RM2.5mil).

These measures, announced by Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim last night, form the government's first response to a landmark report on the community's concerns and aspirations, submitted last month.

He asked for more time for him and other Malay-Muslim MPs to reflect on job discrimination.

Dr Yaacob, also the Com­munications and Information Minister, was speaking at the community's Hari Raya Aidilfitri dinner at Sheraton Hotel, in an annual speech taking stock of its progress and charting its future direction.  -The Straits Times / Asia News Network

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Dazzling opening for Night Festival


HUNDREDS of people crowded the front of the National Museum of Singapore, as the Singapore Night Festival opened with dazzling displays of fire, lights and acrobatics.

Close to 80 free events, from dance performances and art installations to film screenings will be held throughout the civic district over this weekend and the next.

The event will continue tonight and on Aug 30 and 31, from 7pm to 2am.

Stretching from Plaza Singapura to Raffles City and Waterloo Street to Armenian Street and Fort Canning Park, this is the largest night festival yet, and it will cost its organisers, the National Heritage Board, more than S$1mil (RM2.5mil) to produce.

Angelita Teo, 41, festival director and director of the National Museum of Singapore, said it was hoping to draw as many people as last year, when 476,000 attended.

One of the highlights was French dance troupe Compagnie Retou­ramont's performances, which featured dancers moving rhythmically across the museum's facade.

Nearly 100 local artists are performing at the festival this year. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network

Two measures to help Malay Muslims


TWO new measures were announced by the government to help the Malay-Muslim community shrink the income gap and increase its social mobility.

One will give tuition subsidies to Malay students at another four tertiary institutions: Lasalle College of the Arts, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), Yale-NUS College and the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine at Nanyang Technological University.

The other will hand the Malay/ Muslim Community Development Fund a higher grant of up to S$2.6mil (RM6.7mil) a year to help more low-income families in their community. Currently, it is S$1mil (RM2.5mil).

These measures, announced by Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim last night, form the government's first response to a landmark report on the community's concerns and aspirations, submitted last month.

He asked for more time for him and other Malay-Muslim MPs to reflect on job discrimination.

Dr Yaacob, also the Com­munications and Information Minister, was speaking at the community's Hari Raya Aidilfitri dinner at Sheraton Hotel, in an annual speech taking stock of its progress and charting its future direction.  -The Straits Times / Asia News Network

Samsung, Apple and LG take rivalry to next level


SAMSUNG Electronics, Apple Inc and LG Electronics, the world's top three electronics firms, are rumoured to be taking their competition to the next level this fall in the emerging smartwatch market.

Each company is ready to release a smartwatch – Samsung with Galaxy Gear, Apple with iWatch and LG with GWatch – most likely by the end of this year.

Samsung is to release Galaxy Gear at the upcoming IFA trade show during its "Unpacked Episode 2" event, along with LG, which is packing more ammunition on top of its well-received G2 and the G Pad, the new tablet it will unveil at the show.

But industry experts believe the watches themselves are unlikely to tout any unique functions, at most offering a Bluetooth connection to the user's main device.

For this purpose, Samsung will unveil Galaxy Gear as a bundle with its phablet Note 3, according to industry watchers. Previously, LG Electronics had sold the Prada phone in a bundle with a watch.

Galaxy Gear will feature a dual-core Exynos processor, 1GB RAM, a 1.67-inch, 320x320 resolution display, a 2-megapixel camera, and Bluetooth and NFC connectivity.

However, rumours have floated that the watch may leave out some important features such as phone and flexible display. US technology media outlet The Verge reported on Tuesday that the watch would not work as a phone.

Many industry observers also do not believe the phone will be flexible, mostly because other key components including the display, battery and memory chip are not advanced enough to support such a device.

"It may take some time for the smartwatch to become advanced. Still, Samsung is seeking to occupy the market as the company has always been a follower of Apple in mobile technologies. Samsung wants to be ahead of the rival in wearable and TV products," said Kim Hyun-yong, a researcher at E-Trade Korea, a Seoul-based securities firm.

"It will also take some time for Apple's iWatch to come out. It won't be (released) this year," Kim added.

Apple has long been rumoured to be working on introducing an "iWatch". It is said that the company had a team of 100 people working on a watch-like device, and has applied for the iWatch trademark in the United States.

Recently, Apple hired Nike product consultant Jay Blahnik reportedly to lead the iWatch team.

According to the rumours, the iWatch is likely to adopt a flexible display and work as an extended peripheral of iOS devices. For instance, it will reportedly be able to check messages and e-mails, and load fitness monitoring technologies.

LG Electronics, meanwhile, initiated the development early this year, undergoing tests with other arms of the group such as LG Display and LG Chem. Last month, LG sought eight trademarks, for the "G Watch", "G Glass" and "Watch G", among other names including the G Pad.

Some sources said although it is gearing up for the launch of the smart watch, LG is unlikely to unveil it this year.

LG already has some expertise in the likes of smartwatches. In 2008, the company unveiled the LG Prada Link, a Bluetooth-enabled digital watch that can monitor its Prada phone calls as well as read SMSes.

The following year, the company showed off its 3G watch phone LG-GD910 in Europe, enabled with a touch screen and video-calling capability. — The Korea Herald / Asia News Network

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Sports emergencies


When an athlete is injured in a sports event, doctors have to be equipped with the knowledge to make snap decisions. Soon, there will be a manual providing a structured, evidence-based guideline on emergency procedures.

WHILE the field of sports medicine has been growing rapidly, very little focus has been given to emergencies in sports, although there are more sporting activities taking place worldwide.

"Previously, it was only the orthopaedic stuff, and no attention was given to sports emergencies. Once the athletes get into hospital, they can be looked after, but when they're injured on the field, what do you do when there is no sophisticated medical equipment available?

"Half the time, doctors on the field are ill-prepared and don't know how to use the equipment. Only the paramedics do. In an emergency situation, doctors shouldn't be making a diagnosis; rather, they should be looking for symptoms and treating them," said Dr David McDonagh, president of the medical committee of the International Bobsleigh Federation and the co-author of the International Olympic Council's Manual on Emergency Care in Olympic sports (to be published in 2014).

The manual, the first of its kind, was written with contribution from 60 others and lists all kinds of possible injuries in the Olympics and Paralympics sports. It provides a structured, evidence-based guideline on emergency procedures.

He said: "Doctors need guidelines, although most have a fair idea of what to do. When you're dealing with athletes, you have to treat them differently and reduce the disruption to the sporting process. Doctors have to know how to initiate basic but correct primary care and make the difficult decision on whether the athlete should return to play."

Dr David McDonagh's book will be used as the manual for doctors during the 2014 winter Olympics.

Dr David McDonagh

If early intervention can prevent death, Dr McDonagh said that is a sign of good medical care. He cited the case of Bolton's Fabrice Muamba whose heart stopped for 78 minutes after he collapsed during an FA cup match. Thanks to CPR being performed immediately, Muamba, 23, was brought back to life by paramedics, in what is considered to be a medical miracle.

Usually, the longer the resuscitation process goes on, the less chance there is of survival. In the footballer's case, he didn't suffer any brain damage and has made full recovery, although he has decided to retire from professional football.

"There was one case where the athlete died because the doctor insisted on carrying the injured athlete to the car. Always perform the CPR there and then, not carry the athlete off the pitch! It's a matter of life and death," Dr McDonagh asserted. "If there is no ambulance on standby, stabilise and keep him alive if it's a serious injury. If there is a lot of blood loss, then get him to the hospital as soon as possible."

Dr McDonagh and colleague Dr Johan Hegvik were here recently to conduct a one-day intensive emergency sports medicine course for physicians. Both are also assistant professors at the National University in Trondheim, Norway.

From his practice, Dr McDonagh observed that injuries comprise a third or a quarter of all emergency consultations, and of these, 20% are sports injuries.

In any sporting event, there is always an element of risk involved. As most of the winter sports involve high velocity, he said there is an increased rate of injury to the head, chest and pelvic areas.

Dr McDonagh was there during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, when Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili's sled flipped during a trial run, causing him to smash into a steel pole. Efforts to resuscitate him failed and he died as a result of massive head injuries.

"One of the major indicators of head injuries and concussion is the respiratory rate. Other potential signs to look out for are headaches that worsen, severe neck pain, a drowsy look, deteriorating consciousness, unusual behaviour change, repeated vomiting, slurred speech, weakness or numbness in limbs, seizures, increased confusion or irritability, facial neurological signs and a patient who doesn't recognise people or places," he said.

In summer sports, the injuries are not as serious and usually comprise muscle sprains, pulls, tears and fractures.

Former Bolton Wanderers' footballer Fabrice Muamba laughs as he watches the group A singles match between France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Britain's Andy Murray in the round robin stage on the fifth day of the ATP World Tour Finals tennis tournament in London on November 9, 2012.  AFP PHOTO / BEN STANSALL

Footballer Fabrice Muamba's heart stopped for 78 minutes after he collapsed during a match. Thanks to CPR being performed immediately, Muamba, 23, was brought back to life by paramedics, in what is considered to be a medical miracle. -AFP

For injuries such as punctures (in fencing), the object should not be removed as it can cut and cause more bleeding internally. Rush the athlete to the hospital. For dislocations, which are common in shoulders and fingers, Dr McDonagh said it's best to pull it into place.

"The longer the joint is out of place, the greater the damage to the tissues. Once the joint is in place, take an x-ray," he said while demonstrating various methods of pulling the joint back to position to the 20-odd doctors who attended the course.

Both doctors felt Malaysia had one of the most knowledgeable doctors in the region.

"They are not experts in emergency care, but that can be learnt. What is important is that there must be a team leader in the group who can make decisions," said Dr Hegvic.

When love changes


For many couples, married life can spell chaos, especially when the new and unfamiliar order of a new family unit sets in. Marriage counseling may just help to put things back into perspective.

MANY couples flounce into their big day expecting a lifetime filled with magical moments.

Unfortunately, skipping into the sunset after the wedding day is hardly the end of the story. It is only the beginning, as both man and wife will discover upon their foray into marriage.

In place of amorous delights, there are suddenly bills to pay, a household to maintain, and young children to run after.

In the thick of this new and unfamiliar order, tempers flare and resentment kicks in. What started out as one of the most promising events in your life could end up in a painful descent down the rabbit-hole.

American country singer Billy Ray Cyrus was headed for an achy, breaky heartbreak, when his wife, Tish, decided to call for a divorce after 19 years of marriage in June.

This came after the couple decided to kiss and make up just two years ago, following an earlier petition for divorce in Oct 2010. The 51-year-old singer had filed for divorce from his wife, 53, but he dropped his filing in March 2011.

Still, trouble in paradise doesn't always lead to splitsville. Their recent call for divorce is reportedly off again, just one month after their divorce papers were filed.

The couple tells the media that marriage therapy played a large part in their reconciliation.

"We both woke up and realised we love each other and decided we want to stay together. We both went into couples therapy – something we haven't done in 22 years of being together, and its brought us closer together and really opened up our communication in amazing ways," Billy Ray's rep said in a statement to US Weekly.

Together, Billy Ray and Tish have three children – Miley, 20, Braison, 19 and Noah 13. Billy Ray also adopted Brandi, 26, and Trace, 24, Tish's children from a previous relationship. The country singer also has son Christopher, 21, from a previous relationship.

Like the Cyrus', many couples who face problems in their relationships can benefit from couples therapy, or marriage counselling, as it is better known on the local front.

Fit4life explores the cause-and-effects of marital problems, and how marriage counseling can help put things back into perspective.

epa03744407 (FILE) The file picture dated 25 March 2010 shows Tish Cyrus and Billy Ray Cyrus, parents of US actress and singer Miley Cyrus arriving for the premiere of 'The Last Song' in Hollywood, California, USA. According to media reports on 14 June 2013, Tish and Billy Ray Cyrus have separated after 19 years of marriage.  EPA/PAUL BUCK

American country singer Billy Ray Cyrus was headed for an achy, breaky heartbreak, when his wife, Tish, decided to call for a divorce after 19 years of marriage in June. Thanks to couples therapy, the pair reconciled just a month afterwards. -EPA

Love changes

Most love stories begin this way: boy-meets-girl, they fall madly in love, boy and girl start dating, boy and girl get married.

This initial phase of love, often characterised by "wonderful, romantic feelings and red Valentine's day hearts" is known as Eros love, says Dr Johnben Loy, founder and clinical director of Rekindle International Marriage and Family Therapy Centre.

Eros love, also referred to as "erotic love", is typically built on physical attraction, and is defined by strong, passionate feelings that usually occur during the first stages of a romantic relationship.

The weakness of this type of love is obvious – it doesn't last.

With marriage, Eros love often metamorphoses into Agape love – a more steady kind of love that involves commitment and taking care of the children, says Dr Loy, also a marriage and family therapist.

In his book, The Four Loves, author C.S. Lewis used Agape love to describe what he believed was the highest order of love known to humanity – a selfless love, a love that was devoted to the well-being of the other.

However, this constant and relatively more sedate version of love could set a humdrum tone for married life.

Dr Loy explains: "Agape love does not necessarily feel like 'romance' or that 'Valentine's day' kind of love. It is a different kind of love."

In the absence of racing hearts and butterflies in the stomach, it can feel as though the "passion" in a romantic relationship has burned out.

Why the marriage cookie crumbles

In 2011, the National Registration Department (NRD) registered a total of 5,634 divorces in non-Muslim couples.

It was previously reported that Malaysia has seen a steady increase in the number of divorces over a 10-year period, with over 33,000 couples splitting up in 2010.

According to the Malaysian Quality of Life (MQLI) 2011 report, 0.22% of Malaysians between the ages of 18 and 50 (in 2010) are divorced, almost double the 0.13% recorded in 2000, and 0.14% in 1990.

According to Dr Loy, being ill-prepared for married life is the main reason for divorce among younger couples.

"There is a tendency, that if you get married at a younger age, you are not quite ready to settle down. This could lead to conflict, especially if there is a child and one person is not ready yet. Maybe they haven't had enough fun yet. Maybe they got married because their girlfriend got pregnant, and that is the right thing to do," Dr Loy shares.

Often, young married couples succumb to the stresses of work and finance. It gets worse when they have difficulty learning how to cope with a new family unit. Those who cannot manage their new responsibilities and differences will eventually choose to end their marriage, he says.

"As for older couples, the biggest trigger factor for divorce appears to be extramarital affairs," says Dr Loy, whose clients are mostly aged between 30 and 50.

He points out that cultural and socio-economical shifts in recent years have altered the traditional dynamics in a marriage.

"I think women have become more in charge of their relationships. Up to 70% of my clients are women. They are the ones who usually seek help first. I think the reason for this is because women have a natural tendency to be more interested in relationships and are constantly looking out for the 'temperature' of their marriage."

"Also, back then, women did not have the financial freedom to walk away. These days, there are women who are powerful and wealthy, and they have the ability to say: 'Let's just part and be friends,' when things do not work out. It's less torturous that way."

How marriage counseling works

Marriage counseling, sometimes called couples therapy, helps couples understand and resolve conflicts surrounding their relationships. It gives them the tools to communicate better as well as negotiate and solve problems in a healthy way.

Marriage counseling is often short term. Most people usually need only a few sessions to smooth things out. However, if your relationship has greatly deteriorated, you may need counseling for several weeks or months.

Counseling sessions are generally provided by licensed therapists or counselors, with a specific focus towards a couple's relationship. Most people usually see a therapist or a counselor once a week.

Dr Loy likens a couple in a trouble marriaged to two dancers who have lost their rhythim. Their movements are no longer in-sync.

Pre-marital caunseling helps couples to explore more about themselves, says Dr. Johnben Loy

Dr Johnben Loy

"Everytime they do a dance move, they end up hurting each other. He sprains his back, she gets a stubbed toe, and so forth.

"Despite their inefficiencies, they keep repeating the same moves because they can't seem to correct it. They feel that they have to move and dance this way, even if it hurts, cuts and creates conflict," he describes.

This metaphoric dance gets even more disoriented with the stresses in life, and over time, these clashes could end up eating into a relationship.

"I assume the role of a choreographer here. I try to help couples learn how to move differently, in a way that will help them rediscover a balance that they lack in their relationship.

"Maybe I'll help hold his foot, or teach her to twirl in a different way, so that they will no longer get in each other's way or hurt each other when they move. They will learn how to dance beautifully together again."

Among the strategies he utilises in his sessions include emotion-focused couples therapy, an empirically-supported treatment that is based on methods to help people accept, express, regulate, understand and transform emotion.

This approach, which has become popular in recent years, focuses on the development of emotional intelligence and the importance of a secure relationship.

Another popular strategy used in marriage counselling is cognitive behavioural therapy, Dr Loy shares.

The principle of cognitive behavioural therapy is that a person's belief system affects his or her emotions and behaviour.

As such, this approach focuses on reconciling the correlation between cognitions (thoughts), actions (behaviours) and feelings (affect), and the role they play in determining a person's attitude, functioning and quality of life.

By reconciling these three components, changes can be made in how a person thinks, acts and feels about his or her circumstances.

"When couples come to see me, I usually like to see them together, so I can hear both sides of their experiences. Otherwise, it is not the complete picture," says Dr Loy.

"By observing the way they interact, I am able to gauge the health of their relationship."

Does marriage counseling actually work?

In Malaysia, a session of marriage counseling (which could range from 50-75 minutes), could cost anywhere from RM300 to RM500, or more, depending on the centre and the therapist.

Dr Loy claims that most of these sessions will yield favourable outcomes.

"Success rate is very high if the couple wants to work on their issues. I almost want to say there is 100% success rate," he says.

WEST PALM BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 14: Karen Brown (L) and Douglas Brown hold hands as they are wed during a group Valentine's day wedding at the National Croquet Center on February 14, 2013 in West Palm Beach, Florida. The group wedding ceremony is put on by the Palm Beach Country Clerk & Comptroller's office and approximately 40 couples tied the knot.   Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP== FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY ==

The absence of racing hearts and butterflies in the stomach could set a humdrum
tone for married life. -AFP

However, he notes that "success" first needs to be defined. Most people seek marriage counseling because they want to work on their issues, so they can continue living together. But there are others who are here to seek resolution, so that they may come to an amicable end.

He explains: "Therapy is always about change. Often, it is about changing yourself for the sake of your relationship. However, there is only so much we can change about ourselves.

"Sometimes, the final change isn't what we should do to fix a relationship, but what we can do to part ways in a civil and harmonious manner, especially if there are children involved."

"Success isn't always about getting back together. Sometimes, it is also about learning how to let go," he concludes.

I eat my placenta


Some new mums swear by consuming baby's placenta.

MOLLY Halper never dreamed she'd consume her baby's placenta, an organ that serves as a link between mother and foetus and is usually discarded after birth.

"My husband and I used to make jokes" about people who did that, said Halper, who lives in Arlington Heights, Illinois, with her family. "We're not vegetarians or tree-hugging, granola-eating people. We're suburban Republicans. We thought it was some hippie thing."

But after struggling twice with the baby blues and needing to supplement her breast milk supply with formula, Halper became intrigued by the idea that the hormones in a placenta could help. To reduce the ick factor, Halper paid someone to process the tissue into capsules when her third child was born.

Medical experts say there is no scientific evidence that consuming placenta benefits women, as no controlled studies have tested it versus a placebo. Nor have placenta pills been analysed to see what substances they contain.

"Until all the science is in, the cautions outweigh the expected benefits," said Mark Kristal, a New York neuroscientist who has studied placentophagy – the scientific name for placenta consumption – in laboratory animals.

Yet the idea is popular enough that Halper's doula, Deb Pocica, said she has encapsulated more than 250 placentas for about US$250 (RM775) apiece. Pocica said she also has trained 30 people to make placenta capsules, mostly in the Chicago area.

Women who have consumed their baby's placenta claim benefits including reduction of fatigue, a more balanced mood and increased breast milk production.

Those reported gains also could be nothing more than the placebo effect, some doctors and researchers say. Encapsulation and digestion probably would destroy at least one class of hormones in the placenta, they note.

Halper said her doctors didn't object to her plan. Worst-case scenario, they said, the pills would have no effect. Her husband also was supportive.

So, after Halper's daughter was born, Pocica encapsulated the placenta and Halper took the pills for about six weeks.

Deb Pocica, who has been a placenta encapsulator for five years, encapsulates a dried placenta at the home of a client in Bartlett, Illinois, July 27, 2013.  (Carolyn Van Houten/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Medical experts say there is no scientific evidence that consuming placenta benefits women, as no controlled studies have tested it versus a placebo. Nor have placenta pills been analysed to see what substances they contain. 

Physically, she felt energetic and recovered quickly, Halper said. She was able to breastfeed her daughter without supplementing with formula, and she had no problems with the baby blues.

At her six-week appointment, her obstetrician remarked on how well she seemed to be doing.

"I was so shocked at how much better I felt," Halper said. "I can't recommend it enough."

In a survey of 189 women who had consumed their babies' placentas – raw, cooked or in capsule form – 95% reported their experience was either positive or very positive, and 98% said they would repeat the experience.

"Of course, we don't know if those are placebo effects and their positive results are based on their expectations," said Daniel Benyshek, corresponding author of the study and associate professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

The survey results were published this year in Ecology of Food and Nutrition. The report disclosed that the first author, Jodi Selander, is the founder of Placenta Benefits, an online information source that also offers training for placenta encapsulators.

Kristal, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has documented some benefits among rats that consumed raw placenta and amniotic fluid after giving birth. But he cautioned against attributing benefits to placenta consumption by human mothers.

"The science in humans just isn't there," he said. "There's nothing we can point to that says scientifically that eating placenta is helpful and that it is completely harmless."

Benyshek said he is in the final planning stages of a double-blind pilot study that would compare the effects of placenta capsules and a placebo on women's postpartum experiences.

The placenta, a rounded organ roughly the size of a Frisbee, grows inside the womb and serves as the boundary between woman and foetus, delivering nutrients and oxygen via the umbilical cord and carrying away waste and carbon dioxide.

It also takes over a mother's hormone production during pregnancy.

Many other female mammals, including humans' closest primate relatives, eat the placenta soon after birth, but there is no evidence that the behaviour is common in new mothers from any human culture, according to Kristal and Benyshek.

Kristal's work on laboratory rats has found that consuming both amniotic fluid and placenta leads to an increased tolerance for pain and quicker onset of maternal behaviour by modifying how some signals are processed in the brain.

He thinks the molecule that contributes to those positive effects probably is present and can function in people, too.

Yet Kristal said he suspects most benefits that mothers report from consuming their baby's placenta are rooted in the placebo effect. He notes that, among women who cite benefits, it does not seem to matter how the placenta is prepared, when the woman consumes it, or how much she consumes.

"It's almost part of human nature to assign causality where it doesn't necessarily exist," Kristal said. "Two things happen and people relate them in their minds. We all do it."

Dr Marybeth Lore, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said she also thinks benefits can be attributed to the placebo effect.

Still, she added, it's hard to find fault with a placebo if it improves symptoms.

Kristal said he thinks one type of placental product – molecules called peptides – would be destroyed during processing or later in the digestive tract. But steroid hormones, which include progesterone and oestrogen, could be intact in placenta pills and survive digestion to be absorbed in the small intestine, he said.

None of those ideas has been scientifically tested, he emphasised. Nor is it clear whether consuming a placenta could be dangerous.

"I don't think it's a huge risk; I think it's possibly a slight risk," Kristal said. "We just have to be very careful about whether there's a negative side to it or not."

Dr Lore said that in 15 years, she has encountered perhaps five patients who wanted to consume their baby's placenta. While she tries not to be obstructive, Dr Lore said she does not encourage women to do it. "It's unlikely to be harmful, but you don't know."

Thirty-one percent of the women who responded to the survey on placentophagy did report some negative aspects, including unpleasant taste or smell, headache and cost to encapsulate.

Selander, who lives in Las Vegas and took placenta pills after the births of two of her three daughters, views encapsulation as a way to reduce the risk of postpartum blues during a time of fluctuating hormones.

"In every case, we're talking about healthy women consuming healthy placentas," which minimises potential risk, Selander said.

Deb Pocica, who has been a placenta encapsulator for five years, encapsulates a dried placenta at the home of a client in Bartlett, Illinois, July 27, 2013.  (Carolyn Van Houten/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Deb Pocica, who has been a placenta encapsulator for five years, encapsulates a dried placenta at the home of a client.

Hospitals in Chicago have varying policies on patients who want to keep the placenta. Northwestern Memorial Hospital, for instance, requires the mother to sign a release form. She then is asked to take personal possession and transfer it out of the hospital, said Sue Fulara, operations manager of triage and labour and delivery.

Pocica, of Schiller Park, said the woman's partner or another family member usually brings the placenta home on ice. Pocica likes to start the encapsulation process within 24 to 48 hours, so the organ is as fresh as possible.

First, she lightly steams the placenta, then dehydrates it overnight in a food dehydrator. The next day, she grinds the dried placenta into a powder and puts the powder into capsules, which are kept in the fridge. She said she sterilises all her equipment and wears gloves.

New Lenox resident Marcy Pluchar said her husband introduced the idea of placenta encapsulation during her second pregnancy. He hoped it would help her feel better than she had after the birth of their first daughter, she said. "I was never diagnosed with postpartum depression, but I think I had it with my first."

Pluchar said taking placenta pills "really helped" – she even found herself checking her watch to see if it was time for the next dose.

Because of her positive experience, it was "not even a question" that she would enlist Pocica to encapsulate the placentas of her next children, twins now almost five months old.

"I think it's awesome," Pluchar said. "Could it be partly the placebo effect, that it works because I think it's going to work? Sure. But I don't care." – Chicago Tribune/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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