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starmag Sunday 25 April 2010

The people's paper

fit4life No need for this variety Playing it cool

Acid attacks scar more than just the face. For victims, the trauma sears the heart and mind. >SM4




Sudden, and planned Stories by ELIZABETH TAI and ROUWEN LIN

No matter the rationale, attackers aim to disfigure.

N April 7, around 12.30am, 43-year-old Zarina Wahab was in her bedroom texting messages to her son when her husband, Supian Hani Ismail, 47, demanded that she have sex with him. She refused. In anger, Supian left the bedroom. When he returned with a bottle of acid, Zarina realised what he was about to do. “I grabbed our daughter and tried to run but he blocked our path, holding a parang,” said Zarina in a newspaper report. The next thing she knew, she felt a burning sensation on her face and back. She fled the house, quickly washed her face and ran to her sister’s home nearby. On Oct 24, 2009, Tan Teik Swee, 53, allegedly splashed acid on his wife Chong Swee Lin and daughter Tan Hui Linn. Chong, 53, died from her injuries, while Hui Lin, now 18, sustained 60% burns on her face and upper torso. She had to undergo several operations to restore her sight. Supian has been jailed six years and has been sentenced to be whipped twice. Teik Swee has been charged with the murder of his wife and of causing grevious hurt to Hui Linn.


Life goes on for Pakistani acid attack survivor Naziran Bibi, who bathes her daughter Alishba Abid, three, at the Acid Survivors Foundation in Islamabad, in this picture taken last December. – AFP

Control the sale? The recent spate of acid attacks has concerned Malaysians and many are urging the government to control the availability of acidic substances. (See Sold over the counter) “However, carrying acid to clean house tiles or the toilet are legitimate uses of the acid. So, it’s not right to ban its use or sale as acid is used for construction or industrial purposes and in the home,” says criminal lawyer Harjeet Singh. Acid attacks are always sudden. There are no danger signs that one can pick up from a would-be culprit to avoid an attack. The best defence is to control or reduce the availability of acid, says Rick Trask, director of Londonbased NGO Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), via a phone interview from London on April 15. But this is a challenge, thanks to the many legitimate uses of acid. “But there needs to be some kind of regulation. Right now, anybody can go down to a corner shop in some countries and buy it. Is it necessary to have bottles of very strong acid in your street corner shop?” he says.

ture, religion or country. It’s a world phenomenon.” (See Cases around the world, SM6) However, attacks are pre-meditated, he adds. “Acid is not used in the heat of an argument. It’s pre-meditated and it’s about damaging people. The attacker is very aware of the disfigurement aspect.” But while female victims outnumber men – ASTI’s 2008 annual review shows that more than half of the cases in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan and Uganda involve women and children – Trask says the catalyst for the violence is not sex but gender relationships. “A good example is Cambodia, where there are a number of cases in which a woman attacks another who is a mistress. In other countries, a man attacks a woman because she has turned down his marriage proposal.” While it is important to reduce the number of acid attacks, one needs to take care of the survivors too, Trask says. They need medical, psycho-social and community support and many of the legal cases go on for years.

Why acid? It’s commonly perceived that acid attacks happen mostly in the Indian subcontinent, in countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, or that many of the attackers were out to punish women for “immodest” behaviour. Trask disagrees. He says attacks have more to do with the availability of acid than anything else and “are not linked to any particular cul-

Aiding survivors

Tan Hui Linn returned to school six months after the acid attack, and aims to focus on her studies.

ASTI works closely with the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), an NGO with branches in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Uganda and Pakistan, to provide aid for acid attack survivors. ASTI has a team of volunteers involved in surgery and physiotherapy, and psychological, social and legal aid

“Most survivors will undergo between five and 20 operations in years following an attack,” Trask says. They have to undergo physiotherapy to exercise and stretch the skin, and need social and psychological support to overcome the trauma of the attack. Often, in less than ideal situations, medical care is given top priority but the psychological aspects of recovery take a back seat. In Malaysia, for one, there is no association solely dedicated to offering support to survivors. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia clinical psychologist Dr Alvin Ng says acid assault victims are traumatised by the experience and will suffer from depression. “The first thing the victim will feel is probably depression and hopelessness. Disfigurement – particularly of the face – is very difficult to deal with.” Psychiatrists can provide medical intervention for depression, anxiety or trauma but that is often insufficient to deal with the emotional anguish experienced by survivors. Friends and family can assist in the emotional recovery, Dr Ng stresses. “Counsellors can offer support as well but they have to be specialised in the treatment a victim requires. Not all of them are trained that way,” he says. “The victim might have nightmares. She might be struggling with the quality


Long healing process

Keo Srey Vy, 36, receiving treatment at the Cambodia Acid Survivors Charity in Kandal province, west of Phnom Penh, in February. The Cambodian government is drafting a law to specifically target crimes involving acid attacks. – Reuters

ACID is a corrosive agent and concentrated acid will burn the skin very quickly. If you get it on your skin, immediately flush the affected area with copious amounts of water. Take care to avoid the acid spreading to unaffected areas, particularly the eyes, as it may cause blindness. Contaminated clothing should be removed. Consultant plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr Somasundaram Sathappan explains: “Acid burns the skin, forming a thick crust of dead tissue. It can quickly penetrate into the fat and muscle layer and burn

through to the bone. It will keep burning until it is neutralised. That’s why it’s important to immediately wash it off with lots of water to dilute the acid and stop it from doing more damage.” Dr Soma (as he is known) stresses that the afflicted person should not delay with this emergency procedure. That means getting to a clean source of running water, if possible, and washing the wound, even before medical assistance arrives. “Flushing the affected area with water is the first thing to do when acid comes into contact with skin. It will take time to seek medical

care, during which the acid would have eroded the dermis (deeper layers of the skin) if it is not flushed with water”. When seeking medical help, provide as many details as possible to the medical personnel. It is important to inform them that it is an acid burn, as that might not necessarily be obvious. “An acid burn could look similar to a scald injury, where hot water is thrown on the person. For a scald injury, they (the medics) would wash the wound and put it under cold packs, but they won’t use running water. If it’s an




Sold over the counter Acid is commonly used in the manufacturing industry and as a cleaning agent at home. ITH the recent acid assault stories making its rounds, acid is starting to get a bad reputation. We are told that it is used to maim and disfigure. Success rates are high and many lives are destroyed by the deeds of an attacker. It gets us wondering: Why is acid within such easy reach of the next angry person or jealous spouse? People voice their concerns and express scathing disapproval that the product is readily available from hardware shops and industrial wholesalers. How can such an injurious agent be sold like you would a can of turpentine or paint? You can even buy industrial-strength acid on the Internet – to use as a cleaning agent or for industrial purposes, of course, and not to seek revenge by disfigurement. But some people just won’t listen and don’t follow rules. But then, what rules exist to stop them? Perhaps authorities should enforce stricter laws to control the sale and distribution of this danger-


ous chemical? Perhaps they should mete out more drastic penalties for causing grievous hurt to another person with acid? But all that is easier said than done. There is a reason why acid is so readily available – it is used for numerous industrial and domestic purposes. You use it to clean tiles and clear blocked pipes. It is used in steel pickling (removal of rust or iron oxide scale from iron or steel), textile processing and water treatment. You also need acid to manufacture cleaning agents, food and pharmaceuticals. Your car battery contains sulphuric acid. The production of fertilisers requires sulphuric acid. It is widely used in petroleum refining to wash impurities out of refinery products such as petrol and kerosene. Got a rusty mountain bike? Use acid to remove the rust. Cement stains on your floor tiles? Use acid to soften and remove the offending mess. The oil production industry uses hydrochloric acid to accelerate pro-

A Cambodian vendor unloads a bottle of sulphuric acid from a box at her shop at Anlong Veng market of Uddor Mean Chey province near the Cambodia-Thai border, some 400km north of Phnom Penh. – AP duction in a process called oil-well acidisation, where the acid is injected into oil wells to dissolve rock. The same kind of acid is added to chlorinated pool water to control pH levels, and in the food and paper manufacturing industry as well as to clean abalone shells. Formic acid – the weapon of

Those who work with acid should equip themselves with rubber gloves and boots, and know what to do in case of a mishap. choice in the latest local acid attack on a woman – is used in latex processing. Latex milk tapped from rubber trees is mixed with formic acid to produce the coagulated rubber that can then be processed into tyres and other rubber products. It is also used in the preservation of green feed for cattle and as a solvent for perfume.

Acid can be used to remove rust from an old swing, before you apply a fresh coat of paint.

acid injury, they would know exactly what to do – use copious amounts of water and protect the eyes.” Other relevant details include how the accident happened, the concentration (strength), quantity and type of acid, and how long it was in contact with your skin before it was removed. These are among the factors that determine the extent of tissue damage caused by the acid. When a patient is admitted to the hospital, IV fluids will be administered to normalise blood volume and heart rate. Antibiotics might also be given to prevent infections. The extent of the acid injury will determine whether reconstructive surgery is necessary. “A burn that takes more than

In an acid attack, flush the affected area immediately because acid eats into the deep layers of the skin. three weeks to heal is generally a full thickness burn, which will most probably need skin grafting,” Dr Soma says.

“We don’t operate until both the injury and the patient’s general condition have stabilised. That usually means we wait at least

two to three days. It can take even up to five days.” A patient might need multiple surgeries depending on the severity of the injury. Dr Soma points out that a skin graft won’t be exactly like her original skin. “A skin graft is basically just a mechanism to cover wounds to get them to heal. Without it, healing will be slow and there will be scarring.” Reconstructive surgery – which aims to improve both appearance and normal function after the acid injury – and the rehabilitation that follows, is a long and tedious process that can stretch over many years. “One of the concerns in reconstructive surgery is the prevention of contractures,” he says, referring to the inability to move

The main hazards with working with acid include damage to eyes, skin and tissue as well as the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, if inhaled or swallowed. Although accidents do happen at home, the risk of sustaining an acidrelated injury is greater in the work place, particularly in an industry that requires the use of large quantities of the chemical. Bear in mind that the severity of an acid injury might not be immediately apparent. For instance, hydrofluoric acid, used to etch glass and metal and to manufacture refrigerants, plastics, electrical components and fluorescent light bulbs, can be a silent killer. It penetrates tissue more quickly than other acids and is particularly fatal because it interferes with nerve function and is absorbed into the bloodstream. Injuries might initially be painless and accidental exposure can go unnoticed. Once absorbed into the bloodstream, the acid reacts with calcium in the blood and may cause a cardiac arrest (heart attack). People working with acid should be equipped with protective gear such as rubber gloves and boots and protective eye goggles. They should be aware of what to do if an acidrelated accident happens. (See Long healing process)

a joint or muscle due to a permanent rigidity. A patient will then need to undergo physiotherapy to restore activity, strength and motion to the affected muscle or limb. Pressure garmentscan be used to help reduce scarring and deformities.It is not known how exactly that works, but a reduction in blood supply is thought to be an important factor. “Pressure garments exert pressure (on the affected area) to minimise scarring. The patient might also need silicone therapy – in the form of silicone sheets or silicone ointment applied to the skin - as it has a fantastic effect on scars,” says Dr Soma, adding that all these are done until the scars mature, which will take at least one to two years.




ACID attacks happen around the world and victims and perpetrators are from both sexes. But there are more female victims than males.

Britain A man threw industrial strength acid at Katie Piper’s face on March 31, 2008. The former model and TV presenter, then 24, had been raped by her boyfriend David Lynch only a few days before the attack. It turns out that Lynch hired Stefan Sylvestre to attack her. Both the men are now behind bars. Lynch is serving two life sentences and Sylvestre, a 12-year sentence. The attack not only disfigured Piper’s face, but blinded her in one eye and damaged her aesophagus. (Source: Daily Mail) Danish-born Awais Akram, 25, met a married woman, British-born Sadia Khatoon via Facebook. When their relationship was discovered by her husband and relatives, they stabbed and beat him and poured sulphuric acid on him. According to Independent, the British newspaper, Sadia lured Akram to his attackers, “whether willingly or under some pressure from those who discovered the relationship�. Akram was left badly disfigured, and had burns on 47% of his body.

Hong Kong On Dec 13, 2008, a mysterious assailant threw bottles filled with acid at shoppers in the Mong Kok district. Following that, there have been six attacks, in which over 100 people were injured. The latest attack on Jan 11 wounded 30, and the police managed to apprehend a suspect.

> FROM PAGE 4 of life after the attack and questions the meaning of life. You can’t apply the basic counselling techniques here.�

Legal recourse ASTI also focuses on legislation and policies concerning acid attacks, and works with local police in some countries to bring about change. It is a challenging task. According to Trask, many of the countries that ASTI works with have laws against such attacks but their cultures and weak legal systems hamper the implementation of those laws. “If there was a stronger legal environment, I expect to see some reduction of cases,� he says. Fortunately, Malaysia has a set of laws to punish acid attack perpetrators of acid attacks, and lawyer Harjeet Singh says it is adequate. “There are sufficient provisions of law


Cases around the world prominent labour columnist. On March 29 this year, an unidentified woman poured acid over Katrina Watts and her three-year-old daughter Taniya Steward as they were getting into their apartment in Washington. The police classified the case as a “domestic-related assault�. (Source: Washington Post)

India Early this month, 16-year-old Lalita Bai died four days after an acid attack by K. Subba Rao, 23, a jilted lover, in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district. Lalita was attacked on April 7, and had sustained serious injuries. Subba Rao, a labourer, splashed acid on himself during the attack. According to India’s The Siasat Daily, he threw acid on Lalita because she had stopped talking to him and was seeing another man.

Victims of an acid attack being treated on a roadside in Hong Kong’s Mongkok district, last June. – AP According to the China Daily, the 23-yearold man was later charged with “throwing corrosive acid with the intent to injure�. The police, however, do not believe that he was connected with the previous acid assaults.

United States Sulphuric acid was thrown at American

‘Malaysian laws adequate’

under the Corrosive and Explosive Substances and Offensive Weapons Act 1958 and also the Penal Code (revised 1997), Section 323, 324 or 326, for the prosecution of such offenders,� said criminal lawyer Harjeet Singh. Under the Penal Code, the degree of punishment is determined by the severity of the victim’s injuries. “If there’s just ‘mere hurt’ – let’s say a person throws acid and it (injures) the hand or leg but does not disfigure a person as far as the face or head is concerned, then it comes under Section 324,� said Harjeet. A person charged under Section 324 could be imprisoned for up to three years, or be fined or whipped, or both. However, if the victim suffered “grevious hurt�, defined under Section 320 as “permanent disfiguration of the head or face�, the


newspaper journalist Victor Riesel’s face on April 5, 1956, while he was leaving a restaurant in Manhattan. His attackers were members of the Lucchese crime family. The attack left Riesel permanently blind, but until his death in Jan 5, 1995, at the age of 81, he was known as the country’s most

guilty party will be charged under Section 326 which carries “imprisonment for a term which may extend to 20 years, and shall also be liable to a fine or to whipping.� Harjeet adds: “Under the Corrosive and Explosive Substances and Offensive Weapons Act 1958, if a person is found to be in possession of a corrosive substance for the purpose of causing hurt, he can be charged under Section 3 for a term not exceeding three years or to whipping. And if he uses corrosive substances as a weapon, he is charged under Section 4 which is punishable for seven years imprisonment.� Survivors of an acid attack can, under civil law, sue their assailants for damages. “If there’s a remedy for cosmetic surgery he can claim the cost – estimated by a cosmetic surgeon – from the assailant, including dam-

Afghanistan Men riding motorbikes used water pistols to spray acid on several schoolgirls and their teachers on Nov 12, 2008. Two of the victims were blinded, and several were left disfigured. Ten men, believed to be Taliban extremists, were arrested, and analysts believe that the attacks were meant to be warnings from the Taliban against educating women in Afghanistan. ages for pain and suffering and loss of amenities. “If the (victim) cannot sue the person (due to financial constraints), she can seek legal assistance through the Biro Bantuan Guaman and the Malaysian Bar Council’s legal aid centres.� The enforcement of these laws is adequate, says Harjeet. “If the victim is able to identify the assailant, I see no reason why the police should not take any action. I have not heard of any incident so far where the victim is able to identify the assailant but the police does not charge him.� Not doing so might entail action by the police disciplinary section for failure to carry out their duty, he adds. One can even write to the AttorneyGeneral. Should he find that no action has been taken by the police, the Attorney General has the option to review the investigation papers and may even charge the wrong-doer.



starmag Sunday 6 June 2010

The people's paper

fit4life It runs in the blood variety Film fanatic

Safe landing An NGO has hatched a plan to save unwanted babies. >SM4




Stories by ELIZABETH TAI N May, a month-old baby boy was found abandoned in a shack, covered with ants and mosquitoes. That same month, two teenagers from Malacca were charged with burying a new-born boy. And just this week, the body of a baby, his umbilical cord still attached, was found by a road in Damansara Jaya, Petaling Jaya. Police believe the boy was dumped three hours after his birth. Cases like these convince the committee members of OrphanCARE that the newlyinstalled baby hatch at their centre in Kampung Tunku, Petaling Jaya, is crucial. OrphanCARE, a smart partner of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry that aims to find every orphan and abandoned baby a loving family, decided to build one after its inception in 2008. A baby hatch is a place where mothers who are unable, or unwilling, to take care of their babies, can leave them in a safe environment, where they will be cared for. There are hatches in countries like Pakistan, Germany, Japan and India. (See Different names, same aim) Many abandoned babies die from exposure to the elements. Some survive, but their health usually suffers – chest infections are common. Initially, the NGO considered purchasing the design of a baby hatch from Germany, where there are 80 babyklappen scattered around the country. However, the price was daunting. OrphanCARE then decided to come out with its own hatch, which cost RM15,000 to build. It is located at the centre’s premises, a bungalow situated in residential Kampung Tunku. The hatch is actually a room measuring one square metre. It is equipped with a bed, an air-conditioner, a lamp and a sensor that sounds an alarm in the caretaker’s room upstairs whenever a baby is placed in it. “The area is secluded although it’s near the main road,” says OrphanCARE president Datuk Adnan Mohd Tahir. Location is often a dilemma: People may hesitate to approach a more public place; on the other hand, a secluded place might not be accessible. The centre hopes to build more baby hatches and place them in hospitals. Adnan and his wife Elya became orphan activists after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which left many children orphaned in places like Acheh. A business friend told Adnan that he hoped to bring 15 orphans from Acheh to Malaysia, so that they could be adopted by families here. The couple decided to help by spreading the word around; in no time they started getting calls from people eager to adopt. However, something unforeseen cropped up. When word of their efforts got to Unicef, they were suspected of running a baby trafficking operation. Elya and Adnan were called up to Bukit Aman for questioning, but they managed to clear the air. “We were not selling babies, we were getting help for orphans. Unfortunately, the Indonesian government put a stop to them leaving Acheh. As a result, there were many disappointed parents here,” says Adnan. Rather than be discouraged by the turn of events, and seeing how good the response had been to the Acheh appeal, he decided to gather a few friends to do something for Malaysian orphans instead. That


Circle of love OrphanCARE hopes to serve as the link betwe en unwanted babies and couples who want to adopt.

Datuk Adnan Mohd Tahir ... We encourage the mothers to sign the consent form.

Noraini Hashim ... our main target is to save babies.

Police checking an abandoned baby. A baby hatch would enable a mother to leave her unwanted child in a safe place, instead of by the roadside, at a rubbish dump, or (in this case), outside a mosque. was how OrphanCARE began. Adnan says the baby hatch is a natural progression, especially if you look at the statistics: Between 2005 and 2009, the police recorded 407 cases of abandoned babies in the country. These are just those found and reported; many abandoned babies go undiscovered and forgotten.

Objections Baby hatches have existed since medieval times, but they often stoke controversy, no matter where they’re built. Since the launch of OrphanCARE’s baby hatch on May 29, response from the public has been divided. Detractors wrote to newspapers expressing their disgust; they said it would encourage people to have premarital sex and engage in reckless behaviour. Shelter Home executive director James Nayagam was quoted in The

Star (Get to root problem of baby dumping; June 1) as saying that baby hatches are a waste of taxpayers’ money because they just treat the symptoms and do not resolve the issue of abandoned babies. It is not true that the baby hatch was built using taxpayers’ money, says Noraini Hashim, deputy president of OrphanCARE. “The money was donated by our president’s interior design company. We also did fundraising last year during our launch, which gave us enough to rent the house and pay the staff.” The government has promised them RM100,000, which they have yet to receive, she adds. “Our main target is to save babies, We are not saying that (the baby hatch) is the solution to the baby abandonment problem,” says Noraini, who works in the corporate sector.

“The point at which a young girl abandons her baby is the end of a series of events. We are tackling that phase of the problem. We totally agree that the root cause must be addressed. It goes back to parenting, education and more,” says assistant secretary Azra Banu. But the baby hatch has supporters too, such as Perak Mufti Tan Sri Harussani Zakaria, who believes unwanted babies should be saved. “At first I didn’t agree with this idea as I was afraid it will send the wrong message, especially to teenagers. However, now we really need baby hatches for sinless babies,” he was quoted in a Berita Harian report of May 31. The mufti believes that those who abandon their babies should face harsh penalties. However, the folks at OrphanCARE stress that one should not put the blame solely on the mothers, many of whom hide

Kim Nazli Rosali ... childless couples get preference when it comes to adoption. their pregnancy – out of shame and fear of repercussions from society and family for having a child out of wedlock. Some are victims of rape. “We had a university student who hid her pregnancy from her roomate because you can get booted out of university if you get pregnant and are not married. It’s not easy, trying to hide that from friends and family,” Adnan says. “For a person to abandon her baby, she must have been in a terrible state of mind. It’s difficult to imagine.”

The procedures Whenever a baby is deposited at the baby hatch, OrphanCARE has to inform the Social Welfare Department (Jabatan Kebajikan Malaysia, or JKM). “We then have to send the baby for a check-up. If it is left without a signed consent form – available in Malay or English, and




OrphanCARE’s baby hatch is located in a bungalow in a quiet, residential part of Kampung Tunku, Petaling Jaya. placed at the side of the hatch – we have to lodge a police report,” says Adnan. The legalities come into play here. It is vital that the mother signs her consent to give her child up for adoption, failing which it will be a deemed an abandoned baby and a police report is mandatory. Under the Malaysia Child Act 2001, anyone found guilty of abandoning a child is liable to a fine not exceeding RM20,000, or imprisonment for up to 10 years, or both. “In other countries, there’s no form. But in Malaysia, because of the law, we have to encourage them to sign one,” Adnan says. Once OrphanCARE has received a baby and informed JKM, it will contact a prospective parent on its waiting list. Currently, there are about 200 applicants on the list. “We look for parents who have financial stability and good parenting abilities. Preference is given to childless couples,” says Kim Nazli Rosali, coordinator of the parents’ committee. So far, the committee has interviewed 50 potential couples, using questions set by JKM.

Heidi Rosenfeld puts a doll in a so-called foundling letterbox in Hamburg’s quarter Altona, northern Germany, on March 6, 2000, to show how the new foundling project of the youth welfare service, SterniPark, works. – AP

Different names, same aim It is easy for a mother to approach the baby hatch, open its small door (above) and place her baby on the incubator bed, as demonstrated by volunteer and mother Risnawati Yassin at its launch recently.

After the interview, their application goes to JKM, which then sends a counsellor to visit their home. If a couple is deemed to be suitable as adoptive parents, JKM gives its approval, and the baby is passed to them. “The process is almost ‘instantaneous’ – it takes just a few days because we have the list of parents ready and they’ve already been interviewed,” says Kim. “The only thing (that’s) slow is the wait for the baby, as we do not know when one will be deposited. Therefore, the more publicity we get, the better, so that mothers can leave their babies at a safe place,” Noraini adds.

It is vital that the mother signs a form declaring that she’s giving up her child for adoption, failing which a police report has to be made on the baby being abandoned.

■ OrphanCARE welcomes volunteers. For more information, visit www. or call 03-7876 1900. Its baby hatch is located at 6, Lorong SS1/24A, Kampung Tunku, PJ.

BABY hatches are not a modern invention. In fact, these devices – which used to be called a “foundling wheel” – were quite common in medieval Europe. According to Wikipedia, the first foundling wheels were used around 1198 in Italy. Pope Innocent III instructed that they be installed in homes for foundlings so that mothers could secretly leave their babies there instead of throwing them in the River Tiber, a common practice back then. The “wheels” were usually found in the wall of convents. Mothers would place their babes in these wooden cylinders, rotate the wheel so that the child goes inside the convent, then ring the bell to alert the nuns. Some of these ancient foundling wheels can still be found today. One still stands at Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence. The foundling wheel was phased out around the late 1800s, but a modern version of it was revived in 1952 in Pakistan.

Baby hatches around the world India: In a country where 11 million babies (90% of them girls) are left for dead each year, services like the “e-cradle” are literally life-savers. The first e-cradle – equipped with an electronic sensor to alert attendants to the presence of a baby – was created in a state-run medical centre in the south Indian city of Trivandrum in 2002, after a number of babies were found left on beach-

es and rubbish bins. In one particularly horrifying case, an abandoned newborn was torn apart by a pack of dogs outside a hospital. About 100 babies have been left at e-cradles in India since it was introduced. Pakistan: The first baby hatch, called jhoolas (baby cradle), was established by Abdul Sattah Edhi and his wife Bilquis Edhi in 1952. The Edhi Foundation has literally saved tens of thousands of babies since then with the jhoola, a white metal hanging cradle with a mattress. There are over 300 of them around Pakistan today. Germany: The first babyklappen was established in Hamburg by the Sternipark charity organisation on April 8, 2000, after numerous abandoned babies were found dead from exposure to the elements. There are 80 of them in Germany today, and 38 babies have been left in these babyklappens since. In Germany, mothers are not allowed to give birth anonymously. Detractors are demanding that babyklappens be closed. They say infanticide numbers have not come down, and babies left there are denied the right to know their origins. SterniPark’s argument is that life is more important than family history or ethical issues. Japan: In 2006, Jikei Hospital, a Roman Catholic hospital in the Kumamoto Prefecture, set up a


Sunday 24 August 2008 The people's paper

fit4life DNA in forensics

variety Avril arrives

starmag g Digest-ible

fun The kids do love their Reader’s Digest, says mum Ezatul, and they’re quite typical of Malaysian families, she reckons. How has the almost century old magazine managed to stay appealing for so long? >SM4

Photo by AZMAN GHANI / The Star




By ELIZABETH TAI EAD ’em and weep. That’s how Jim Plouffe, editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest Asia (RDA), wants readers to react when they read the venerable magazine’s articles. That, and to laugh at them too. After all, humour has always been an important element of the 86-year-old magazine’s editorial content; there are jokes at the ends of articles, and sections such as Laughter the Best Medicine and Life’s Like That. The magazine even rolls out a “humour issue” every September. “In each edition of RDA, my quest is to make you laugh, cry, get angry – to bring out all these basic human emotions through our stories,” said Plouffe, 40, when I met him at KL Hilton last week. “We’re unapologetic about doing that. I know lots of magazine editors that go, ‘I’m here to inform, and I don’t really care if my reader cries or laughs out loud’. I think that’s actually kind of sad,” the Singapore-based editorin-chief says.


The little magazine Here’s a first look at the new cover of Reader’s Digest Asia, which will appear next month featuring our very own Harith Iskandar. But is a new look enough to keep this venerable magazine’s appeal from slipping in the age of the Internet? ferreted from all corners. RD also produces original content, and has writers in almost every country in the world. These correspondents have their noses to the ground, so they are useful in helping editors spot information and trends important to readers – “Sometimes it’s stuff that readers don’t even know they need,” says Plouffe. For example, 10 years ago RD published articles warning that diabetes would be a lifestyle problem that would soon greatly affect people in Asia. But back then, experts were pooh-poohing the possibility, saying that because of our lifestyles, genetics, and eating habits, we Asians wouldn’t become diabetic in the significant numbers that Westerners were. “Five years after we published the article, the World Health Organisation announced that diabetes is an epidemic in Asia, and today, it’s the No. 1 lifestyle problem in all of Asia,” says Plouffe.

Rich legacy Since its creation in 1922, Reader’s Digest (RD) has been taking the best articles it can find in the world and editing it down to digestible portions for, according to Plouffe, “people who don’t have the time to find the best reading.” The idea of chopping up an article into smaller chunks may seem sacrilegious to writers, but it’s obviously a hit with readers, as this formula has kept RD going for over eight decades. “What differentiates us from other magazines is that we not only think about what our readers need but what they might not be able to get from other sources. We go out of the way to give them what they need.” The way the magazine does this is to use its huge global network of editors to submit information

Slipping appeal?

The new look cover’s masthead has switched from a serif to a sans serif typeface – from letters with those little curls and extensions (such as on this letter h) to one that is ‘sans’, or without those things.

Readers comment I LIKE the idea that I can skim through current issues in a digested format. RD has always been my pick-me-up, in addition to trashy gossip magazines. So I’d get them when I need a little cheering up, or have nothing to do. But the price! It used to be around RM8 or RM9 but now, its RM15! – Ezatul Faizura Mustaffa Kamal Effendee, 32, Subang Jaya, Selangor (she and her kids, Adam, Sarah, and Danish, are featured on StarMag’s cover) WHAT I like about RD is the priority it gives to humour. I also like Quotable Quotes which gives you a lot of positive things to think

Digest’s history


about. Basically, RD is my stress-reliever. I also like the short articles as I can relate to them. Many are heartwarming stories about ordinary people like me but who are caught in extraordinary situations. And there are the articles celebrating life even if it is a pretty average or dreadfully dull life by Hollywood standards! However, what irks me about RD is that post 9/11 (the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US), it’s become very preachy. I detect a lot of anti-Islam sentiment subtly camouflaged as educated views. Still, when an RD issue turns up in my letter box, it’s like a friend that has come to visit. I’ve learnt a lot from the magazine. It honed my English and gave me insight into many spheres of life. – Azeezah Jameelah, 35 I’VE been reading RD since I was 10 and I love its balance of serious and light articles.

1922: The first issue (right) rolls out in February 1922 at a modest 5,000 copies, sold exclusively via mail for US$3 per copy. Founded by husbandand-wife team William Roy DeWitt and Lila Wallace (left), the company’s first office is the couple’s Greenwich Village apartment in New York. DeWitt compiled the first few issues himself; he would pore over magazines at the New York Public Library and condense articles that interested him. 1929: RD appears on newsstands.

Still, its editorial content is not without its critics. “RD seemed so much more substantial during my childhood days,” says a former subscriber, Gordon Nonis, 32, in an informal online discussion about the magazine. “The articles seem more superficial in the current version. One issue used to last me about a week or two. I could always pick it up, browse

Its simple writing makes the information readily accessible to anyone who reads it. If a 10-year-old kid can enjoy reading such a magazine, the language level is pitched just right. I used it in class when I was an English teacher at a private college. The articles covered such a wide range of topics that I could use them to engage restless teenagers, many of whom are also reluctant readers! My family (especially my late father) also appreciates the selection of books recommended. Most of the titles are useful references that would find their way into any family’s bookshelf at home. Up till now, RD has managed admirably to stay relevant in our rapidly changing world; I’m confident that it will still be able to do so in the future. – Christine Mary Jalleh, 34, China

1938: First international edition published in Britain. 1960s to 1980s: Time of expansion with foreign editions published, and special interest magazines acquired. First RD Asia edition published in Hong Kong in 1963. Today, there are 50 editions in 21 languages, and RD is sold in more than 60 countries. This 1973 version of RD (right) sports the table of contents on the cover.

through it, and find some nugget of information I had missed before. “But now, it just seems that I could blow right through the whole issue at one sitting, and there wasn’t much ‘replay’ value,” he says. American political reporter John J. Miller, in a strongly worded article in the US-based National Review (InDigestible, Feb 11, 2002), said that the editorial quality of the magazine has eroded around the mid-1990s and that, “the Digest simply isn’t what it used to be”. Miller said that since the mid-1990s, RD’s editorial department has been downsized, and celebrities have replaced ordinary folk on the covers, that RD is filled with “articles that don’t take much time to read or much thought to process”. “The Digest’s distinct voice is falling silent,” says Miller. “The once-mighty magazine is becoming indistinguishable from the swarm of other publications that genuflect the stars of Hollywood, offer new diet recipes for women, and produce nothing of enduring value or interest.” Them’s fighting words! What does Plouffe have to say to all that, we wonder? In what we come to realise is his usual calm manner, he zings one back that answers the irate subscriber quite elegantly: Says Plouffe (via Blackberry, as this question only came up after our interview): “I always remember a cartoon I once read in which a father is walking along with his son on a wintery street. He says to his son: ‘When I was a boy, I had to walk through chest deep snow each way to school. It sure doesn’t snow like that any more.’ The dad is standing in shin deep snow – but the son is standing chest deep in snow.... “But, seriously, I think the Digest is still packed with lots of content. Some of the stories have gotten shorter but that’s because our readers have asked us for shorter, quicker reads because their time is short.” What of Miller’s contention that RD is indistinguishable from other magazines? Well, according to Plouffe, the Asian edition, at least, seems to be doing well enough to stand out from the pack even in the face of the challenge posed by the Internet, where articles galore are available at a click of a mouse. “Lots of print media are shrinking,” says Plouffe. “But we are actually expanding.” He thinks the main reason for this is because RDA is a general interest magazine, and readers find in it what they can’t get from other media. Another thing is that RDA readers are younger (they have a median age of 40) than their Western counterparts who read RD (median age 60). Strategically, RDA makes an effort to create articles that this age group would like. “The main themes in the magazine are what people that age range will want to know,” says Plouffe, hence its appeal.

1981: DeWitt passes away at 91 on March 30, leaving a US$1bil company privately owned by his family. 1984: Lila Wallace passes away at age 94. 1990: RD becomes a public company on Feb 15 and begins facing challenges from competitors and the easy availability of articles on the Internet.


that could Culture challenge

Today, RD is published in 50 editions and 21 languages, and because of its vast reach, its editors can dip into a worldwide pool of stories to fill their editions with. This doesn’t necessarily make Plouffe’s job easier, however. One of the toughest challenge he faces is to not only make RDA appealing to readers across Asia but also be sensitive to the continent’s diverse cultures, ethnicities, problems, and worldviews at the same time. What resonates with a Chinese readership might fall flat with an Indonesian one.... Plouffe, who was an RD correspondent in Jakarta more than a decade ago, often checks with the writers of each country if he is concerned that a story may not go over too well. “Not that I’m not going to publish it if the answer is ‘yes’, but I need to be aware of it. There’s no point publishing a magazine that doesn’t upset people once in a while,” he says, grinning. But he believes that, despite the differences, “people are people”, and that the magazine’s articles has themes universal enough to be appreciated by people across cultures and ages. “That’s the greatest thing about RDA – we connect people through the love of one magazine,” he says.

Quest for perfection “Arrogantly, I always point out the fact that RD is one of the only magazines around that doesn’t have a space inside it for corrections,” says Plouffe. He means the corrections section in magazines and newspapers apologising for mistakes made in the previous issue. All this is due to stringent fact checking, he says. “The great thing about fact checkers is that they keep the writers, sources, and editors honest,” he says. Because the article goes through many hands before it goes to print, the exact meaning that the interviewee is trying to convey may be lost – fact checkers then call up the sources to ensure that the original meaning stays intact. “It’s quite humbling when you get their report and see how many mistakes you’ve made or what’s not quite right,” says Plouffe. Chan Li Jin, 38, has been a Malaysian correspondent for the Digest since 2005, and she can attest to just how stringent the mag is about this point: “For every article, writers must submit the contact details of the people interviewed to the editors. A fact-checker is commissioned to call the interviewees to check on the facts before it goes to print.” Once, Chan lost the telephone number of one of the people she quoted in her article, but her editor insisted for the contact anyway. “When I told them it was gone, the quote had to be removed and I had to look for someone else to interview!” she says. That might have rankled then, but Chan really appreciates the magazine’s stringent methods to ensure the quality and integrity of its articles. Most American magazines have fact checkers, explains Plouffe. 1994: Profits fall. According to The New York Times (Reader’s Digest chief resigns as expansion ideas falter, Aug 12, 1997), readers are “exasperated by what many viewed as a surfeit of junk mail from the company”. To win back customers, mailings, sweepstakes, and prices are cut back. To cut costs, RD’s editorial department is downsized. 1996: RD’s first Internet website created at 1998: In May, RD undergoes a major revamp, radically overhauling its design. It has a more

»Lots of print media are shrinking, we are actually expanding« JIM PLOUFFE below

“(Reader’s Digest) is bought by our readers because they trust us. If we get it wrong, the trust will die and we just wouldn’t be able to sell magazines,” he says.

A big conspiracy? “That’s not to say that you are going to agree with our interpretation,” Plouffe quickly adds. Although Plouffe ensures that each RDA story remains fair, he says that the stories aren’t a report but are an opinion and that RDA is not shy about “taking a stand” on certain issues. (The Digest, for one, is anti-smoking.) Plouffe told The Manila Times in May 2007 that, “Reader’s Digest has been known to reflect traditional values and it will continue to be that way.” RD critics, particularly in America, however, have accused the magazine of being “ultra-conservative” and “right winged”. The US-based National Review Online dubbed RD “the quintessential magazine of ‘red state’ America.” (During US elections, Republican states are marked in red while Democratic states are blue.) But Plouffe points out that he doesn’t share the qualities of red state adherents. “I’m a Canadian with an Australian family, I’ve lived around the world, and in Asia for 15 years. And I’m certainly not conservative or rightwinged, I can tell you that! I’m pretty liberal,” says Plouffe, chuckling. modern look (below), snazzier graphics, and the table of contents is moved from the cover to the inside. Also, there are more celebrities on its covers. Not all readers are happy with the emphasis on celebrities, however. The older Digest emphasised ordinary people and was said to be a source of inspiration. 2001-2005: RD subscriptions in the US fall by 18% (The New York Times). RDA makes minor cosmetic changes, such coming out with a glossy cover, as seen in this June 2008 edition (right), and bolder,


Of junk mail and sweepstakes LELLAGRACE” seems to be a Reader’s Digest fan. On the British website Dooyoo (, where consumers write reviews about products to help shoppers buy wisely, she calls the magazine “interesting, suitable for everyone, informative on lots of things, compact and reasonably priced.” But, tellingly, she also complains: “The only downside with RD is the amount of junk mail you get from them once they get your address details! I am sure there are people who win in their ‘Prize Draws’ but despite years of entering them myself I never won so much as a free pen!” Apparently, the authorities are not too fond of the magazine’s mailing practices either. In 2003, RD Australia, after an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission investigation, admitted that it demanded payment for unsolicited mail orders from consumers. In June this year, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority said that it’ll look into the letters sent by RD to consumers, telling them that they have a chance to win thousands of pounds – with a caveat that they keep the information a secret. (RD

There are real winners of Reader’s Digest contests, we discovered, when we looked though The Star’s archives. These happy folk received their cheques in March. responded that it’ll take immediate action on this matter.) Reader’s Digest Asia regional managing director Rosemarie Wallace (no relation to the founders) says that RD adheres to “a code of ethics on good business practices”. “Any customer who does not wish to receive our mail can easily ask for mailings to be stopped by calling our customer service hotline,” she says via e-mail. “Very few readers opt out of our mailings, as little as 0.39%, as they enjoy receiving information about the products and services we offer exclusively to all customers,” she adds. Wallace also clarifies that RDA does not organise sweepstakes in Malaysia. Instead, there are contests

Every RD edition has a different flavour, he explains, although he concedes that in the United States, RD “is a little bit more right, these days not very far right”. But by far the most audacious conspiracy theory about RD, which emerged during the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, was that it was funded by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “Of course I’ve heard about that!” says Plouffe with a laugh. “The CIA thing – that was a long time ago. I actually think that probably started because we do have people in every country of the world because we’re so huge, and we do fact checking so extensively that people aren’t used to it. brighter colours and fonts. 2007: RD Association is acquired by Ripplewood Holdings LLC for US$2.4bil (RM8bil) on March 3, making it a private company once more. 2007: Circulation, according to RD’s July-December 2007 audited circulation statement, is at 18 million worldwide, reaching 70 million readers. Worldwide circulation in 1997 was 27.5 million. 2008: RDA revamps its logo, turning the

(since 1984) to “generate excitement, highlight our products, and show appreciation to our customers in Malaysia. “So far, Reader’s Digest has given away cash and prizes worth more than RM6.5mil to over 19,000 Malaysians,” she says. Jim Plouffe, the Singaporebased editor-in-chief of RDA, says he enjoys attending the contest prize presentations in Kuala Lumpur. “I get to meet wonderful people, and it’s amazing to hand a cheque for so much money to someone who can really use it, like our most recent major prize winner, Kamsaim Senan (pic, centre), who won RM250,000. He told us he will use the money to pay off his children’s study loans.

“It probably freaked a few sources out: ‘They’re like spies!’” he says, chuckling. He adds earnestly: “I want to assure you that we have no links to anything.”

Local flavour RDA is neither left or right, but is a magazine that is “international in scope, regional in voice, and local in outlook,” says Plouffe, who takes pains to ensure that RDA is more relevant to the region, and pays attention to cultural sensitivities. “That’s the beauty of the Digest. We take a story, research it, and rewrite it for the country or region we’re in,” he says. He goes as far as choosing a “local colour palette” for the cover. Once, he chose a pandan green background for the September 2006 edition which featured Lat’s Kampung Boy (left). “If you ask any international magazine editor or designer, they’ll always tell you that ‘you don’t want a green cover, green doesn’t sell’. “But we put that on the Asian edition because it’s such a recognisable colour for (Asians). And it sold well,” he says. serif fonts to sans serif, and emphasising the word “Digest” instead of “Reader’s” to remind readers that it’s a digest. Malaysians will see the new cover next month. However, this revamp began in the other editions as early as January. The new RDA also has an extra eight pages with new columns such as Unbelievable! by Hong Kong’s best-selling novelist, Nury Vittachi, and a new advice column. Since 1963, when RDA was first published in Asia, it always ended in 145 pages, but it will now have at least 152 pages with more local and regional content.

Feature articles by Elizabeth Tai  

Selection of articles by Elizabeth Tai

Feature articles by Elizabeth Tai  

Selection of articles by Elizabeth Tai