ST Review: MM's reassuring comments seal researcher's move here (March 29)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

March 29, 2008
MM's reassuring comments seal researcher's move here
By Chang Ai-Lien
IT WAS, in every sense, his dream job.

But if Professor Kerry Sieh had been handed $300 million on a platter
to start the region's biggest earth observatory a few years ago, his
answer would have been a firm no.

'I would not have come here if my partner could not have come with
me,' said Prof Sieh, who is gay.

But the words of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew changed his mind.

Though the male homosexual sex remains a crime in Singapore, MM Lee
had said in an interview last year that while Singapore wanted to
maintain its social norms, the Government should not pry on consenting

'We must take cognisance of the contemporary world that has become
more accommodating...

'Homosexuals are mostly born that way, and no public purpose is served
by interfering in their private lives,' said Mr Lee in an interview
published last July.

To Prof Sieh, who was on sabbatical at Nanyang Technological
University here last year, this was enough to show that attitudes
towards homosexuality here were changing.

'I'm no crusader, but I'm going to be myself,' he said.

Prof Sieh said the issue of whether he could take his partner with him
was the first one he raised with NTU when the university approached
him with an offer in October.

When NTU told him it had no objections, the 57-year-old said 'yes' to
the job of founding director at NTU's Earth Observatory of Singapore.

The facility will study plate movement, volcanic activity and climate

Prof Sieh is giving up a 30-year career at the California Institute of
Technology to take up the appointment here full-time, and will move
here with his partner in August.

'I have developed a real love for South-east Asian earthquake
geology,' said Prof Sieh, whose current research interest is Indonesia
- the world's hot spot for giant earthquakes.

Being in Singapore will mean he is 'right next to the earthquake
experiment', he added.

'For me, it's a thrill that we're in a place that has the economic
wherewithal to take on something like this.'

He hopes his research will lead to earlier earthquake forecasts, so
disasters can be averted.

'The idea is not just to save lives, but to save livelihoods as well,'
he said.

His interest in nature started when he spent summer months on his
grandparents' farm in Iowa as a boy.

His work on the infamous San Andreas fault led to the discovery of how
large earthquakes are often triggered by it in southern California.

More recently, together with colleagues and students, he finished a
study of Taiwan's multitude of active faults and figured out how
earthquakes there are creating that mountainous island.

He is currently a member of the United States National Academy of
Sciences and chaired professor at Caltech's Tectonics Observatory.

On the big move here, Prof Sieh, who enjoys snow skiing, jogging and
gardening, added: 'I'm excited. You have to leave your nest eventually
and do something great, I hope.'