Singapore--(AP) High-tech Singapore is locked in a tough struggle to balance the beliefs of its many ethnic and religious groups with a government drive to develop lucrative biotechnology, including the use of human embryonic stem cells.

Professor Lim Pin, chairman of the government-appointed Bioethics Advisory Committee, said on Thursday that his panel faces a "taxing and terrible" task. The government hopes to make the resource-poor city-state a "life sciences" hub, where leading international experts work on stem cell research and other cutting-edge medical technology. "We've got to move with the times," Lim said at a news conference Thursday after a closed-door meeting with religious groups on stem cell research. "Singapore is a small country. We've got to survive," Lim said. "If you look at the whole world, stem cell (research) is prohibited only in a minority of countries."

The advisory committee earlier recommended that using stem cells less than 14 days old for research on treating illness is acceptable, but that cloning embryos for reproduction is wrong. But some religious groups in Singapore believe that a human egg, upon fertilization, becomes "human - as good as you and me," Lim said.

Singapore's 4 million people form a complex mosaic of religious groups including Buddhists, Taoists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, B'hais and Zoroastrians. Religious issues are extremely sensitive in the tiny, urban republic, which was torn by bloody racial and religious riots in the 1950s and 1960s. Singapore has since enjoyed decades of harmony, but public discussion of religious matters is strictly regulated.

Protestants, Roman Catholics, Muslims, Taoists and Hindus sent representatives to Thursday's meeting, while Jewish and Buddhist groups sent letters to present their views, Lim said. Other groups were invited but did not attend. The main outcome of the meeting was that the various groups "understand each other's positions, and the rationales for those positions," Lim said. "We understand the diversity of views and positions, but that's all we can say," he said, adding that more meetings would be necessary. "We agree to disagree."

Singapore's Bioethics Advisory Committee was set up a year ago to help forge a common moral approach to biomedical issues, and to advise authorities on policy decisions. The 11-member committee includes scientists, a judge, a philosophy professor and a newspaper editor. "We may not be able to please everybody at the end of the day, but hopefully we can carry with us the majority of Singaporeans," Lim said.

Singapore - currently in its worst-ever recession - hopes biomedicine and other "life sciences" can lessen its dependence on exporting electronic goods. The country faces increasing competition in the industry from other Asian countries.

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