Thursday, July 27, 2006

LEGOs and the 'happiness' debate in Singapore

The topic of 'happiness' seems to be attracting quite a lot of attention in Singapore blogosphere. In this essay I focus on the debate between those who argue that the government's role in cultivating societal happiness is restricted to economic management and those who argue that the government's role is broader than those listed above. The former group argues that people are 'diverse', and because they are diverse and want different things, the government can 'never please everybody'. Since this is the case, the reasoning goes, the next best thing to do is to simply secure the minimal conditions for happiness - that is, focus on economics, law and social order. As a response to HuiChieh's post on this topic, I presented a two-part argument comprising the following points (in his comments section):

I argued that the problem with the view that the government's role should be restricted to economic management is the following one (which I shall elaborate on over the next three paragraphs). Some citizens only wish to have a good Life, in the individualistic sense, while others wish to have a good Society. The happiness of the former group is more easily secured as long as (a) the economy is doing well, (b) infrastructures are good/surroundings are beautiful, and (c) the place is safe. For this group, there are only three 'necessary' conditions. For the latter group, there may be more, or different, 'necessary' conditions, which may or may not include (a)-(c) above. For them, perhaps the necessary condition for happiness is not (just) a good individual life, but a good society. Now, the tricky part lies here: (1) it is not that the former group discussed above does not Want to have a good Society, it's just that for them to be happy, they only need to be in a place - any place in this world - where they can make money, enjoy physical safety, and so on. And (2) they Want a good society but they do not 'will' it (as philosopher Immanuel Kant would've put it). That is, they do not want it badly enough to do what's necessary to achieve it, and instead just go about their daily lives in a rather apathetic manner. This does not mean, however, that they will not be happy if they could see their Society progress in terms of cultural and political development (e.g. 'opening up'), and they may even agree with the latter group regarding the elements of the good Society.

I believe that the latter group performs an important role in society precisely by urging people to shift their focus from the good Life to the good Society, to be less 'utilitarian' and more 'Kantian'. Dansong in his essay has gone even further, talking about the good World characterized by a global ecological sensitivity. So what exactly is good? For the first group discussed above, the good life is secured by good economic management. For the second group, the good life has 'the good Society' as a necessary condition, which means the government cannot say that they've done a good job just because the economy is doing well, for the 'society' is broader than the 'economy'. The fact that there is a coupling between Life-Society for the second group and an absence of coupling for the first group creates a fracturing in society. If the first group still forms the majority, yes, one could say that the 'majority is happy', but this would then amount to a 'tyranny of the majority', for the intensity of the Unhappiness of the minority (perhaps not even a Small minority) could be very high indeed.

My arguments presented in the three paragraphs above have been rebutted, but I shall present a counter-rebuttal here. Essentially, the objections hinge on the claim that there is indeed a vast 'diversity' of views concerning the 'good Life' and the 'good Society'. This objection appears convincing on the surface, but its convincingness is based on a vagueness that translates into an apparent accuracy of description. Both HuiChieh and The Legal Janitor felt that any society, including Singapore, will definitely be diverse enough to make their arguments stand, and that empirical research will definitely not produce evidence to challenge the diversity-argument that has been marshalled in the rebuttal. HuiChieh nonetheless presented some observations concerning the 'multicultural diversity' that characterizes Singapore, and inferred from that very multiculturalism that there is indeed 'sufficient diversity' to make his original argument stand. Thus, we are led all the way back to square one - to the suggestion that the role of the government is really just to do a good job in economic management, law and order maintenance, and minimization of risks of all kinds. Is that really true? I argue that it's not, for the following reasons:

First, the diversity-argument amounts to little more than an assumption or hypothesis, and it conflates various kinds of 'diversity'. For example, just because a country is multicultural does not mean that it cannot at the same time be 'one-dimensional'. This one-dimensionality could be characterized by a pervasive culture of consumerism, political apathy, 'kiasuism', and so on. Ethnic, religious, and nationality-based 'diversities' and other kinds of diversity may or may not be correlated with diversity regarding conceptions of the good Life and Society, and they are not effective defences against the pathological effects of one-dimensionality. But at the same time, thankfully, they are also not necessarily factors that will always make agreement concerning the good Society impossible.

Second, I present my theory of 'Life Still Goes On' in order to help me counter the rebuttals. This theory posits that for a significant number of people, cultural and political development in Society at large simply has no bearing on their happiness in their own lives (as I argued above while discussing the Life-Society coupling). As long as the economy is doing well and they are still Breathing - that is, as long as Life Still Goes On - they are not likely to be unhappy and might even be happy. The problem with HuiChieh and Legal Janitor's dismissal of the need for empirical research in specific societies in that in different societies, the number of such people varies. For the sake of further discussion, I call them 'LEGOs' (Life Endlessly/still Goes On), and they are a type that can be contrasted against 'LAGOs' (Life Actually Goes On). LAGOs are defined as people whose concern about Society (or even the World at large) causes them to be significantly affected emotionally by the state of cultural and political development in their nation. Their existence in this world is accompanied by the passionate desire to see a Good Society. Now, here's where yet another rebuttal needs to be countered. It is argued by critics that what characterises the Good Society can never be agreed on totally.

It is true that there can never be 100 percent agreement on what constitutes the good society. However, this does not mean that the main elements of such a society are equally contentious. The seemingly convincing rebuttal derives its convincingness from a strategic distraction achieved by pointing to an obvious truism, namely, that there can never be 100 percent agreement on what constitutes the good Life and good Society. Yet, the critics then forget that proponents of the original argument (e.g. myself) do wholeheartedly agree on this point. I also agree (and most people would, too) that the good Society and Life is one that is without religious, ethnic, or political conflicts of great intensity, one that is without the 'clash of civilizations' described by International Relations scholar Samuel Huntington. Why can't there be agreement on most elements of the good Life and Society? Once again, the critics (a) point to the existence of a visible diversity (of race, nationality, class, and so on), and (b) argue that this apparent diversity therefore signals an invisible 'diversity' concerning conceptions of the good Life and Society. As I have argued earlier, these are two different types of diversity; they are not the same, and the first type of diversity doesn't necessarily offer any defence against the virus of pervasive one-dimensionality of life.

How, then, do we conclude on this issue? First, I still believe that empirical studies in actual societies must have a place in the discussion, for just as the critics believe that there is 'diversity at large', there is simultaneously a 'diversity of types of societies', some of which are possibly more one-dimensional than others. Second, I believe that HuiChieh's focus on economic management ends up prioritizing only one of the three categories of factors in a proper calculus of happiness, namely, 'hygiene factors', to borrow and adapt the term of management theorist Frederick Herzberg. There is a problematic neglect of two other important factors, namely, what I'd call (a) 'happiness factors', and (b) 'disgust factors'. Hygiene factors merely ensure that people in a nation are not unhappy, but it does not make them happy. Happiness factors are required to make them happy, provided the counter-effects of disgust factors are not overly strong. Two other points need to be made: first, the temporal and developmental elements should be taken into account in trying to understand why people are happy or not. For it is not merely the state of a society that makes people happy or unhappy; it is also the perception about the speed And the direction in which that society is progressing culturally and politically that affects happiness. Second, people in a society have been treated in earlier analyses by others as discrete units of pseudo-robots (which may well be capable of experiencing a narrow range of binary or simple emotions, e.g. either happy or sad/not), but they are not treated as complex human beings who are likely to experience ambivalence (mixed feelings), self-denial, regret-mixed-with-disappointment, dilemmas (e.g. 'I want the cake and eat it too') and other more complex emotions. It is only through a recognition of the complexity of human emotions that one can begin to appreciate the seriousness of the problem of a society made up of seemingly-contented-but-not-really-satisfied people, living alongside seemingly-neutral-people-who-nonetheless-have-hopes, as well as physically-alive-but-soulless-worker-humanoids.

Relevant web-pages
(1) Harvard's Business professor Michael Porter's 'Diamond Model of Competitive Advantage of Nations'
(2) George Mason's Public Policy professor Richard Florida's observations about the 'Rise of the Creative Class'
(3) U-of-Southern California/Berkeley's Communications/Sociology/Urban Planning professor Manuel Castells's book, 'The Power of Identity'
(4) Affective Computing robot-building projects at M.I.T.'s Media Lab
(5) Film Analysis of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)
(6) World Database of Happiness and the U.S. Misery Index (Economics approach)
(7) Psychological research on emotions at U-of-Geneva, Switzerland
(8) Funny/wise/interesting Quotes on 'Boredom' (Literary resources)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Living in Singapore

Blogger Ringisei once left a comment in Xenoboy’s blog which sparked off my thoughts that constitute this essay; Ringisei said, ‘Iain M. Banks wrote that the universal human desire is not to feel useless. Laying that out in parallel with JFK's line that ends with what can one do for one's country, perhaps then fulfillment lies outside the borders of our republic because of the sense that I, as an individual, have nothing to offer my country. Especially when its rulers seem to want nothing more from me than to be an anonymous statistic.’ It is indeed quite ironic that the desire to do something significant for the country could sometimes translate into a strange feeling of disillusionment, which might in turn trigger the urge to leave this place. In Xenoboy's own essay, he considered the tensions that one might feel if (a) one moves or migrates but doesn’t actually feel like moving and (b) if one stays but actually does feel like moving. I actually think that the former case is quite rare; it is the latter case that is more common…. Here, I talk about related issues of 'contemplations of leaving' and 'happy living in Singapore' and focus on the situation faced by married couples with or without kids.

I think that the ‘cost of leaving’ (a phrase coined by Xenoboy) is always determined by the perceived cost of leaving felt by 'the family member who is most reluctant or somehow unable to leave’. A man may really dislike living in Singapore, perhaps because he doesn’t like certain things here, but may stay on because his partner/wife thinks that life in Singapore is still tolerable, or because a next-of-kin (e.g. ageing mother) needs or prefers to stay here. To the one who would rather stay here, this ‘First World paradise’ is the only place in this world where one can find the things that he/she cherishes - tasty food (although it's getting costlier), comfortable trains (although they're getting more crowded), and functioning and beautiful lifts (on every floor soon!) Clean shopping malls and safe streets, conservative and wholesome culture without porn. A place where sexuality is tightly regulated in a global era of decreasing conservativeness and a place of morally perfect beings. There is no other paradise better than this place.

Thus, a man with the inclination to move may end up choosing to stay, not because he really loves it here, but because of loved ones who think that everything is ‘okay wat’. Note that the Singlish term 'wat', conveys a great deal about the nuances of the emotions felt in Singapore. In this place, family ties reign supreme, and therefore in order to leave, you need everybody in the family to feel the same way. But why might one even want to leave a place that’s seen by others to be like ‘Heaven’, Xenoboy asked in his blog. It's indeed puzzling, given that in this world there are many places that are not so livable due to natural or political forces. In some ways Singapore does feel a bit like Heaven, but for this ‘heavenly’ characteristic to surface, I think the following conditions would have to apply:

(a) indifference to what goes on in society at large (e.g. happy to indulge solely in pop culture and/or in a work-till-you-drop culture);
(b) no deep liking for variety in terms of leisure options (e.g. happy to go to Orchard Road or the zoo to see orang utans, week after week, month after month);
(c) no inclination to be close to nature (e.g. happy to be surrounded by concrete buildings and fake and non-artistic artefacts) and no liking for the four seasons;
(d) no financial worries (e.g. people who find HDB flats ‘affordable’);
(e) no worries about the future (e.g. people who tend not to think long-term and worry about high medical costs especially when one gets old);
(f) happy to take the public transport and not own cars (do not mind waiting for 25 mins for a bus to come; do not mind paying $4 to book at 'peak-hours' for taxis that crawl through crowded highways; the 'peak hours' are really long, mind you, and there are more ERP gantries now);
(g) the tendency to compare ‘downwards’ with economically worse-off countries, instead of ‘sideways’ or ‘upwards’ with economically comparable or better-off countries, especially those that are slightly or significantly more 'open', culturally and politically.

This is not meant to a criticism of the fine job that the government has done. I would acknowledge that no government can overcome the inherent limitations of a place that is lacking in natural scenic places and natural resources, and has such a small land area and tiny population. In this volatile era, no government can really feel confident of maintaining economic relevance as a hub for high-end knowledge-based activities or control escalating costs of imported products. So economically, I would say that the government is doing a good job. But in this globalizing era, when ideas flow across borders, discontentment regarding the ‘unique political system’ will invariably arise among a significant proportion of the population and the resulting tensions will always be there. This emotional tension is something that citizens must choose to live with or ‘grow to like’, as I see it, because the failure to do so will result in an angst-ridden dissonance that is not spiritually healthy. And those who are capable of leaving or capable enough to leave may really just decide to 'exit', rather than 'voice' their displeasure or 'stay' on (And it would be problematic if some of the most talented locals leave; let's face it, it is a loss to Singapore.)

I think there are two groups of mobile citizens: the first group leaves because they are pragmatic and leave for the sake of a better lifestyle or other instrumental reasons (esp $$), the second group leaves because they are idealistic and feel that Singapore is not the kind of ‘open society’ that they want. Apart from those who stay because of family reasons, there are three other groups who stay: (a) people with no views (they just don’t think about the kind of life they prefer, and so they just hang around wherever they are, due to inertia), (b) people with views but can compromise, perhaps because their views are not so strongly held anyway, and (c) people who fit in very well ideologically because they find Singapore’s ‘unique political system’ not merely acceptable but actually ‘quite good’! (Having said that, there's also nothing wrong with being group (c) - it's up to individual preference.) The 'extreme' people in group (c) would be those ‘patriots’ who occasionally write in to the Straits Times Forum section with their mushy letters that alienate people, insofar as they come across as ingratiating and sarcastic reprimanding letters more than anything else.

My guess is that many Singaporeans fall under group (b) above. Here's the reason: Singaporeans aren’t exactly the type of human beings who are inclined to hold strong views for anything. I don't think they'll hate something very much, or love something very much. For example, if you ask them how's their work, they'll say 'Okay lah'; if you ask them how's their studies, they'll say 'Okay lah' (see Xenoboy's essay). Where's the passion for the work and the subject! Heavenly Sword really wants to see people with passion, and feels upset when he can't see many of them. Also, many are so well-trained in ‘super-balanced reasoning’ during their school days, that they have become reasonably competent when it comes to seeing both sides of an issue but have somehow lost the ability or inclination (a) to firmly decide which side is better (and stand by their views), (b) to formulate a more unusual position (and present it publicly) or (c) to analyze things more creatively (and risk being wrong). I add that they are (analytically-speaking) also not quite able to piece together many parts of the jigsaw so that the whole picture becomes clearer and the contradictions of society become clearer. The latter type of inaptitude is perhaps due to the constant stress by all kinds of figures of authority that you ‘must always have facts to back up what you say’. The ghostly voice urges one to be a mental slave and subject oneself to the ‘constraint of the empirical’ - for facts may sometimes limit one’s imagination. So being a slave to a set of facts means that one’s capacity for unusual thinking is delimited by what that set of facts says, because anything not said out loud by the facts fall under the realm of the subjective (re the saying that 'facts speak for themselves'), and Singaporeans do not dare to be subjective, and hence they do not dare to interpret – at least not in a radically creative way. Being a slave to facts destroy one’s confidence in his or her intuition which can be a most powerful thing. I have some ideas for Singapore, but I do not present them to the Minister, even if I have the conviction that I'm right. Why? Because I don't have enough 'facts', I don't have enough statistics; it's all sixth-sense...Sadly, a facts-focused orientation and an intuition-driven one are fundamentally different, and what Singapore badly needs now is greater confidence in the latter, in things which are intuitive...

Will Singapore change significantly in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time? I don’t think so, unfortunately, because this system as I see it is built for century-long equilibrium, and the stabilizing forces are too deeply entrenched. These forces have been presented above, and I summarize them briefly: First, most families here tend to think that life is generally fine because they use the material rather than the spiritual yardstick. And Singaporeans, being always glued to the family network, will always compromise obediently. So even the disgruntled talented Singaporean isn't so mobile after all, because of the stickiness of family ties and the immobility of entire family networks. Second, Singaporeans tend to be well-socialized in what I call 'super-balanced reasoning', and this affects their tendency to hold unusual views or hold any particular view very strongly, let alone articulate them. Finally, an obsession with a harrowing work culture and consumer culture is de-politicizing in its effects. Nobody has the time and inclination for heavy discussions of social issues and politics; they would rather 'chill out' in the pubs. Work culture supports consumer culture, while consumer culture legitimizes the oppression imposed by the work culture. When both cultures are well-accepted as part of the way life is Meant to be, that's still alright, but when both cultures are well-accepted as the whole way of life in Singapore, together they make Singaporeans think that that is all there is to life in general. Sad it is, indeed, but not if one doesn’t realize it, since ignorance is always bliss, and I have tried (and have given up on) changing the views of those who think differently from me. I do not want to disrupt the happy equilibrium in this nation, even if the foundations of this equilibrium don't feel quite right to me.

Related essays and webpages
(1) Xenoboy's 'Cost of leaving in Singapore', 'What makes me, me?', and 'Lost leaves, lahs and lors'
(2) Ringisei's review of Albert Hirschman's classic, 'Exit, voice, and loyalty'
(3) Prime Minister's Office, Overseas Singaporean Unit (OSU) and Ministry of Home Affairs's press release on Overseas Singaporean Community (March 13th, 2006)
(4) Parable of the Prodigal Son
(5) Fairy tale Three Princes of Serendip and The Meanings of 'Serendip'

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Against non-anonymity in cyberspace

Today I shall argue against an influential school of thought regarding the issue of 'anonymity in cyberspace'. I believe that the proponents of this school of thought are wrong not only because of the kind of claims that they're making, but also in the way they have made them. Some even go as far as expressing a strong sense of 'disgust' and 'distaste' for bloggers who do not reveal their real identity.

Expressions such as 'closet of anonymity', 'coming out of the internet', 'hiding behind the internet', 'using pseudonyms to disguise themselves' are unflattering and also disturbing to the ears. They are disturbing because not only are they mistaken to assume that anonymity and pseudonymity are driven mainly (although not exclusively) by fear and guilt alone, but also because such an assumption then becomes an implicit attack on the moral character of the anonymous/pseudonymous bloggers. Such an implicit attack is uncalled for when the latter have done nothing wrong at all simply by doing what the available technology and the laws of the land allow them to do.

I think everybody has a right to decide for himself whether he wants to 'let the whole world know who he is' or not. For those who have good reasons to want to be known by the people with whom he communicates, I'm happy for them because they have found a reason to step forward and say 'look, this is who I am', and presumably a range of practical, psychic, and social benefits (both real and imagined ones) would follow from their declaration. But this does not mean, conversely, that people who do not follow suit are somehow morally inferior for not doing so.

First, one cannot assume that other blog readers really WANT to know who you are. Are we so important that our views must necessarily be accompanied with our photos, full name, occupation, and other details? How far shall this revelation of personal details go, and who is to decide for bloggers? Why should these people decide in a society of equals (ideally-speaking)?

Second, like what blogger Design Translator says, he does not go around flaming people and so he should have nothing to hide. I agree but this argument can swing the other way too: if a blogger using a pseudonym ALSO doesn't go around flaming others, why should he be treated as though he is 'morally lacking' in some ways? What 'wrong' has he done other than to deprive others the knowledge of who he really is and how he looks? Some may argue further that bloggers who use pseudonyms tend to flame others, 'take pot shots' at others, and say irresponsible things, but would this not mean, then, that the REAL issues concern the latter three actions or practices, rather than the mere adoption of an online pseudonym per se?

Another important point I'd raise is that even the majority of the pseudonymous bloggers themselves (and anonymous readers) would agree wholeheartedly that defamatory, seditious, and blasphemous comments are unethical and unlawful, and should not be made. So why should they be blamed, given that they also condemn such actions? Finally, if something that has been said is serious enough to warrant legal action, I am sure the parties concerned or the police force would do so, without concerned citizens having to worry about whether the policemen would shirk their responsibilities or not.

May I go on and present a set of reasons for wanting to remain anonymous or pseudonymous in cyberspace. I hope readers will agree that these are perfectly honourable reasons for using pseudonyms when presenting one's views for the rest of Singapore (and indeed the world) to read, or for remaining anonymous:

First, I believe that it should always be strength of the arguments and the frequency of well-argued essays that determine one's overall 'credibility'. Who you are--and thus your gender, age, race, occupation, employer, educational profile, and so on--should not be used to support your arguments in anyway. The mere fact that someone reveals his identity, credentials and affiliation does not make his arguments any better. In fact, at times one's affiliation may well affect the credibility since people might think 'ah you're writing that because your identity is public and you simply have to appear politically correct!' Similarly people in positions of authority may want to write anonymously because of the desire to let people decide rationally on the basis of sound arguments alone rather than on the basis of power relationships. Another situation could be that one may not want his own pessimism about certain phenomena to be associated with his organization, which is in fact a hallmark of a sensibly responsible (albeit pessimistic) person. I would urge critics to remember that the blogging audience is only one among several groups of stakeholders to this activity of blogging, so the 'stakes' of other groups are not any less than the 'stakes' of curious bloggers who are obsessed with real identities. Note, too, that unless one is a parrot and/or a person who does not think, being a supporter or even member of organization (say X) does not mean that one AGREES with every single policy of organization X all the time. Yet, having said that, just because one does not agree with every single policy also does not mean that he cannot simultaneously accept the necessity to be politically correct at least on certain occasions. And one of the ways to be politically correct is precisely NOT to use one's real identity which can always be traced--with the help of the Internet search engines of course--to the organizations with which one is affiliated.

Secondly, I would urge the proponents of this 'anonymity-is-atrocious' (AIA) school of thought to consider the fact that things are really not all that different in the real world in which we live--where feedback forms of numerous organizations are often anonymous by default, or at least allows anonymity as an option. Thirdly, not everybody likes the whole world or whole nation to know so much about them. Even in a big conference, members of the audience who have views may not want to step out, for the simple reason that they do not want 500 pairs of eyes staring at them even for those few minutes. If this is part of the 'shy' personality of real people, should they not be granted the basic rights to be shy?

Fourthly, the 'game' of cyber-interactions is precisely designed like that--critics should therefore blame the game and not the players of the game. Can you imagine a game of hide-and-seek where passers-by condemn the individual players for hiding? In addition, given the way this game has proceeded, it is currently only the minority who are NOT anonymous, and so at this stage the following argument can be made: people remain anonymous because they don't want to be the minority! And as a blog reader or forum participant, one also has the option to remaining anonymous, so I consider this to be a very fair game since people who do not agree with certain points can always argue back and if they do so skilfully, they may be able to make the other party's argument look much weaker than it originally appeared to be.

Thus, with the above criticisms of the AIA (Anonymity-Is-Atrocious) school of thought regarding cyber-anonymity/pseudonymity, as well as the set of reasons I've presented for wanting to participate in cyber-civil society without being a public figure, I hope I have managed to convince not only the undecided, but also the skeptical, particularly the proponents of the AIA school of thought themselves.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

On organizations that are less than world-class

This very short essay presents my views about a type of organizations that I call 'organizations that are less than world-class'. There are 4 characteristics of such organizations:

(1) They pay peanuts and yet they expect the people working for them to devote 300, 500, or even 800 percent of their energies. They tell you to be 'professional', to put in extra effort, to be 'prepared for long hours', and so on, conveniently forgetting that they are actually under-paying you (hoping that like a small child you'll forget)...They do not care if what you earn using all your time will not be enough for you to pay your bills or take care of your family, because what they care about is only the question of how to extract everything out of you (or in Mandarin, 'ba2 ni3 zha4 gan1'), like the way the SugarCaneDrinks Man puts the sugarcanes through the extractor-machine repeatedly until every drop of the sugarcane juice is squeezed out, and the sugarcane promptly discarded....

(2) Not only do they do (1), they also have the cheek to say this aloud and with a straight face - for the employees, temp staff, and the public to hear. It's obvious that such organizations (especially their useless HR departments) think that they are doing the right thing. The most sinister thing about such organizations is that they under-pay you but they tell you that it's 'a fair wage' or 'market rate'. The term 'market rate' is abused by these unethical organizations and their agents to justify the practice of paying peanuts. Ironically, these organizations tell you that you're really valuable to them and you play an 'immensely important role' in upholding the image of the organization and in delivering the goods; yes, you are crucial to the organization, without all your 'good work' the show cannot go on. Indeed the show cannot go on, for this is hypocrisy well-performed - co-acted by the employees who are sufficiently brainwashed...

(3) Following from (1) and (2), you might think that only people with low skills are affected by such unethical practices. This is not true - even highly skilled people are affected. The rhetoric of the knowledge-based economy may give the public an impression that 'ah, finally people with Knowledge are going to be recognized and rewarded more!' But this is a misleading image which masks the actual realities of organizational HR practices. In the knowledge-based economy, what happens might be the opposite: the highly skilled people are rewarded less, or at least less than what they deserve, because the transformations towards the KBE involve the mass production of highly skilled workers, to the extent that the plentiful supply makes each of them a cheap commodity. Have I shattered your dreams? No fear, my friend, for shit happens... :)

(4) They do not have the ability to recognize good people, including job applicants and existing staff. So if great applicants apply, they are promptly rejected, precisely because a mediocre or lousy organization simply cannot recognize greatness (If they could they wouldn't still be mediocre or lousy, would they?) Existing staff who add value or are rare gems are not treasured, and they are sometimes even treated with suspicion - precisely because of their greatness. Greatness sometimes manifests as a form of 'deviance' (without deviating from the crowd, how does one be great?), and mediocre and lousy organizations are entities that cannot tolerate deviance, so they remain just ordinary players in whichever industry or sector they are operating in. When the nail that sticks out gets hammered and only conformist 'yes-men' fill all the professional roles, how can such organizations ever hope to become 'world-class'?

So this short essay has presented my views on a certain organizational type. These organizations are liabilities in any knowledge-based economy, but Singapore has failed to recognize the threat that they pose collectively. The tricky thing about these organizations is that they are lousy but not lousy enough to die off, and so they go about their businesses as usual, projecting the image to outsiders that they are 'doing quite well'. But in their lastingness they do even more damage to the country as a whole, as they silently finish off on a massive scale all the great people or do things that extinguish their creative excellence, slowly but surely.....

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Analyzing Mr Brown's original article

Mr Brown wrote an article in Today newspaper, entitled 'Singaporeans are fed, up with progress!' on 3rd July 2006, which triggered a response from the Ministry of Information, Communication & the Arts (MICA) of Singapore.

The response from MICA has been thoroughly deconstructed by many pseudonymous bloggers as well as anonymous/pseudonymous blog-readers. Many argued that the most troubling conclusions from this episode are the following: (a) that citizens cannot criticize Singapore in any way (including the humorous way), (b) that if citizens do want to criticize, then they must offer solutions, and (c) if citizens criticize publicly, then they must be prepared for nothing less than the swiftest and harshest response. Make no mistake: this is Singapore, and we are definitely a 'swift-response' city and the 'hub of harsh replies'! :)

Thanks to MICA's response which triggered an uproar in cyberspace, I became curious and popped over to Mr Brown's blog just to see what the fuss was all about. I read MICA's response first, and by the end of it I was almost convinced that Mr Brown is an anti-Singapore person who is highly dangerous and who can never see the positive aspects of government policies. Then I read Mr Brown's original article, just to see what are some of the terrible things he wrote, and I reached the following conclusions....

(1) MICA should not be angry with Mr Brown, because Mr Brown did say that the Progress Package which should have been used to 'cope with the rising costs' ends up being used by some Singaporeans for the purchase of unimportant consumer goods. Hence, 'too bad for them then', says Mr Brown.

(2) Mr Brown did not criticize Singapore's IT programmes; he was simply arguing that 'outsourcing' of projects to private companies comes with an inevitable price. He did say that he 'understands the cost of building these roads is high, and the government is relooking the financing of these big road projects'.

(3) Mr Brown's real criticism is probably his suggestion that despite the glittering and impressive symbols of progress, these symbols themselves come with a price, thus neutralizing the progressive effects of the policies put in place by the well-intentioned government. He did not say that the government has bad intentions. Neither did he say that the policies were ineffective. He was simply saying that you need money to pay for all these shiny, cool, and efficient technological artefacts - which is true!

(4) Regarding means-testing, Mr Brown wrote, 'we do know many families who cannot [afford it]....but don't worry. Most of you don't have this problem. Your normal kids can go to regular school for very low fees, and I am sure they will not introduce means testing for your cases.' Mr Brown is pointing out - in a non-partisan manner - the fact that many families cannot afford it, which is a truism in any society! (Which society doesn't have poor families?) He did not say that the government will neglect the needs of these poor families or will fail to exercise flexible discretion in borderline cases. He is simply saying that while price increases are not necessarily nice, as long as he can still afford it, he can't complain because the poorer families are worse off than him.

(5) Next, Mr Brown, through his article, merely expressed a sincere hope that children with special needs can get 'a little more therapy to help them walk and talk', and 'if the country does really well,...a little more subsidy'. What's wrong with a citizen writing this to express a hope? Can't citizens have hopes?

(6) And finally, the pseudonym 'Mr Brown' is used by Mr Lee Kin Mun; even Heavenly Sword who usually stays in the mountain practising his kungfu knows this... :)

The response from MICA, nonetheless, did not surprise me. (You mean you're surprised?) :) I can see where it's coming from, and I respectfully acknowledge what it's saying. But the purpose of this short post has been to argue that MICA's interpretation of Mr Brown's original article is wrong, hence triggering an overly harsh reply to an actually-innocent Singaporean.

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