Category: socio-politics

Patient Idealism

How can we think about idealism, when faced with the challenges in society and the world? Is it the end of the road, when we hit cynicism? Do we become apathetic fatalists, in which nothing we can do will ever change the situation? I think cynicism is not the final answer, and being a cynical idealism is an awkward term of phrase. I believe that the phrase to use is patient idealism, and it captures the reality of what happens in the world, yet also provides the space for ideals to be realised.

Cynicism had a different meaning in ancient Greece. Wikipedia described it as “living with virtue”, as in, living with the barest of necessities. Wikipedia also describes Cynicism as “to live regardless of the vicissitudes of life”, and to seek “eudaimonia.”[1]

The contemporary meaning of the words cynic and cynicism refers to a mindset that regards people as selfish, ruled by emotions, and fundamentally untrustworthy (also from Wikipedia). [2]

I guess there’s a very natural tendency for cynics to become apathetic about life, and then to think about how to get ahead, to live in reverse of the ancient cynics and seek material life as comfort and as the aim of life.

Cynicism appears to emerge during the transition of youth and into the real world of real responsibilities. Working in organisations, one can become disillusioned at what the world offers. I guess this transition is difficult for youths who have had some experience of activism, and realise that the world can be harder to change than when they first joined the scene. Many young people use their experience in activism as a CV filler to help them climb ladders to exclusive educational institutions; I guess they imbibe the values of the world and continue climbing other, perhaps even non-activist ladders.

There will be many people who use the term, “tempered idealism” as a way to communicate the result when the reality of things clashes with their idealism. People use the phrase to describe how their idealism needs to be compromised, especially when they seem unattainable now. Those who cannot see accommodation or compromises between so-called ideals and so-called reality can also lapse into apathy or fatalism – the belief that nothing possible can be done, so there’s little point in trying anything.

Many positions are possible. I remember using the terms “tempered idealism” a lot myself. Gradually however, I felt that this did not reflect what I truly felt. I did not feel that idealism was being moderated or had to be subjected to moderation or compromise. I thought that there were things I believed in that are good goals in themselves, and can be attained. However, they would need time to achieve. That led me to realise that a distinctly-different position was possible, and for myself, I call this patient idealism.

There might be a whole bunch of reasons why the factor of time is often not considered in activism and idealism. One of it could be due to life-experience. I guess when young people start out projects, they are often quickly done, and for great effect. People are often quickly encouraged, and want to do bigger and better things, and quickly hitting the limits of scale and resources. The other reason could be due to the general feeling of instant gratification, the idea that change must come, and it should come now and all at once. The other thing could be the idea that efforts will be rewarded with the goal – that a serious, concerted effort to make change happen can truly result in a discontinuous change or a break with the past.

All of these notions ignore the necessity of time, and the inertia of human institutions. Those views also ignore human psychology – that existing habits are, obviously hard to change, and that much social change, is a change in habits and mental perspectives, and those things cannot, are not subjected to large internal changes. To truly effect the changes one wishes to see in the world (after changing oneself, of course), one would have to change the direction of the organisations and institutions that matter. The would-be-activist would either establish an organisation, and grow it, or to enter into an organisation, and continuously change the groups that they find themselves in. After all, much of human activity takes place in organisations. Does the Internet portend a different model of organisation? As revolutionary as it is, it turns out that the Internet has appeared to strengthen the need for organisations – the Internet has changed the format and technology of organising, but it has not changed the need for organisations. No matter how crowdsourced a movement is, leadership is still necessary, though the leadership in dispersed connected movements call forth different skills.

Establishing a thriving organisation and climbing organisational ladders both take a lot of time, and both entail significant risks for the activist. Establishing a new organisation be it a movement or a social organisation is fraught with risks. Where does one get the resources of people and capital? Will the competition choke off growth? Can it find the legitimacy to survive? Yet there are clear advantages too. In establishing a new organisation, one can do something truly new (at least according to the founder), and not be weighed down by history and established patterns. One can afford to take risks in new organisations, and failure is possible. In entering an existing organisation, one faces a different set of conditions. There are existing patterns and habits, which in themselves are already difficult to change. One has to convince others that the change is legitimate, and functionally better. Activists would have to convince that the change advocated for is aligned with the direction of the organisation, and find more senior staff who can protect them from change-adverse colleagues, or even from other activists advocating for their direction of the organisation. They do however, take on far less risk than the starter of a new endeavour. Herein is the major tradeoff that is often not articulated – it is the tradeoff between risk and freedom.

Being an activist, or more broadly, a social agent of change is a matter of habit. One does not suddenly realise the need for change – one sees opportunities for change in many situations on many occasions. And there often are opportunities for change every where – the question is one of far-reaching it goes. It could be simple as making a mundane procedure more efficient, with less steps in between initiation and implementation, or in organising a movement for a previously neglected social need. One doesn’t wake up and realise that the world is fundamentally flawed and in need for a change in direction towards a greater good; one starts exploring how flawed the world is and sees the opportunities for change.

I don’t believe that one needs to climb to the top of the organisation hierarchy before change can be enacted. Activism – in whatever form, is a habit, and a skill – one in which there are paths to improvement, where mastery can be defined and attained. As with all skills, however, it requires time – the time to practise, to reflect on how to do it better, and to have the clarity of the goals to be achieved. Activism requires patience.

Policies enacted by government (or any other institution) can only do so much to get people thinking about their present conditions, and do so much to change their behaviours. Think about changing habits – habits are difficult to change when they are formed. Yet they can change, although they sometimes require an event major enough to change. And so think about the difficulty of engaging in change-making projects – without a crisis backdrop, people are generally not convinced of the need for change, because it would involve additional work especially during periods of transition. There are limits to how much change people can stomach all at once. With these things in mind, one realises that incremental changes are not acts of cowardice or conservativeness (though they can be). Incremental change is just the realisation of psychological realities – everything happening all at once fundamentally is just too much for people to stomach. Still, incremental changes, pursued consistently in the same direction, leads up to major changes. They take time, however, from five to ten years, and they depend on the fickleness of leadership and circumstances, which can unravel schemes. In activism and change-making, one has to play the very-long-game, and that is why it can take one’s entire lifetime for a cause.

This is why I use the term patient idealist for myself. I believe change is possible, even deep fundamental changes. However, they will take time to fully manifest, bearing in mind the realities of human psychology and the inertia of organisation and institutions. But they are only obstacles, and besides, what good important work wasn’t difficult?



4 Magical Political Words

Because they can mean anything to anyone.

1. Affordability

This word is often used in the context of public service delivery, such as with housing, public transport, healthcare, and education. Then there is also things to do with costs of living as in, “Singapore is becoming less affordable”. Of course, the sharp-witted public will immediately point out that affordability depends on the who’s using the service, and who’s producing the service. And oftentimes, the range of people using a public service can be very wide, and so the term should be used for the lower-income deciles, where affordability of public services can be a make-or-break difference in how they can save enough for their family or to make a living. So instead of simply asking whether public services are ‘affordable’, people should be asking, “how much is the increment of service x, and how are the lower-income people shielded from the effects?” For the rest of us, the question of affordability should really be – is my income rising faster than the increments? If yes, ignore news, if no, then… well…

2. Sustainability

This term is so often used that its becoming an empty phrase. In popular use, sustainability is used in the environmental context (as I remembered it being used in the early 90s) – as a term to look at the longer-term viability of the natural environment and to preserve it for succeeding generations. In my recent memory, the term is being used to describe the financial viability of public finances and with economic growth, as with “sustainable economic growth” – as with China – which is confusing because it can describe both the environmental aspects and the viability of 7.5% and above GDP growth.

So I propose that sustainability should really just be replaced with “longer-term soundness (or viability)” – which is what most people are trying to get at. However, this only solves half of the problem; the other half is that people don’t seem to understand that longer-term viability depends on the flows of production, consumption and (re)cycling mechanisms – that’s why I guess it was used first in the environmental context, and now looking at financial contexts.

When I think of public schemes, I think of cash transfer and other such subsidies. In self-reliant Singapore, one question that pops is whether such transfers and subsidies are “sustainable or not?” That’s really quite simplistic, because such transfers or subsidies really assume a wider context of economic growth or some other stable condition. Without that linkage to income flows, questions of longer-term viability are just not worth addressing.

“But maybe increased transfers can make public finances less sound?” Well, *shrugs – that really is a political question, on how much people want to receive, and how much we believe that taking care of each other is important. As for soundness well, unless country X hired Y financial company to fiddle around public finances, I wouldn’t be too worried. I hope common sense prevails, of course, that people fundamentally understand that soundness basically just means spending within means and save something for the future.  Because there won’t be an external party to bail us out.

3. Engagement

This really is a representative of the various terms used to describe government-society relations. How much input should the public and civil society groups have in considering policies? What are the political considerations for the political parties taking part in these kinds of exercises? In SIngapore the second question of political parties is often ignored, but this might not always be the case. My attention is on the first question – and that has been addressed in one of the articles in Ethos magazine on the spectrum of engagement, ranging from inform, to consultation, to consensus-building, and then co-creation. In summary – there are many forms of communications, some of which cannot be told to the public, some of which requires feedback especially on technical affairs, others are more open and wide-ranging, when some others require the public to act first. All of these depends obviously on the context of the situation, and the outcomes to be achieved. Slapping “engagement” on every single government-society interaction dilutes the term of its meaning, and increases the cynicism and confusion when such events takes place.

4. Inclusiveness

First of all, if some spokesperson say that country X strives for inclusive growth, does that mean that country’s economic growth was exclusive to some people? Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights movement was about political participation as it was about economic participation for ethnic minorities. The platform on which he gave his historic, “I have a dream” speech was the “March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs”. Most people would seem to have an intuitive sense of what inclusive growth means – that broad segments of the population can participate and enjoy the income growth that comes with a growing economy. But as the financial crisis revealed, growth can focus on very narrow sections of the working population, with some sectors enjoying nearly astronomical increases in their income. That in turn, can be attributed to political-structural issues; on the impact of the finance industry on politics; on the diminishing influence of labour and the continual pro-business and anti-welfare slant – all of which as happened in the US, and some of those have some resonance with what has happened elsewhere in the world.

The other facet of inclusiveness that’s also not often talked about but intuited at is the notion of socio-economic mobility and more egalitarian distribution of incomes. The other side of inclusive growth means upward economic mobility. Is that possible? Let’s think in terms of what happens when someone works in a large company. In the company, upward economic mobility depends on the size of the company, how many units and divisions and departments are there, and the complexity of the businesses it engages in. In a large company, there are many units and subunits, so there are more rungs in the ladder to climb. But as one goes higher, the rungs get fewer and fewer, and ultimately only one person can become the CEO or the president or managing director. So upward income mobility has limits. However, if the company becomes bigger through acquisition or expansion, then more people can join in and climb their own ladders. And so it is with the economy. The economy is composed of many companies and industries in interaction with each other and the world. If there isn’t much change in the size of the economy, then the number of rungs in the corporate ladders don’t change so much. It means that the opportunities for income mobility won’t change much as well – there will be limits in how high one can climb in the ladder. Of course there’s yearly increments, and I’m simplifying things. [Would definitely appreciate comments from economists/smarter people here. I’m prepared to change my mind on a lot of the things here.]

And that’s just in the economic sense. Inclusiveness also has other connotations, to do with people with disabilities, handling religious and ethnic diversities, and inter-generational differences. Singapore wasn’t always a kind place for people with disabilities and for older people and even today, it can be a far kinder place. There just seems to be gaps in the society’s culture that prevents us from experiencing and empathising with people who might actually have real difficulties in getting around and living a better life. It is always emotionally easier to deal with something far-off and in a stand-offish way in abstract terms, than to begin to try to understand the difficulties of those people and the people who love them. Recent efforts by Caritas in asking people to walk with the less privileged is definitely notable, but a lot of it also depends a lot on employers and managers to understand their needs and work alongside them. The question of social inclusiveness will also re-connect back to economic inclusiveness – by asking people to get along with others different from themselves, they too can get access to economic opportunities and live meaningful lives.

Another facet I want to get to about inclusiveness is that it also leaves many other questions about what gets left out, and if new social groups are included in some new scheme, why were they left out before? These questions are also, ultimately, political in nature – about political figures being accountable to the public on the delivery and intent of some of these policies, especially where strong attitudes/inclinations/stigmas/prejudices still exist. Again the topic of inclusiveness is about how expansive and embracing do people want to be.

Lastly, inclusiveness is also a question of identity and how secure people are with the identities thus constructed by politics and by culture. Who are we? Who do we choose to be? In my mind, and this may be arbitrary, but these questions are mainly cultural, and sculpted by political and social groups in contestations.

So here they are: 4 magical political words: which when used achieve the political objective of broadcasting favourable imageries into people’s minds and especially so, when not questioned.


And, Merry Christmas, and a happy 2014!


The map of the week is about patriotism.



This is a purely-sentimental driven map, although things like economic opportunities could be interpreted in terms of the pride and identification that one has with the country, as with “I appreciate the opportunities I have in this country to realise my abilities”. In a similar way, ownership of property can also be interpreted in the same vein, as with, “I appreciate the fact that I can own my own home.” And then there are pride-destruction experiences, such as losing confidence with the political leaders, losing employment, seeing discrimination perpetuated by authorities of one form or another. This isn’t specific to any country, and I guess the weights of countries will be different. In others, the identification with a local or a national culture (if one exists at all) could be more important than pride for the local region or community.

Dependency and Ownership

Are people dependent on government for governance? Everytime there’s a problem that needs to be solved, the immediate attention is always to look to the government for what they could do. So the government ends up running our lives as we cede responsibility for the little things. Yet that’s only one way of looking at the dependency and governance. Yes, governance does touch many facets of our lives, from ensuring food safety to keeping the economy vibrant. Yet there are also domains such as culture and social dynamics where government cannot be a substitute for responsibility and ownership. And there are yet other things where government should take a facilitative role and step back afterwards. There are many subtle gradations in involvement and responsibility on individuals, communities and governance.



The effectiveness of government’s actions has made it easy for people to ask, “what the government will do” in the various myriad issues. The overpowering leviathan of government power has also reduced the role of civil society organisations. Will the social and political environment encourage the growth of other civic organisations? Will people continue to join the efforts of CSOs in their respective causes or will it continue to be marginal in governance?

Marriage and Choices




This week, it’s something micro. This is a hypothetical relational map about what goes in when couples are deciding whether or not to get together.



We take for granted that lifelong-monogamous relationship with one partner has been the not-so norm among human institutions. I say, “not-so” norm because it’s an ideal thats routinely broken – no one can point specifically to an age where lifelong monogamous relationships happened without occasions of adultery (by either gender).

The lifelong-monogamy I imagine made sense economically, with divisions of labour splitting along gender lines. Individualism, gender equality movements have made marriage less compelling (for either gender, and more so for females). The reaction so far in developed societies is to let-it-be; accept serial monogamy (people divorcing and remarrying), slowly sorting out child-custody issues (allow dads some rights in raising the kids), lowering the barriers to single-parenthood…

I realise that many of these things are legal developments too. Should laws conform to the attitudes and conventions of the current age, or should they reflect some notion of rights? The former could be used to justify racial segregation in the US; the latter might be too unrealistic for acceptance by ALL sectors in society. What then, what next?

The last point is methodological: I admit that a lot of the variables or qualities or concepts usually assume the rational person, in making decisions using some notion of cost/benefit analysis, and reduce the weight of other factors. What I’ve tried to do usually, is to factor in social expectations as well – and this is one way to incorporate the non-rational, or non-economic rational. I still think this encompasses the way we make choices, that we do consider a lot of the variables together, but the framing of these variables matter. I think what a systems-based representation does is to clarify at which point of decision-making does the framing matter. They could come at the initial process of scanning; at the middle part as they get processed; or at the end as they consider preliminary impact of the choices guided by the framing. Of course they could also happen at every/any stage of the process too. There’s no good way, and it’s up to the individual analyst to choose where does framing matter the most, or if it’s in the background of things.

Soft Power

I’ll be away over the weekend, so I’ll posting this early.

I look at soft power, and try to break it down into its constituents. This is at best, a guess of what soft power might comprise.


In this short analysis, soft power just means running a country well and getting admiration from other people. As long as the basics can continue, Singapore will continue to be a “net exporter” of soft power.

Social Memory and National Culture

Another systems/concept/relational map for the week!

Last week I took a stab looking at the components of personal sense of national identity. This week, I’m taking a stab at national culture – a subtle difference from “identity” – an “identity” sometimes assume a stable grouping of concepts and ways-of-life; I use the word “culture” because its more fluid, more flexible. A culture is stable, but also allows for change too. Without getting too caught up in the definitions, the map below:


With this map, I’m half-guessing that creativity turns out to be an important contributor to culture. Creativity is the basis for new cultural artefacts and practices. All of these feed into social memory – the collective set of experiences that are transmitted into subsequent generations. And people forget, or pass on, and leave with their memories. Projects to preserve these social memories are underrated – they are extremely important in helping the living to judge for themselves what to keep and what to lay aside.

There are two things that might seem to be jarring – why are “power-distance relations” and “socio-economic categories” placed here as well? I put them here because they also determine our social practices. The categories that we use in our minds and project them into society matters as much as the artefacts that we produce. These social practices also determine the culture – how do people deal with difference/diversity? How do people deal with authority?