The Tale of a Monkey and a Bird

Once upon a time there was a monkey and a bird. They were great friends. While munching on fruits on branches, Monkey would chat with Bird. Bird would share stories about flying around the jungles, about the sights he saw, and strange lands that lay beyond. He would tell how the other birds and him would sometimes fly for long distances, and how tiring that could be. If one wasn’t careful, they could fall out of the sky, exhausted.

Monkey would hear these stories with wonder and excitement. His ambition rose within him to want to see the world out there. So he searched for the tallest tree in the jungle. He found one and climbed it with all his strength and might and finally he reached the top and admired the great view. He thought to himself, this surely is the best tree there is, and sat contented there.
The bird was curious to see his friend there. “What are you doing here up high in the treetops?” The monkey replied, “to see the best view from this tallest tree, of course!” The bird was puzzled at that. “Ok, but this is only the view from this tree, and as I fly there are other trees, some even higher than this. Why would this view matter?” The monkey went away, sad.

This is a story that was written for people to appreciate diverse perspectives. There is no status divide between the monkey and bird: they are just different. We all want to think that we can be like the bird with an “overall” perspective, but really, we are all monkeys climbing our own trees. But climbing up, even monkeys can appreciate the finer details of the jungle terrain – a view that the bird, soaring high in the sky, can hardly achieve.

Written with Jiunwen.

Power and Ideas

In the previous essay, I explained why an examination of politics, organisation and power was necessary in understanding how Singapore could respond to issues in the second half of the twenty-first century. In this second part, I’ll lay out the considerations behind looking at these three issues, and present scenarios based on the line of thought. There definitely are other ways to examine POP, but for my purposes here, I will examine two broad themes: 1. The flow of ideas and 2. The location of power. I find thinking about these two themes useful, although in future writings I might explore other themes. Again, because I’m looking at a large expanse of time (50 years – SG100), I can afford to play around with possibilities.

Scenario Planning Methodology

Scenario planning is a technique used by large organisations to tell stories about the future – about how events in the future could unfold in non-linear ways. Shell popularized the approach; the National Intelligence Council of the US publishes scenario reports every 4-5 years. This report, now in its 5th iteration spanning almost 25 years now, is watched closely. Of course every technique has its strengths and weaknesses, but the point here is to invite further discussions – make things accessible to a wide audience to have a good discussion. The things discussed here could certainly lead to conversations on other topics. The scenario analysis here will certainly not be exhaustive or comprehensive – it’s meant to be exploratory. I’m also bending the rules a bit with scenario planning. A formal use of the scenario process focuses on what is called, “contextual issues/trends” – trends for which there is little scope of influence. The discussion here focuses on social participation and politics, for which some limited influence by citizens is possible. However, because of the exploratory nature of this discussion, and from the individual perspective, these things could be considered ‘contextual’ – it is difficult for a single individual to influence these trends (unless the individual is highly influential, which most of us aren’t).

One way to think about the political-social interactions is to think in terms of the flow of ideas. How do ideas flow from society to politics? If the flow of ideas is restricted between different groups in society, I would characterise that configuration as ‘disciplined’. I consider to the current society to be ‘disciplined’ in this regard. If the flow of ideas is more un-restrained, then we approach an ‘open’ model, where ideas are more free from the restraints of censorship.

The other set of considerations, and similar to the first, is how will power be concentrated? Today, the truly important decisions, and the locus of decision, resides in the Cabinet, and with the Public Service. This is a very centralised form of decision-making. Information flows up and down within the hierarchy of the public service, and important pieces of information make their way to the Cabinet. And similarly, when it comes to planning. Social groups today often have to organise themselves to interact with the Public Service, although increasingly so they might have some access to the Cabinet, but in any case, the Cabinet almost always retains the final say, and charges the public service with the execution. In contrast to the current centralised system, a more distributed configuration of power structures would provide social groups with more autonomy in executing social goals, with minimal oversight from public agencies. One could envision more empowered town councils, and civil society groups charged with the execution and responsibility of certain policies, for instance. I admit in the current context today, this distributed-manner of power structures is difficult to foresee in the near future, but given the long stretch of time I’m considering, this might not seem so radical yet.

Taken together, I’ve laid out two axes and with this, I can consider a two-by-two matrix:

1. Whether the dissemination of information and ideas remains ‘disciplined’ and restricted, or if it becomes more open, or unrestrained;

2. Whether the distribution of decisions and influence remain limited to a central authority or if it is more distributed or diffused across multiple groups in society.

Slide1

I’ve gone on to give short labels and descriptions of the separate scenarios:

Scenarios

Descriptions

Leviathan

Disciplined – Centralised

Status quo – centralisation through bureaucratic control; groups have to engage with the bureaucracy to gain legitimacy.

Smart Hegemony

Disciplined – Distributed

Smart Hegemony – political party participate actively in various groups in society and influence decision-making there.

Mix-and-Match

Open – Distributed

Coalition politics; vibrant civic scene; characterised by local autonomy; possibly at the expense of global coordination; has high degree of resilience.

Pendulum

Open – Centralised

Alternating political pendulum. There is a certain predictability in what happens as political parties rotate in and out of power.

In Smart Hegemony, the party in power distributes power to social groups. This could take the form of MPs (regardless of political party) sitting on the board of directors of effective NGOs with a view of shaping their decisions. 

In the Pendulum arrangement, parties and their associated social groups rotate in and out of power. The policy emphases change as a result. What could happen in this instance is an inevitable cycling in and out of public servants in tandem with the political masters. We see a bit of this with Australia’s government, where a previous administration established a climate change-related unit, only for the unit to be removed under a different political party. Policies follow politics, not the only way around. 

And in the Mix-and-Match system, what happens could be said to resemble politics of conveniences – different parties and different civil society groups coalesce to form coalitions of convenience with no ideological emphasis. This situation could result greater local participation in politics possibly at the expense of coordination. However in this situation, there can also be much resilience when dealing with crisis.

How might these changes come about?

What about political changes, and how might they come about? Ho Kwon Ping has gone through this terrain quite thoroughly in his lecture on politics, and there is little to add here. From Ho Kwon Ping’s talk, there really are just a few possibilities: that the Opposition parties consolidate; or the PAP could split, although as Ho Kwon Ping himself said that the kinds of deeply divisive issues that could split the party is just not foreseeable.

How will power structures in society change? Current grassroots groups might eventually grow in influence, attract funding and become the organisational bases for formal political power. People might begin to realise that real change in their lives come about because of persistent work over a specific issue with the government. They could either join existing groups that are already effective and trusted by the bureaucracy, or they could undertake the difficult work of doing it for themselves. Current effective groups might become complacent and lose members to a rival or upstart groups. I am making a significant assumption here: that people will be willing to invest their time and effort in volunteering for causes. If this assumption does not work out, then the centralised way of information flows would apply, since that it also the best way to ensure that issues are being reviewed and acted on.

The different kinds of social and political arrangements will have many implications for us. Each of these socio-political arrangements requires different sets of skills to navigate around. As individuals, little actions can still accumulate to become large changes, but this process will take time. Those of us who are still impatient should take a step back and learn more about intra- and inter- organisational dynamics before stepping into the fray.

Power, Organisations and Politics

As an observer looking at the proceedings of the SG50 celebrations, I’m curious that there has not yet been any discussion about the future. There are understandable reasons for the absence of both the youth voice and discussions about the future, and I’ll definitely be interested in how those conversations will play out.

The  reason I think, is straightforward. The atmosphere around SG50 is in a reflective phase – one that looks back at the past and celebrates the efforts of the pioneers in building this country. Certainly there is much to celebrate about, and yes, the efforts of the pioneers need to be honoured. More than that, this past – of hard work and ruggedness, gives us – the present, their future – the symbolic resources we can draw on in times of difficulty. This history that we have gives us the confidence, that no matter how difficult the future can be, we have the ability to pull through and better yet flourish.

One of the ways there can be a serious discussion on the country’s future is to be educated about organisations, power and politics. Before we understand all the other issues, we have to understand the nature of politics in Singapore, who are the organisations involved, and how they wield their power. Knowing how power is used in Singapore gives us a starting point in thinking about how to wield it responsibly, and to use it to tackle all the other issues that will affect us in the second half of the twenty-first century. And there are many. Climate change will be one – it’s effects will be global, and it will affect other countries, which in turn, will affect us. Technological change will continue, bringing about large changes in our lives, and especially in the world of work and jobs. For Singapore to continue flourishing, what matters is how we will take on these changes – and for that understanding how power, organisations, and politics will matter.

We often don’t make an explicit connection among power, organisations and politics together. We do make connections between politics and power – the common-sense understanding is that politics is the exercise of power. We often make the connection between organizations and politics – in the sense of the common ‘office politics’ that happens. Sometimes we think of organizations as exercising power – how different organizations fight for influence. Maybe this is intuitive when we think of political parties as organizations, or when we think of companies fighting for market share – the companies with a dominant market share could be said to have a lot of power in the industry. It’s how we think of Wal-Mart, or the oligopolism that happens in many industries. 

Power is relational – it  does not make sense ‘on its own’ It requires at least two people – one acting on power, and the other being acted upon. It is neither good nor bad; it just is, and it can definitely be used in either way. With this we can discuss power relations in a family, in institutional settings, in community groups, in politics, and across different countries.

Organisations can be defined as groups of people acting together for a common purpose. They might be doing a whole bunch of different things, but those different things are largely in the pursuit of goals. These goals could be, as with the military – to be able to end a war quickly; to get individuals or families out of crises. Organisations are also concentrations of power – an organisation is more influential if it can achieve its goals and exert itself on other actors. As a result, most organisations are also involved in some kind of politics – be it within organisations or with other social actors. Of course, internally, people are participating in politics – going around trying to influence other people within the organisation to get their own goals accomplished, within the larger framework of the organisation’s goals. 

All that is clear – that politics and power is all around us. It’s better that we see it for what it is and learn to be responsible about it, so that we understand ourselves and our actions better. Understanding power, for example helps in understand the relationship dynamics within a couple, or a family, or within the office, and so on. This framework helps us understand the behaviour of some groups of people relative to others. The use of power is focused in organisations, and it is through organisations that people’s collective energies can be harnessed.

Power has a visible component – the influence and the behaviour. When geopolitical analysts measure military power, they usually take a look at the military hardware – the ships, the tanks, the planes, and so on. When political pundits look at how political leaders use their power, they look at how they influence lawmakers through speeches and negotiation – persuasion. Economic power can be visible when people start talking about funding, aid, market access, and so on.

Power also works through other means. One of the most difficult ways to identity power’s operations when it becomes part of our lives – when it becomes the default setting for how we live. When that happens, it becomes difficult to tell of power’s influence, yet it is there. Notions such as “way of life” allude to such influences. That the “way of life” is often taken for granted, and not thoroughly examined would be an example of how a collection of actors have shaped our lives. That is not to say that we are all puppets being manipulated – we remain free to choose how we want to live our lives, but that our options are constrained. Another example is the ‘choice’ of consumer products that we experience in supermarkets. The reality is that consumer companies are trying to manipulate our buying choices through visions of attractive people and what they wear/eat/use. Again, the logic here is that it’s not that people are being manipulated like puppets; its just that the bulk of our attention would fall on particular products and particular brands, and might be attracted to purchase specific products. 

If nothing else, the points above just aims to illustrate that there are obvious and non-obvious ways of how power operates, and we have to pay attention to both, or even pay close attention to the latter, since they are harder to call out. We want to pay attention to power because of the way it influences our lives, especially if we want to be aware of the choice and power that we have too, as citizens and consumers trying to do the right thing for ourselves and for others. 

All of us are choosing something, even if we appear to be doing nothing. In a way, living the default is to support existing power structures. This is why asking for a change in the power structures is tiring and difficult. When people are habitualised into supporting an existing power structure and ways of life, asking others to change it is almost the equivalent of changing a habit – and habits of course, are very difficult to change. Asking others to change the assumptions they don’t usually question is tiring – for both the person advocating for it, and for the person being asked to change it. 

Social change, as a result, is very difficult, and often doesn’t last. When people don’t have the patience or don’t see the point of doing something different, very often they fall back to what they knew before – and hence reversions do happen. When politicians advocate for change, and do so inspiringly, be cynical. I guess this is why Obama was so exciting and now, so disappointing. Promising change and acting on them are obviously two very different things, especially when the resistance to change can be so high. 

So dramatic changes don’t work, and can be dangerous. What works are, no surprise – small incremental steps, pursued consistently over time, or moderately sized changes pursued during crises and gradually maintained and added on. The difficulty with this is with sustaining the effort over time. That’s why crises are significant – they provide legitimacy for change-advocates to say that current directions don’t work, and people rally around the need for change, and willing to change their habits. What happens after the moment of crisis, is something else. 

I’ve introduced how organisations, power and politics are linked together, and I’ve shown how power is both obvious and non-obvious. I’ve also described a little about how power and politics relate to organisational change. Very broadly speaking, these notions of power are important in discussing how social and political changes might happen, how people might participate in power structure, and what to watch out for to tell if things are changing in any particular direction. All of these will help us to think more clearly about the dynamics that will shape Singapore’s future.

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?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism_(philosophy)

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism_(contemporary)

The End of Books and Power, for now

Going through old books is a lot like time travel. You end up asking yourself this question, “why the hell did I buy this book?” And you try to reconstruct yourself at the moment buying this book, remembering how you wanted this book over another book, and how you had to prioritise and stay within the budget (which you busted anyway), and then deciding that it was this book. Or how you came across this book purely via serendipity, because it looked great, or it appeared to be what you were looking for subconsciously, and you remember how, in previous occasions, those serendipity purchases were such great choices (no they weren’t). And you buy them. But now many years on, you are looking at them again, their page a bit yellowed (because you were on a tight budget (which you busted), and so you always bought the paperback edition), and how the writing is now hopelessly out of date and irrelevant. The topic is obviously no longer the flavour of the day, and the world moves on to other authors and other topics.

Now I am looking at many titles, bought under a similar set of circumstances, and now with the privilege of hindsight, and beginning to rationalize all those decisions. Not justification, but just rationalizing – making sense, putting order to memories and nostalgia.

Certain things become apparent after some reflection. One of them is that knowledge does not mean power. If that relationship was true, hey, I’ll be quite powerful by now. Just kidding. I now realise that knowledge and learning is just the first step towards some action in the world, which then influences outcomes – the sum of that process being the exercise of power, at least in some quarters. The Baconian dream is just that, and it should fade away.

Knowledge need not be tied to Identity. I am NOT just what I know.  Our lives are obviously more than the sum of the knowledge in books; there’s the rest of our lives too and of greater importance – the relationships that we have.

I remember that one impulse that led to the purchasing of this small library was indeed the Baconian ideal that knowledge could result in power. The naive 18-year-old younger self, would however, have no clue about the process of translating power from knowledge, only knowing accumulation. And so it goes.

This accumulation process then took on a life on its own. Where do I start, how wide should I explore, how deep should I go? An accumulative process has no end. I started with what I ended off with General Paper at junior college. Thomas Friedman’s Lexus and the Olive Tree gave clues about what else to read: Paul Kennedy, Samuel Huntington, Robert Kaplan, and so on. Very quickly, I would learn about the value of the “Further Reading” or the “Bibliography” or the “Notes” section. I also had a strong interest in science – and one of my very early objectives, after reading Gleick’s Genius, was his Feynman Lectures. And on and on and on.

National Service gave me plenty of time, and in 2007, TED was only just getting started. With an iPod Touch, it was possible to download and view ALL 300 TED videos, and that provided more seed crystals for a larger book collection. I remember spending close to all of my allowance on it. After all, what else could I spend on weekends?

In University, the modules and programmes gave further hints about what to buy. I eventually majored in Sociology, and so I eventually got Bourdieu’s Distinction, and other books. I collected the entire works of various authors (and managed to read most of them). This explains the Latours, the Dennetts, the Pinkers, the Wilsons, the Dawkins. It explains why I would get books for particular topics as with Arthur, Waldrop, Strogatz, Duncan, Kauffmann, Barabasi and others for Complexity. The latest collection that I’ve been put together was in Organization, and even then I’ve let things go already.

Why do I want to keep knowing? Why this obsession? I had made Knowledge as part of my identity. And knowing always means knowing more. And more. Sort of like money, except its curiosity – what else is out there, what don’t I know yet, what’s out there for me to discover – but in it’s extreme its manifestation is no gentler – an obsessiveness that tires and eventually exhausts.

One common answer that I’ve often given myself is to: understand the world, find your place in it, and hope to make it better. It’s sounds innocuously reasonable enough. My 18-22-ish old self wouldn’t know any better. Chancing upon the field of complexity was probably both the nadir and the zenith of this dream. It was the zenith because complexity provided a set of logics and concept that could make the chaotic and confusing world yield to the power of science and math; it was also the nadir because of its very nature – probabilistic, catastrophic, hopelessly sensitive to initial conditions.

The period of the books also coincided an interesting time in contemporary history, and gave plenty of space for curiosity and complexity. It was a unipolar moment belonging to the US; the world economy had just come out of a tech bubble, but then technology continued racing on; Facebook and Twitter would come later, and Apple was just getting started with the iPod. And then in the years that followed, the recognition that China and then India perhaps were going to play major roles, especially after the O’Neill BRICS article (and his less famous N-11 sequel). It was a fascinating time to try to understand everything. IPCC appeared, and started pronouncing warnings about anthropogenic climate change, that many years later in 2014, we find now we can only adapt, no longer mitigate as with previous years.

The Baconian dream was supposed to give me power to change the world and its systems directly from the pages of the books, or so I thought, and apparently not so. It was only during and shortly after university that I realised for myself that systems are slow and not prone to drastic changes, that continuity is good and desired, that it takes tremendous energy for people to enact changes in organizations. Organizations – the way people come together for a common purpose – it appeared to be the key I never noticed. After all, don’t we spend our lives in one organization or another? Families, companies, and countries… And change – isn’t that their pupose, to effect something different in the world? Start-ups aim to scale rapidly so they can affect large changes in business and social patterns amenable to their own existence. Countries maintain expensive militaries to defend their own unique existence to be free from the hegemony of others. If I were to hold on to those Baconian dreams of translating knowledge to better realities in the world – of less suffering, of adapting in a changed-climate, then it would have to be through organizations.

And with selling my books, I abandon most of these dreams, and live a quieter, more contemplative life. Letting go of books was to let go all of these conceptions, to let go of that Baconian seed that started it all, and let the thorns wither and fly into the wind.

Ecclesiastes 1:18

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. 

How I think about topics and issues

In conversations with friends, I’ve had the chance to reflect about how I look through readings. This is an attempt to articulate what happens when I’m browsing for articles and books, both physically and digitally.

What usually happens is that I start off with a bit of grand theorizing – find the people who try to construct universal frameworks. These are only the beginnings and they are often discarded and/or refined as I encounter new facts and frameworks. After a while, I realise that I’m looking a lot at academics and specialised journalists who have spent a long time looking at a specific area. This is also that I try to avoid op-eds and authors of books who tend to only aggregate newspaper material.

Tapping into academics and specialised journalists helps me to construct detailed concepts about how a specific issue develops and its sub-issues. For example, if I was doing work on poverty, I would be looking at grand theories about how poverty happens – cultural framings, economic framings, cognitive framings and so on. Within each of these framings I would go into detail, all the time asking if the framings are appropriate. For example, with culture, I would ask, how do people talk about culture in useful ways? With economic, perhaps its an issue of skills and economic structure. With cognition, it could be the way people decide spending and investment decisions. And then go into greater detail into the linkages between say, economics and culture.

After exploring the silos, I’ve found it helpful to read works on how the different silos are related. I like the works by Vaclav Smil as he explores the interactions between energy, food production, consumption and natural processes. Sometimes they horizontal linkages become silos in themselves – such as system dynamics and complexity, both of which are vast disciplines in themselves. So with the poverty example, I would be interested in how cultural framings interfere with economics and/or with cognition, and how various countries have addressed poverty in various ways.

After a while, it’s possible to develop a meta-sense when looking at articles into: (1) things directly relevant to interests; (2) things that add to current interests; and (3) things that I never knew about. (1) and (2) overlap, and its a function of what am I interested in at the current moment, and also about rebalancing areas that I am more familiar with and what I’m not as familiar with.

I try to look for fact-heavy books with subtle arguments. They tend to be historical and supplemented by primary research – which as a result, becomes the domain of academic researchers, or very senior journalists who have spent a lot of time in an area.

I guess what drives me is that I’m trying to understand the world and constructing frames to guide my understanding.

So far, what I’ve described is pretty generic – I’m thinking this is the general process of what most people go through in many things, ranging from workplace implicit knowledge to how fan-fiction is generated.

To further categorize the knowledge acquired, another labels can be helpful. I’ve found Aristotle’s 4 causes to be useful labels: efficient, material, formal and final causes of things. In short, they describe the process, the materials/technology, the medium in which the happen and the purpose for why they occur, respectively.

I’ve found the Snowden’s Cynefin useful – in describing the epistemology of events/processes – whether the process are simple, complicated, complex or chaotic – terms to describe the relationship between cause and effects and the degrees to which they are known. Kahane’s notions of complexity are also useful – whether things are socially (involving diverse beliefs), generative (awkwardly, the expectedness of outcomes), and dynamic (again, relationship between cause and effects) – as I understand the terms. I hope to explore their notions and other notions of complexity in greater detail in a future blog post. 

There are some limitations in my current understanding. I don’t have clear notions about aesthetics, spaces, tactility and perceptions. My design/aesthetic senses are not as developed, and its something I ought to get more experiences at.

Thanks for reading, and hope you find this helpful. 🙂

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!