Tagged: zero-sum

Happy 48th, Singapore! Many Happy Returns!

On National Day I cannot say that I unreservedly love the country. In my mind, I can easily provide counter-responses to the reasons why Singapore is worth loving. The to-and-fro as I imagine, would sound like this:

“Singapore is my home, where all my family and friends are!”

Retort: “If you are able, you can easily move your family to an Asian neighbourhood in a different country, and make new friends. You mean you cannot make new friends in other countries?”

“Singapore has low crime!”

Retort: “Just find a safe neighbourhood, or live in a gated community.”

“Singapore is multicultural!”

Retort: “You haven’t been to NY, London ah?”

… And on and on.

Ultimately, the basis for our patriotism is emotional. There’s just this emotional connection that we feel, and when we celebrate National Day, we celebrate this emotional connection. No country is perfect, and Singapore is no more or less imperfect than other country. By sheer choice of deciding where we want to belong, individual and national identities co-mingle, and it’s on that basis individual Singaporeans come together and decide to celebrate National Day.

I don’t want to overstate how good or bad Singapore is, but to state some of the facts: material growth contrasts with growing inequality; education anxiety is as high as ever with more tuition centres; I don’t know if the the structural unemployment is more or less of a problem; our transportation system is expanding – the “step” improvements in capacity contrasts against the creeping increase in population.

And here I speculate: I wonder if the physical constraints lend themselves to a zero-sum sense of the world. I would think so, and as I read Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, I come to terms with how the impulses for environmental and historical preservation can be opposed to the need for development, and to keep housing affordable. Supposing if, one day the pretty shophouses at Katong have to make way for more high-rises for an increasing population to keep housing costs affordable – what then? Despite the genius of Singapore’s urban planners, there still is only so much that can be done, and very difficult choices have to be made. Today one of the choices is already before us: that the Cross-Regional Line will be cutting through the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and the Nature Society has already provided a report and alternatives about the routes that the line could take. If the land transport agrees to the alternatives, it can be seen as having compromised to environmental interests. Yet in another way, Singaporeans and future passengers of the CRL would also have won – to be able to both enjoy nature, and to enjoy cheap and quick transits across the island. In a physical sense, some of the choices are indeed zero-sum.

In policy and national issues, the central frame can appear to be zero-summed – that the gains of someone must mean the loss of another. The rat-races in education and materialism (5Cs) also demonstrate the zero-sumness frame – that the achievements of someone means someone else’s loss, or even my loss. Rankings tend to have this framing – everyone has ‘their place’, and one can only progress at the expense of another. If Singapore should thrive in an uncertain future, then we’ll all have to progress together.

People live in families, in communities, and in societies. No one truly lives alone, and no one is truly independent of another, or totally self-reliant. Being reliant on others isn’t so much a personal fault as it is a necessity: how can we live relying only on ourselves?

My own thoughts are that Singapore’s future progress will come from what Singaporeans will give to each other, particularly those who have been marginalised, and neglected. Some of them might not even be Singaporeans, and we’ll still give all the same.

This spirit of giving, of accepting compromise and to do so in amicable ways, could define the way the big G deals with people, communities and organisations and shape the future to come.

Here’s to many happy returns.  Happy 48th.

Edit: There won’t be a post over the weekend! Happy Long Weekend, Singapore!

A National Inability to Resolve Conflicts

A lot of Singaporeans want a future Singapore that is more gracious. To me, that means that people in Singapore learn to deal with the different kinds of conflicts and friction that they encounter in everyday life. On a broader level, that also means the ability to deal with conflicts and frictions at broader, more abstract levels – to deal with things such as inter-ethnic and inter-faith conflicts. At some point, we ought to learn to deal with political conflict – if and when there are clashes between clashes in political debate in the public sphere. And there’s the global level, which is not entirely within Singapore’s control. I suspect that this national inability to deal with inter-personal frictions is part of the reason why public discourse is often naive and poorly developed.

In addition to thinking in terms of social scales (from interpersonal to between ideas), there’s also the conceptual element to it – there’s the matter of interpersonal politeness, all the way to the conceptual level of not taking offense, in having a generous spirit to accept criticisms, and to artfully deal with insults.

Graciousness is also an outwardly direct behaviour that can be independent of the personality and the moral values of the individual. And graciousness can be contrasted against duty – you can be a kind person, had be asked to do horrible acts on account of a professional obligation.

The abstract concept of graciousness assumes an other-directedness, in contrast to the self-directedness. Self-directedness say, “I want to have my way and you are blocking it. I expect you to move.”The other-directedness says, “You are embarking on a journey; I am also on a journey; let’s try not to get into each other’s way and work things out.”

I also want to compare concepts of graciousness with Singaporean’s kiasu-ness (or scared to lose) versus competitiveness. One variant of being kiasu is thought to be a kind of hyper-competitiveness in an assumed zero-sum context. One person’s loss is someone’s gain; better to be the someone who gains than to the person who loses. Competitiveness can be a lot of things – yes, one can assume a zero-sum game or a non-zero sum game; in a zero-sum situation, one can be unscrupulous and resort to all manner of things to get ahead; in a non-zero-sum game, competition and collaboration can exist side by side. Graciousness can be thought of as the manner in which we compete with one another. The environment can be hyper-competitive, but there are still rules even then. In personal situations, we might all be trying to get a seat on the bus, but there’s still the ability to be situationally aware of the elderly, the pregnant woman, the children in the immediate environment. One can still get ahead and ‘win’ against others; graciousness can still enter the picture nonetheless.

I think the graciousness that we all think about is a kind of altruism, the willingness to let others ‘gain’ at personal ‘loss’. I put these things in quotes, because that’s not the obvious way that people think about – I wait for others to leave the train first before I do – I ‘lose’ in the time I lost to wait for others, but that’s ok, because maybe I’m patient, I’m not in a rush, the seconds don’t matter, etc. I know that the people who are rushing are not really thinking about ‘winning’ at my expense anyway.

This willingness to, ‘let things be’ and ‘not to take offense’ are incredibly underrated things in the an era of political and social plurality. Of course there are red-lines which ought to provoke robust responses such as using legal instruments and community instruments. However for the things below that, there has to be a whole range of mechanisms that allow people the benefit of the doubt, to allowing them to understand the sentiments they have hurt, and to give the space for restorative and healing responses.

The other aspect in thinking about this other-directedness and altruism is to think about the perceptions of scarcity and abundance. The inclination to be altruistic is far greater in a condition of perceived abundance – when people don’t think they are suffering loss when they give things away. In a situation of scarcity-perception, giving things away becomes much harder.

Looking back to previous posts, the scarcity-perception comes possibly from history – that the move to material abundance did not take hold in previous generations, and the fact that a social security system remains limited. In a social context where people don’t feel secure with what they have, individuals might have collectively decided on the kiasu-ness and the self-directedness we see today.

These are just guesses.

*Update 21/4/2013: Thanks to Steve’s comments, I went searching for research on the relationship between generosity, income levels, and perceptions of ‘scarcity’ and ‘abundance’ however they are defined. I found that people of lower-income levels are more generous than the rich according to the proportion of their incomes they give. The Atlantic covered this sometime back: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/04/why-the-rich-dont-give/309254/

I’m still looking for the central fact that made me think about putting the sentence about scarcity and abundance – it certainly isn’t about material wealth, but about the perception of wealth and the anxieties associated. This is something I’ll probably get back to.

Containers and Myths

Before I talk about change-making, I feel that there is a very strong need to articulate the assumptions that exist in our society and organizations. All change-making happens in the container, and we ought to think about what’s in the container before thinking about changing the content, or break the container altogether. Since people will always be in some sort of container (institutions and organizations), I’m going to think about what’s in the container – the assumptions and ideas that cause everything else to work. (I am using metaphors very loosely here, apologies.)

What are the prevailing assumptions today in most of our organisations? With these articulations of assumptions, I am not yet imposing value judgments on them – but when I do, I try to defend them.

One is that certainty is possible.

Two is that a lot of rewards are based on a zero-sum vision of the world.

Three is that rational thought is the only mode of cognition there is.

These three assumptions form the the bases of the world we live today, at least in the organization context. Working lives in bureaucracies start and end with these three myths. I call them myths because they are the building blocks of all the stories we tell one another at work. As the charisma and powers of heroes fuel the stories in older times, so in present day, certainty, zero-sumness and rational thought are the building blocks of the stories of our time.

Certainty is possible
There are people out there who think that there exists only “one correct answer”, or who think that there is only one vision of the world. They dismiss all other possibilities except their own.

That’s not true. Yet people and organizations strive to attain greater certainty. A whole industry – Intelligence – in both economic and security domains suggest that people pursue certainties in their environment. These are noble pursuits but ultimately unhelpful given that the real world is much more contested. Even if it’s desired, Objective Truth-finding would have to go together with the ability to deal with multiple truths.

Certainty is not possible – there will never be enough information to find out how an outcome will be; there is never enough time to go through all of that information to decide in time. Living with uncertainty is the only way there is.

Rewards are zero-sum
Is the gain for someone at work necessarily a loss for another person? If the rewards are limited, and if there can only be one winner, then the answer has to be, “yes”. Then again, if people are competing for different rewards, then the answer is, “no”. Is there a right answer to all the problems an organization has to solve? Certainly no. In an ideal world, people get to define themselves and establish unique roles for how they want to contribute to teams. But then, the cruel realities of poor HR policies can get in the way, and de-motivate people from the best of themselves.

If societies are driven to think that rewards are limited, and not everyone can win, perhaps the outcome is an individualistic society. When people can come together that the benefit of one adds to the benefit of others, then perhaps we can have people adding to one another.

Rational thought is the only acceptable mode of cognition
Defining “rational thought” is tricky. What I’m trying to get to here is the logic of thinking that suggests that all problems can be solved, and that optimal solutions are possible for most situations. That by following a linear train of thought, one can arrive at most answers. While this is true in many cases, there are also classes of problems where solutions cannot be arrived via deductive means. There certainly are very strong resonances with “Certainty is possible”.

The other neglected consequence is that everyone thinks that they are the most rational people, and that everyone else is irrational. Therefore, people should come round to my side of the argument, and all other perspectives are wrong. This extreme is most evident in authoritarian leaders who dismiss the opinions of others.

How are these three maxims related to change-making? I suggest that these three maxims are the way the world works – from a psychological, and epistemological point of view. These views are still dominant, and undergird the way how our education, economy and society turn. Understanding that they are the myths of our time is crucial in thinking about how change can proceed.

In the next post, I want to talk about “indicators”, and how the idea of “indicators” is very central to the three qualities mentioned here.


Made slight edits in the sentence on Intelligence.