I love this recent article by Toh Yan Yun in Rice Media, it makes an important point about Singaporean’s perspective on inequality and also our perceived sense that our meritocratic system will continue to serve us well. I frequently question this point about how well our meritocratic system is working; but more than that, whether our overemphasis on the workings of the meritocratic system we have is squeezing out room for charity. So much so that government needs to use tax deductions as a means to further incentivize donations. Question then, is whether the tax department is the one being generous or the philanthropist?
In believing that we are entitled to the successes and achievements we receive, and seeing that as a system that works, we are also thinking that those who are down and out deserves to be so. Like what Yan Yun says in the article; the belief implies “So long as you play your cards right, your big break lies around the corner.”
Those who have been in reality will certainly respond, ‘Yea, right’. A society that does not see luck and chance playing a part becomes less forgiving for people’s mistakes and even for failures. And this has become so serious in Singapore that people are struggling even with being average. There is some obvious implication for mental health and our functioning as a society.
As you might tell, I’m back to in the mode of thinking about the nuances involved in problem solving. The reason is in part because I’ve been interviewing candidates for various roles in my company across four different offices in APAC. That forces me to start considering what are the attributes I value highly and what really demonstrate those attributes. Some of these are really so nuanced and difficult to really describe or pinned down – mostly uncovered through questioning and observing responses in various circumstances.
I am reminded to be grateful for the experience I gathered while working within the Singapore government as part of what was known as International Enterprise Singapore and also Infrastructure Asia. In both instances, I had to work across cultures in Asia which forced me to be sensitive about culture differences and made me pay more attention to the manner we can communicate better. It was also a very collaborative environment that involved a lot of coordination, across departments, government agencies, teams and across various levels. I had the opportunity to with ministers, very senior public servants and observed the way leaders approached problems and manage delicate situations.
And because early on in my career I dealt with a lot of issues where I had to own a problem statement without having the full solution to it but rather, coordinating and managing teams of people, often with different interests to get to the solution, I came to be comfortable with project management. It wasn’t something I had consciously picked up but it was emergent through the themes of various work I did.
Often, what earns us the right to serve our client as consultants is really the ability to take hold of, and own the problem statement that you’ve determined alongside your client. It is not the mastery of content or topic or expertise in particular subject matter. All of that should come along but there will always be someone better than you out there. The ability to take responsibility and do what you can to harness and gather the resources towards solving a problem is the more valuable attribute.
In a previous workplace of mine, there were a lot of strong, capable people who were good at problem solving and very oriented to that. However, they were not always good at identifying the right problems to deal with nor defined the problems well. So they went on and hack away at problems that were poorly defined and ended up not solving much. A lot of resources, energy and efforts were squandered on poorly defined problems.
To give an example, we could think about it from the perspective of an observation first. Say, there is a cat which is on a tree and meowing. Objectively speaking, it is not clear if there was a problem. It might be a problem to the flat owner on the second storey who is annoyed by the noises made by the cat. A cat lover might think the cat is stuck on the tree and unable to get down. The one who planted the tree and lives on the ground floor might think that the problem is that the cat might scratch and damage the tree. Now if you want to help, you need to define the problem in the context of someone’s perspective.
While there seem like a ‘straight-forward’ solution which is to remove the cat from the tree, if none of those people I mentioned saw it as a problem, then it would not have been considered a solution to begin with. If we contextualise the problem as the meowing, then the solution could just be to get the flat-owner to put on earplugs or insulate his flat from external noises better. Without the other stakeholders in the room, the solution set actually expands.
Problem solving is just the last stage of a repertoire of skills we need in the modern workplace. Being able to identify, define and contextualise problems can be just as, if not more important.
So there was an announcement about brand name school being moved to neighbourhoods that were newly developing. Or what Singaporeans affectionately call heartlands. And then there was a bit of furore. Maybe it was also about the all boys school starting to be co-ed and accepting girls.
Singapore has a long history of all boys school turning into co-ed schools. Think Gan Eng Seng School, Tanjong Katong Secondary Technical School (now known as Tanjong Katong Secondary School). So in some sense, these ‘elite’ institutions have been slow at embracing diversity. The uproar and concerns voiced reflected the obsession Singaporeans have with brand names and in many sense, social status.
Having built a successful society that is based on levelling the playing field and trying to be ‘meritocratic’ means that there will be lots of forces usually around to seek to differentiate and stand out. Schools are one of the most significant way to perpetuate this. And I honestly would not be surprised if because of this shift, the area in Tengah becomes hot property for the parents wanting to send their children to prime schools.
In future, branded schools may be ways to rejuvenate neighbourhoods.
In the absence of the price signals I wrote about in End of Oil II, what do we do? And besides, there had been so many recent fiascos about carbon markets that this instrument risks losing its credibility entirely and make it even harder for carbon emissions to be priced.
Pricing carbon is not just about credits of course. Carbon taxes are forms of prices and if we want to be stigmatising carbon emissions, we can even call it a fine but then the difficult is that we all are emitting carbon so at the end of the day the price will still be sort of a “license to pollute”.
Perhaps better to suggest and highlight that the taxes, credit revenues are going to be reinvested into decarbonisation. In any case, we do need more investments, funds and support towards that. What better way to fund it than to use the proceeds from carbon pricing to achieve that?
And we really can’t wait for the private initiatives and the market to get that going. At the same time, governments cannot afford to try and design the perfect market for it all to work. Rather, if carbon credits is not going to take off, the whole slew of regulation will need to be rolled out including renewable portfolio standards, carbon taxes, renewable gas blending mandates, ban on internal combustion engines, etc.
In my career-coaching, I often encounter cases of communication challenges from employees or staff especially in conveying messages or ideas to the bosses. Part of the problem is probably culture and the strange imbalance of power with bosses, particularly in larger organisations. There is a lot more filtering of information with complex intentions:
Staff might be trying to simplify things for bosses in order to get information across fast but end up obscuring some information
Staff may also be trying to manage their bosses’ perception of them and hence try to be focused on delivering more good news than bad
Information might be mixed with remarks incorporated for bootlicking purposes
All of these we learnt through a combination of poor workplace culture, bad upbringing with parents hiding lots of different things here and there. There are much better ways to be able to bring truth to the table without having to flinch at the expected responses.
Highlight the context and the objectives of the company or project, and gain affirmation first
Bring up how the objectives are not being met
Define the problem clearly and how it connects to the objectives not being met
Provide some options; each of which justified either by expert or external opinions, past experience from the team and other parties
Request for a decision to be made
If the boss sits on the decision and don’t make it; you may need to be more persistent in highlighting the issue. Then you can start bringing the consequences and laying alongside the costs of the options so that doing nothing would clearly be more costly.
This approach is also useful for sales but perhaps that’s for another day.
Inequality is a market failure. We do pick this up in A Levels but then there’s little discourse on that. Not only do we dwell little on the solutions – which ranges from progressive taxation to welfare handouts – we ultimately ignore how inequality undermines the ultimate roles of markets, which is the efficient allocation of resources. I’ve always grasp the idea rather intuitively but then fail to deliver it in a philosophical and economics framework. I’ve pointed out the lack of philosophical musings in today’s study of Economics when I introduced Michael Sandel’s lecture on Markets and Morals.
I’ve always pose the question to my Economics student, if a person earns $1000 a month and another who earns $1 a month both needs a glass of water. The rich guy is willing to pay $10 for the water while the poor one is willing to pay $1. The market thus allocates the water to the rich man. We all know that this allocation is problematic and it doesn’t seem efficient; how is it that, in terms of willingness to pay, a person who is only willing to part with 1% of his monthly income gets the good when another is willing to part with 100% of his monthly income for it? So what exactly is the problem of inequality?
Once again, Michael Sandel points this out in the second lecture presented in this video. You don’t exactly have to watch the lecture in order to grasp the point but the idea is that when inequality (in terms of unequal distribution of income) exists, effective demand cannot properly reflect the ideal sort of demand signal transmission that would allow the market to allocate resources efficiently. In extreme cases, free markets becomes not entirely free. In other words, people are not transacting out of their free will but coerced by their own economic circumstances. We see this very often in the case of poor people in developing countries who are forced to sell organs, resort to prostitution, act as surrogate mothers, become a runner for crack.
Gary Becker is not wrong about the rationality of these people. They’re making rational choices but it is often that their choices is very much limited. That unfeeling market processes coerce us into certain decisions is something close to the hearts of all of us. Often, however, we can’t quite work out what is so unjust about that because we believe that to a large extent, we determine our riches. Somehow, deep in our hearts we know that some other decisions that we made caused us to be in the state we are in such that we are coerced into making that next decision. The fact that this argument comes back to us shows how each and every decision made in the marketplace by us are not independent. This makes for a determinism argument in a market setting where free will is supposed to reign.
There are much wider implications of all these arguments and I shall explore them if I get the chance.
Just when people are lambasting financial institutions and entities like hedge funds, Jed Emerson who coined the concept of ‘Blended Value‘, suggests that these financial entities can play a positive social role. Fast Company had an interview with him about this in 60 seconds.
As reported on Economist Online, Jed thinks that hedge funds which focuses on fundamentals mirrors sustainably investing, meaning that they would act to move capital to places where they are used properly and for good of the society.
Trading according to rigorous fundamental research can often mirror sustainable investing, which seeks to profit by taking into account social and environmental factors, he says. Fundamental hedge funds are far more likely than other investors to try to identify a firm’s off-balance-sheet exposures, of which a growing proportion may be “environmental or social liabilities present in a market or company but not explicitly accounted for in traditional numeric valuation or mainstream investor analysis”.
He makes an important point about ‘Shorting’, which The Economist goes on to discuss. As a matter of fact, the market is kind of biased towards growth and that should be the case since the economy is usually growing but then if people are not rational enough to sell, then there has to be short-sellers who are rational enough to sell but don’t have the shares in the first place. This way, buying and selling would reflect a more fundamental value. This is of course, an ideal – prices hardly reflect any reality in moments. But at least we know that the bulls and the bears are almost right the same number of times (half of the time each; which reflects dynamism of the market). And so there’s no way we should have anything against them.
This letter was written in early 2008 as an expression of late teenage angst at my high school. Most details have been forgotten and the context is no longer very clear to me. It reflects some of my earlier writings that were expository but driven largely by my intellectual passion in education.
It has been quite a while since something bothered me to the degree this issue of how lousy your department is did. The last time was perhaps when I was in high school, when the rather incompetent humanities department head pioneered some rather disturbing means of assessment (Major Research Papers, as they were known) – that has since been resolved after it was replaced by some more experimentally disastrous modes of assessments, for which I was not subjected to (and therefore I see no issue with that). I shall, in this little letter, outline the faults with your department and offer my suggestions to ‘correct’ these problems.
I begin with the course materials for they are at the forefront of ‘educating’ your students. If anything else, it is the only thing that comes directly in contact with the learners of your subject. The design of your lecture notes have been kindly standardized, which presents organizational ease students would gladly appreciate, but no additional readings are provided (though I would think some students also appreciates this) and it is declared that whatever students need are within the notes issued. Further readings or exploration is discouraged implicitly this way. All notes are arranged in rather logical order that introduces concepts and definitions but it appears that more emphasis is placed on memorizing the definitions than understanding the concepts (this will be elaborated in the pedagogy segment later). Diagrams are poorly annotated and large chunks of text that follows diagram are in prose but ‘bulleted’, making it confusing for student as to whether to take the entire chunk of text as a ‘point’ in the theory or mere elaborations. Blanks are often placed in wrong positions because teachers edit their lecture presentations after sending notes for printing. I therefore suggest that all blanks be scrapped so that lectures can proceed quickly and that more spaces are provided between chunks of text for notes to be written. All conceptual points should be summarized and written in good English (read: good English, not just easily misunderstood English). All diagrams should be well annotated and unnecessary repetition of diagrams removed.
Lecture time are often wasted on administrative matters that demonstrates deep distrust in the student’s desire to learn. To attend a lessons in a premier institution is to expect no time wasted on unnecessary disciplinary remarks made by teachers and that both students and lecturers are on time. There is really no need to mark attendance for lectures or waste time waiting for students who are late. To miss out a part of the lecture should be the punishment in itself – there’s no need to humiliate these students by starting the lecture late on purpose and then claim these late comers responsible for the fast pace of the lecture or worst, the incomplete-ness of the lecture. Incessant nagging about student performance during lectures are not at all appreciated and seen solely as an avenue at which the lecturer lets out his/her steam on the students, achieving practically no effect on the grades or effectiveness of lectures (often even undermining that, as well as respect for the lecturers). There is thus no need for attendance marking during lectures, or the wait for late-comers, or any ‘disciplining sessions’ – lecture time should be left purely for lecture on the subject
Technicalities with course materials and the ways lectures are carried out aside, the pedagogy of teachers reveal a profound misunderstanding in the cognitive abilities of the students as well as the processes by which one acquires academic knowledge of a subject. A social science, or any rather scientific subject, should be taught with the hope that students understand theories and concepts, as well as the implications of them. Next step would be the application of these concepts on the real world, the ability to draw evidence, real world examples to support theoretical concepts and possibly critique the inadequacies of theory. Ideally, we should be producing students capable of explaining the theories and giving examples in his/her own words.
Unfortunately, your department focused all energies on teaching ‘answers’ of potential examination questions to students since day one. There is no appreciation for the knowledge to be acquired, no consideration given to the way concepts are used in the real world (whether it is the predictive or the explanatory value) and absolutely no respect was paid to the history of the subject. Authorities of the subject are rarely introduced – I strongly believe that understanding the settings at which certain theories surrounding particular phenomena are discovered would aid one’s critique of the theory as one would then understand the timing and circumstances for which the concept served a valid explanation for some phenomena. Such ‘assessment-oriented’ approach would be seen as an indication of laziness in part of your department (if not ignorance), perhaps only interested in the results of the students rather than how interested students are in your subject. What could illustrate your distorted ideology towards teaching more than one of the lecturer’s exclamation during one of the paper review sessions: “Please, I urge you to memorize all definitions, the exact wording of each and every definition as given in your lecture notes. Do not use any definitions you picked from elsewhere or constructed yourselves because their wording are often wrong or difficult to interpret and this frustrates the markers. That means they have to waste more time on your paper and you’ll probably be given lower marks for that.”
It is perhaps why I come to realize how some of my peers who were initially curious about the subject were practically put off by it, possibly till this very day. I have no idea if this was your department’s intention but I was lucky my initial passion for the subject (built from the numerous outside readings and a steady supply of magazines on the subject) was never watered down by your horrible approach to teaching. That I went on to pursue tertiary education on this subject could only be attributed to the fact that you and your fellow colleagues have failed to practice the flawed pedagogy to its extreme for you all are still human. Of course, you might try to refute my claims by highlighting the numerous students pursuing further studies on this subject who are from our institution. That I do not deny, for it is the innate allure of the subject and perhaps the demand for knowledge in this field that have drawn this intellects towards the subject. In raising this point as a rebuttal, your department should thank God your screwed approach was not consistently applied (plausibly due to a few rebel lecturers who truly believed in the subject and loved that exploration).
I have, in the course of my education in the institution, approached tutors of the subject (ie. your colleagues) regarding some of the matters I have pointed out above but they all appeared to shrug at them. Replies offered ranged from ‘instructions by the department’ and ‘every tutor in our institution is doing it this way’ to ‘that has been the case all along and we have no problem with it’ and ‘you are a special case, I don’t think other students would think this way’. My friends have suggested I return to teach at my alma mater and clean up the mess I observed in my school days. I hope that this letter will just do that without having me to compromise my future.