Echo chambers

“The difference is that the United States’ aims are to spread democracy and openness,” said the female interviewee, when asked by the BBC reporter on what the difference was between the US using “information warfare” vs. the Russians doing the same thing.

(For context, this was a radio programme on the suspected Russian interference in US politics.)

And then there was a pause.

The interviewee, I think, thought that that was enough; that by saying the US was pushing for “democracy and openness” while the Russians were not, it was self-evident the US were the “good guys”, exonerated from their own version of “information warfare” against other nations.

But the BBC journalist would have none of it.

Very subtly, with a slight change of tone, made a comment that implied not everyone’s looking for “democracy and openness”. Some of us would rather eat plain food in peace than have caviar shoved down our throats.

As much as I love late night TV, this very refreshing non-US take on things made me realise I better start getting out of my americentric echo chambers.

Are you what you write? (or, Machiavelli the playwright)

I just watched a documentary on Niccolò Machiavelli. You may know him as that scheming, deceitful, and generally rotten guy who wrote the political bible The Prince.

So infamous is he that his name has become an adjective synonymous with evil. Just see what Merriam-Webster has to stay about being “Machiavellian”:

suggesting the principles of conduct laid down by Machiavelli; specifically marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith

To be honest I never knew much about him – I’d heard of him and his book, but not much else. He lived in my mind vaguely in the same space as Sun Tzu and Zhuge Liang, and to a lesser extent political leaders like Mussolini, Mao Zedong, and Margaret Thatcher.

But watching this documentary gave me better appreciation for the man and his thoughts on politics and power.

It was the parts about his life, though, that really made me go: really?

You see, I always thought that Machiavelli was the right-hand man for the political leader(s) of his time and that he probably died as a martyr or as a grey-haired political advisor.  I never separated Machiavelli the man vs. Machiavelli the myth.

I always imagined him executed as part of a coup or something; which, come to think of it, would have been more romantic, no?

I had not realised that he was relatively young (~43) when he was deprived of his rather lofty official position due to transitions of power in Florence at that time.

It was only after that, as part of failed attempts to get back into officialdom that he wrote The Prince, which was his way of trying to get noticed by the new leaders. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work.

Eventually, he lived out the rest of his life writing plays. Plays. (Yes, plays.) 

Part of my amazement also lay in the fact that he still had friends after writing The Prince.

Though the book was published only 5 years after his death, he’d shared it among friends soon after first writing it.

Just imagine a modern day Machiavelli writing a blog on how to seize and hold on to positions of power, saying

one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.

Who’d be friends with such a guy?

It also reminded me sometimes of my own literary voyages.

You know how sometimes you’d be in a really good mood and ready to take on the world. Just about anything you write about then will tend to be upbeat too (“Believe in yourself and you the world will be your oyster! They can hurt your body but they cannot hurt you!”)

But sometimes those days precede days where nothing goes right, and you’re in a life-is-awful-kittens-are-Satan mood.

Imagine the dissonance when someone who then reads my happy post gets all upbeat him- or herself, and then talks to me about it during one of these god-awful days, saying something akin to:

“I love how you can turn:
the good from bad;
the happy from sad;
the new from old;
and lead into gold!”

F*** off my eyes tell them.

And they have to wonder if the writer and me were one and the same.

Well, there is what I write; and then there’s me.

On Facebook’s French Flag – Or: If one needy person, charity is done; if ten, none.

About a month ago what is now known (at least on Wikipedia) as the November 2015 Paris attacks happened, with more than a hundred people killed in mass shootings and suicide bombings.

I vaguely remember first seeing reports on this on Facebook, thinking it was some sort of joke. It was unreal; classified in my head with the other “how can that be true?” events, in the realm of the Boston Marathon bombings; the disappearance of MH370; the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre; and Steve Job’s and Michael Jackson’s deaths, both of whom played a huge part in shaping my childhood.

Over the next couple of days I noticed that many people’s profile pictures were overlayed with the French flag. It was a movement that felt bigger than myself, and I wanted to be a part of that. I did a quick Google search and found that it was easily done. A few clicks and I could get myself a profile picture overlayed with the French flag. Facebook made it really easy.

But I had my doubts. I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do. Despite my feeling of loss, I knew it was temporary and didn’t want to commit to changing my profile picture for an indefinite length of time – what would it mean to me or anyone? It felt hypocritical to have that overlay longer than the feeling lasted.

The Facebook developers, though, probably thought and felt the same thing. And in what I must say was a masterstroke, they provided users the option to have that overlay be temporary, defaulting to a week (which was exactly the length of time I’d felt was appropriate). That nudged me in the direction of going ahead with the profile picture update.

I must admit, though, that I still had my reservations. It felt, in a way, overtly political, which is something I go out of my way to be not; but at the same time it felt comforting and it gave me the feeling of being part of a bigger collective, a collective saying yeah let’s show the terrorists we won’t be put down.

Yes, I knew that this reeked of slacktivism: it certainly wasn’t the least I could do (i.e. nothing) but it probably wasn’t too far off. But what else could I do? And if it made me feel better without causing others too much distress, why not?

Still, I started to worry: had I done the right thing? I wondered if others would view me as a herd-follower, mindlessly following others because it was trendy or just because. (Just thinking about what I thought others were thinking about me made me second-guess myself — this wasn’t about me so why was I making it about me?)

And seeing many others writing about why they weren’t doing the change made me worry as well, because I’d frankly not thought too much about it (remember the nudge mentioned above? I was on the fence and a silly thing like the Facebook default of a week made me finally do it!)

So I did the only rational thing I could think of and read the arguments of those who were against the overlay (and there were many). From what I gathered, most dissenters were from one of two camps.

The first camp essentially said, “having the French flag on your profile picture is meaningless and a form of slacktivism. It doesn’t do anything and is a pointless exercise.”

The second camp, funnily enough, in effect stated quite the opposite. “Why do we only care so much about France when there are so many other countries suffering similarly? Why should the attacks in France be so special? Because no flags were put up for the other countries, I’m not going to do so for France.” Their act of refusing to take this French flag action seemed to place undue weight on the importance of this exercise.

In the end I bought more into the argument of the first camp. Putting a French flag overlay on your profile picture is a little pointless – I mean, what purpose does it serve? But then again so many of the things we do are like that, but we still do them anyway in the hope that it might make a difference, even if in the smallest of ways. (Reminds me a bit of e-mails that I send out asking for action before a deadline – I know it’s not going to happen before then, that people being people will dally and deadlines will be pushed back. But still I do it, in the hope that deadlines might one day be met.)

The second camp reminded me a bit of how charity works. If I see a single beggar I might decide to give a coin. If I see ten, I avoid them like the plague. If I gave one of them one, I would then have to give to the others. And if I couldn’t, then it wouldn’t be fair to those who receive nothing. So I just avoid giving altogether. But this just makes me feel like a prick, and keeps them all feeling hungry.

In the end though, there did seem to be common thread. A theory that unified both seemingly disparate camps. Other than the fact that those who wrote about it tended to be a little more political, I realised that if the campaign wasn’t as successful as it had been, I wouldn’t be writing this at all. Because nobody would’ve cared, and neither would I.

For every mindless Facebook user who applied the overlay (me included), there was a dilution of (political?) meaning (though it seemed to me to somewhat increase the feeling of solidarity and community). In the end, the more political among us probably found that making a greater statement was to not have an overlay, but to write about why not to have an overlay.

On the Why only France Question

I want to address separately the “why only France” question though, because this did stump me a little bit. I sort of got this argument at an intuitive level – France is no more or less special than other countries that had been attacked, and having it elevated to such a “special” status can be irksome feel horribly unfair.

But, like a number of commentators have mentioned, one big difference is that the attack in France was so rare and unlikely that it shocked us. A bombing in Israel or Palestine (or the general “Middle East”) seems like a once-a-week affair. Horrible as it is, it’s not unexpected and doesn’t make the news. When it happens in France, it does.

And if you ask me which makes me sadder, the deaths in Israel/Palestine/Middle East or France, I must admit it’s France. Not because I think France is greater in any way, but because I relate more to the French. I know more about them, have dreams of vacationing there, and find them more relatable because they seem more like me.

I remember the Boston Marathon bombings hitting me especially hard. Being an avid runner myself, one who aspired (still do, sometimes) to one day run the Boston Marathon, reading about the bombings made me literally sick. For weeks I felt down, and running just didn’t give me the same high. I would look at images of runners with severed limbs and ask myself what for do we run so hard?
It felt like my family was being attacked; it felt like me being attacked.

If most of the Facebook community looks like they’re treating non-Western countries unfairly, it might just be because most of its users are from Western countries, and people tend to sympathise more strongly with people from similar cultures, people who are more like them. It’s just the way we are.

And if Facebook itself does it, as a for-profit company seeking to make its users happy (so they return and drive its revenue), should we be too surprised?

Roy Ngerng, CPF, and the Widow who Lost $1m

Current affairs currently in my head, in a nutshell:

  • Roy Ngerng criticises Singapore’s CPF, likens it to schemes of questionable legality.
  • Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sues him for defamation. Many citizens think this is a bad move. See also: Catherine Lim’s open letter
  • Among criticisms, Ngerng says government should make it easier for citizens to withdraw their CPF, and/or more of it (e.g. by lowering  the “minimum sum”, which is what can’t be touched/withdrawn).
  • Apparently quite a number of people agree: Citizens should be trusted with their money.

On this last point, as intuitive as it is, and as much as I wish that was true, it probably isn’t.

Last weekend, I read a story that provided a great example of how difficult it is to trust ourselves with money:

Two years ago, after her husband was killed in a freak accident while working at Changi Airport’s Budget Terminal, she received nearly $1 million in insurance payouts and donations from the public.

Today, that money is all gone.

Madam Pusparani Mohan, 34, is now looking for work in Singapore to support her four young children back in Johor Baru.

“I made a mistake. People knew I had so much money and they all came to me. I am so stupid. I never buy house and finished all the money meant for my children,” Madam Pusparani told The Sunday Times from her home in Skudai.

It is funny how the people who most need to withdraw CPF monies are the very same people who most need their CPF monies kept from them.

It is easy to say: give me my CPF, and let me invest it; I can do infinitely better than the infinitesimal 2.5% the government gives me.

But how many people in reality can do it? I know of people who jump through hoops just to get 3% interest on their savings. 2.5% really isn’t that bad.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say most people can get that 2.5% or more. In fact, let’s quantify that and say that 70%  of the population can (and how unlikely this is! Imagine that for every 10 people you walk past on the street who are old enough to possibly withdraw their CPF, seven are able to get a return 50 or more times the existing savings rate of 0.05%).

This leaves us with the 30% who can’t manage their money. Who’s responsibility is it to help them? Let’s say these people finish spending their CPF monies within 5 years (that’s 3 years longer than Madam Pusparani Mohan mentioned in the story above).

What then? Should the 70% who do earn more be taxed on their earnings to pay for 30%? Would the tax be enough to cover the loss?

Maybe. But probably not.

Though those of us who probably can manage our money pretty well would love to have our CPF in our hands and not the government’s, we’re probably the ones who least need our CPF in the first place.

On Immigration (In Europe)

I’m currently reading a book called Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, by Christopher Caldwell, which talks about how immigration (and Islam) has affected Europe.

Early on in the book Caldwell writes that though Britain has generally been against mass immigration, it has been without much conviction, which could be due to a sense of moral shame. In particular, he cites their being chased away from India had left them “feeling embarrassed and diffident.”

On this feeling, though, Caldwell writes,

If one abandons the idea that Western Europeans are rapacious and exploitative by nature, and that Africans, Asians, and other would-be immigrants are inevitably their victims, then the fundamental difference between colonization and labor migration ceases to be obvious.

Whether you agree or disagree with what he says, I think you’ll probably agree that it’s an interesting perspective to have nonetheless.

Now under the Worker’s Party

The results for the General Elections for Singapore are out, and living in the Aljunied area means that I’m now officially under the Worker’s Party. I had guessed it’d be like that, sharing George Yeo’s sentiment that this was a tide that they’d be unable to stop.

Whether or not this result will turn out to be positive is anyone’s guess, but I’m thinking it’s going to be similar to what Obama’s administration has done for the US: raise expectations (to — let’s face it, being human — an irrationally unreasonable level) and then fail to deliver on some while delivering on others, but in general just creating a basket of mixed feelings.

Whatever happens, you just can’t deny that this is an exciting time to be a Singaporean (and especially someone staying in Aljunied).

Oh, and with Potong Pasir being won by the PAP (after being controlled by Chiam’s team for a bit), I think it’s fair to say that it’s a pretty exciting time to be staying in Potong Pasir as well. At least for a while, the predictable Singapore life will be open to fantasy.

“Freak” Rain Every 50 Years?

At lunch yesterday, a colleague of mine told me about the previous day’s rain that had caused flooding in the Bukit Timah area. The damage, he told me, was quite substantial, with some of the major casualties being the cars caught in a basement carpark (with water levels up to waist-height). He was surprised that I hadn’t known about it as it was all over the news (after which I told him I did now, and I still hadn’t watched the news).

So it was with interest that I noticed a column on this flood in the Straits Times. It quoted Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Yaacob Ibrahim as saying that “Thursday’s deluge which submerged parts of Bukit Timah was a “freak” event that comes once in 50 years”. The article also added that “[Yaacob Ibrahim] said his ministry knew that the canal was not up to the task of draining away all the rain that fell that day”.

Two questions immediately came to mind after I read that short column: (1) how did the ministry determine that this type of rain occurred once every 50 years? and (2) if they knew that it occurred every 50 years, and that the canal couldn’t deal with that amount of rain, if approximately 50 years had gone by why hadn’t they done anything before this?

I’m not faulting the ministry for not predicting this amount of rain — nobody could have predicted it. But if it’s unpredictable, do not say it occurs once every 50 years; say that the weather’s unpredictable, apologise for not taking action earlier (for PR’s sake) and then take steps to rectify the problem (as they have). Saying it occurs only once every 50 years will only make those most vulnerable complacent, and that’s definitely not a good thing.

Maslow's Needs in Politics

I read an article that discussed the reasons for McCain’s drop in the polling numbers. It offered me no real new insights, but reiterated the fact that McCain’s campaign went downhill with the Dow.

While Wallstreet suffered an economic meltdown, McCain suffered its political equivalent. As Dan Schnur (one of the authors of the article mentioned before) put it, “[t]he worst month for the Dow Jones industrial average in more than a decade made McCain’s national security credentials almost irrelevant to voters frightened about their economic futures.” And we can look to Maslow to tell us why.

Continue reading “Maslow's Needs in Politics”

Maslow’s Needs in Politics

I read an article that discussed the reasons for McCain’s drop in the polling numbers. It offered me no real new insights, but reiterated the fact that McCain’s campaign went downhill with the Dow.

While Wallstreet suffered an economic meltdown, McCain suffered its political equivalent. As Dan Schnur (one of the authors of the article mentioned before) put it, “[t]he worst month for the Dow Jones industrial average in more than a decade made McCain’s national security credentials almost irrelevant to voters frightened about their economic futures.” And we can look to Maslow to tell us why.

Continue reading “Maslow’s Needs in Politics”

Take the Gloves Off!

I cannot imagine what it’s like to be McCain. He’s virtually behind on every poll; his negative campaigning, in the hope of destroying Obama’s credibility, may have backfired and destroyed his own; and his supporters are angry and not afraid to show it. These supporters urge him to “take the gloves off” — but if you were him, would you listen? Should you take the gloves off?

Continue reading “Take the Gloves Off!”