Saturday, April 28, 2007

music break

some of you might know that i am a musician. i have a concert coming up in july, and most likely i will be very busy preparing and practising for that concert, so i doubt if i'll have much time to blog until then. contact me personally if you would like more info about my concert.

Monday, April 23, 2007

moving pebbles

[This is a much belated tribute to Kitana. It took longer than expected to come out because I had to scrap a previous few versions that I didn't quite like.]

[On terminology. "Plogosphere" refers to the subset of the blogosphere which talks about local social, political and economic issues. See here for more details.]

I can't make a difference.

This is a not uncommon sentiment in the plogosphere. Many bloggers cite this reason for feeling bitter, tired or jaded, and for quitting. I would beg to differ. I think bloggers can and do make a difference. The relevance of blogging about social/political issues lies in increasing awareness.

We might forget this if we spend too much time on the plogosphere, but generally Singaporeans, and especially young people, are highly politically ignorant or apathetic. I suspect that the man on the street just shrugs off most political issues as "not my problem". Even when they hear of the GST hike, or the ministerial salaries raise, they might spend two seconds to kao peh, but then they put the issue behind them and carry on with their lives unaffected.
I was just like that 7 months ago.

In the past, it may be that it is structurally difficult for an individual to become politically conscious and aware in Singapore, but Web 2.0 has changed all of that. A politically ignorant teenager, out of sheer boredom, may google "Wee Shu Min", "GST hike", "Ministerial Salaries", "Gayle Goh", (heck, or even "Kway Teow") stumble upon a blog or two in the plogosphere, and his/her life (and his/her perception to politics) may be changed instantly. That was how I started blogging.

But how does that change anything? The government is still the same, the ruling party is still the same. Many bloggers carry unrealistic expectations about how much change they can evoke. The PAP is not going to change their mind just because they came across your blog and say "hey, you're right." But that doesn't mean that blogging (and increasing awareness) is worthless.

Power lies in the voting population. Many people treat the government's promise of opening up as a direction that they are advocating, and get disappointed when they don't see much progress in the form of public policy. They way I see it, the "opening up" of the government is not an indicator of what the ruling party wants to do, but what they have no choice but to do, given the way the population is changing in their attitudes and their values. At the end of the day, the voting population will get more liberal and less conservative, and public policy has to reflect that, or the government will risk losing its influence or even its mandate.

That the population gets more liberal and less conservative, is going to happen because the youth of today, more influenced by "western" concepts of democracy and civil liberties than "asian values", will become the major demographic group of the future. The relative affluence (and increased standard of living) of the youth today, compared to the youth of the past, also means that they will probably worry less about bread and butter issues compared to the voting population of today. This is going to happen whether you blog or not. But blogging may help to speed up the process.

This occurs on two fronts. The first, already mentioned above, is creating awareness among politically ignorant individuals. The second front is in changing and influencing minds, even among those who are politically aware. The second front is trickier than it seems, because the plogosphere is not unanimous on issues. There are people who agree and disagree with each other, but each view has the potential to influence others. The most susceptible to influence are the (often forgotten) silent readers who neither blog nor leave comments [commentors and and bloggers are usually quite decided in their opinions and hence their minds are not easily changed].

We all know that there are different ways to blog on the plogosphere. Satire (Mollymeek and Lucky Tan) is a more powerful tool than many realize. I have previously argued that narratives and anecdotes are important tools of argumentation (recently, I find Yawning Bread very good at using anecdotes). But I think there is a line to be drawn between blogging to convince other people to agree with you, and blogging so that you present the reader with alternative points of view for the reader to decide for themselves. Some spats occur in the blogosphere when bloggers accuse each other of doing the former and "misleading" the readers with "rhetoric". Although I personally think it is important that we respect our readers to make their own rational decisions, often the line between what is rhetoric or not is a blurred one. But that is material for another post.

Increasing the number of politically aware individuals does not just have an effect when it comes to electoral concerns. By creating a platform where like-minded individuals come together and share ideas, seeds may be planted for civil societies, which might or might not bear influence in the future. We might be skeptical about the influence of ThinkCenter, Sintercom and RoundTable when it comes to influencing the politics of yesterday and today, but tomorrow it may be a totally different ball game. Singapore Angle, in its own way, is not unlike a civil society at all. SA's influence is probably negligible when it comes to the voting population in general, and it is tiny among the entire blogosphere, but I suspect that it is potentially one of the most influential voices in the plogosphere. When considered as a percentage of politically aware individuals, that is significant influence indeed.

Many times, as bloggers we get discouraged when we find ourselves talking about the same issues over and over again, without any sign of progress. Often, it is a struggle to find something original to say, as everything seems to have already been said before. While that is true, it is important to continually keep the engagement going (what likely is going to happen is that blogs close and new blogs are created and fill in the void), because there are new people who read the plogosphere, maybe everyday. Current material, as opposed to archived material, is much more accessible (and appealing) to the new plogosphere explorer, and that is why repeated engagement, even if but rehashed arguments, is relevant and important. Singapore is still getting more wired, and more and more people (especially the young) will take to the internet in the future. It is important to still stay active if you want to influence these individuals. The best evidence of the plogosphere's increasing influence is the government's attempts to engage the blogosphere (i.e. we are no longer insignificant).

As an individual, you can also carry your influence outside of the blogosphere. You can talk to people within your sphere of influence: your family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, taxi drivers and kopi-tiam uncles. Can you convince them to move away from a self-centered lifestyle into thinking about issues which affect not only them, but their fellow Singaporeans? Can you convince them to want to understand what they are really voting for or against, in the next elections?

Lastly, I feel that it is important to guard yourself against cynicism. When I was younger, I thought it was hip to be cynical. Being cynical means I could go around labeling others as "idealistic" or "naive", and made me feel as if I was more enlightened. Cynicism is dangerous in the plogosphere because it is infectious, and if more and more bloggers feel that what they do cannot make a difference, then not only are you missing out in influencing the new readers who enter the plogosphere everyday, but instead you instill in them a sense of hopelessness, and that social/political issues of Singapore are ultimately not bothering with. Someone once said fear was the ultimate paralyzer. I think cynicism paralyzes more than fear, because you can overcome fear with courage, but when you are a cynic, you already have no hope.

Kitana was surprised by the number of individuals who responded to the closing of her blog. It is easy to underestimate your influence, because it is hard to gauge how many silent readers are reading your blog and being influenced by your views. As bloggers, it is important to realize that while we cannot move mountains, we can move pebbles. Often, we don't realize when we move pebbles, there are others observing us, and a few of them will be inspired to move pebbles of their own. And in turn, these individuals inspire others to move their own pebbles. Over time, the first blogger might look over her shoulder and be surprised that a small hill has been moved.

We may not seem like we're helping to cause any immediate change. But we're influencing minds, and each convinced individual may in turn influence others. That is a very promising and exciting reason for hope. But that is also a very heavy responsibility. Our opinions influence others. Do you respect others enough that you have seriously thought through your opinions before you start influencing others?

Kitana once wrote that the Internet is the most powerful voice we have. It was actually the first Kitana post I ever read. I don't agree with what she said, but I think it is true. The internet is the most powerful way of influencing change for us, even if it is not in the way Kitana imagined it to be.

Monday, April 09, 2007

freedom writers and stressed teachers

i have been reading this post by stressed teacher (on the movie "freedom writers"), and the exchange between GomuGomu and yanjie on the comments thread. i have a few fragmented thoughts to share after thinking about what was said:

stressed teacher compared the job of teacher to that of ministers (in view of the recent salary raise; not the first time). i feel ambivalent about such a comparison. i believe that teachers are probably underpaid and under-appreciated. i was told that 40% of the teachers leave after their initial 3 year bond is up, i believe HR related issues was what prompted a raise in teacher's salaries and a revamp of the promotional structure of teachers in recent years. although perhaps lacking evidence, is this not the same cited reason why they want to raise ministerial salaries?

stressed teacher states that good teachers don't get any monetary compensation for their sacrifice. meanwhile ministers are demanding more pay for theirs. the implicit conclusion that that the ministers are being unreasonable. but that is not the only possible conclusion. the other possible conclusion is that good teachers should be rewarded for their sacrifices. similarly, stressed teacher says, look teachers got teacher appreciation days and awards but politicians don't - they opt for cold hard cash instead. perhaps the implication here is that politicians and ministers are materialistic. but another possible conclusion you can draw from the same comparison is we should have politician appreciation awards and days, or we should just scrap teacher appreciation awards and days, and give them cold hard cash too.

where the analogy between teachers and ministers break down is, rather unfortunately, the fact that ministers are harder to replace than teachers. teachers leave the service because they are underpaid? nevermind, there are some more willing to take their place. does this result in a shortage of quality teachers? without a doubt. but the overall loss of replacing good teachers with mediocre teachers pales in comparison to the overall loss of replacing a good minister with a mediocre minister. perhaps the first loss is not dire enough to take a slice of the pie away from defense, workfare (or what have you; to increase teachers' salaries), but the second loss may very well be.

but what i really want to talk about has got nothing to do with ministerial pay. stressed teacher writes that the main character of the movie, Mrs G, sacrificed her time, family (and in real life, her health), all for the sake of her students. stressed teacher thinks this is not worth it. or at least, he wouldn't be willing to sacrifice that much. Gomugomu (a teacher)
goes a step further and chastises such sacrificial teachers for "giving the entire teaching populace a bad image" and "perpetuating an unrealistic ideal". i really like yanjie's reply to that. reminded me about what KTM said some time ago (a bit buay paiseh ah, it was about me):

But sometimes the young punks do have insightful things to say and the old farts should still sit up and listen.

just because person A does not think it is worth it, does not mean that person B must also agree it is not worth it. what is or is not worth it to you, is a question of what is of value to you. there is no way to answer this question than from the subjective individual perspective. it is hence, very silly to compare yourself (if you are a teacher) to Mrs G, and try to justify who is the better teacher, who is the better person. what matters to you, is probably very different from what matters to Mrs G. you base your actions on what matters to you. Mrs G bases her actions on what matters to her.

but this is not what Gomugomu is really unhappy with. in an ideal world, we can just say "to each his own". but this is not an ideal world, and in real life, teachers like Mrs G, "spoil market" for other (more normal) teachers who just want to have a life on their own. this is why Gomugomu (and maybe stressed teacher) is unhappy. they might say: look Mrs G, you want to give up your life and your health and your marraige for your students, it is your perogative. but why do people demand that i do the same just because you do such things?

but does the Mrs Gs spoil market for the sake of spoiling market? do they do so as part of an elaborate political plan for further self gain? do they do so with the intension of causing great discomfort to their colleagues? i believe, most of the time, the Mrs Gs don't do so. it is quite well known that sacrificial teachers are not well rewarded. they do this out of sheer selflessness, perhaps to a fault. and on top of that, you still want to accuse them of being market spoilers? do you not realize how self-centered that is?

do parents demand you to be as sacrificial because Mrs G is so sacrificial? then shame on the parents. do the students label you a poor teacher because you just can't put in as much time as Mrs G? then shame on the students. do the middle management mark you down, deny you your promotion and your bonus because you want to have a life of your own? then shame on the middle managment. why do you blame Mrs G? is she really the one at fault here?

problematic expectations of parents, students and the middle/higher management are real issues that need to addressed. so do issues of teachers being overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated. and someone should address them. but nevertheless, just as a Mrs G has no business criticizing another teacher (such as stressed teacher) of "lack of passion" if he chooses to have a life of his own, such a teacher similarly has no business criticizing Mrs G for choosing to give up everything, including incurring the wrath of her colleagues for spoiling market, to help her students. who may very well be your children.

to conclude, i am reminded by something i read over here, about a panel discussion about "pursuing your passions". it is worthy to encourage others to pursue one's own passion, especially when the pursuit of such passion is "against the odds" and thus feels like an even more romantic notion. but sometimes when that is contrasted against something even more important, such as the lives of your loved ones, the pursuit of such passion appears to be selfish. to each his own; let no man judge another.

i've thought and contemplated before about what i want to pursue in life. i have come to realize that it is quite possible to lead a meaningful life without having to struggle and chase that one special dream or passion. one can just as well have a meaningful life, by living for the sake of other people. perhaps this is incomprehensible to some, and to the cynics it seems impossible. yet the Mrs Gs prove to us that some people will still try nevertheless. we think it is romantic to shed blood, sweat and tears to achieve a dream, but is it any less romantic to shed a dream because you choose to love somebody more than yourself?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

10 more thoughts on the ministerial pay hike

Much has been already been said about the issue, but as I read through the blogs, they all seem to make the same points over and over again. Here are 10 thoughts (not all original) that are perhaps, not so commonly found in other blogs:

1) Progress or Regress?

Like Aaron and KTM, I found the various issues raised to be unoriginal, recycled and boring. Blogs all say the same thing until I became quite sian to read another blog post on ministerial salaries (two notable exceptions). Why are they boring? Because we have talked and THOUGHT about such issues before, and this recent commotion offers little, if any, new insight. Hence boring.

Yet, the others do not seem to be as bored. If bloggers are bored, they wouldn't be blogging so much about the issue, and there would not be such an uproar. In fact, Inspir3d (of Intelligent Singaporean) claim this is the first time the blogosphere has reacted so strongly, and hence it is a sign of progress towards further liberalization of the political scene of Singapore. This issue is also enshrined in IS as a major blogosphere event, just like the WSM affair.

Why are others not bored? In fact, they seem excited even. I would like to suggest a hypothesis: the blogosphere at large is not really thinking about the issue. What most of us are doing, is mere cow-beh-cow-bu. If you got a gripe against something, do you get bored complaining about it? I know I don't. Now, I think there is nothing wrong against voicing disagreement. In fact, I think it is good and necessary to do so. What I think is not so good is the that perhaps in being so eager to voice discontent, we fail to think. And when there is mass-unthinking on the plogosphere, this is not progress, but regress.

2) Good Articles in Mass Media

There has been little or no mention of two articles written by the traditional media which I thought were quite good. The first is an article by Chua Mui Hoong in the Straits Times on Saturday March 24th, "Beyond knee-jerk reactions, hard issues remain". Ms Chua criticized knee-jerk reactions (rightfully, in my opinion) but also stated that there are "hard issues" which need to be answered, such as the appropriateness of the formula used to calculate salaries, as well as the KPIs of ministers. The second article was by PN Baliji in TODAY, and again talked about KPIs. Baliji was willing to grant that our ministers do a good job, but unless they can produce some tangible and transparent KPIs, they cannot hope to convince the general population.

I thought the two articles were worth mentioning not just because they made valid points and contributed to the discussion, but also because the blogosphere often holds the perception that the traditional media does not have a mind of its own and never criticizes the government.

3) Separating Politicians from Civil Servants

In Yawning Bread's article, Alex Au drew a distinction which I thought was quite important. Ministers are political office holders, and strictly speaking they are not civil servants, yet they are on the same pay scale. [Civil servants are apolitical, they cannot be affiliated to any political party.] This current pay hike will affect both ministers and senior civil service officers. However, the jobs of both are quite different. I personally think that the pay hike is slightly more justifiable for senior civil servants than for ministers. Does having justifiable reasons for raising the salary of senior civil servants justify raising the salaries of ministers also? So perhaps there is a need to de-conflate the salary scales of these two groups.

4) Why Be Minister?

I wondered aloud in my previous article if there were people whom the PAP approached but rejected the offer to enter politics. To my surprise, WANG replied to that, but on Kitana's blog instead. I thought he made a good case why being a minister (in Singapore) might not be an attractive option, and here are his points, paraphrased:

a) Being paid a large yet highly scrutinized salary upfront results in much negative publicity Take this current commotion over minister pay hikes. Are prospective politicians more or less likely to enter politics now? (Ironically, the whole idea of increasing pay was to attract talent, but the uproar might just cause the opposite effect.)

b) Being under constant scrutiny and public attention, and that means constant criticism. True for all politicians (and celebrities), but perhaps especially true in Singapore's case.

c) Success in other vocations and careers is better recognized, and more greatly "praised", than doing a good job as a minister. When is the last time someone, other than the press (or young PAP), praises a minister for anything at all?

d) The burden of being responsible for the welfare and the lives of over 4 million people. This compared to the burden of being responsible to only the bottom line of a company.

e) Engaging in philanthropy is praiseworthy for a non-politician, but the same act for a politician is doubted of its sincerity. Your character gets doubted, by virtue of the fact that you are a politcian.

5) The Most Charitable Case

Very few bloggers explored what the most charitable scenario for the government would be (in trying to justify the ministerial pay hikes). This is my attempt (see also my previous article):

There is a great shortage of talent in the higher echelons of the civil service, including the pool of politicians, and there is a constant leak of talent into the private sector. Higher salaries is found to be a major reason why civil servants (and politicians) leave the service and enter the private sector.
The current talent pool in the civil service is so depleted that there will be projected problems in the governance of Singapore of the future, and the panic button is being pushed. After examining what are other ways to attract talent back to the civil service, they found that the only easily adjustable parameter is salaries, and increasing the salaries was the only route to take. In other words, there is no choice. If we don't increase the salaries now, talented people are not willing to take up our leadership positions, so we are stuck with crappy leaders to lead Singapore through a potentially dangerous era ahead. This spells disaster for everyone in Singapore.

This is the most charitable case for the government that I can come up with, and I have to admit that IF this is truly the scenario, then I do think that the raise is salary is quite justified. However, there is little evidence that the situation is indeed as dire as this scenario. Furthermore, if such is indeed the scenario, why doesn't the government just come out and say "look, we don't have any more good talent left. If we don't try to attract them back, we're all screwed"? Or perhaps they have tried to say that in their politically correct ways, but their PR is just not good enough? Or is such a statement too politically costly to make bluntly? More politically costly than the current attempts at justification for the pay hike?

6) Necessity and Fairness

Consider my most charitable case mentioned above. I mentioned that I think the pay hike would be justified in the most charitable scenario. But I never said that it was fair. Many bloggers have mentioned that ministers do not deserve such a high pay, and that it was unfair to receive a salary which is intuitively more than they deserve. I have intuitive sentiments along the same line. However, I admit that if the most charitable scenario is true, then it is necessary to give the ministers such pay (although some might disagree about the necessity part).

The question to ask here is, just because an action is necessary, does it make it fair? I suspect some of us will say yes, some will say no. I think this is the distinction between consequentialist and deontological conceptions of ethics [yes, again]. If you think what makes something right or fair is the consequences, then you probably think that it is fair to raise the salaries, despite the obscene amount. If you think necessity and fairness are two different issues altogether, then you are probably a deontologist. But if so, it might be useful to note that criticisms on deontological grounds carry little weight if the government is going to make a decision on consequentialist grounds, especially where the potential consequences are very grave.

7) Gahmen VS Bloggers

Ben laments that he cannot find one, not even one, supporter of the pay hike. This is not exactly true, since in some ways (see point 5 above), I can be considered rather sympathetic towards the reasons for the pay hike. Nevertheless, it is true that practically everyone in the blogosphere is against such a move. On IS, Inspir3d categorized the views as "The Government's Case" and "The Blogosphere's Reply". It is as though the blogosphere was in total agreement as a whole, and stands in unified objection to the government. The truth is probably that there is a variety of views on both sides (but perhaps the opposing views within government ranks are silenced by the party whip).

But rightly or wrongly, there is clearly a perception of "us" against "them". Again, this appears to be yet another manifestation of the famous "great affective divide". That the "gahmen" just cannot identity with the rest of the general populace, and is simply clueless about the ground. I agree that communication between the government and the ground leaves much to be desired, and the government has much room for improvement, especially in the PR department. Nevertheless, I think many may people fail to see the symmetry of the divide: the gap in understanding may not just be the fault of the government failing to understand the ground, but also the ground failing to understand the government.

8) Emergence of Young PAP Blog

There is one notable exception to the blogosphere's united objection to the ministerial raise, and that is the Young PAP Blog. Due to the work of a spammer, apparently unrelated to Young PAP, the blog shot from obscurity to become one of the most visited blogs overnight. I had previously mentioned that I welcome the Young PAP Blog into the blogosphere. In fact, I think the emergence of this blog is pretty much the only sign of any progress being made in the blogosphere (see point 1) during this period of time.

I have actually been rather impressed by Ms Elaina Oliver Chong, one of the primary bloggers behind the Young PAP Blog, although she had made some very careless mistakes which perhaps, betrayed her n00b-ness to blogging. For example, when giving examples of what kind of sacrifices a minister makes for his country, she listed carrying babies. Any of the points I already mentioned in point 4 above would probably have been better. In a reply to a comment, she pasted a whole ST article ("What's this place worth to you?" by Paul Jacob), which was generally an eloquently articulated piece of rhetoric, and will hardly be convincing to her detractors, who would (and did) accuse her of just repeating government propaganda. Chua Mui Hoong's article, (see point 2), located just next to Paul Jacob's one, would have been a slightly better choice, if she wanted to quote an article.

Boo-boos aside, I am quite eager to see how the Young PAP Blog develops and continues to engage the rest of the blogosphere from now onwards.

9) Just like GST?

Many bloggers, including myself, noted that the announcement of the salary hike was very close to the announcement of the GST raise. Some bloggers, cynically postulated that the real rational for raising the GST was to line the pockets of ministers. Myself, and others like KTM, noted that announcing so close to each other is politically costly. Ms Elaina Olivia Chong, on the Young PAP Blog, quite cleverly argues that the GST hike helps to stimulate economy, and actually makes the ministerial raise more justifiable.

There is another sense which I think the GST hike and raising ministerial salaries are linked. They way they were announced is very similar. The GST hike was originally announced last October, and promised to reveal an offset package during Budget (in February this year). Note that this announcement was made 4 months before the Budget and the revealing of the offset package, and 9 months before the actual implementation of the GST hike (this July). Why was the announcement broken up into two parts (the first part, the announcement and the justification, and the second part, the actual facts and figures) which were announced 4 months apart? Similarly, it is only now announced that the salaries will go up and why, but by how much, that will be announced later. Why did they break up the announcement into two parts again? Will we wait 4 months before they give the actual figures?

I am not very sure why they break up such "bitter pill" announcements into two parts, but my guess is that this is a PR related move, and has something to do with helping to dissipate negative opinion. True enough, when the GST hike was announced in October, there was a huge commotion in the blogosphere. But when the offset package was revealed during budget debate this Feburary, there is much less noise heard. Have bloggers, and the general populace, simply got bored of the issue because they ranted enough about it 4 months ago? Are discontenting views that easily pacified?

10) The Peculiar Nature of our Domestic Politics

How would this situation look like if it occurred in another country, where instead of a single dominant party, there are two strongly contending parties? No doubt, the opposing party would be taking full advantage of this negative publicity to try and deconstruct the ruling party as much as possible. Yet, our opposition MPs have been largely quiet, except for NCMP Sylvia Lim, who criticized the "insensitive timing" of the announcement.

Usually for democracies, the mandate of rule is determined by vote. This means that if we find our leaders lacking, such as being corrupt or self-serving, we can vote them out and replace them with their competitors. Because there are opposing parties, politicians will try their best to convince the voting population of their sincerity and the honesty of their servitude. Although technically we voted in the ruling party, and hence we are a democracy, this model differs slightly for Singapore. Our opposition parties are just too weak to be considered a serious check and balance against corrupt or self-serving policies. As a result, anti-corruption measures need to be built into the parliamentary system (tough anti-corruption laws, independent investigative body which reports directly to the PM Office, etc), perhaps so as to convince the voting population that a single ruling dominant party can still be free from corruption, and unquestionable in character.

I am not criticizing the fact that our government has belonged to a single dominant party since independence. In fact, much of our progress and achievements today would not be possible otherwise. Nevertheless, the fact that you a single dominant party and there is a lack of a strong and credible opposition, sometimes means that it is difficult job to convince the population that you are not in a carte blanche situation. That really, you are not increasing your own salary just because you can, but because you have no choice. Just how are you going to convince the population when there really isn't any real check and balance against you? This is a difficult task, but such is the rules of the game when you are a single dominant party. I do think however, that the PAP have dug themselves this hole, so they probably will not receive much sympathy in this area.

[I thank Cognitive Dissonance, for much of these ideas were formed and shaped during a recent conversation we had over coffee. I also thank KTM for being the inspiration behind some of these thoughts. Lastly, if you have not done so, do drop by Perspective Unlimited to congratulate Bart and his wife on the birth of their first child =)]