The Skills and the Interests

In recent months, a big policy push for post-secondary education has been about a ‘skills future’. The previous push was about continuing learning, which might not, on the face of it, seem to denote anything different from continuing to learn skills in the future; however, part of the expectation of policy ideas is that the new thing should be different from the old one (whether it actually is or not), and there has in fact been a difference in marketed emphasis.

‘Skills’ in the new policy language often connotes something like ‘alternative’, i.e. they are not the same boring old skills that everyone should already have. The discourse actually bifurcates. On one side, these are the skills that lead into occupations that deviate negatively from the compensatory norm. These might kindly be described as fitting into a special ‘niche’; otherwise, the words ‘passion’ or ‘interest’ are liable to be brought in. On the other side, skills which are associated with occupations that deviate positively from the compensatory norm are apt to be associated with ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’, technical expertise – essentially whatever’s trending in the lexicon of high-end consulting.

In discussions about the policy, people are very much aware of this bifurcation. If questions feature in the programme, this point is often brought up, but in both the questioners’ language and the answerers’, the bifurcation is pre-rationalized as an uncertainty or anxiety about prospects – and there are many convenient answers to that question.

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I think most comers to a discussion about a ‘skills’ future could be persuaded to agree with the point that developing any sort of skill in general is somewhat valuable, but that intensely developing certain skills yields proportionately greater value – after all, that’s the promise of mastery, and most of us believe mastery is a real thing (and a good thing) that can be achieved.

Against this backdrop, one idea that crops up often is that a deep engagement with learning is primarily driven by a deep interest in some area. While plausible on first sight, I find it in some respects untenable, and even somewhat disingenuous – since the devil is in the details, and the world beyond this interests-skills relationship is somewhat more troublesome.

It is, however, easy to make the assumption that interest is the main driver for developing mastery. What else is there? In fact, there are many things, usually involving macro-structures and commitment of resources – but as some acquaintances of mine pointed out, exactly the sort of thing one could not expect a public official to talk about easily.

Where policy is the concern, however, the assumption becomes implicit. ‘How can we best cater to diverse interests?’ one might ask, perhaps rhetorically – since, after all, it does not do to discuss the allocation of resources lightly, without the barrier of closed doors.

I think part of why I’m writing this is that I believe it’s just the wrong question to be asking, if what we’re looking for is useful questions. The thing about mastery is precisely that it requires commitment, significant resources, and a larger system in which it can be usefully embedded.

Aside from interest, I think the imposition of rigour can be crucial; to paraphrase someone else, rigour is a structural property, and I took this to mean that you need to design a system carefully to induce the needed rigour at the needed points.

The next problem is that mastery needs to be useful. Certainly a good portion of the motivation to learn needs to be intrinsic to the learner or the subject, but if the policy problem is about promoting deep learning, then certainly trying to achieve a more nuanced understanding of the extrinsic situation would not be amiss? One reason I think ‘interest-driven learning’ is a dangerous idea is precisely because it ignores a large part of the problem.

Causes for Wonder

The whole SG50 thing did not entirely fail to move me: but how could it not succeed, with so much genuine participation and creativity going into it? But I think you would understand my baseline attitude towards it.

In the past months, however, I have felt fiercely proud of certain achievements and certain people. There was the Art of Charlie Chan, the music of Charlie Lim, the Ministry of Moral Panic – well, and Tharman. And there would have been other moments and other people.

The first three I mentioned, however, loom the largest in my wonder-scape. There was the realization that here something was done with great skill, here something of great power was made, and yet no display of difficulty was allowed. One plots an affective coup across several deceptively meandering arcs; one captures a tone and a turn just so, all the while channelling a groundswell of soul; one mines the veins of weird mingled in with the familiar, and then somehow recomposes the material into a shape that resonates with eerie clarity.

Wherefore Ideology?: Thinking for the Public

I found Sudhir T. Vadaketh’s 4-part series about his thoughts on the GE to offer some refreshing perspective. If you’re already relishing the prospect of reading the entire series, there’s quite a lot to chew on, and I’d recommend you go ahead (though I don’t agree with quite a bit of it).

As much as I enjoyed the read, I’m writing this post in response to just one of the questions he poses (in Part 4), about the whether the PAP has the necessary ideological adaptability to manage Singapore’s long-term evolution, within a complex and changing world ecosystem.

Actually the notion of ideological evolution happens to be an idea I’ve recently written about, in a post about the idea of a Singaporean exceptionalism. My main point was that some kind of exceptionalism is (as others have said, if perhaps more self-servingly) good and necessary, but that it needs to be an imaginative exceptionalism.

Additionally I found myself largely in agreement with Sudhir’s premises about what the world situation is like, and the kind of demands it will impose. However, the point I found myself to be in doubt about is whether ideological adaptability is something we can realistically demand from any political party at all.

Now, I don’t think that this is a question with an inherently pessimistic premise – it’s not that I think politicians necessarily lack imagination, or that political parties are doomed to dogma. Rather, the implicit premise I would contest is that political ideology is mostly shaped by politicians.

While politicians appear to be responsible for communicating and even enacting ideology over a large remit, I strongly suspect that in a complex ecosystem of ideas and technologically-enabled everyman-ideologues, the efforts of politicians to shape ideology don’t go very far at all – are, in fact, apt to be counter-productive. The reality is that our discursive culture (the one performed in the media and taught in schools, among other things) has primed us to regard any official, vaguely ideological messaging as transparent attempts at manipulation and so much propaganda. The learned instinct is to resist messages from certain recognized quarters.

At the same time ideological messages are easier to broadcast than ever, and fairly cheap to create. Add to this the availability of messages already made, needing only to be found. The power to express and disseminate creative ideological resistance is, I think, greater than the power of political authority to neutralize it.

I also suspect most politicians quickly realize this: would you not, in a society where every public thought-proposal is liable to raise a storm of commentary? And I think the more adroit of them can be observed to have become better and better at subversive messaging.

The crux of the matter is that I think it is fairer to see political parties as reflecting our (‘the people’s’) choices to us, than it is to see them as circumscribing the choices available to us. In other words I think ideological change will come primarily from their responding to broader society, than it comes from their imposing it or contriving it somehow through the exercise of institutional power. This is one reason I find it difficult to endorse the call for greater ideological adaptability on the part of the PAP, or any other party.

This is not to say that I think politicians lack agency altogether, or that there is no power-wielding for which they can be rightly held responsible. Certainly they can and ought to be influential; but the question is, in the ideological markets, to what extent are they ‘price-takers’ rather than ‘price-setters’? (I think my answer to this question should be obvious.)

Another problem I see with the expectation that politicians and political parties be ideologically adaptable, is that in the first place the ideological complex they subscribe to (i.e. the range of systematically related ideas they regard as informing their institutional identity and ethos) is probably going to be something of a sprawl, something of a hodge-podge, probably something undergoing frequent renovation, and something that most individual members appreciate only in part. Perhaps there are a few members who could be said to approximate something like the encompassing vision of an architect, but these are as easily found outside the structure. The question here is, how does the adapting and the reconceptualizing and the renovation get done?

I think my answer to this second question is that it gets done by the people who have the most space to manoeuvre, the ones with the greatest capacity to co-opt emerging social technologies, the ones with the greatest freedom to develop and seek novel ideas. I don’t think these will be politicians or their parties. My hopeful forecast is that it will be some non-fixed coalition of private citizens and citizen-groups (to the extent we can resist becoming capitalist or imperial subjects, and to the extent we remain impressionable enough to imagine ourselves as citizens). (Another relevant developmental trend in social technologies here is that it is easier than ever for crowds to reiteratively shape and weave the dimensions and strands of discourse, but I think this observation requires an explanation best left to another day.)

Returning to the call for ideological adaptability, my main contention then would be that this is more rightly regarded as a challenge for the citizenry. If we are all already subjects, then I think to demand or hope for some kind of ‘thought-leadership’ from political authorities, authorities whom we loudly and frequently declare ought to listen to and serve us, is doubly perverse.

I think one of the more immediate implications of ‘taking up the challenge’ would be an urgent reconsideration of how we talk about politics to our fellow citizens. What I see as a particularly pernicious variety of discourse is the rationalization of political difference as failure, e.g. for conservative voters political difference is an intellectual failure, for liberal voters political difference is a moral failure, etc. This is precisely the kind of discourse that is not only entirely sterile, but also costly in terms of resources available for further debate. It represents a failure of both imagination and compassion.

I do not deny that policy can be profoundly influential, but I think a more-or-less civil society cannot neglect to recognize how considerably empowered it already is in the ideological sphere.

List of GE2015 articles

This is a list of articles about people and events related to GE2015 that, if not necessarily official, thoroughly researched, or authoritatively true, were nevertheless illuminating in how they adopted an unusually broad or unusually zoomed-in perspective. A friend of mine called this a convex set.

  1. On Leaving the Singapore Democratic Party: An ‘inside’ view on life in the party under Dr. Chee’s leadership, from someone who sounds like he worked on some interesting and substantial things while with the SDP.
  2. How AIM-AHPETC Affects Your Life and Your Town Council: A rather partisan commentator, who nevertheless usefully sets out the facts and context in a clear and concise chronology.
  3. The general election campaign so far: the issues: The first in Alex Au’s three-part series on GE2015. A good overview of the issues, over the period between the last GE and this one.
  4. Singapore 2015: Rankings of Top Three Parties on Education: In this slideshow Dr. Woo Yen Yen comments on the education proposals by the SDP, WP, and PAP. A good comment that came up on Facebook about this slideshow: ‘The problem is that the PAP thinks its entire education manifesto is in the huge archive of speeches and whatnot available on the MOE website. (I had to trawl through it when going for my own PhD.) That’s akin to a person applying for a job using his diary rather than his CV’ (author).
  5. GE2015: Final thoughts: In this 4-part series, Sudhir T. Vadaketh offers interesting perspective on some of the issues and macro-issues that have featured in recent political discourse. Examples include his wider discussion of race in Singapore (broad historically), of migration and population policy (broad geographically), and of wealth inequality (geographically and historically broad).

Post-election comments:

  1. Singapore democracy trumps the Philippines’: Oscar Franklin Tan considers the state of two democracies.
  2. Singapore’s final authoritarian election: Dan Slater considering the paradox of a ‘genuine electoral landslide’ that ‘just isn’t a democratic one’.

This is a developing list. Suggestions are welcome.

Complaints and Grievances

I started this blog in 2011, while watching the General Elections. At the time, I was just shy of the voting age, and in any case, my ward wasn’t contested.

For me, 2011 was also during that odd interval (about 9 months long for me) between National Service and further education. I was doing a bunch of part-time jobs and spending a lot of time with friends, whose schedules were then also clear. (Also, Pagey.)

All this meant that (1) I had just had an experience that had significantly shaped and informed my outlook, (2) I was re-encountering Singapore as neither a student nor an NSF, and (3) I had a good amount of thinking time and conversation time. This led to quite the bundle of thoughts and revelations. Less fortunately, I didn’t quite have either the patience or skill needed to work through them well, and I’ve left just one of those GE2011 posts up for public viewing.

A few years on, I find myself reading the news from Singapore again, this time with a perhaps less ironic compulsion, and maybe with more genuine concern.

So it’s January 2015 and already there’ve been a bunch of controversial stories. I intend to write about a few that I felt genuinely fussed about. I’ll attempt to explain why I’m against these proposals/tendencies/etc. There are other stories, too, which I don’t feel as fussed about, either because I don’t understand them as well, or because I find the relevant reports lacking in terms of representing the issues well.

My current list:

  1. Tabling a law for open-container restrictions on drinking (19 January, ST)
  2. Something about buying 50 grand pianos for an SG50 concert (20 January, bandcamp.sg)
  3. SingTel CEO going all anti-Net Neutrality (22 January, AsiaOne)

(TBC?)

A Fugue of Righteousness and Infamy

It’s all rather sordid. A quick summary:

(Cast.)
Mr. Teo Yu Sheng, NUS student. Interviewed by a QAFU External Review Panel on 16 September.
Mr. Shermon Ong, NUSSU Vice-President.

(Prelude.) Emails are exchanged between Mr. Teo and Mr. Ong, in which Mr. Teo enquires about the financial report in the latest AGM report. (Refer to Acts II and III for further records.)

(Act I.) Mr. Teo publishes this article criticizing NUSSU’s ‘twisted form of transparency’, based on the lack of a financial breakdown of 87% of NUSSU’s operating budget.

(Act II.) Mr. Ong publishes this reply on behalf of NUSSU, charmingly titled ‘Allegations and aspersions by Mr. Teo Yu Sheng’. The moral arguments are rather lacking, though it was otherwise informative.

(Act III.) Mr. Teo publishes this rebuttal to NUSSU’s reply.

(TBC; mothership.sg is keeping track, it seems.)

At this point, Mr. Ong has dug the hole pretty deep for NUSSU. It was pretty deep to begin with, given Mr. Teo’s strong initial salvo on social media. And yet, as deserving of public censure as NUSSU’s handling of its financials, correspondence, and PR is, I find myself feeling even more gall at its newly vocal detractors.

You may well ask, ‘Why?’; I wonder myself. I think some of it might be simple snobby resentment at the newly exercised. I think the rest of it is also possibly a kind of snobbery, at the credulity of the masses, or something like that.

The NUSSU reply is easy to ridicule (and has roundly been ridiculed), and yet what is perhaps its most damning failure was its least egregious one, this being its preemptive defensiveness. It is the least egregious, and also the most understandable, given the hazy definition (and poor understanding) of the perceived threat.

Was Mr. Teo alleging wrongdoing and casting aspersions? Not really; but really no and yes, respectively. Mr. Teo may have criticized the Union’s financial management and reporting, but this does not an allegation of financial misconduct make. On the other hand, I cannot find it in myself to argue that Mr. Teo was simply either asking a public question, or simply advocating for financial transparency and good governance; rather, he was, quite transparently, soliciting his audience’s engagement with the all-too-recognizable narrative of an exposé of official callousness and ineptitude.

In truth, I would ordinarily have nothing against the attempt at engagement; it’s in itself unavoidable, if you’re trying to put something across to somebody. It’s really the obscuring of this through the protestations of earnest civic mindedness that annoys me – both things together, and not one or the other.

Perhaps Mr. Teo will eventually be vindicated. I would still be annoyed. The other corner is probably worse, and I suppose having encountered Mr. Ong’s ridiculousness before may have inured me slightly to it; but he does seem to relish it.

Urgh.

Load Stress: Public Transport and its Alternatives

(Written in the consideration of a proposal to increase the costs of private vehicle ownership, while nationalizing and further subsidizing public transport.)

Beginning from the premise that private vehicle commute is more inefficient than public transport in terms of cost (financial, congestion, other environmental), raising one price and lowering the other might appear to be the natural solution. However, I think it is precisely the fact that this will widen the price difference that might prove to undermine the operation of this mechanism.

The current difference seems already to be wide enough such that income all but determines whether one would use public transport or not. Car ownership is the default position for those with the economic wherewithal, whereas those without commute by public transport by default. There are. additionally, the cases on the margin of being able to afford a car, as well as the exceptional cases of those with the economic wherewithal to do so who opt not to own or use private vehicles for non-economic reasons; but these cases are marginal and exceptional. Taking the ‘good’ to be the mobility afforded by forms of transportation, it would seem that the pattern of consumption along the lines of public and private is already inflexible. The effect of an even wider price difference on the distribution of consumption between public and private forms of transport is effectively nil.

That I would focus on this distribution as the determining factor of whether or not society benefits is premised on the assumption that the demand for urban mobility is largely independent of disposable income – that, if you will, some form of transportation through the city is a need and not, say, a luxury. The main congestion and load problems are associated with the necessary commute to the workplace. Given the nature of the need, widening the price difference may even contribute to a detrimental result, because of how the trade-off between public and private transportation options is affected.

Raising the price of private vehicle ownership would mean that, firstly, some people would no longer be able to afford to own private vehicles, and, secondly, that those who do simply end up paying more. If the first effect is relatively greater than the second one, raising the price would promote greater overall efficiency, in the specific sense of there having been cost savings from people using public rather than private forms of transport. If the second result is relatively greater, the cost would likely exceed the benefit – the magnitude of this cost is dependent on two questions, the first being whether or not these private road users benefit, and the second being whether or not their increased payments are contributing the benefit of commuters in general (including themselves). With regard to the first question, private road users will not experience any significant benefit even as they bear the higher costs unless very many people end up taking public transport. With regard to the second question, whether these increased costs in terms of COE or taxes are diverted to improving the public transport system is not an immediately consequent issue for them, and is equivocally to their benefit or detriment in the long term, depending on the success of public transport planners and operators.

Perhaps the nationalization of public transport combined with increased government revenue may promote better performance in the long-run. This would be ideal. If this can be achieved, existing users of public transport benefit. Lowering the price would be a bonus to commuters. It will also promote the use of public transport over private forms of transportation, which in turn benefits the remaining private road users.

Nevertheless, in the immediate term, lowering the price of public transport offers little scope for benefit. Given that prices are currently at a low absolute level (mostly between $1 – $2 per trip), there is not much scope for a price reduction. Moreover, even if prices were significantly reduced, the savings to the consumer are unlikely to outweigh the costs incurred in terms congestion and system unreliability due to load stress. These are costs already being incurred, and while a price reduction is unlikely to exacerbate the underlying problems (because urban transport is a need and not a luxury, at least during peak hour), it is certainly not going to contribute to ameliorating their effects.

I would also argue that public transport is effectively subsidized to begin with, given that public transport operators have exclusive operating arrangements, and that the infrastructure is publicly supported. This is what makes ‘public’ transport available at all. As such, the significance of a further subsidy to the public in the form of even lower fares would appear to be limited. Referring specifically to the proposal for nationalizing public transport, savings would be generated specifically through reducing the extent of private profit. This would be a welcome saving over and above the effective subsidies previously describe; yet although it would certainly not be unwelcome, I do not think it would significantly reduce the costs already being generated because of structural stresses within the public transportation system.

Additionally, I find that private road usage and vehicle ownership appear to be well-regulated. (Road congestion and its associated environmental costs, for example, is less of a problem in Singapore than it is other urban centres.) A consequence of this is that private forms of transportation will continue to be preferred over public transport, simply because the regulation is working. As such, it would appear that it is the public transportation system specifically that should be the focus of efforts at improvement. Given that the main problems are congestion and unreliability due to load stress, I would see this primarily in terms of structural improvement, i.e. dealing with the load stress.

Structural improvements are costly in terms of the disruption to the operation of existing systems, as well as construction time. However, the problem of load stress is a structural problem. The problem of load stress can be described in terms of limitations on system capacity. One major limitation is on the scope for increasing train frequency during peak hours. Intervals cannot be shortened much more. Increasing train capacity would necessitate increasing station capacity – but this would essentially be a structural solution. A second important limitation on system capacity is the extent to which subsystems do not complement each other. For example, increasing bus frequency along a route parallel to a train route can compensate for the overburdening of the train system, but it would likely do so inefficiently, if, for instance, the journey time by train remains significantly shorter than the journey time by bus. Commuters, presented with an inferior alternative, are likely to make a sub-optimal collective decision. Operators face obstacles in implementation as they seek the least costly workarounds. Nationalizing operations may be useful if it expedites the execution of a viable restructuring proposal.

Overall, I judge that the costs associated with transport are already high, in monetary terms in the case of car ownership, and in terms of congestion and system unreliability in the case of public transport. Further increasing the difference in price between the two options is unlikely to generate significant savings in the case of public transport, while it generates costs that are hard to justify in the case of private vehicle ownership. The most pressing need is for structural improvement in the public transportation system. The nationalization of public transport operations may be useful for effecting structural improvements, and may also generate some savings for commuters.

Response to ‘Global Competition’ in Education

(I posted the following as a comment response to this post, titled ‘Global Competition’, from the Provost of NUS.)

Is global competition any more real than competition in general? This might seem like a facetious statement, but ‘global’ is merely one of many aspects we ascribe to that complex of competition and motivation that drives people to work within any organized social system. Alan has pointed out the ways in which the attribution of ‘global’ to the nature of competition is possibly alarmist. The concern I’d like to address is somewhat different. I don’t think the lack of recognition of ‘global’ competition is the cause of low workshop attendance (though certainly I would not assert that the account of global competition as illuminated by you and the statistics you provided is something already thoroughly well-recognized).

Why won’t students like me (more or less) even consider attending many of the workshops made available to us? Why do I routinely delete email notifications about, say, ‘Professional Writing Series’ and not others? (Disclaimer: I am unqualified to offer any judgment on the quality of the program. The previous statements should discourage no-one from attending.) The easy answers are the relevance to the individual’s skill development and the potential time and energy investments involved. But what happens if I do have the time and there is significant room for development in a relevant skill area?

I would propose that, rather than a lack of competitive drive, the pressure is on to compete profitably. I don’t think the problem lies with the quality of the programmes offered for furthering skills. It is just that – excuse the caricature – it is better to go study in my room, or go study with course-mates. The latter prospect has the added benefit of letting me know about the standing of my competition.

If students, rightly or wrongly, regard crossing a threshold of performance for a grade as a make-or-break prospect, it doesn’t make sense to go for programmes that aren’t directly relevant to improving them. I think most students would both acknowledge and appreciate the importance of the skills that, through workshops, we are offered the opportunity to develop, but it is often a less pressing concern than grade numbers. Those numbers offer a different sort of opportunity, which is, ironically, the right to compete for more opportunities, for prestige or other forms of potential socioeconomic betterment. Some examples of these opportunities might be programmes with a strictly limited quota, or internships with prestigious organizations. Ultimately, there is the wider problem of the difficulty humans have in resisting the tendency to assess people by important numbers simply because those are easy references.

Can this change? It is a tricky prospect when even the admission that everyone is necessarily competing with everyone else is socially distasteful. (Perversely, though, wild speculations about one’s prospective position on a hypothetical bell-curve has become a convenient way to achieve levity.) If one’s sense of one’s self is offended by the reality of one’s place in an organized system, I think the problem is that sense not being robust enough. I do not mean this as a condemnation of any individual’s soundness of character or anything like that, but I do feel that Competition as an evaluative or economic reality tends to warp the rest of reality, and that includes my own.

If it is true that the physical and economic realities haven’t changed, it would be true retrospectively as well, and Singapore has managed to be a step ahead regardless. The danger, then, is in not moving on, rather than from being in a forever-imperiled state. Whatever the ‘global’ dimension is to the relationship between competition and motivation, I find that the danger is in taking it as just one more arena. If that is the case, there is little reason to change and adapt. It only means 加油 and intensify. Should ‘Onward, Singapore’ be one kind of progress or are there other ways forward?

Finally, I would like to say that it is about as fair to judge that students self-victimize as it is to cast them as victims, and I hope not to have indulged too much in either.

VII. The Question of Authority

The fact is that the ruling party understands its position. We know that they are aware that they have neglected the business of politics and that they realize the status quo is untenable. The tone of appeasement and the renewed commitments to the public’s concerns reflect this, as does the talk of party renewal and reform.

The question it has to resolve is with regard to the expectation of political dominance. What kind of rule can be maintained?

The main constraint it faces is that its existing mechanisms for drawing from the talent pool do not yield as much talent as they need, or that they are yielding too much of the wrong crop. If the problem in this election was that they were spread thinly against serious competition, the challenge will be in finding correspondingly competitive candidates for future contests, and in ensuring that current MPs or future candidates are willing to advance the party’s interest on the ground. In the area of finding and attracting talent, the ruling party will first need to reestablish its credibility and establish its new focus. Unless it succeeds in all of the above, it can only expect to cede political ground to a political opposition that has succeeded in building a political base despite adverse conditions.

The problem is that, no matter what course it decides to pursue, it must be prepared to decline from the dominance it has enjoyed since independence. This is both a practical matter and a matter of principle. The practical consideration is that if it is seen to be unprepared to accept a change in the status quo, it will be judged as being unwilling to engage from anything other than a position of dominance, and it can have no credibility in that case. The matter of principle is that true renewal of the party’s identity cannot be accomplished if it is preoccupied with maintaining power.

I call it a problem, because an acknowledgment of these realities would go against years of institutional wisdom about political power. However, I do think that the leadership of the ruling party is perceptive enough to realize the nature of the challenge it faces, and will at least attempt to reinvent itself. It must realize it can no longer expect to carry 87 seats easily, and so Parliament will become a different place. Also, the political discourse will proceed with or without their participation, and it will no longer suffer to be unrepresented.

If it is to succeed, it has to aim for a different ideal of political control than before.   It has resources, experience and knowledge of the rulebook on its side, and it will be well able to secure the rule of the country for the foreseeable future if it can avoid the pitfalls that will destroy its credibility.