Thursday, May 26, 2005

An exclusive talk shop 

In response to Dr Cherian George’s lament that government restrictions led to the demise of The Roundtable, Michael Heng Swee Hai sent a letter to The Straits Times giving what he thought were the two real reasons that The Roundtable failed.

The first reason:

The cause of The Roundable’s demise is really its exclusive membership... The Roundtable’s exclusivity clearly created an “affective divide” with ordinary Singaporeans, and explained why it was unable to “mobilise the public”, and not because it activities had to be membership-based.
The second reason:

The Roundtable’s inability to mobilise the public was also because it was never more than just a “talk shop”... Members’ intellectual preoccupation showed their disdain for political action in support of their passionately expressed political beliefs. The Roundtable had begun as a talk shop, behaved as a talk shop and “died” naturally as a talk shop.
While there may be some validity behind these two points, there is a also problem with Michael Heng’s views. Based on the disdainful tone that he takes, it seems that he has based his argument on the premise that there is little value in exclusive talk shops. If so, this is a wrong premise to start with.

Exclusivity has always been one of the ways in which organisations maintain quality control within their ranks. That is, after all, why organisations look at a person’s qualifications before employing him. Talk shops generate ideas, which are the first steps to many subsequent actions, political or otherwise. If you think of it, a university is also a form of exclusive talk shop. Would he argue that universities are useless and deserve to “die”?

So there is nothing obviously wrong with being an exclusive talk shop, and such a role for an organisation should not be casually dismissed. There is a place for political parties, but there should also be a place for talk shops.

This is not to say that Michael Heng is necessarily wrong in saying that its exclusivity and preoccupation with talk as opposed to action are important factors in the demise of The Roundtable. But if he is correct, then perhaps all the more we should be asking whether there is a problem with the rules that leads to this situation. An open, intellectually vibrant society should have a place for exclusive talk shops.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Statistics in the mainstream media 

It’s often said that you need numbers to prove a hypothesis. Well, if you use the right numbers in the right ways, there are a lot of things you can “prove”.

Steven McDermott cited a Xinhua report that cited a Channel NewsAsia report that cited the following statistics from Singapore’s Obstetrics and Gynaecology Society: “The number of tertiary-educated married women going for abortions has tripled in the last 16 years, from some 300 in 1988 to more than 1,000 last year.”

This is a familiar issue. Back in November last year, I had posted the following excerpt from Today:

One group of women yesterday bore the brunt of accusations from a prominent gynaecological group in Singapore. Citing abortion statistics from the Ministry of Health, the Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society of Singapore (OGSS) chided tertiary-educated married women for a three-fold jump in the numbers of such women going for abortions — from 324 cases in 1988 to 1,070 last year...

However, OGSS did not measure the jump in abortion in this group against the corresponding growth in the number of women with higher education over the last 15 years. A check with the Department of Statistics by Today found that the number of university-educated women has increased from 17,300 in 1990 to 68,900 in 2000...
Interestingly, in citing the statistics, the Xinhua report added the following statement that was not found in the original Channel NewsAsia report: “while those who are not enough educated tend to use contraceptives”.

Journalists do sometimes get tripped up by statistics. Wang Zhen has an example from The Straits Times on the AIDS issue.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

More on blogging in the press 

mrbrown complains about the way The Sunday Times reported its interview with him — “they...quoted my remarks selectively” — and of being called an “online diarist” — “what’s up with this bloggers = online diarists crap? Please lah, this is the freakin’ 21st century. Get with the program. I am not a freakin’ diarist.” — but then clarifies that he is not angry at the newspaper.

I wonder what he or other bloggers would say of the following comment from today’s Digital Life:

For now, blogging is the fad. I call it a fad because personal websites were once popular, but that is now passé. While it lasts, enjoy peeking into the lives of those who invite you in.
I wonder whether the writer knows how long blogging has existed, or the fact that for many bloggers, their blogs are — or are parts of — their personal websites.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Beware the reaction from cyberspace 

This article doesn’t have anything directly related to Singapore, but in the light of recent events involving perceived inflammatory remarks by Singaporeans and the reactions that followed, I thought readers might be interested.

Bloggers Finger a New Victim
For a glimpse of the blogosphere’s growing power, witness the brouhaha now afflicting PepsiCo over comments earlier this week by President and CFO Indra Nooyi before the graduating class of Columbia University’s B-school.

Her comparison of the five major continents to the five fingers on her hand -- with the U.S.(not a continent, mind you) being the controversial middle finger and Africa the often-ignored pinkie -- will strike many as entirely innocuous.

As she put it: “Each of us in the U.S. -- the long middle finger -- must be careful that when we extend our arm in either a business or political sense, we take pains to assure we are giving a hand…not the finger…. Unfortunately, I think this is how the rest of the world looks at the U.S. right now. Not as part of the hand -- giving strength and purpose to the rest of the fingers -- but instead scratching our nose and sending a far different signal.”

Yet a burst of blog outrage after a May 15 commencement speech has forced the beverage and food giant to post an apology on its home page...
Read the whole article and see whether you find anything familiar.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Misquoted by the press 

Huichieh Loy at From a Singapore Angle writes about a scholar who tries to defend herself regarding comments about males becoming whiny after national service. She now says that she was misquoted by The Straits Times or quoted out of context. It reminds me of another recent incident involving Today.

I have three comments on the matter.

First of all, The Straits Times always seems to want to have the last say on disputes regarding the accuracy of its reports. This particular report is one example (see the editor’s note at the end), but note also how often it gives replies immediately below letters that try to portray anything it writes as inaccurate. It is understandable behaviour, perhaps, since most people would want to protect their reputations, but since such disputes largely revolve around one person’s word against another’s, I doubt that many readers would be too impressed by its continued assertions of its own accuracy. Furthermore, as a newspaper, The Straits Times already has a natural advantage in such disputes as it controls what is published (see for example, a recent case highlighted by Steven McDermott), and when it exploits this advantage by having the last say, its action risks being construed by others as bullying. The fact that in this case — as pointed out by Wows and Huichieh — the editor’s note also apparently does not make much sense makes things worse.

Secondly, it would be interesting to know why there seems to be so many “misquotes” in the newspapers. Verbal interviews tend to generate misquotes, since the interviewee does not have enough time to think through what he says. If The Straits Times is really interested in accuracy, it might want to rethink how it conducts interviews. On the other hand, if The Straits Times is intentionally trying to elicit juicy “misquotes” in disregard of the true, complete views of the originators — with all their associated nuances — then it might want to consider what such disputes over the accuracy of its quotes can do to its credibility and whether such potential loss of credibility is worth the attention that such “misquotes” garners.

Thirdly, these incidents should serve as a lesson to all those being interviewed by The Straits Times and, in fact, any media organisation. Be careful what you say to them. To be safe, avoid giving interviews altogether, especially those where you don’t have a chance to vet what is to be published before publication. But this advice may be a bit difficult for some people to follow. After all, many people do want to have their minute of fame.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Integrated resort not for family? 

Parts of the planned integrated resorts may end up as white elephants, if the following report is anything to go by.

Integrated Resort for family will not work
The integrated resort (IR) proposed for Sentosa with attractions for the whole family will not work, casino mogul Steve Wynn, Steve Wynn said. An IR with a casino is essentially an adult entertainment facility, he told Singapore newsmen visiting the gambling capital of the United States.

“I know a family theme IR is planned for Sentosa but I do not want to go that route. I want the pops and mums to come to my IR. Let the children go to Disney World,” he said...

Mr Wynn also reiterated his belief that Singapore officials would be in a better position to know what they wanted in an IR if they were to come to Las Vegas today as their impression of the city could have been based on projects like Treasure Island with its pirate ship and the Mirage with its volcano.

“Both these projects with a family theme no longer drew the crowds,” he said. “Treasure Island’s ship no longer featured fearsome pirates but scantily-clad nubile women. And the erupting volcano at the Mirage no longer drew oohs and ahhs. People watched the show from the street but few ventured into the complex.”

Clearly, he said, the family resort theme, had failed.
But I’m sanguine. After all, the Singapore Tourism Board has some practice dealing with white elephants.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Maturity at 22 

In his interview published in The Sunday Times, Philip Yeo was reported to have shown “little patience” with the view that scholars are too young to know what they want. He reportedly said:

They are no longer 18 or 19 years old. Cannot be still immature at the age of 22! When will they grow up?
He also reportedly called it “amazing logic”.

I wonder what he would make of this.

Public transport fares debate 

Christopher Tan adds his voice to the debate over the proposed increase in public transport fares. Excerpt from The Straits Times:

All too often, debate over proposed increases in public transport fares centres on the profitability of transport companies. The consumer voice almost always argues that if transport companies are making good profits, they should not raise fares.

That logic is flawed. If an operator that makes $50 million a year charges an average 90 cents per trip, how much should it charge if it makes $100 million a year? 45 cents? Surely not. Or what if it makes $1 million a year? Or incurs a loss of $10 million, for that matter?

Profits and fares should be delinked. Instead, transport operators should be allowed to command prices the way most other purveyors of goods and services are — by the quality of their goods and services.
His article is largely on the right track, although he oversimplifies things when he says that profits and fares should be delinked. Of course they should be linked — just not in the simplistic way that some people think.

Most people whose views have been published in the mainstream media have argued on the basis of broad principles — service and affordability should be considered, profits at the transport companies should not be excessive, an increase should be implemented at a more opportune time.

But what the debate really needs are specifics — specific fare revision formula, specific benchmarks. These are in fact already in place, they implicitly take all the above factors broadly into consideration, and they guide the fare revision process. Those who want to debate on this issue need to debate these specifics, not the broad principles.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Financial Times on rights issues in Singapore 

The Financial Times yesterday summed up some of the issues that have recently occupied many Singapore bloggers’ minds. Excerpt:

Singapore’s arts ambitions caught up in rights debate
The hanging yesterday of a former Singapore champion athlete for smuggling cannabis has sparked a rare activist protest against the city-state’s draconian anti-drug laws and has helped fuel a debate about civil liberties.

The issue of human rights in Singapore has received increased attention in recent weeks after the government appeared to be curbing free speech on the internet, while a local film-maker could face imprisonment for making a documentary about a leading opposition leader.

The issue of civil liberties is becoming more important in Singapore as it seeks to create a vibrant culture to attract tourists and permanent residents from aboard, while trying to stem a brain drain of local talent.

A study released this week by the World Bank on global political governance said that Singapore’s otherwise excellent record on administrative efficiency, control of corruption and the rule of law was marred by its attitude to civil liberties, which was below average for Asia.
But no, I am not going to bother to write about The Straits Times’ recent spate of articles related to blogging. The blogging daddy (belated congratulations) and “blogger Singapore Ink” have already done that.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

AcidFlask saga continues in Today 

Today has a follow-up report on the AcidFlask affair entitled “Where does freedom end for bloggers and online journalists?”. The newspaper’s view: “While one is physically circulated and the latter only exists online, the writers of both are equally susceptible to being sued for defamation.”

The newspaper also had the following statement: “The incident ended on Monday after graduate student Chen Jiahao, 23, apologised unreservedly for his defamatory remarks, retracted his statements and promised never to repeat them.”

Well, A*STAR’s threat of a lawsuit ended on Monday, but as far as the Singapore blogosphere is concerned, the “incident” has hardly ended. See, for example, the posts by Lzydata and mr brown. I’m sure more are in the works.

I also noted that the newspaper quoted mr brown, Mr Miyagi and Xiaxue, the three celebrity bloggers. A blogger it probably should have interviewed on this issue but didn’t is Gilbert Koh, a practising lawyer who has blogged on precisely this issue. Unfortunately, Koh is apparently not famous enough, or maybe not accessible enough.

In any case, in his post, mr brown pointed out that his views had not been presented fully — always a hazard when you speak to the press. Just as well that he has a blog with which to set the matter straight.

One last comment. By making statements such as “While opposing views are welcome, bloggers must be careful not to make scurrilous comments or baseless accusations that could have legal implications”, the article could easily be interpreted to mean that AcidFlask did indeed make “defamatory, serious and untrue” comments.

Since the matter has been “closed” without being brought to court and the specific offending comments revealed, the rest of us don’t really know if that is true, which makes the insinuation — even if unintended — rather unfair to AcidFlask, not to mention somewhat ironic.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Lessons from Harvard Business School 

After my previous post, I thought a few remarks on management would be appropriate. The following are some disparate quotes that I culled from HBS Working Knowledge articles that may have some relevance to that post as well as some related issues.

From “What Great American Leaders Teach Us” — Tony Mayo, executive director of the Harvard Business School Leadership Initiative, on how leaders are selected:

There is a strong tendency to search for a candidate who has a specific track record of success, but board members need to understand the context in which specific CEO candidates were successful. It is all too easy to ignore both the past contextual framework of success and the present one. Are they aligned? Does success in one context predict success in a new one?... Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, boards tend to favor the “proven” talent, but often fail to ask “proven in what context?”
From “Time to Treat Toxic Emotions at Work” — Peter J Frost, professor of organizational behavior at the University of British Columbia, on how top management behaviour sets the tone in an organisation:

Heavy doses of toxicity (pain that strips people of their self esteem and that disconnects them from their work) can come from a number of sources, including the behavior of immediate bosses, uncooperative employees or even abrasive clients. But the tone in an organization tends to be set from the top and so toxicity is often a top-down phenomenon. As one HR manager I interviewed observed: “Fish stinks from the head!” The higher up the toxic person is, the more widely spread is the pain, and the more people there are who behave in the same way. If you have a CEO who delivers public lashings—in effect does his performance appraisals in public—then you will have the lieutenants begin to join in.
From “Are You Supporting Your B Players?” — Harvard Business School professor Thomas J DeLong on why some managers have difficulty relating to their so-called “B” grade workers:

Managers who are high achievers themselves find it especially difficult to focus on B players. The Achilles’ heel of these A-type managers is that if they can’t do something right the first time, they give up or they manufacture a compelling rationale that explains why it is not worth the effort to improve employee satisfaction.

Furthermore, he said, such managers are afraid of getting labeled. “If you want to threaten a really smart person who is task driven, question his or her competency. That’s the very soul of who they are,” he said. These managers also keep busy schedules and are reluctant to slow down to learn new skills. Sports champions such as Tiger Woods, he said, can do their training out of public view. But managers almost always train on the job.
From “What You Don’t Know About Making Decisions” — Harvard Business School professors David A. Garvin and Michael A. Roberto on decision-making:

[K]eeping people involved in the process is, in the end, perhaps the most crucial factor in making a decision—and making it stick. It’s a job that lies at the heart of leadership and one that uniquely combines the leader’s numerous talents. It requires the fortitude to promote conflict while accepting ambiguity, the wisdom to know when to bring conversations to a close, the patience to help others understand the reasoning behind your choice, and, not least, a genius for balance—the ability to embrace both the divergence that may characterize early discussions and the unity needed for effective implementation. Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire and a renowned military leader, understood the true hallmark of leadership in the sixth century BC, when he attributed his success to “diversity in counsel, unity in command.”
From “Think You Manage Creativity? Here's Why You're Wrong” — Robert I Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University in Stanford, California, on fostering creativity:

If it’s creativity you want, you should encourage people to ignore and defy superiors and peers—and while you’re at it, get them to fight among themselves. You should reassign people who have settled into productive grooves in their jobs. And you should start rewarding failure, not just success; reserve punishment only for inaction.

People who do what they think is right—rather than what they are told or what they anticipate their superiors want—can drive their bosses crazy and get their companies in deep trouble. But they also force companies to try ideas that some boss or powerful group may have rejected as a waste of time or money...

[I]n The HP Way, David Packard brags about an employee who defied a direct order from him. “Some years ago,” he writes, “at an HP laboratory in Colorado Springs devoted to oscilloscope technology, one of our bright, energetic engineers, Chuck House, was advised to abandon a display monitor he was developing...” House was convinced he was on to something, so he persisted with the project... The resulting $35 million in revenue proved he was right. Packard continues: “Some years later, at a gathering of HP engineers, I presented Chuck with a medal for ‘extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal call of engineering duty.’”

... [I]f you want to develop new products and services, I urge you to keep your creative people away from your biggest customers—and for that matter from critics and anyone whose primary concern is money.

... Every bit of solid theory and evidence demonstrates that it is impossible to generate a few good ideas without also generating a lot of bad ideas. Former Time Warner chairman Steve Ross had a philosophy that people who didn’t make enough mistakes should be fired...
That’s all for today. Class dismissed.