Wednesday, August 12, 2015

'Elitism' can be good for society

Aug 11, 2015,

Russell Tan Wah Jian

Having graduated from Raffles Institution (RI) last year, I have witnessed the transformation of the school and would like to share my thoughts on the matter ("RI now a 'middle-class' school / 'Make RI a better school for S'pore'" and "RI population less diverse now, say many alumni"; both published on Aug 4).

Singapore is a society built on the core tenets of meritocracy, fairness and equity. However, in recent years, we seem to have collectively confused equity with equality.

Equality is making everyone stoop down to the lowest common denominator of society - everyone does the same thing and all are given equal probabilities. Equity entails everyone doing what their abilities allow them to do, and everyone being given equal opportunities to succeed; only the most outstanding grab those opportunities.

Often, what constitutes equality does not equate to equity. If we take a modern society and reduce it back to an agrarian one, where everyone puts in equal effort, we achieve equality but not equity - because we are taking people with the capability to be, for instance, lawyers and doctors, and making them do the same menial tasks as everyone else.

RI's principal, Mr Chan Poh Meng, highlighted the pursuit of equality - but what for? It is a natural consequence that students from affluent backgrounds get into better schools because their parents are likely more well-heeled and can afford better-quality education for them.

There is no point aiming for equality for the sake of equality, and giving up equity.

Elitism, in reality, is just the darker side of meritocracy. What has come about is a natural consequence of meritocracy - when we stream students according to their abilities, it is only natural that students whose families can afford better quality education make it to better institutions.

It is no fault of the school or the students or the precedence that previous principals have set. If anything, it is the fault of meritocracy.

But maybe that is not a fault at all. A natural consequence that stratifies society does have its own purpose for the well-educated, critical minds to mingle together to build Singapore up to greater heights. Intelligence is an asset; and we cannot allow ourselves to prioritise equality over intelligence and equity.

RI is often touted as a factory for future leaders - why would we want to draw resources away from the nurturing of our future leaders, or worse still, level the playing field?

We should relook the way we go off the well-trodden path, and ensure that we do not shake up the status quo just for the sake of doing so.

[It is so obvious that this young person has been sold on the Just World Belief. "Natural" and "Natural Consequences" are used throughout his letter to justify elitism. Which is "just the darker side of meritocracy". There is two outcomes for this. 

One, his mind, his attitude, his worldview has been set, and he will forever be an asshole.

Two, he is still young, still in his formative years, still trying to make sense of the world, and in the meantime, he has just had his "Amos Yee" moment. But we were all young once, and we were all stupid once, and we all (or mostly all) got over it, and became the fine, upstanding people that our spouses know and love.

So to paraphrase, anyone below 25 who is not proud of his achievements in life so far has no pride. Anyone over 35 who still believes his achievements are a result of solely his effort, has not grown up.]
Dear Russell,

You are young, you have graduated from RI. And the world is your oyster. You are one of the lucky few. To paraphrase Michael Lewis (transcript below), you are lucky to be born in Singapore, at a time when opportunities to develop your intellect and achieve higher education are available. You are lucky to have parents who can send you to RI. You are lucky a school like RI exists for you to go, to study, to meet other lucky people, make friends with them, so that in time to come you will get even luckier. And have even luckier children.
Who will likely go to RI as well. 
I would also refer you to the speech given by Bilahari Kausikan at the 189th Founders Day celebration (2012, below). He warns (or advises):

"All of you are highly intelligent. You will be very well educated. And the odds are that you will be more than averagely successful in your careers.
But understand that you will therefore also be more vulnerable to the curse of the highly intelligent, highly educated and highly successful: this curse is the illusion of certainty; the conviction of the omnipotence of your ideas…
This is the delusion that your ideas or words are validated by mere virtue by being thought or uttered by you! YOU and not some lesser being. And the more intelligent and the more successful and the more highly educated, the deeper the delusion. "

Elitism is not "just the dark side of meritocracy". Elitism is self-serving, self-justifying, exploitation and interpretation of Meritocracy to allow one to despise others one deems to be "lesser", Like any "Dark Side", Elitism is a choice.

There will alway be people more fortunate than you. Do not envy them.
There will always be people more pathetic than you. Do not despise them.

Humanity is the art of walking the line between envy and scorn. 

Speech by PS (Foreign Affairs) Bilahari Kausikan at Raffles Institution’s 189th Founder’s Day

21 July 2012 (Saturday)
At Albert Hong Hall, Raffles Institution

When your Principal, in a reckless act of folly, asked me to be Guest-of-Honour at this 189th Founder’s Day, my first instinct was to do us both a favour and refuse. But I hesitated and in an instant was lost. The temptation to savour the irony was too great. For what I am about to say, I absolve her of all responsibility.

My comrades and I spent our six years in Raffles Institution waging insurgency against all established authority. At a very tender age one of our teachers told us we were all born to be hanged. And if that extreme did not come to pass — perhaps I should say, has not yet come to pass — several of us were at least caned. Our then Principal failed to achieve his dearest ambition of getting us all expelled only due to our dumb luck.
So here I stand before you, living testimony to the role of chance and serendipity in life; a role more often than not, insufficiently acknowledged if not ignored, particularly by Singaporeans of a certain ilk. And that is my theme.

Eighty-five years ago an American writer by the name of Thornton Wilder published a short novel entitled The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The book has never been out of print, but deserves to be better known.
The novel begins at noon on a certain day in 1714 when a bridge in Peru — “the finest bridge in all Peru”, writes Wilder — inexplicably collapses and five people who happen at that moment to be crossing, plummet to their deaths.
The tragedy is witnessed by a devout Franciscan monk, in Peru for missionary work among the natives, who immediately asks himself “Why did this happen to those five?”
The monk is convinced that it was not a random event but some manifestation of God’s Will for some greater end and vows to investigate to so as to prove to the natives the necessity of divine purpose. But his investigation runs afoul of the Inquisition and he is burnt at the stake.
Wilder poses, but never directly answers, the question: “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?” The point, of course, is that it could have been anyone of us on that metaphorical bridge.

I do not think that there is any particular meaning, pattern or direction, divine or secular, in the drift of human events. History, as Winston Churchill is reported to have remarked, is just one damned thing after another. The innocent die young and the wicked flourish; and not necessarily in equal measure either because to the wicked the innocent are often prey.

The world is far too complex a place to be comprehended in any holistic way by the human mind. It is made up of too many moving parts interacting in too many unpredictable ways for human reason to grasp.
I mean, of course, the social world: the world of human interactions, human relationships and human institutions; of love and hatred, politics and economics, war and peace, infused with emotions like anger, pity, joy and sorrow, and not the material world of rocks and stones and trees and the earth’s diurnal course.

In the material world, the apple will always fall whether or not Newton was there to observe it. In the material world, all phenomena must ultimately conform to the laws of physics. In the material world, when we return to earth and ashes, we too will confirm to the laws of physics.

But in the meantime we inhabit a social world of sentient beings who observe, think and respond so that our every effort to act or comprehend alters what we try to comprehend and every thought and action begets a never ending, ever shifting kaleidoscope of unpredictable possibilities that makes all social science an oxymoron.
Reason may distinguish man from beast, but the sum of the interactions of different reasons; of many logics, is only coincidentally and occasionally logical. That is why actions always have unintended consequences even if they are not always immediately apparent, and our best laid plans and most fervent hopes are constantly ambushed by chance and events.
Most things eventually fail. The shade of Ozymandias hovers unseen but omnipresent over every human enterprise, biding its time.
The ancient Greeks advised us to call no man happy until he was dead. This is good advice. We can be reasonably certain of something only after it has occurred. The only true knowledge is historical, and even then there is always room for argument over interpretation. None of us ever sees or understands the same thing, no matter how conscientiously we try to observe or communicate.

As I stand here speaking to you, at least three different things are occurring simultaneously: first, what I think; second, what I say to convey what I think which, whether because of the limitations of language or by design, will not always be the same as what I think: deception and self-deception are intrinsic parts of human nature; and third what you hear and understand of what I had intended to convey which is again not necessarily the same thing.
One could call this, after the title of a short story by the Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the Rashomon phenomenon. It makes for a world without fixed meaning, which accentuates its fundamental incomprehensibility. A world in which the past can only be partially known, the present is largely unknown and the future certainly unknowable.

None of us asked to be born. Yet having had life thrust upon us, we must, unless bent on suicide, nevertheless live. Although we can only, if dimly and darkly, know backwards, we have to live forwards.
No one can live in a constant Hamlet-like state of existential doubt. We must profess a certainty that we do not necessarily feel. To keep the metaphysical horror of unfathomable meaninglessness at bay, we all, singly or collectively, consciously or unconsciously, adopt mental frameworks to simplify a complex reality in order to deal with it.

Since the Enlightenment of the 17th Century, belief in Reason has replaced belief in God as the primary organizing mental framework of society. We are all the creatures of this western defined modernity and the most successful of the non-western countries, Singapore among them, are precisely those who have embraced it the most closely.

Reason’s children include law and justice, philosophy, literature and the arts, economics and other social sciences and even the very belief in reason, progress, technology and science. But the fundamental mode of thought that underpins these trappings of reason is still theological in that whether our belief is in Reason or in God, it is still mere belief and not epistemologically provable beyond all doubt. There is no end to philosophy any more than there can be an end to history.
Stated in another way, none of Reason’s children have an autonomous reality separate from our apprehensions of them. They are socially constructed artefacts; frameworks of ideas that we have chosen to believe in, in order to comprehend the world and comprehend in order live in a particular way.

Their utility is thus purely instrumental. They are at best all only partially and contingently right which means, of course, that they are all also always at least partially wrong. That includes, by the way, the ideas I am presently expounding.
I advance these arguments not to instil cynicism or despair but to suggest the possibility of liberation and hope.
A rock is forever only a rock. But human beings are defined by their potentialities, and since there is no predetermined meaning to the unfolding of events, the potentialities are equally boundless. Were it not so, Singapore should not exist as a sovereign  and independent country.

The only meaning in life that can exist is that which we create for ourselves. And unless we want our lives to be merely a slow, selfish dying, we ought to try to create some meaning larger than ourselves.
This is, to my mind, an absolute duty imposed by the human condition, even if we know that uncertainty and error are constants and that we are always writing on sand before the advancing tide. Our duties to our families, our friends and our country endure when even hope is dead.
I am sure that by now many of you are harbouring a thought that you are too well brought up to speak out loud: this idiot exaggerates.
Of course, I exaggerate. But only a little, and only for clarity’s sake and not to distort or mislead. So let me restate my essential point in a different way.

Do not confuse the depth of sincerity with which you or others hold an idea, or the number of people who sincerely hold an idea, with its validity. Sincerity is an over-rated virtue, if indeed it is a virtue.
All of you may be suddenly seized with the sincere conviction that that pigs should fly. But pigs will nevertheless never sprout wings no matter how devoutly you hope for them to escape the surly bonds of earth.
And if you, ignoring the possibility of error, sincerely believe that pigs ought to fly; or that God’s Will has been revealed to you; or that you are one of the elect to whom the direction of History’s cunning passages has been vouchsafed, then it is but a tiny step to being convinced that anyone who does not share your conviction is not just ignorant but evil. Then for the greater glory of PIGS or HISTORY or GOD, all spelt in capital letters, it is only a tinier further step to seeing it as your bounden DUTY, again spelt with capitals, to expunge the evil.
And it all inevitably ends as Wilder’s poor monk did, in flames at the stake.

Rather than sincerity, if we want to do some trifling and ephemeral good or at least to minimize harm, we should approach life with an ironic and humane scepticism.
Irony to ensure that we retain a sense of proportion and as ballast against the inevitability of unintended consequences: today’s error being the correction of yesterday’s error. Humanity so that we may empathize with logics other than our own, if only to better manoeuvre to impose our will because in a world of competing logics, if we hope to do any good, we cannot hope to do so by logic alone. And scepticism because the possibility of deception, our own self-deceptions if not those of others, casts constant shadows over every human action.

I have chosen to dwell on this at what you may consider inordinate length, because Raffles Institution likes to consider itself unique. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am sorry to inform you that RI is no longer unique.
You are now only one of a number of similar elite educational institutions from which will come a disproportionate number of scholarship recipients and a disproportionate number of leaders in the civil service, the professions, business, the Arts and the academy. And all these institutions are united by a certain sense of entitlement, possibly so profound as to be quite unconscious.

I do not blame you for this. All of you are highly intelligent. You will be very well educated. And the odds are that you will be more than averagely successful in your careers.
But understand that you will therefore also be more vulnerable to the curse of the highly intelligent, highly educated and highly successful: this curse is the illusion of certainty; the conviction of the omnipotence of your ideas.
This is the delusion that your ideas or words are validated by mere virtue by being thought or uttered by you! YOU and not some lesser being. And the more intelligent and the more successful and the more highly educated, the deeper the delusion. “The learned”, Adam Smith is reported to have said, “ignore the evidence of their senses to preserve the coherence of the ideas of their imagination.”

Shortly after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, a powerful and erudite man, confessed in testimony to a Senate. Hearing that his intellectual assumptions of a lifetime had been shaken and he was still trying to understand what happened. I do not know if he has since come to any conclusions. But it was clear that prior to the near global disaster, he had never even faintly contemplated the possibility that his beliefs may have been in error. We are all still paying the price for his certainties.

Yours will be a generation that that will live through times of more than usual uncertainty.
A global transition of power and ideas is underway. Transition to what, no one can yet say. We have no maps and will have to improvise our way forward the best we can. It will be a transition measured in decades and not just a few years, and it is your misfortune that it is occurring as the technology of the internet is making us solipsistic.
The internet conflates and confuses our opinion with information and tempts us to immerse ourselves only in a circle of those who share and reinforce our own interests and views. It shortens attention spans and privileges the new and novel over any notion of lasting value. Social media like Facebook have perverted the common meaning of ‘friend’ and ‘like’ beyond all recognition. Only a solipsist or, what is much the same thing, a narcissist, would think that what he or she had for lunch would be of wider interest; and only those with vacuous minds would be interested. And this at a time when the safe navigation of uncharted waters requires a prudent modesty, openness and some minimal capacity for sustained thought.
And yet the internet and its associated technologies is indispensible to modern life. We need it to prosper. But what its ultimate effects will be on society, on governance, on international relations, on the very way we think, no one yet knows.

I certainly have no answers. As you, the anointed ones, ready yourselves to assume authority and responsibility under these challenging circumstances. I can do no more than to remind you of what Sir Olivier Cromwell wrote to the Synod of the Church of Scotland in 1650. He was trying to persuade the Scots not to embrace the Royalist cause of King Charles the Second and so avert civil war.
Gentlemen, he wrote, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ” — and I should explain that in the 17th Century the bowels were considered to be the seat of pity or the gentler emotions — Gentlemen, Cromwell wrote, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken”.

So, Ladies and Gentlemen of the 21st Century, I too beseech you from whatever portion of anatomy you consider most dear, think it possible that you may be mistaken.
Before I conclude, you may wish to know how it all ended.

Cromwell’s advice was not heeded. Shortly thereafter, the third English Civil War broke out. This set in motion a historical trajectory of political, social and economic changes that led to modern Britain, the industrial revolution, the East India Company, Sir Stamford Raffles, the British Empire, the founding of Singapore and ultimately, you and I.
And all because good advice fell on deaf years.

What better way to appreciate the irony and contingency of events than to ponder what may have happened if Cromwell’s advice was in fact taken and civil war avoided. And as you do so, consider also the possibility that you may be mistaken when you think you are mistaken.
And with that final paradox I will end.
Thank you for listening to me.

"Don't Eat Fortune's Cookie" Michael Lewis
June 3, 2012 — As Prepared

Thank you. President Tilghman. Trustees and Friends. Parents of the Class of 2012. Above all, Members of the Princeton Class of 2012. Give yourself a round of applause. The next time you look around a church and see everyone dressed in black it'll be awkward to cheer. Enjoy the moment.
Thirty years ago I sat where you sat. I must have listened to some older person share his life experience. But I don't remember a word of it. I can't even tell you who spoke. What I do remember, vividly, is graduation. I'm told you're meant to be excited, perhaps even relieved, and maybe all of you are. I wasn't. I was totally outraged. Here I’d gone and given them four of the best years of my life and this is how they thanked me for it. By kicking me out.

At that moment I was sure of only one thing: I was of no possible economic value to the outside world. I'd majored in art history, for a start. Even then this was regarded as an act of insanity. I was almost certainly less prepared for the marketplace than most of you. Yet somehow I have wound up rich and famous. Well, sort of. I'm going to explain, briefly, how that happened. I want you to understand just how mysterious careers can be, before you go out and have one yourself.

I graduated from Princeton without ever having published a word of anything, anywhere. I didn't write for the Prince, or for anyone else. But at Princeton, studying art history, I felt the first twinge of literary ambition. It happened while working on my senior thesis. My adviser was a truly gifted professor, an archaeologist named William Childs. The thesis tried to explain how the Italian sculptor Donatello used Greek and Roman sculpture — which is actually totally beside the point, but I've always wanted to tell someone. God knows what Professor Childs actually thought of it, but he helped me to become engrossed. More than engrossed: obsessed. When I handed it in I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: to write senior theses. Or, to put it differently: to write books.
Then I went to my thesis defense. It was just a few yards from here, in McCormick Hall. I listened and waited for Professor Childs to say how well written my thesis was. He didn't. And so after about 45 minutes I finally said, "So. What did you think of the writing?"
"Put it this way" he said. "Never try to make a living at it."

And I didn't — not really. I did what everyone does who has no idea what to do with themselves: I went to graduate school. I wrote at nights, without much effect, mainly because I hadn't the first clue what I should write about. One night I was invited to a dinner, where I sat next to the wife of a big shot at a giant Wall Street investment bank, called Salomon Brothers. She more or less forced her husband to give me a job. I knew next to nothing about Salomon Brothers. But Salomon Brothers happened to be where Wall Street was being reinvented—into the place we have all come to know and love. When I got there I was assigned, almost arbitrarily, to the very best job in which to observe the growing madness: they turned me into the house expert on derivatives. A year and a half later Salomon Brothers was handing me a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars to give advice about derivatives to professional investors.
Now I had something to write about: Salomon Brothers. Wall Street had become so unhinged that it was paying recent Princeton graduates who knew nothing about money small fortunes to pretend to be experts about money. I'd stumbled into my next senior thesis.

I called up my father. I told him I was going to quit this job that now promised me millions of dollars to write a book for an advance of 40 grand. There was a long pause on the other end of the line. "You might just want to think about that," he said.
"Stay at Salomon Brothers 10 years, make your fortune, and then write your books," he said.
I didn't need to think about it. I knew what intellectual passion felt like — because I'd felt it here, at Princeton — and I wanted to feel it again. I was 26 years old. Had I waited until I was 36, I would never have done it. I would have forgotten the feeling.

The book I wrote was called "Liar’s Poker."  It sold a million copies. I was 28 years old. I had a career, a little fame, a small fortune and a new life narrative. All of a sudden people were telling me I was born to be a writer. This was absurd. Even I could see there was another, truer narrative, with luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm from which to write the story of an age? Of landing in the seat with the best view of the business? Of having parents who didn't disinherit me but instead sighed and said "do it if you must?" Of having had that sense of must kindled inside me by a professor of art history at Princeton? Of having been let into Princeton in the first place?

This isn't just false humility. It's false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don't want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.

I wrote a book about this, called "Moneyball." It was ostensibly about baseball but was in fact about something else. There are poor teams and rich teams in professional baseball, and they spend radically different sums of money on their players. When I wrote my book the richest team in professional baseball, the New York Yankees, was then spending about $120 million on its 25 players. The poorest team, the Oakland A's, was spending about $30 million. And yet the Oakland team was winning as many games as the Yankees — and more than all the other richer teams.
This isn't supposed to happen. In theory, the rich teams should buy the best players and win all the time. But the Oakland team had figured something out: the rich teams didn't really understand who the best baseball players were. The players were misvalued. And the biggest single reason they were misvalued was that the experts did not pay sufficient attention to the role of luck in baseball success. Players got given credit for things they did that depended on the performance of others: pitchers got paid for winning games, hitters got paid for knocking in runners on base. Players got blamed and credited for events beyond their control. Where balls that got hit happened to land on the field, for example.

Forget baseball, forget sports. Here you had these corporate employees, paid millions of dollars a year. They were doing exactly the same job that people in their business had been doing forever.  In front of millions of people, who evaluate their every move. They had statistics attached to everything they did. And yet they were misvalued — because the wider world was blind to their luck.

And you have to ask: if a professional athlete paid millions of dollars can be misvalued who can't be? If the supposedly pure meritocracy of professional sports can't distinguish between lucky and good, who can?

The "Moneyball" story has practical implications. If you use better data, you can find better values; there are always market inefficiencies to exploit, and so on. But it has a broader and less practical message: don't be deceived by life's outcomes. Life's outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with  luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

I make this point because — along with this speech — it is something that will be easy for you to forget.

I now live in Berkeley, California. A few years ago, just a few blocks from my home, a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department staged an experiment. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.
Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn't. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader's shirt.
This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He'd been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his. 

This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I'm sure lots of other human behavior. But it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton University. In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.

All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you'll be happier, and you will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't.
Never forget: In the nation's service. In the service of all nations.
Thank you.

And good luck.   

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