Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On the New Civics and Moral Education Imperative

"Pity the student who does not surpass the master."

The new Education Minister announced a new focus on Civics and Moral Education a few days ago.

Let's leave aside the issue of how ineffective classroom teaching generally is on imparting a values system. If you need comic relief on a related topic (the so-called MBA Oath), look here

Mr Heng Swee Keat spoke on the importance of inculcating "social responsibility, personal and citizenship values in students".

What I find remarkable is how anyone can take seriously this pledge to uphold the importance of personal and citizenship values in Singapore. 

Oh, I do not doubt the intent to place high importance on this initiative (although I have much darker things to say about the nature of that intent), but I question how much anyone can really expect to reap in terms of results, when so much in our environment demands a survivor's mentality.

The harsh environment begins as early as childhood, when students have to claw their way to the top of the heap in our highly competitive education system, one that allows no room for failure, since streaming starts so early. This is an education system that gave birth to acronyms such as ITE ("It's the end"). In addition, the fact that so many parents feel the need to resort to extra measures outside the state educational system, such as tuition, reveals the ineffectiveness of the educational system to act as a social leveler, and to improve social mobility here on this island.

Once kids reach adulthood and join the workplace, they have to compete with the numerous foreigners here for employment, and it certainly doesn't help that government imposed handicaps like National Service disadvantage citizens in their own country. Then there are the tax-payer sponsored inducements that are used to attract foreigners to come here that our own citizens aren't entitled to (such as university scholarships).

All the while, we are repeatedly told that there is "no free lunch", that we need to be "hungry" and have "spurs stuck in our hide". All this amid the highest levels of income inequality just about anywhere on Planet Earth.

We are also admonished frequently by the government that we have to avoid the dangers of a welfare state, that we need to take personal responsibility for our employment / health / retirement / elderly years etc. 

It is sometimes ironic how Singapore can be thought of as a nanny state when in reality, many of our policies are designed for mandatory inclusion precisely so that the state can unburden itself of responsibilities onto the individual (e.g. CPF, Medisave and CPF Life), responsibilities that I might add, have traditionally been borne by the state in many developed countries.

The evidence of daily living in Singapore for the average citizen points to an existence marked by individual struggle. 

And the flip side of meritocracy, as it is so avidly pursued here it is almost a state religion, is that individuals that 'make it' often feel they deserve their success, and can blithely ascribe their success solely to their own talents and abilities, and that those that fail deserve every iota of misery they endure.

Here in Singapore, it's every man for himself. If you want lunch, you had better go out there and get it yourself. There is a reason why every NSman knows and understands the acronym of SAF, "Serve and F*** Off".

Daily living in Singapore will inculcate values in students stronger than anything that can be taught in a classroom setting, government-sanctioned, civics, moral or otherwise. What those values are, you need only look around you in everyday Singapore to see. 

And since the experience of daily living is shaped by government policies, it is only natural that students, upon growing to adulthood, will apply those same strictures that they have learnt in life to evaluating their own country and their government, with the same or greater degree of exactitude. 

Pity the student who does not surpass the master.

The government shouldn't expect a free lunch themselves; the ever more pragmatic and survivalist Singaporean of the future will not pledge anything, much less his loyalty, to a place and its people simply because he was born and raised there. This breed of Singaporean includes, perhaps more so than any other group, those who are fervently pro-PAP and supportive of the material benefits that the PAP promises to deliver year after year. 

Here's an interesting chart showing the negative correlation between income inequality and levels of social trust. And let us not forget that we have official confirmation that the income gap is not important. Old fogies like me who are just barely 30 may argue this point with the PM, but the PM need not worry. 

The kids younger than me will be much more obliging towards taking the PM's words at face value. They will simply internalize this truth, adapt to reality, and concentrate on making more money for themselves. Just like the foreigners who come here because this is a great place to make money, enjoy the rich living (if you can afford it), and move on to someplace else if and when the weather changes. Hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Just as the system encourages survivalist and individualistic leanings in its own citizens by design, it attracts foreigners with the same values system.

As for the personal and citizenship values Heng Swee Keat wants so badly, well, let me put it this way. 

The government has long wanted its citizen proletariats to put in their all for the economy, which isn't exactly a positive for family life. Belatedly, the government decided it wanted the fertility rate to be higher, which it is failing miserably at raising.

The government wants "hungry" citizens as well, which students are today internalizing the importance of. Now, the government wants social responsibility, personal and citizenship values to be emphasized in addition. 

I think that's going to work out about as well as the fertility rate. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Trouble in (Research) Paradise

Front page article in the Straits Times - "$180m doled out from stalled biomed fund", the title of which is itself an anodyne sounding palliative.

I wrote on the capriciousness of research funding in Singapore and the impact it has on individuals two years ago, almost to the day, in my post Picking Winners.

I wrote then:

If there is a lesson to be drawn here, it is that the government in Singapore likes to 'pick winners', hence the title of this post. Like it or not, major segments of our economy are centrally planned. Even the number of doctors, lawyers, teachers and PhDs in Singapore is centrally planned.

For the individual, this works fine if the sector you work in is a 'winner' and the 'picking' part is still in the early stages. You'll do just fine, better than fine even, if you are a foreigner invited to come here.

But if you are late to the cycle, there is a real risk you could get shut out even before you get a foot in the door. Worst, if you are established in the 'winning' field that then becomes less winning, you are left behind, too old to switch fields when you get made redundant.

This Schumpetarian creative destruction may work well for Singapore's economy, but it can leave an exceedingly bitter taste in the mouth of the individual.

The requirement for industrial collaboration and quantifiable economic value generation in order to access government funding was obvious to those who knew where to look, right from the beginning of Singapore's great R&D enterprise. It was de-emphasized early on (otherwise, how else would we have attracted the whales?), but as I expected, not too long after Philip Yeo has exited the scene, the edifice is starting to crumble.

One of the most important lessons I learnt when I first started working in research as a fresh graduate was that running a research lab is a lot like running a small business.  

Passion, curiosity, orginality, drive - these are all important attributes for a successful scientist. But to do science you need money. So, bringing money in is extremely important. It's the reason why if you've ever worked in a not-so-well funded lab, the PI (principal investigator) isn't as involved in the day-to-day running of the lab as you think he or she should be, but instead spends all their time writing grant proposals and making sales pitches to funding authorities.

And if you're really unlucky like I was, the pressures of "business development" start filtering down to the lower echelons of researchers, like fresh graduates. Developing technical expertise takes a backseat to helping to put food on the table.

It sounds strange, but managing tight lines of cash flow is a common activity in small research labs. That's because unlike for-profit companies, there is no luxury of a cash cushion or going to market to raise debt and equity financing. Oftentimes, money from a new project is directed to meeting the costs of an ongoing project due to unexpected delays, cost overruns or just plain overpromising/underbudgeting in the project proposal (usually in order to get the grant money in the first place). 

Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. That's why I say running your own research lab, which is what most scientists aspire to, is like running a small business.

So, researchers in Singapore are simply going to have to adapt to the new realities of research funding at A*Star. If you're a returning scholar who has long had your head in the clouds about doing science, and discovering new knowledge, and pursuing noble goals, it's time to wrap your mind around what are the important skills to learn in running a small business, meeting the needs of your industrial partners/customers, and appealing to bureaucrats' unhealthy obsession with KPIs. You're going to have to learn all this on your own; PhD programs generally don't teach these skills.

I have a lot more to say on this sudden change in research funding policies at A*Star, but it's difficult to cohere it all into an article. So, I'm going to take the lazy way out: quoting sections from the Straits Times article and interspersing my comments.


"Going to bed with industry makes us all very uneasy...Plus scientists don't make the best negotiators with savvy businessmen."

Especially if the businessmen can smell blood, like they do now. The scientists are desperate and everybody knows it. Negotiating from a position of weakness means extremely unfavorable terms on any deals made, you can count on that for sure.

"I feel very sorry for the younger scientists and scholars as the rules of the game have changed while they were looking the other way."

Read: You're going to be assessed and rewarded on your ability to bring in money, not on your ability to do good science. You can trash your doctoral work now if there's no way to spin it as having industrial or economic value. 

And if your subspeciality happens to have little commercial value, well, sucks to be you.

"The whales are likely to be followed by other big and small research creatures."

Exodus. 'Nuff said. And the whale metaphor is getting so tired, it should be retired, just as Philip Yeo has left the scene. I wonder how many returning scholars are going to feel grateful to him for the scholarships he doled out so aggressively in years past. It's a terrible feeling to feel trapped. 

"I do not know whether you can measure the performance of scientists by KPIs."

Ah, the tyranny of the KPIs again. What can't be measured or is difficult to measure generally won't be measured. See above on being assessed on ability to bring in money rather than ability to do good science.

"They must have signed research agreement with industry, or work with a medical doctor who is also a scientist, or create technology platforms that companies can use."

It is a sweet, sweet time to be a clinician scientist. Suddenly, everyone wants to be your new best friend.

"And he said that $180 million of the $600 million available for the next five years has been given out or will be given out soon, which shows institutes are able to access it successfully."

Let's see, in my experience, that can mean a few things:

1) Relaxation of the guidelines on awarding funding due to massive unhappiness on the ground.
2) Creative interpretation of the guidelines on awarding funding due to massive unhappiness on the ground.
3) Fantasy proposals that can't reasonably be delivered on, but that will only be a problem a few years later.

For (3), you can generally expect the scientists who wrote the proposals to intensify their job search with the time they have bought at A*Star with their unrealistic research proposals. 

Either that, or manage expectations of the funding authorities when project deadlines near. That's not as difficult as it sounds, since in Singapore's bureaucracy, the management people get rotated every few years, so the person assessing project completion is quite often not the same person who approved the project.

"Last week, homegrown biotech firm S*Bio said it was slashing headcount by 80 percent after a deal with a US pharmaceutical firm did not go through as planned."

I'm shocked, shocked! And here I was thinking that everything was going hunky dory. I mean, if something bad had really happened in Biotech Land, I'm sure our authoritative Straits Times, voice of the nation, would have been all over it.  

"But others are concerned about the ethics of working with industry....conflicts of interest."

See Science for Sale for example. Many other good books on this subject.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fear-mongering before the next immigration surge

The Straits Times had a front page article today entitled "Population will shrink without immigrants".

[Not coincidentally, they also had "Baby and talent dearth in Taiwan's economic spiral" in the Review section. Real subtle, Straits Times editors.]

As expected, post-GE 2011, it's going to be business as usual for the government. The only concession is a softer, more persuasive, consultation style of government. In other words, the packaging will be prettier, but the contents will still be the same.

This post isn't another polemic about the evils of immigration, or the problems it creates. That's kind of boring, and my blog is all about fresher perspectives.

Here, I'll be talking about some things which may not be immediately apparent to people thinking about immigration.

I haven't read the report produced by the Institute of Policy Studies, so I can't in fairness comment on their methods, their modeling parameters, and all that dense technical stuff.

That's also not terribly fun to do, or read.

In general, I'm not going to dispute their findings on how the population will shrink if immigration doesn't keep apace. I will take their findings on good faith.

But what I do find interesting is how the the Straits Times article reported on the demographic model's output based on the "net" immigration rate of 0, 30,000 or 60,000 people per annum. The numbers sound nice and pretty and round, but they blithely ignore the messy realities of life (like all models).

"All models are wrong, but some are useful." - George Box.

Let me put it this way by using an analogy.

Let's say you have a cup and you're trying to fill it with water from a running tap. You get to control how much the tap is turned and so the rate at which water drips into the cup.

Your goal is to control how fast the cup is filling up. Note, this is not the same as the rate at which water comes out of the tap. The goal is to attain a target rate for how fast the cup is filling up.

I have this magic device that can poke holes in the bottom of your cup so that water leaks from the bottom of the cup. This device can also magically seal holes in the bottom of the cup, so leakage rates can change moment to moment.

Again, let me reiterate, the goal is to achieve a target rate of how fast the cup is filling up. You only get to control the tap, not the leaks.

Oh, and lest you forget, how much water you have in your cup changes the leakage rate of water out of your cup. The pressure of a higher water level will of course force water to leak out the bottom faster.

Your job is to maintain a constant rate at which the cup is filled, whether it's 30,000 units per year or 60,000 units per year.

You also have a natural concern about how full the cup is. That's because the water is scalding hot and filling it to overflowing will burn you very badly. Oh, and your Mom will beat the crap out of you if the cup becomes too empty.

It doesn't take a genius to see that the faster the tap is flowing, the harder it is to get your job done correctly.

My point here is that increased dependence on immigration will almost certainly lead to greater volatility in population numbers, with attendant consequences on public policy planning, services and infrastructure. Immigration may well be necessary, but it is hardly an unalloyed good.

A previous post of mine during GE 2011 indicated that the data suggests that PRs generally start leaving once they are past the prime of their working life, in their 40s and over. That's hardly surprising. People are here for the economic opportunities and the money. They are not here for the yawning income inequality, the stressful lifestyle, the astronomical property prices and difficulties in starting a family, and all the things that we ungrateful locals complain about.

I wrote then that, "Our new PRs who are now aged in their 20s and 30s today could well leave en masse five, ten or twenty years from now."

A greater outflow rate in the future means a greater rate of immigration (of new people who are then in their 20s and 30s) will be needed to compensate. This means that the flux through our proverbial cup is going to increase. In other words, our cup is going to leak very fast in the future, so the tap had better been turned on really fast too.

Try keeping the cup from being too full or too empty then.

Over the long term, the volatility in population numbers may mean that in some years or decades our public infrastructure may be strained due to too many people (like now), but in some years or decades, when the economy is weak, our population numbers may slide dramatically, with lots of spare capacity everywhere (read: weak property market).

Our government will of course do all they can to ensure a vigorous and growing economy forever.

Forever, however, is a very long time.