Sunday, January 27, 2013

Workers Party - The secret behind being oh-so-"conciliatory" towards the PAP

In 2007, on the eve of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the major US automakers Ford and General Motors were in trouble. They would soon approach the US government for a bailout.

In contrast, Toyota was on the ascendant. The New York Times ran an article on the contrasting fortunes of the Japanese automaker vis-a-vis its US competitors.

The money quote came from James P. Womack, founder and chairman of the Lean Enterprise Institute:

“The last thing Toyota wants is for any of those guys to collapse.” For one thing, it could be politically disastrous for the Japanese company if it were considered responsible for the death of a grand American institution. “But it’s also completely worthless to Toyota in the market,” Womack adds. “They’re selling all the vehicles they can make already. What they actually want is just continuous, slow decline — decline at the same rate that they have the ability to organically expand. That’s the ideal world for them.”

Let me parse that for you with a few substitutions in case the parallel I have drawn is not clear enough.

“The last thing the Workers Party wants is for any of those guys to collapse.” For one thing, it could be politically disastrous for the opposition party if it were considered responsible for the death of a grand Singaporean institution. “But it’s also completely worthless to the Workers Party in the political landscape,” mjuse adds. “They’re winning all the seats they can win already. What they actually want is just continuous, slow decline — decline at the same rate that they have the ability to organically expand. That’s the ideal world for them.”

The general Singapore population is not ready for a government that is not majority PAP. As Yawning Bread has frequently put it, the average Singaporean is not desirous of a complete change in government; they just want the social compact of old renewed: surrender of civil rights, liberties and a robust democracy in exchange for economic growth and the good life.

The average Singaporean wants a bigger, more equitable slice of the pie. They don't have a problem with the baker who bakes the pie (other than his miserly ways) or the taste of the pie itself.

[As an aside, some very intelligent people have postulated that in today's consumerist, capitalist society, the pie is in fact rotten in toto. I am sympathetic to this argument. But then again, I'm a greenie. You can read more here.]

I don't buy the argument about Workers Party wanting to be a "co-driver" to keep the PAP on its toes. Politics is ultimately about power, and the Workers Party eventually wants to be in the driver's seat. So, why mess with something that has worked? Given the realities of our population's sentiments, PAP-lite is the way to go if a political party wants to eventually come to power in Singapore. Low Thia Khiang obviously understands this. Anything more radical than that is a path to political marginalization.

I know educated urbane professionals who, while they have problems with the PAP's arrogance and high-handedness, have difficulty imagining a post-PAP Singapore. These are the middle class folks who decide the shape of our political landscape.

So, when the WP says that they will work with the PAP going forward, I keep getting that creepy tingly feeling like a brush of cold fingers across the back of the neck. And I'm not even a PAP flunky.

Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. *Shudder*.

One further thing. You might think that I'm referring only to the PAP in the above paragraph when I state that the Workers Party wants a slow decline. Really, that applies equally to all the other opposition parties. The WP is cannibalizing the opposition vote where they can.

Ironically, the beneficiary of the decline in the vote share of the other opposition parties could well be the PAP, if voting tactically is no longer something to consider as the WP becomes more significant in Singapore politics and less differentiated from the PAP.

As one last aside, differentiating themselves further by casting themselves more left or right of the PAP/WP, or carving out a niche issue in which they enjoy strong support could be a viable strategy in the future for an opposition party to play kingmaker, in the event coalition government ever comes to Singapore.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Facebook’s Graph Search

Have you heard of Facebook’s Graph Search? You should. The buzz has been everywhere these few days. Wired Magazine has an article on it, but it’s a little too much of a cheerleader for Facebook for me. Still it gives a good overview of Graph Search.

Forbes had a more nuanced article, found here. The Forbes article references a short Gizmodo article, also worth reading, linked here. Techcrunch has a decidedly negative take on Graph Search. Their article can be read here.

I am not a heavy user of Facebook, despite being an early adopter (I joined in 2005, when I was a senior at a university on the East Coast.)  I am what you might call an “unenthused” poster of links, videos, photos and (god forbid) status updates. No Timeline for me, thanks.

[As an aside, I am also a smartphone holdout, despite being a bit of a geek. I carry a super basic Nokia phone without even a camera. I've long maintained that the deficit today is not of technology or connectivity, but rather of attention. Everyone's attention is spread way too thin these days.] 

Now, with the unprecedented “discoverability” of personal data enabled by Graph Search, I think I will be even less inclined to post stuff online. This is George Costanza’s fear of worlds colliding, writ even larger than what people have already experienced. Any user of Facebook will be able to query the database of user-generated data stored on Facebook and interpret that data in ways that you probably didn’t anticipate when you ‘liked’ something, posted a comment, or were tagged at an event.

I’m not even sure if Graph Search will be a useful feature for most users. I certainly don’t think I would use it, except perhaps for cyberstalking (there, I’ve said it. Not that that’s considered deviant behavior these days; all of us online have PhDs in cyberstalking).

The reason why I don’t think Graph Search will be useful to me is because I rarely have the habit of asking my friends’ opinions when I need to buy something, hire a service, watch a movie, read a book, play a computer game etc, all hooks that Facebook can use to monetize its database of personal information. This is because I search for information independently, and I have a very good idea of what I like and what to look for.

Even for people who value their friends’ opinions and would want Facebook to give them the results of an instant poll of their friends (based on friends’ past ‘likes’ and behavior), most people wouldn’t base their decision making on the opinions of ALL of their friends. I certainly wouldn’t trust the opinion of my friends on certain matters.

You wouldn’t ask a non-foodie about her favorite makan places, would you? And you would probably have zero use for another friend’s tastes in music and books, if for example, you privately think that he’s a Neanderthal (but you love him anyway).

And this is assuming Facebook users religiously post all of their opinions and ‘likes’ which are immutable and unchanging and completely context-independent. We are not even going to go into the thorny thicket of problems that have to do with users being facetious, or ironic or just plain obfuscating.

Or the related problem that even for someone who assiduously prunes his Friends List, and who resists adding new Friends unless he has known them a while, one third of the people on my list are people I don’t actually know…and another one third are people I have not spoken to in years.

To put it simply, Facebook data on is not clean. The signal to noise ratio is abominable, and careful interpretation is needed to make sense of the data to generate actionable insights. That sounds like an awful lot of work to get a restaurant recommendation near Ion Orchard on a Friday night, one that you agree with at the end of your dinner and that you could not have just as easily pulled from hungrygowhere.

More likely than not, the results of Graph Search are going to be dominated by the people on your Friends’ List that are perpetually online, post status updates incessantly, and have the attention span of hamsters. On steroids…and coffee.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The PAP AIM Saga

Predictably, with the PAP finding it increasingly difficult to explain why Aljunied Town Council sold their computer system to a PAP-owned company when Aljunied was controlled by the PAP, the PM decided on the nuclear option of lawyering up. A lawyer's letter was sent to Yawning Bread demanding an apology, which Yawning Bread complied with.

Separately, Tan Chuan Jin did the same to Vincent Wijeysingha over comments he made in relation to the SMRT strike fiasco.

This is what you do when you realize that you are losing control of the conversation. Send in the lawyers and shut down the entire conversation.

[Oh, and put in a few nice articles of the PM patting the shoulders of students and Chan Chun Sing reading to kids at the library -- see today's Straits Times (6 January 2013) in the pages following the articles on the apologies.

I am reminded of George W. Bush reading "The Pet Goat" during the events of 9/11. Note to Straits Times editors: anodyne pictures do nothing to dispel citizens' disquietude with what the hell is going on with AIM. If anything, they only serve to reinforce the perception that our ministers are completely disconnected from the ground. Straits Times editors, you need to go back to propaganda school.]

Frankly, I am bemused by this whole turn of affairs. For the two activists under legal injunction to retract their words, there is no shame attached to apologizing over a defamation charge from the PAP. Everyone knows the PAP doesn't fight fair. Apologizing is easy and the better part of valor. In fact, being served with a defamation letter is a sign that you're being taken seriously.

It is not, however, the PAP's cheap tactics which I find distasteful; politics is inherently dirty. What is particularly odious is the hypocrisy. Despite what Goh Chok Tong once said about the PAP being a party of 'junzi', the PAP really is a party from the 'hood. Lee Kuan Yew himself said that famous quote about putting on knuckledusters and ambushing his opponents in a cul-de-sac.

There may not have been very many palatable options other than lawyering up and putting a stop to this particular AIM conversation, unlike that time-waster of a national conversation. Still, by doing so, the PAP has opened several cans of worms.

The first is the ineffectiveness of such a move. The words "Pyrrhic victory" come to mind. This is the information age. What's online stays online, as anyone who has ever been tagged in some particularly mortifying picture on Facebook would have found out.

If someone was so inclined, setting up several mirror sites to mirror the content of objectionable (to the PAP that is) sites would be a cinch. Heck, your average content scraper or forummer copying and pasting articles wholesale onto forums alone would ensure the longevity of any web content. And Google's PageRank algorithm guarantees that should enough people access the link, it will automatically float to the top of the search rankings.

And everyone's connected to the Internet these days, to judge from the number of iPhones I am surrounded with each time I board the MRT. Get with the program already. A gag order, particularly on Internet content, is no longer effective in the information age. It just shows that you're...out of touch. Then again, perhaps the party from the 'hood hasn't heard of smartphones.

The second thing to note is that by lawyering up, the mainstream media has to report on the controversy. Cue Striesand Effect. As terse as the Straits Times would prefer to be, and they were indeed very tight-lipped, they still had to explain why exactly the PM found Yawning Bread's articles defamatory, and that just puts front and center the raison d'etre behind the whole AIM Saga: why was a town council system developed with public funds sold to a company controlled by a political party by the politicians then in charge of the town council?

The last time I remember the mainstream media having to twist a story into such unnatural contortions was during the floods of yesteryear, when they hastened to explain what the government was doing before describing how f***ed up bad the flooding situation was on one particular weekend. Remember putting the cart before the horse?

The third can of worms is that employing a defamatory charge as a first and last resort is inherently a self-liquidating power. Self-liquidating because each time you use it, it becomes far less convincing. The PAP has resorted to defamation charges countless times. So much so that it has become predictable and boring (which in my mind, is the bigger crime. I hate boring. That includes people and things.).

See above my point on defamation no longer carrying any stigma whatsoever for the defendants. It truly begs the question of whether PAP politicians are really being defamed each time they cry foul, or do they in fact have malfeasance to hide. I am reminded of City Harvest's strenuous protestations of innocence on the part of its high priests. Apparently, the party from the 'hood is not so different from a cult either.

A completely separate point about self-liquidating powers is that they're often so effective at first that their users quickly stop thinking of alternatives. Strategies and tactics work...until they don't. The PAP's key strategy of using the threat of defamation lawsuits to shut down criticism is looked about as dated as penicillin, and about as effective.

My fourth and last point is that more than any other incident from recent memory, the AIM saga erases any doubt in my mind of what I have conjectured before: that the PAP is more than willing to put party above country, and as a result, a smoking ruin is what will result prior to any transition of power.

You have been warned. Everyone needs a plan B.