The danger of relying on super-dominant forces such as the PAP

Super-dominant forces are inherently dangerous. Why did the sub-prime mortgage crisis happen? Why did the US get involved in Iraq? What happened to institutions that were/are “Too Big To Fail”? Why is it always recommended that you diversify your portfolios when investing? Why do we recommend Arts students to take a Science subject, and vice versa? Why do we have a bilingual policy? Why do we trade with many countries rather than a few? Why is it better to have friends from multiple social circles rather than just one?

Can you think of anything in nature that is super-dominant? Only Man- and we can all see how dangerous that is. We are quickly realising that we have to have symbiotic relationships with the rest of nature, rather than a dominant one.

Why are we researching solar energy, when it is currently impractical, overpriced, and costly? Do you think we should stop researching it and focus on our existing sources of energy, or keep at it and look for serendipitous, unexpected breakthroughs? The only thing we can be certain of is that our present energy solutions are sub-optimal. Do we then say that we SHOULDN’T give alternative solutions a shot, because a multi-energy solution will waste resources, divide infrastructure, worsen productivity?

If the opposition wins all over Singapore in a freak election- which I personally think is very, VERY unlikely- then we will have 5 interesting, confusing years. What’s the WORST that can happen? Is that really a bad thing? Even in such an “undesirable” outcome (I withhold judgement for now, because we cannot know), I bet that we will learn more than we have ever learnt before, and we will have a much more vocal and engaged citizenry- something that we sorely need if we are to continue to grow and develop in this crazy, changing world.

On the flip side, what’s the worst that can happen if we have PAP dominance for the next 5, 10, 20 years? History is littered with the bloated corpses of super-dominant forces. We need to be New York rather than Detroit, Athens rather than Sparta, natural rather than man-made.

NOBODY can tell what the opposition can or cannot do, what value it will or will not have. And we have to find out. We have to try new things. Maybe we will get burnt. But then we will know better.

How can we say honestly that the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t? All we can say is that we don’t know. The question then is whether we want to find out, or we want to sit tight and hope for the best.

Any situation where any organism or entity is dominant on a single super-dominant force is dangerous in the long run. Feel free to use your own favourite football/economics/medical/military analogy.

I have met PAP supporters who say that they’re worried about the next 5 years, well- I’m worried about the next 50.

Essentially- if tomorrow the entire PAP leadership dies in a plane crash, what would we do? If the thought scares you, then we have to start thinking about how we’re going to cope. We have to prepare for the worst. Can you promise that the PAP will never implode? Nothing lasts forever.

In a nutshell- I put it to you that the the worst case scenario of having a super-dominant, lethargic and complacent PAP is worse than the worst case scenario of having an opposition-dominated parliament for 5 years. Because if the latter collapses, we will know what to do, but if the former does… I’m not sure I even want to find out.

Ministerial Pay 2012: The Neglected Truth About Incentives

There is powerful evidence that we have been completely wrong about the effectiveness of financial incentives and extrinsic motivation.

Financial incentives often improve performance. But they can also lead to unethical behavior, fuel turnover and foster envy and discontent. Wharton management professors argue that it is time to cut back on money as a chief motivational force in business. Instead, they say, employers should pay greater attention to intrinsic motivation. That means designing jobs that provide opportunities to make choices, develop skills, do work that matters and build meaningful interpersonal connections.

Knowledge@Wharton: The Problem with Financial Incentives and What to Do About It

Incentives are dangerous, and not just because people game them. They often yield collateral damage. Remember the tale of the Darwin Award winner who strapped a jet engine to his car, dreaming of a joyride for the ages, and then met his sorry end as a human flapjack on the side of a mountain? Incentives are like that jet engine. There’s no question the engine will take you somewhere, fast, but it’s not always clear where. Or what you’re going to mow down on the way. Yet incentives are still the first resort of most managers, perhaps because they all think they’re smart enough to create the perfect carrot.

– Fast Company: Why Incentives are Effective, Irresistible and Almost Certain to Backfire

Extrinsic motivation and financial incentives are culturally dominant in Singapore. Salary benchmark for ministers

The income benchmark for ministers and top civil servants is pegged at 2/3 the median income of all the top 8 earners in these 6 professions: lawyer, accountant, banker, MNC executive, local manufacturer and engineer. These means that we take the 48 top earners (top 8 from 6 groups), sort them according to their income, take the middle guy’s income, and multiply it by 2/3.

Ministers and MPs argue that they deserve to be paid as much as top earners in the private sector, but the point is that everybody in the private sector is also overpaid. This isn’t a matter of preference , philosophy or emotion- this is a scientifically established fact. Increasing pay diminishes performance. And if there’s anything we can all agree on, it’s that we all want the best for Singapore, yes?

“As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance.

But once the tasked called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward let to poorer performance.

– A study by economists from MIT, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Chicago, funded by the US Federal Reserve Bank

“We find that financial incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance.”

-Economists from the London School of Economics

The highest performing people in the world are not the most paid.

I have a simple hypothesis- the founding fathers of Singapore, who everybody can agree were the most awesome team of badasses that our country has ever seen- were not motivated by money. (The Pirate Ship analogy works beautifully here.) We need a star team, not a team of stars! Lee Kuan Yew and his team of heroes were intrinsically motivated. They had autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Lee Kuan Yew, whose title is minister mentor, said naysayers like this need a reality check.

“I say you have no sense of proportion; you don’t know what life is about,” he said last month.

“The cure to all this talk is really a good dose of incompetent government,” Lee said. “You get that alternative, and you’ll never put Singapore together again.”

He presented himself as an example: “A top lawyer, which I could easily have become, today earns 4 million Singapore dollars. And he doesn’t have to carry this responsibility. All he’s got to do is advise his client. Win or lose, that’s the client’s loss or gain.”

The Straits Times newspaper quoted him as saying his current salary as minister mentor was 2.7 million Singapore dollars.

Money may buy happiness for a government minister, but some Singaporeans suggested that other motivations should also come into play for government service.

“What about other redeeming intangibles such as honor and sense of duty, dedication, passion and commitment, loyalty and service?” asked Hussin Mutalib in the Straits Times’ online forum recently.

Carolyn Lim, a prominent writer, suggested in an essay in The Straits Times that Singapore needed a little more heart to go along with its hard head. “Indeed, a brilliant achiever without the high purpose of service to others would be the worst possible ministerial material,” she wrote.

“To see a potential prime minister as no different from a potential top lawyer, and likely to be enticed by the same stupendous salary, would be to blur the lines between two very different domains.”

The minister mentor brushed aside concerns like that.

“Those are admirable sentiments,” he said. “But we live in a real world.”

The New York Times: Singapore announces 60% pay rise for ministers.

I agree completely with MM Lee Kuan Yew.

We do live in a real world. A real world where it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that financial incentives decrease productivity for any task that isn’t purely mechanical.

We have to stop trying to entice people with sweeter carrots, and similarly we have to stop threatening them with sharper sticks. This turns off the our best and our brightest Singaporeans.

What they really want is autonomy, mastery, and purpose- all of which our Government, culture and systems generally fail to provide!

What Singapore needs in the 21st century is less compliance and more engagement. Before we all get obsolete.

We live in a real world. So let’s get real, take our fingers out of our ears and start paying attention to the evidence.