Sunday, March 22, 2009

Making better use of statistics

Too often, we've all relied on anecdotal evidence or personal perceptions to guide our arguments and form our thoughts. The following video, which was highlighted on The Online Citizen caught my attention.

The information about the developing world is nice, but I think it is more important for us to realize that we need tools (to view trends) as well as hard data (statistics) to help us reason about the truth (statistics sometimes do lie, however).

I encourage readers to check out the professor's tool website at

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Suppression of Dialects in Singapore

I posted the following as a comment on TOC but I thought it merited a full post here on my own blog:

In the US, people are free to learn languages based on an individual's needs, whether for economic gain, one's family/cultural environment, or just out of interest. The government does not force (in spite of some bigoted cries for ALL US citizens to have to know English) people to learn (American) English. Instead, the US government adapts ... in areas where there are more Spanish speakers, you tend to see more documents available in Spanish. If it is not economical to make multiple copies of forms and instructions, they offer translation services as best as they can.

What Singapore lacks is the confidence in ourselves. We are not confident that need, economic or otherwise, will necessarily inspire an individual to pursue what is required to fulfill that need. Instead, we rely on the government to "provide".

In doing so, the government left no one with much of a choice as we grew up! We get pigeon-holed into 3 secondary languages (Bahasa Melayu, Tamil and Mandarin) and a smattering of tertiary languages (French, German and Japanese). Under this scenario, to survive in our education system, one has no choice but to tackle a secondary language.

I personally struggled with Mandarin for which I either lacked talent with or just hated the way it was taught. Either way, it felt uninspiring. I learned more about Chinese culture and history playing games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms than from my Mandarin classes in formal education. Perhaps I should have chosen Bahasa Melayu as my "mother tongue" (had I, as a kid, the choice) but Mandarin was the "natural" option given my ethnicity. Cantonese had to take a back seat. It is unclear if I would have succeed with Cantonese given my failure at Mandarin, but I still regret having to "converse" with my late maternal grandmother in broken Cantonese with Mandarin words thrown in when I failed to find the equivalent Cantonese ones (and the awkward moments when grandma fails to understand what I think were the appropriate Mandarin replacements).

Today in the US, I still lack any serious linguistic talent (outside of English), but I no longer feel strait-jacketed. Nowadays, I take joy trying to get a feel for every language my (very) international friends had to offer. From English (it is more diverse than you think) to Italian to Spanish to Polish to Mandarin to Hindi. I do not learn enough to actually converse (other than English and Mandarin, and barely the latter), but I feel great satisfaction understanding aspects of a language (eg. gender associations) and sometimes the cultural aspects. The diversity is staggering and at the same time, beautiful.

The people in Singapore who insist on eliminating everything outside the "supported" languages presented by the media (since we do not, in practice, have private media) are really depriving Singaporeans of this beauty. I would love to see the day private media enthusiasts in Singapore are allowed to present material in any language (or dialect) they desire (eg. "The World of French Music" in French) instead of being strait-jacketed by "official policy".

I would like to add my thoughts on the current discussion of Chinese dialects in Singapore. If individual need had triumphed, I daresay Singapore would have the entrepreneurs interested in the China market being proficient or learning to be proficient with Mandarin while others can pursue their own interests. Instead, we have a situation where many of us possess half-baked knowledge of a mother tongue we are insufficiently inspired with and practice too infrequently to properly maintain. All in the hope that somehow we would ALL employ our mother tongues in the economic service of our nation ...
A possible case of double standards

This is more of a "highlighting" post. Wayang party reported this:

Phone threats a “non-seizable offence”: case of double standards?

I've followed the links to at least check on their sources and it looks real.

The origin - No action on phone threat (ST Forum - online only? March 11, 2009).

It was short enough to quote in its entirety:

'No one from the police has called. If the caller's intention was real, wouldn't we be harmed by now? How do the police decide which cases to investigate first?'

MADAM TAN LIAN GIM: 'My husband received a verbal threat via his mobile phone last Wednesday. The caller, who knew my husband's name, threatened to inflict bodily harm on him and his family. My husband made a police report the same day at the Bedok North station. No one from the police post has called us since. If the caller's intention was real, wouldn't we be dead or harmed by now? I have read reports about how the police acted swiftly when similar threats were made against a grassroots leader. How do the police decide which cases to investigate first in apparently similar reports?'

I also found the corresponding reply the Wayang Party article noted but failed to link to: "Phone threats a non-seizable offence" (ST Forum March 19, 2009 - It would now seem that both posts were on-print). Again, the response seems short enough to quote directly:

WE REFER to Madam Tan Lian Gim's letter, 'No action on phone threat' (March 11). Under the law, verbal threat is a non-seizable offence where the police have limited powers of investigation and arrests. Nonetheless, when a report is made, the police will look into the facts and if no aggravating factor is found, the police will advise the complainant to lodge a complaint before a magistrate, who has the power to direct further action as provided under the law.

The magistrate can direct the police to lawfully investigate the case and take further action where appropriate.

In Madam Tan's case, the police had found no aggravating factor and Madam Tan's husband was thus advised to lodge a magistrate's complaint accordingly.

DSP Paul Tay,
Assistant Director,
Media Relations,
Singapore Police Force

So, it would appear ... as pointed out by the Wayang Party article that in the case of MP Denise Phua, all the necessary follow-up action must have been taken which ultimately resulted in the current trial involving the man issuing the indirect phone threat.

I, for one, would like to see some transparency here that the followup action did indeed happen because the consequences of that being false is that we have a separate set of rules for VIPs (which is not, by itself, a bad thing) which we know nothing about (that's the bad thing!).

Of course, I am also annoyed that Madam Tan and her husband's case was treated in this fashion by the police given the speed with which the Denise Phua incident was pursued. All this along with, fresh in my mind, the recent incident of the man who was assaulted on an MRT train but was told by the police they could do nothing after being directed there by MRT staff.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A classic Singaporean reaction to Singaporean streakers:

"Streaking 'fun' can lead to other crimes"

I'll post his comments in full (since he hardly said anything and the ST may not archive this to the end of days like the BBC does):

AFTER reading last Thursday's report, "Undergrad streakers expelled from NUS hostel", I would like to remind students that NUS stands for "National University of Singapore", and not "Naked University of Singapore".

I have nothing against drinking and having fun. However, running naked from one hostel to the next is something all schools and universities must prevent. Such "fun" can lead to other crimes.

Ace Kindred Cheong

This guy seems to possess future ministerial qualities ...

First paragraph - trying to impose his "authority" by "reminding" people of a useless piece of fact. Everyone knows NUS does not stand for the "Naked University of Singapore" ... your sarcastic remark does not tell anybody anything useful.

Second paragraph - Mr Cheong does the classic "fear factor" tactic of the ruling party - unsubstantiated paranoia about "other crimes". What other crimes are you alluding to, Mr Cheong? How are they related to streaking? Where do you get your crime statistics from that relates streaking to these "other crimes"?

As usual the Mainstream Media laps this kind of drivel up while rejecting other more thoughtful and interesting letters (you can see some of those on The Online Citizen or Wayang Party - I don't always agree with them, but I find those letters far more thoughtful about the issues we face as Singaporeans).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bill Gates' net worth - a view from "below".

Just read on BBC the latest net worth (apparently the world's richest have all had their net worth slashed thanks to the recent crunch) of Bill Gates - US$40 billion dollars.

What does this mean for an individual?

Imagine spending US$1 million every day. If Bill Gates liquidated all his assets, he can do so for 109 years.

Now, let us imagine Bill Gates giving away all this money to others (FYI, he has a charitable foundation for helping the world on health and other issues:

Say he's trying to support people with US$50,000 a year (Singapore's PPP-adjusted per-capita GDP for the year 2007 - He would succeed in supporting 7,300 people for 120 years, which means 14,600 people for most of their adult lives. That's about 3% of Singapore's current population, including all foreigners.

I happened to be expecting the tyranny of large numbers to kick in when I initially did the math. Needless to say, I was still surprised by the scale of the impact he would actually have (were he to simply give his money away).

Now curious, I am going to see what our S$4.9 billion package drawn from our reserves for servicing the JCS would do. Right now, we're looking at 1.00 SGD = 0.653253 USD. This gives us US$3.2 billion. As a repeat of the previous exercise, this lasts 8.77 years if we spent US$1 million a day.

I am going to more directly calculate how many people we can help directly with US$3.2 billion: Assuming a modest salary of US$25,000 (S$3,189 a month) a year, this translates to 128,000 people sustained for 1 year or 25,600 people over the expected 5 years of recession. So, idealistically (I'll explain later), if we expect 51,200 people to lose their jobs over the next 5 years, US$3.2 billion will keep these people afloat with approximately S$1594.50 a month over the 5 years.

Ok, end of idealism ... social realism kicks in. Lots of other factors also muddle the issue (eg. 51,200 job losses over 5 years is too static a number given the dimensions involved - some will lose their jobs for a few months, etc ...) but I will not even attempt to discuss those. The real problems are - Who gets the money? - If I knew I was getting about S$1600 a month just by being unemployed, would I deliberately become unemployed? (I consider myself a principled person, but even I'm tempted at these rates!)

Having said that, I think I now have some inkling of why many have criticize the Singapore government for not openly considering other ways of distributing the S$4.9 billion from our reserves. The very tough question (I have no answer to), is how do we do this fairly (while helping the ones in trouble)?

My criticism of JCS is that we're being "too fair" with the money. A big proportion of the people benefiting from JCS will not be in danger of unemployment. It just seems like the Singapore government is using a shot-gun to kill a smattering of cockroaches - you use up a lot of resources to solve a small percentage of your problems. I feel a more targeted approach is probably more appropriate.

I also now see the JCS as being very similar to the (imho, flawed) US Republicans' idea that you can give money to the rich (companies being subsidized for retaining their employees), the money will trickle down to the poor (the employees the companies retain as a result of the JCS scheme).

Heh, I had not expected this article to move from Bill Gate's fortune to this, but it flowed somehow ...