Monday, 23 April 2007

Vote - Defeating the Defeatist Tendency

My ‘Why Malaysia Needs More Governance and Less Corruption?’ and the subsequent ‘Vote for Change?’ posts attracted many comments (for Arrested Development’s standard that is…) which are interesting, persuasive and worthy of lengthier discussions.

Unfortunately, I can only respond to some of them briefly here.

Evolution Analogy:

Cantab used evolution as a parallel to election and the danger of transitioning into a bad equilibrium through voting just for the sake of political competition. He ended by saying:

Bottom line: if we want change, WE have got to make it. Not cross ballot papers while hoping real hard someone else does the dirty work.

I fully agree that if we want change, we have got to make it work ourselves. But voting IS part of the set of actions that we could be pursuing in catalysing a change.

At this point, I think it is important for me to explain myself. I am not advocating voting for the opposition just for the sake of creating political competition as a long term strategy for a democracy. It is plea borne out of what I think is a crisis of norms and institutions in the current state of our nation which is partly due to the political monopoly of the current ruling coalition. Ideally, we should be voting for people, policies and principles (visit Haris Ibrahim’s blog: The People’s Parliament for an inspiring and earnest effort), and this would be my longer term strategy too. Unfortunately, given the current state of affairs, I do not think that this is a luxury all of us have for the coming general election. With the current political hegemony, voting for the oppositions will almost certainly not replace the incumbent coalition, but it will be sending a signal that the people do not condone corruption, inefficiency and the squandering of our future and wealth.

When I said democracy is a process, I meant it in a more holistic sense and not just the election-selection process. The road to democracy requires the co-evolution of informal norms and formal institutions that would ultimately allow for a governance of a state that is of, by and for the people. One of the most crucial elements for this is to have a society that has a strong desire for leaders to be made accountable to the public.

Having read economics in the undersized rooms of the under-funded portion of the Sidgwick site, I am more inclined to view the situation to be more of a parallel to competition between firms rather than an evolutionary process.

Firms derive their power from the support of the consumers while political parties derive their power from the support of the people. At the risk of oversimplification, monopolies, having complete market dominance, have very little incentive to improve, be efficient and tend to exploit the consumers by charging higher price for their product. On the other hand, competition tends to result in pressure to improve and ultimately better serve the interest of the consumers. For local examples, imagine a poorly-run state-backed monopoly (Proton, perhaps), and an industry with intense competition. A good example for the latter is the pre-paid mobile-phone industry in Malaysia. Notwithstanding the wastage from over-advertising, it is very difficult not to see how competition has resulted in improved services for consumers (try imagining 1 cent per sms 3 years ago…).

Marginal Vote:

A single vote is like a broken pencil – it is pointless. As cliché as it might sound, this is not true – every vote counts. Especially when you look at it from the collective perspective. The fear is, however, this pointless reason is used as justification for apathy and inaction on a collective level, hence resulting in the worst case scenario coming true.

I initially intended to use the non-cooperative outcome story of a prisoner’s dilemma to illustrate this, but decided against it now since it has alluded to in my previous post on rude driving, and it can get a bit geeky.

Instead, I refer to an example given in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point on what is called the bystander problem’:

“One of the most infamous incidents in New York City history, for example, was the 1964 stabbing death of a young Queens woman by the name of Kitty Genovese. Genovese was chased by her assailant and attacked three times on the street, over the course of half an hour, as thirty-eight of her neighbors watched from their windows. During that time, however, none of the thirty-eight witnesses called the police. The case…became symbolic of the cold and dehumanizing effects of urban life… Nobody can say why the thirty-eight did not lift the phone while… [but] it can be assumed… that their apathy was indeed one of the big-city variety…

The truth about Genovese, however, turns out to be a little more complicated — and more interesting. Two New York City psychologists — Bibb Latane… and John Darley… — subsequently conducted a series of studies to try to understand what they dubbed the "bystander problem." They staged emergencies of one kind or another in different situations in order to see who would come and help. What they found, surprisingly, was that the one factor above all else that predicted helping behavior was how many witnesses there were to the event.

In one experiment, for example, Latane and Darley had a student alone in a room stage an epileptic fit. When there was just one person next door, listening, that person rushed to the student's aid 85 percent of the time. But when subjects thought that there were four others also overhearing the seizure, they came to the student's aid only 31 percent of the time… When people are in a group, in other words, responsibility for acting is diffused. They assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem — the seizure-like sounds from the other room… — isn't really a problem. In the case of Kitty Genovese, then, social psychologists like Latane and Darley argue, the lesson is not that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her scream; it's that no one called because thirty-eight people heard her scream…”

Similarly, that our single vote does not matter in the bigger scheme of things might be true on an individual level, but on a collective level, it could be disastrous. If everyone who wants change thinks that his/her vote is powerless to affect change, than the status quo will remain.

As for Elegant Lily’s comment, he articulated a very real and relevant concern on communal politics being key in determining election outcome. It is a sad truth that division by ethnicity exists across almost all aspects of the Malaysian society, with politics being chiefly so. That said, I do believe a growing number of Malaysians are increasingly realising the importance and urgency of looking beyond racial identity for the future of our nation.

Similar to the argument on marginal vote, it is very important for this group to realise that they are not powerless to affect change. I sincerely believe that we should not allow the dominance of the status quo to feed our defeatist tendency.

Quoting Cantab out of context, “
if we want change, WE have got to make it.”



zewt said...

someone who reads my blog told me about your blog and wow... what a place you have here. it's a shame why blogs like kennysia and xiaxue have tonnes of blind followers while blog like yours only manage to get 10 comments per entry.... but honestly... that's the way it is... a 3 liner in my blog fetched 81 comments, the most i have ever received... while those that i sit and think and write only receive a handful.

anyway... telling the malaysians to vote is close to a futile affair. first of all, most malaysians dont even wanna get registered, let alone vote. they carry the it-will-not-make-a-difference-anyway-so-why-bother attitude. cant blame them really, with the recent results from the by-election... many are just convinced that there's absolutely nothing we can do.

very refreshing to read about your competition analogy. yes, BN needs a challenge to keep then on their toes. but you see... the challengers are all not united. and frankly speaking... i trust no one. it's a matter of who is the lesser evil. so while it is important for us to vote... many of us just dunno who to trust anymore.

having said all that... it is still crucial for us to cast our votes... and make ourselves count. it is not easy to change others...but if we change ourselves, we may just change the world.

you're so far away from this country and yet you're so concern about the affairs here... kudos to you.

Anonymous said...

who said elanor is far away from Malaysia? Are you elanor?

Anonymous said...

i love economic chics.....

zcer said...

I thought cantab's evolution analogy was highly inappropriate and with little, perhaps even misleading explanatory power. I think I refuted his arguments here

Since you simply agreed with his bottom-line: "if we want change, WE have got to make it. Not cross ballot papers while hoping real hard someone else does the dirty work." ...and totally ignored his evolution-based argument and replaced it with your thinking of it as more like "a competition between firms"...It would suggest his arguments had nothing to do with his conclusions. Don't let it confuse you!

To raise awareness, I guess it could help if we ask ourself and others, "why are you voting for x?", instead of just "who are you voting for?" But that's not enough. We need to play the devil's advocate and ask, "are you sure you are not voting for x because of y less-than-admirable (perhaps subconscious )reason?"

Btw evolutionarily (again!), advertisement simply signals excess of endowment or resources, and thus biological fitness. Only a very healthy peacock with surplus energy can afford such tail. Letting the females know that he is definitely more than healthy enough. Similarly, advertisers who are able to to afford such expensive ads shows us their ability to deliver. Plus the ad industry gives employment to people such as graphic designers and many more others. And i suppose there is spillover via the multiplier effect(right?) throughout the entire economy.

But does the luxury sector actually waste resources? I think it doesn't, but i'm not equipped with the economics to explain why... My guess would be that the sector exists because the people who can afford luxuries earned their money by contributing to the economy in the first place. And by paying for luxury commodities, are feeding that wealth back into the economy. So economic wealth is simply the flow of traditional wealth. Pretty much like how heat in physics is the flow of "traditional heat".

But seriously, I hope you could do a post explaining just what "wealth" is, and how it is generated in the economy.

Anonymous said...

I think majority of the voters are just irrational, read this book to get a better picture..

__earth said...

wow. Come to think of it, I haven't heard about the bystander problem since my sophomore year. I'm glad that you refreshed my memory.

Cantab said...

Another compelling piece by Elanor! Especially loved the bit on the 'Bystander Problem', it certainly argues for the relevance of even just one vote.

But when I rant about how we have to make change, I am not disputing that for the general majority, voting is definitely the way to go.

Quote Elanor

" But voting IS part of the set of actions that we could be pursuing in catalysing a change".

I would say " is PART of the set of action..." with emphasis on 'part'.

To Elanor and everyone who's been commenting on this site, you are all very privileged people. You have the awareness to spot a problem, the diligence to dissect it and the intelligence to offer solutions.

So the question is, why JUST vote? Why choose what I think is the least pro-active "set of actions...catalysing a change"?

Because you know you can do more.

Why aren't you?

And to be completely honest, I ask myself that question everyday. And I don't like the answer I give myself.

Ah, for the want of courage.

zcer said...


Wikipedia says, "To counter the bystander effect when you are the victim, a studied recommendation is to pick a specific person in the crowd to appeal to for help rather than appealing to the larger group generally. This places all responsibility on that specific person instead of allowing it to diffuse. Furthermore, pluralistic ignorance is countered by the implication that all bystanders are indeed interested in helping, and social proof kicks in when one or more of the crowd steps in to assist."

The bystander effect is actually an inverse of the "marginal vote effect", but that is what makes it a good analogy anyway.

So, people who have have read this blog, should "just do it". Just go out and vote, then tell your friends you are voting. Tell them to vote, tell them to tell THEIR friends that they are voting. Create a viral idea. People do that with forwarded email anyway.


Besides voting, one can do what Elanor is doing. Helping people think. Write to your local newspaper. Or you can simply TALK about the ideas in this blog and its comments, with your friends. By word of mouth, a good idea can go everywhere. Every cause starts with awareness. Seriously, the reason why the govt can come up with such fantastic policies is because we are too vague about what we want. Perhaps the only message we have been sending the govt so far is, "me (and my race) want to be comfortable". For example, rakyat says: "I want cheap cars!". Govt replies, "no worries i would raise import tariffs of foreign cars and subsidize Proton, a car which all patriots should want to buy!"

That was of course, an exaggeration. But you get what I mean.

Anonymous said...


you said: So the question is, why JUST vote? Why choose what I think is the least pro-active "set of actions...catalysing a change"?

Because you know you can do more.

Do more in what sense? Narrow down your points because its open to too many interpretations.
If you are talking about having talks and public discussions to curb public apathy, you must remember that there are laws made by the government to mitigate our efforts. Does ISA ring a bell? Lim Kit Siang has certainly bore the burnt of his efforts. If its against the ruling coalition then you might be in trouble. Nitpicker is with Czer on this one...

Anonymous said...

Anti govenment sentiments are certainly not drafted in our constitution.

zewt said...

Having read economics in Cambridge University, she is now far away from home, working, eating and sleeping economics.

I am making a guess.

Anonymous said...

elanor works in kl....

rude driving is synonymous with kl drivers...

Elanor said...


Most of time, distance away from home is not measured by kilometres...

Anonymous said...

Precisely what makes you attractive


Anonymous said...

everyone loves elanor thats for sure

Dek Mat said...

very nice indeed. great post. i know i owe u an econs post but i haven't given u the heads up yet! ;)

home is where the heart is someone said...

anyway yes all of us can do more in our system. it all depends on how much we can and want to do.

writing down constructive ideas in a blog is definitely way better than just complaining in some obscure coffee shop.

but i would encourage everyone to get more involved in our democracy. join an NGO, organise forums, talk more abt politics to your friends, make them aware of their rights and choices and/or etc

let me stop here. anything more it'll be as good as a post and elanor will be asking for an economic one ;)

Anonymous said...


Maybe you should have an annual dinner/gathering for readers and fans.....

zewt said...

right... i am guilty of assuming then. working in KL huh... good for bolehland... but then again, working in KL means we are all slaves in this KL labour slavery system.