Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Election 2008 – What Role did the Alternative Media Play? (My Take)

Yesterday’s news yes, but I am desperately trying to avoid work so I will indulge myself. Here goes:

Early morning 9 March, I joked that the election bookies’ books just went subprime, hit by a black swan. No one quite honestly expected the results. Ex-post, many pundits put weights on many reasons as to why it happened. One of them is the role of the alternative media (AM); bloggers, Malaysiakini, etc. The usual explanation is that it provided unbiased information to the people and empowered them with knowledge to cast their votes decisively. To some extent, it is true I guess. But here, I offer a different explanation – AM acted as a new channel that helped to coordinate people’s beliefs, eventually leading to a leap in equilibrium.


Will throw in a simplifying model to help the exposition. Firstly, there are i potential voters, with their “willingness to vote” denoted by Vi. Here is the important bit, Vi is taken to be:

Vi = f(
qi , E[Q-j | I] )


  • qi is voter i’s individual drive to vote,
  • Q-j is sum of qj, j not i
  • I is information available to i

Basically, this means that any single voter’s “willingness to vote” is dependent on two factors: his innate drive,
qi, to vote and his belief of others' drive to vote conditional to the information that he has, E[Q-j | I]. It is taken that the innate drive is fixed for an individual but varies across individuals – that is you have some people with high qi , like say, Nat Tan, and many people with low’ish level of qi , perhaps like your apathetic cubicle-mate. Then, there is E[Q-j | I] which basically says that a voter’s willingness to vote depends on others’ willingness as well.

A rough example would clarify things further. Consider the KL Freeze that happened not too long ago. Your decision to freeze in the middle of Pavilion would be dependent on your wackiness level, and if you believe others will be freezing too. For example, if you belief no one will freeze, unless you are superbly wacky, you won’t really be too keen to freeze alone in public. If you believe 5 people will be freezing too, then you might be tempted to join in if you are sufficiently wacky, or not if you are not. If you believe 100 people will be freezing, chances are you will be freezing too even if you are wacky at a normal level.

Here is the cool part – now consider the collective level. If you believe that 100 other people will be freezing, you will freeze too. At the same time, every individual from the 100 people believe that the other 99 plus you will be freezing, then in total, 101 will be freezing. Self-fulfilling prophecy at work. Then consider that there is another individual who is wacky at a slightly less than normal level, say, she will only freeze if she believes 101 people will freeze. Now, she will freeze too, since you decided to freeze. Then consider another person who is even less wacky who will only freeze if 102 people do the same. Given the person before will be doing it, and he believes she will do so, then he would freeze as well. And so on, so forth as the cascading effect continues.

This explains how a group of very different individuals could end up all freezing as long as there are sufficient people who are wacky enough. Call a tipping point, leap in equilibrium or critical mass cascade if you want. Note however this might not always apply. If the group of people has 1 extremely wacky guy who will always freeze and the rest being much less wackier who will only freeze if more than 20 people are going to freeze. In this case, the wacky could freeze all he wants, and he won’t be able to compel next guy to freeze too, so no cascading effect will happen. Unless, of course, everyone in the group could coordinate before hand, and make sure everyone freezes.

How does this Relate to the Election? (Coordination)

Well, I guess the KL Freeze example is sufficiently clear to suggest how this relates to the election. Assume that there are many potential voters whose qi is such that they are leaning towards voting the opposition (you can think of all the reasons why). However, in the initial condition, E[Q-j | I] is such that most believe that the other guy won’t be voting for the opposition, or won’t be voting period. Most expected BN to win even if they put in baked potatoes as candidates (and they did in some cases…) in the initial state. This is due to the I bit of the equation – everyone has a prior belief that nothing will change even if they vote because everyone else won’t be doing the same anyway, so their overall willingness to vote is low, even if their innate willingness is there.

Now this is where AM comes in – they updated people’s E[
Q-j | I] by updating I. At first, some vocal bloggers started to blog about his intention and willingness to vote, providing a signal to the rest of people that Q-j could be higher than expected. And using the same analogy as the KL Freeze above, this led to the next slightly less vocal person to voice out too and signal to others, and the chain reaction began, creating a ripple effect that eventually turned I, hence E[Q-j | I] upside down. Starting from mushrooming of individual blogs revealing people’s dissatisfaction and willingness to vote, to Youtube videos of tens of thousands of Bersih/Hindraf protestors on the street getting shot by water cannons, to massive ceramahs by the Pakatan Rakyat such as the Penang ones, the silent majority of the voters were embolden and found themselves not in such lonely company, i.e., E[Q-j | I] tipped from extremely low to sufficiently high[1]. This led to Vi being tipped as well from a low equilibrium to a high one. And thus the black swan was born.

Note how this put the importance into the quantity of people signaling, i.e., lonely under-read blogs matter too. The big hubs of information, like Malaysiakini and MalaysiaToday and so on are important in conveying quality of information perhaps, but the main coordinating effect emphasised in this model is in the commentators, letters to editor and ‘vox populi’ and the such – the Web 2.0 bits of the hubs, as well as the pictures of thousands of people supporting the cause. It is like, oh my gosh, everyone is thinking the same way as I do! And then of course, this updating of I could spill to non-AM realms too through the usual work, family, mamak interactions and so on.

Note that critical in this explanation is how the majority of the voters were leaning towards being dissatisfied with the status quo and wanted change, but just lacked the coordinating incentive to do so in the beginning. Without this, nothing would have happened. Yes, duh.

I mused about Vaclav Havel’s “power of the powerless” late last year, in which a system with the authority hanging on to power without the support of the people is intrinsically fragile:

“…[H]avel urges his fellow citizens to down-play strictly political activity in favor of a strategy he feels will be more successful: cultivating the sphere of truth within individuals in the hope that as this hidden sphere grows, it will becomes an irresistible force that will change society

Perhaps AM helped the cultivation of this hidden sphere more than we thought.


[1] But not sufficiently high in provoking a jump into another low equilibrium due to complacency.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

my toaster touched the water

Someone once told me swans mate for life.
Why can't human too?

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Malaysian Economy: Gloom and Doom?

I realised that it is getting really fashionable in the blogosphere to criticise everything that is coming from the Government, up to a point that seems rather irrational. These include criticisms on the official outlook for the Malaysian economy. I have chanced upon many highly misinformed blog posts and letters to editor that argued how the government is misleading the public with fake and manipulated statistics and that the Malaysian economy is actually in deep-dung now; GDP growth should be recessionary, inflation should be closer to 20-30% and so on.

Everytime I read something like this, I feel a strong urge to do something and explain. Actually, I did write a reply to a letter published in Malaysiakini by some Dr Wong or rather on inflation statistics which was highly highly misleading. My reply was not published, but I can't fault them. My stance is unpopular. Not to mention boring. Who wants to read technicalities on statistics right?


Just a minor point on manipulation of standard statistics and forecasts. The observers and users of these figures are usually professionals, investors, economists and technocrats, both locally and internationally. It is really not easy to manipulate them and not get found out. And the cost of such folly is great. If the government is really cheating us with manipulative statistics, trust me, we do not need a medical doctor to tell us so in a letter to Malaysiakini.

Anyway, I am attaching a table outlining the latest GDP forecasts (April) for Malaysia in the coming two years by a medley of private entities, from local-based research houses to international banks to IMF and ADB. Pretty close to the official forecast I would say.

The point is, the economy will be going through a rough patch going forward, with risks coming mainly from slowing global demand, ballooning commodity prices and political uncertainties. But it is really not all gloom and doom.

And yes, it is crucial to be critical, but let it be motivated by reason and not fashion.


Monday, 21 April 2008

JPA Scholarship - Abolishing it is Not the Answer

Another short post. Kian Ming posted this Education in Malaysia:

Abolish JPA scholarships for undergraduates

RM500,000. That's approximately the amount of money which JPA spends to send one scholar overseas to study in the US or the UK. It probably costs a bit less to send a scholar to Australia but not by much. But the sad fact is that the % of JPA scholars who come back to Malaysia and work for the government in some capacity or another is close to 0%. Given that this is the case, JPA has two choices: (1) drastically reduce the number of JPA scholarships given out (2) implement a comprehensive system of making sure that JPA scholars come back and serve out their bonds in one capacity or another. I would go for option (1) given that (2) is very difficult to implement and carry out, at least in the short term. In other words, why waste RM500,000 on a scholar who is not likely to serve the government or even to come back to Malaysia? ...

I agree with the problem, but definitely not the solution proposed. I have always thought that despite all the shortcomings of the government, the broad priority of allocating high proportion of public expenditure on education is a right thing to do. The disbursement and how the fund is used is far from good, but I never thought once that the solution should lie in not spending on education at all.

Anyway, I wrote a short comment in response to the post:

You are artificially constraining the options available. Not to mention that your proposal is politically infeasible.

I think there are many options open that could better serve the system; we just have to think beyond the conventional I guess.

For example, there is always an option to change the manner of some of the undergraduate JPA bonds. One is to consider a bond that instead of making you work for the public sector, merely 'bond' you to the country for a number of years. There is freedom on what you want to do, but you need to be in Malaysia for an X number of years.

Since the 'bond' involves only legal and administrative work on the part of the Immigration and perhaps the National Registration departments, I would deem that it will be much easier to enforce too.

This change is good in both that it could potentially lessen the brain drain problem and at the same time, provide scholars with much greater career freedom.

This is just a random example that I could think of now. I believe many more could be devised if we put more thoughts into it. I just do not think that the solution to the problem in the system lies in obliterating it.

Much of my deeper thoughts are implicit in the comment, but I just can't get myself to elaborate on them. Hope that the essence of the message is not lost though.

El -need to work harder- anor

Friday, 18 April 2008

Between Determination and Denial

Short post. Found this post in the World Bank blog rather relevant:

When a country is ranked badly on some indicator, the first instinct of government officials is to blame the indicator's methodology, source, bias, or all of the above...

...How refreshing then that at a recent cabinet meeting in Baku, the president Aliyev told his ministers: "If Azerbaijan is ranked badly on an indicator, it's either because you haven't reformed enough or because you have failed to provide sufficient information on reforms. Either way, the burden is on you."

Can't help but to see a good lesson for Malaysia.

And on an entirely unrelated tangent, I am supportive of Pak Lah to remain in power, for many reasons. I am also of the view that plan for the future is immeasurably more important than nitpicking on mistakes of the past.


Monday, 7 April 2008

Sex and Money

From CNN, quoted by Tyler Cowen:

When young men were shown erotic pictures, they were more likely to make a larger financial gamble than if they were shown a picture of something scary, such as a snake, or something neutral, such as a stapler, university researchers reported.
The arousing pictures lit up the same part of the brain that lights up when financial risks are taken.

...The study conforms with recent research that indicates men shown a pornographic movie were more likely to make riskier sexual decisions. Another suggests straight men think less about their financial future after being shown pictures of pretty women.

Hence a justification for women Central bankers?

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Uh Oh...

Simon Johnson: Whatever you want to call it, as we see things, we have a global situation on our hands.

(Read more...)

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Rationality is not Selfishness

A response to a recent cicak's piece, perhaps.


Voting as a rational decision
Andrew Gelman Noah Kaplan
5 April 2008

Voting behaviour seemingly confounds rational choice theory. But this column shows that voting can be perfectly rational, if voters are concerned with social benefits and not merely personal gains. Rationality and selfishness are not the same.
(Read more...)


The last sentence is the key insight. Similarly freer market does not mean greater competition. But that is another story for another day.