Go with a smile!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Whyevolutionistrue vs Henry Gee

I was alerted to this article, where the author takes on one of the editors of Nature, which is one of the biggest scientific journals in the biological sciences. I was going to publish this long rant in his comments but I'll write a blog post instead.

To be fair, the article being criticised is pretty badly written. But that doesn’t really excuse the way whyevolutionistrue totally missed all the points that Henry Gee was trying to make.

Henry Gee wasn’t critiquing science so much as he was critiquing the way that science is being communicated to the masses. But first, let’s look at your main points.

Science has been wrong and can’t much be trusted.

In order to see why this is the case, we have to go back to the P value. For the record, I believe that although Henry Gee has done a terrible job at explaining the p value, he understands what it means. And he probably understands what it means at a deeper level than you do: at p= 0.05, given that the null hypothesis is true, there is a 5% chance that it will be (incorrectly) rejected. Which means that you can have 20 scientists working on the same problem, the “lucky” scientist will “discover” some “sensational” results, and get them published. A distressingly high proportion of scientific papers, especially in our “publish or perish” environment will contain either meaningless crap, or unreproducible results.

Please see this for more info.

That is not the same as saying that science cannot be trusted. Because in order for scientific facts to make it to the level that it can be published in a text book, there are a lot of additional verifications to be done, papers to be published, etc etc. We used to be told that we should watch our calories, now we’re told that the type of calories are more important. We used to be told that cholesterol is always bad, and then we get told that there’s good and bad cholesterol. We used to be told that we should base our diet on mainly carbohydrates, and now we’re told that it’s causing obesity and diabetes. You can anecdotally speak of scientific facts which are true to a very very high level of certainty, and similarly I can bring up anecdotes which illustrate why the public is right to be wary of scientifically verified claims.

Science has betrayed our faith by giving us bad stuff…

Now there’s a great amount of confusion about this. Let’s just say that there are two main sorts of questions.

Q1: Is this scientific fact literally true?
Q2: What’s good for me?

Science is very good at answering the first type of questions, and pretty bad at answering the second, more pragmatic type of question. And most people mistake the certainty with which science can answer the first type of question, with the certainty with which it can answer the second type of question. Religion and philosophy are practically the opposite: not so good at the first type, better at the second type.

Also – I’m sorry to break this to you: people have always cared more about the second type of question than the first. In fact if it wasn’t for the fact that the type 1 questions are useful to help answer the type 2 questions, we might not give a damn about the type 1 questions at all.

What Henry Gee was trying to get at, is that many people misunderstand that being a scientist has anything at all to do with deciding what’s good for society.

However there are a lot of answers to questions, which seem to have come from science. These are not statements of scientific fact. In fact they have more in common with religion instead. Statements like “if I have factories which manufacture more of X then my nation will be happier” is practically a religious statement, not a scientific one. Other examples are statements like “We will be safer if the US has 1000 nuclear bombs but the USSR only has 900”. And we need to understand that this kind of religious nuttiness has permeated the top echelon of decision makers in the US govt.

So Henry Gee’s syntax is pretty confusing. But I think what he’s trying to say is that it’s not a happy situation when we mix up the two types of questions.

Scientists and science journalists don’t express the nature of science, for they squelch dissent.

There are some subtleties behind this, and if you’re not careful, you will get into a big muddle.

Yes, all good scientists understand the importance of skepticism. We all promote and encourage skepticism. But to a layman, skepticism means that you don’t really know your stuff. Not understanding this portion of human psychology is pretty detrimental to the standard of communication between scientists and laymen.

So the scientists have to beef themselves up and stand firm about their beliefs. The consequences of not doing so are severe: climate change deniers often exploit this “lack of certainty” to plant doubt about the validity that climate change is man made. And your statement “Scientific disagreement gave rise to creationism and homeopathy and antivaxers and the whole pseudoscientific enterprise?” is nothing more than a weaselly strawman. Scientific disagreement did not produce all this, but it certainly presented a weak spot for these guys to hit out at.

You have to understand why people who participate in scientific discourse are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: express your skepticism like a good scientist, and your fellow scientists will pat you on the back, but the layman will stop listening. Speak like a priest from the standpoint of scientific dogma, and maybe a few more of those laymen will listen to you, but you’d be accused of dogma.

Unfortunately it’s pretty hard to get scientists to talk the language of the layman because they all think it’s beneath them.


Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Gifted Education Programme

I was meeting some of my old friends from school, at the same time when I saw this old assertion. The GEP is elitist and should be abolished.

First thing you have to know about the GEP is that there’s a limited upside and quite a big downside. Yes, you get a very good learning environment, even though that environment is not without its flaws. Suppose you were to implement a system which is successful, then that program will be called elitist. Suppose you were to implement a system which is not, then that program will be a failure. You can’t ever win. By definition, it’s exclusionary. But you don’t really know if it’s supposed to be that way.

There will be portions about the GEP that I like, and portions that I don’t like and it’s going to be hard to separate the two since they both came in a package.

A different learning experience
Now, most of us, while we were in school, even back in the 80s, were already aware that the school system didn’t exactly meet the educational requirements of an education system. Schools had been in Singapore for literally a hundred years but many people of the pre-independence generation were the first in their families to go to school, including my father. And although he did very well in school, and was consistently top of his class (thanks to very often being beaten to within an inch of his life by my grandmother) he was able to view the education system from an outsider’s point of view. He always emphasized to me the importance between being street smart and book smart, and later in life, when I thought about it, it seems that when we are book smart, we place an inordinate amount of importance to the forms of knowledge that are easily communicated in print, and not that much importance on other forms.

So if I could sum up the deficiencies of the education system in one sentence, it would be this: any education system which places undue emphasis on books at the expense of all other forms of learning is inherently flawed. Unfortunately, this is also the form of education system that us, as East Asians absolutely love.

In the gifted program, there was a greater emphasis on critical thinking, and they tried to move away from the rote learning. We had field trips – I don’t know what they achieved. There were some multi-media experiences. We were even treated to a visit from an astronaut from NASA at one point. There was a bit of a dislike for knowledge that emphasized a high level of rote memorization and more of an inclination towards critical thinking. We were trained to analyse issues in a more in-depth fashion. We had our own exams, and they reflected this difference in emphasis.

People were encouraged to participate more in class, although I’m sure that teachers are quite ambivalent about this. To a much lesser extent than in other classes are students taught to shut up and sit down. People could ask questions of varying stupidity, although there were one or two guys who asked so many consistently daft questions that they had to be paired up with an editor whose job was to vet the questions before they were thrown out to the class.

Those of you who know me will know this. Most of the time I am quiet. But in certain contexts, I can be loud, rude, opinioned. I can come up with something that sounds crazy but makes sense in retrospect. That dates back to those days. In many ways, it was a more American environment. People who have gone through the GEP will have a better instinctive feel for the full ramifications of freedom of speech. Singaporeans in general are still a little blur about certain aspects, and how it works.

We were also treated to a more nerd / geek friendly environment. It was only later on in life, upon exiting the GEP that I found that life in general is supposed to be more harsh for nerds. And yes I took a few years to adjust to that. But I’m glad it didn’t happen to me when I was younger and developing. When you’re a little older, it’s easier to cope. You don’t have to throw punches, a feel well aimed insults delivered with a sneer (an art honed after years of practice heckling teachers from the back of the class) will achieve a similar effect.

But one of the most important parts of the GEP is that it achieved what I think a grade school education is supposed to achieve. No, it is not about getting your fucking straight As. It is not about showing how many random out of context pieces of knowledge you can shove onto the exam script in three fucking hours. It’s about two things: introducing you to the things you’re most talented in, and getting you to participate in society. I found out I was good at maths, at writing and at music, and I went on to hone these gifts. I participated in holiday camps for talented students and I learnt a lot.

There was a fair amount of work that was project work, not just given a grade based on how well people managed to waterboard you with information. A lot of the traditional testing is just like a lot of water pumped into your stomach and you had to puke it all up in the exam hall.

I didn’t take many leadership role in my ECAs – the one leadership role I did take proved fairly disastrous – but I participated enough in them. Many GEP people went on to take active roles in their respective student organisations. And from what I remember of the high school reunions, the GEP people would maintain closer ties with the school, although the express guys were also very active.

In fact, some of the most important educational experiences we had had nothing to do with school, and nothing to do with ECAs either. I had a few friends, and I spent hours talking with them over the meaning of life, the best music to listen to (at that time 90s alternative music was on the rise, although far from being universally popular). We discussed what we saw, what we came into contact with, deconstructed what our teachers’ lives were like. That was an extremely important component of the education and not something I would have wanted to be without. If you took the average kid today, and their jam-packed “enrichment” filled schedules, they might, though, miss out on all this stuff. I don’t envy them.

Now for the part I don’t like. Just because I benefitted so much from it, it doesn’t mean that I’m blind to all the flaws.

First is the general ideology of the whole system, the idea that people are divided into the “gifted” and, euphemistically, “the rest”. It’s a bad sort of meritocracy that poisons the system. It leads to envy and all sorts of negative emotions. Some people in the gifted program started to think of themselves as ipso facto superior, and the express people – let’s say that even though the gifted-express relations in RI were 10 times better than in ACS or RGS, it wasn’t 100% friendly.

Many of the express people were friendly to us, but there was more than the fair share of people letting you have a piece of their mind. It got a bit ugly on one or two occasions. And there was a sense of entitlement on our part too – I felt a little resentful that there were a couple of express people on the school science teams taking places that probably would otherwise have been mine. But I’m still friends with those express guys, mind.

And sometimes it poisons the conversation between the gifted people and the others. I remember discussing with an express person about the need to have exams. I said that exams are a dissatisfactory way of gauging peoples’ performance, and somehow that got twisted into “you gifted people always think that you’re above examinations because you’re special”. After a bit of heated discussion, I went off with the comforting thought that if I were the gatekeeper I wouldn’t have allowed him into the gifted program anyway because no self-respecting critical thinker would have gone so low as to attack straw men.

The most wrong assumption about this “giftedness” is that a special talent is innate and immutable. It’s not true. People get into the gifted program based on where they were when they were 8 or 9 years old. Then they might suddenly trail off. The entrance exam during my time was just an IQ test. Purportedly an IQ test was the most “objective” form of selection, could not be studied for, and an excellent indicator of an individual’s future success in life. All three assertions are wrong. But to go to the other extreme and say that an IQ test is a totally invalid way of selecting bright people, and that it has no correlation to other forms of intelligence – that is of course even more wrong.

The GEP was a product of the 80s. In the 90s, other ideas were in vogue, specifically the notion of multiple intelligences. We have not looked back since. And not only are the multiple intelligences not positively correlated, in many cases they are negatively correlated. Like the jock who can’t study, or the nerd who’s lousy at social situations. Having one index for intelligence is just plain wrong.

Having said that, though, there is a case for picking out the best nerds in your cohort, putting them together and hoping to groom them into supernerds. The nerds, instead of thinking about how to escape being beaten up for protection money, can concentrate on becoming smarter nerds. Many people would chaff at this prospect, but is it really that different from the graduate student’s lounge at a top university, or at the Googleplex? Is there anything seriously wrong with putting all your smart people together and hope they can come up with something that betters society? As far as I can see, this sort of thing has been going on since the time of Leonardo Da Vinci or the ancient Greeks.

Then again, the gifted program has been strangely not effective at pushing people to achieve their best. Strangely enough, once you were in the GEP, people overcompensated for you. There is a myth that life in the GEP is very pressurizing. It’s not the case. People were pushed, but the students were not ranked. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It’s good because people just concentrate on learning, and there’s not so much elitism within the GEP. It’s bad because when you tell the GEP kids that they’re somehow “above” being ranked, it sends a very bad message. Although my more general query is still valid. Why have ranking at all, for any student?

There were people who became a little lazy because they weren’t pushed that hard. Some people from express studied really really hard compared to some of us. But the hardworking people in the GEP were really pushing themselves hard. You were often in the company of people who would give you shit for being dumb, so there was an element of internal pushing. You just didn’t want to be dumber than the express kids.

However the fact is that we were selected for being smart, not hardworking. And recent psychological research has shown that when people praise effort, it’s better for a kid than when they praise smartness. This entire element of the GEP where peoples’ smartness is always being praised is totally wrongheaded, and I hope that it has been rectified in the last 20 years.

When I was in there I was fully aware of this dilemma whereby people thought that the gifted kids ought to be taught differently (otherwise you have GEP for fuck, right?) and yet you had to prepare them for the standardized exams that everybody else had to prepare for. So there was this dilemma all the time, we were all aware that from sec 3 onwards, our curriculum was hamstrung by the fact that we would have to meet our fate in the “O” levels. Where most of the time we would do well, but not so obviously better than the express kids that it would “prove” our overwhelming superiority. And if you read my earlier remarks about what an education should truly be about, you’d know that this fact doesn’t bother me that much.

Another big problem about the GEP was that it created this island, this artificial environment that was cut off from the rest of humanity. So while this nerd-friendly environment was welcome, it was maybe a little too nerd-friendly. There was this overly bookish vibe about the whole place. And if you recall a recent article about nerds vs geeks, it was more a nerd place than a geek place. That wouldn’t be a big problem that real life couldn’t fix – you’d just go out into the real world after that and adjust. But the problem was if people had this elitist mentality. I know some of my classmates had it. When people criticize the GEP, those people would say “these people just don’t understand.” It’s true that some anti-GEP arguments are plain ignorant and daft, but I sometimes wonder if those who are too quick to dismiss them are missing the bigger picture.

Also problematic is the way that GEP people get a lot of perks which could have been shared around a little more. We have a more interactive learning environment, sure. But that requires a lower student: teacher ratio. We have nice holiday camps that were designed for mainly us and maybe a few express people join as guests. There were a few science fairs that were not only exclusively GEP, but also had people from the three schools mingling together, and a few years later, some of my friends were darkly muttering that this was an insidious effort at social engineering – they wanted GEP people to marry each other and make GEP babies.

And most importantly, the GEP alumni get more than their fair share of the scholarships that get dished out after the “A”s. It’s no wonder people think we lead a charmed life. I think in fairness there was this notion of noblesse oblige, that we had to be nice and gracious people. At the same time, though, you had people like the infamous Wee Shu Min who seemed determined to drag our names through the mud.

So this creates a problematic situation for Singapore. Yes, we had some working class people in our midst, and yes, we got along well with them. But it’s true that the GEP people are disproportionately from the upper class. In a way this is not meant to be strange: smart people have smart kids, and smart people are richer, so it’s only to be expected that the GEP kids are richer. But this could lead us down the road of greater social stratification. And remember: you can game the system by studying for the entrance exam. There was one time when I was invigilating for an entrance exam, and because of nostalgia’s sake, I looked at the questions. One of the administrators caught me and we got into a quarrel because of that. But when I think back, she’s right. I shouldn’t have looked at the questions. This entrance exam is pretty sensitive because it has such a big impact on the kid’s future.

So what is the legacy of the GEP? Does the GEP better prepare students to meet the 21st century? I would argue that it does. It’s pretty progressive. For every AnnaBelle Chong or Wee Shu Min who brings disrepute to the program, there’s always a Tracey Ho or Andrew Ng to bring credit to it. Never mind that Andrew Ng decided not to be a Singaporean. It teaches independent thinking, it enables people to thrive in a knowledge-intensive world, it teaches people not to accept the status quo of things. It is pro-freedom of speech, pro-democracy. (Yes it is, in spite of the reputation we have as being pro-PAP stooges). I don’t think these are values that are unwelcome in any society. Yes, many of us are still bookish nerds, but it has helped expand the style of Singapore’s education system to one that’s more open, complete and hopefully inclusive.

Therein lies a second, more dubious legacy of the gifted program. I’m beginning to suspect, given the weird new-fangled questions that have been appearing on the PSLEs, that a lot of experiments that have been tried out on the GEP in the earlier years are being replicated across the board. And parents: if your kids are getting big headaches trying to figure out what’s going on in schools today, it’s because some of those questions have been tested out on us. And sometimes I think that it’s weird. It’s one thing if you have plenty of these brain teasers for fun, and if they’re there to stretch your brain and your imagination. It’s one thing to give it to a group that has already been hand-picked as being bright. But if you want to give it to people who can’t cope, and if there are real life consequences for those who can’t figure it out, it does seem a little cruel does it not?

But then again I can’t 100% condemn this whole business of transferring the GEP material to the larger population. I mean, we’ve done our share of public service haven’t we, serving as willing guinea pigs for practices that may or may not make their way into the broader curriculum. If you think that certain things are good for the GEP then at least some of them are also good for all students. If it’s not something that’s stupid then I’m all for it.

Well I’ve tried to be as objective about this program that has taken up seven years of my life. One thing that I am that a lot of commentators are not: I am an insider. You cannot afford to ignore an insider’s perspective when it comes to these things. Nobody’s going to believe that I’m 100% objective about this thing, but from a lot of what’s been written out there, many people don’t have a bloody clue what they’re talking about, they’re just there to attack something that they think is offensive and exclusive. A lot of people have put a lot of hard work into this program, a lot of hardworking and idealistic people have taught me and I’m pretty grateful to them, even though in general I’m more of a teacher’s pest than a teacher’s pet. Whatever you want to salvage from this, you must let the good continue even as you reform the system. You just don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.


Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Vivian Balakrishnan and Steve Wozniak

The rest of this will be about this article, a speech given by Vivian Balakrishnan and maybe a reply to Steve Wozniak. But first a few vaguely related comments.

As we all know, 1995 was year zero of the Great Internet Revolution. It was the year that the internet – to use a phrase by the great Douglas Rushkoff – went viral. And ever since then, Singapore has tried to become a mini-silicon valley. But I think it has been less successful than it could have been.

I have friends who try to go down the motivational speaker path. I’ve had that phrase “if you think you can, you can” thrown at me. I’m actually a believer in a weaker version of that phrase, where whether you can, and whether you think you can are positively correlated. But taking the mind over matter to the extreme is just not my kind of thing. And it’s not like I don’t have a record of occasionally driving myself to achieve big feats. My mother was really into that motivational speaker thing – paradoxically she never really had much control over her own life. It put me off all this motivational speaker thing for the rest of my life. In a way I do understand the power of the subconscious, but maybe it was a matter of style. Being relentlessly upbeat and positive is totally not the way I do things.

An aside - you know I’ve grown to like America a little bit more this time around that I’m here because it’s not that relentlessly upbeat and positive like it was in the 90s. America was at its greatest during the Depression and WWII, when it was operating in “how the fuck are we going to get out of this fucking shit” mode. And it could be in a stage right now. Or not.

Anyway, there was a big jarring gap between how relentlessly negative my mother could be at times, and the motivational stuff she listened to. It was just too wacko for me. I am an eccentric person, not a crazy person. And there was this time when I got sent to motivational speaker summer camp, got a little disruptive in class, and ended up in a screaming match with the instructor. So this motivational Anthony Robbins type of stuff is really not for me. In fact I am reminded of a comment made by a friend who was perusing this blog. “Some other guy, I didn’t know it was his blog. Once I read sieteocho I knew it had to be you, because nobody does cynical and sarcastic like you do.” Which I of course took as a compliment. I’m a critical guy, both in the sense of being pejorative and in the sense of being analytical and objective about stuff.

The other thing for me is to go down the startup path. And I don’t actually know that I’d ever want to do that. But I might end up in the orbit of a startup or something. Right about now. Partially it was that – you know, I knew, or I knew of a few people – Rafflesians of course – who have actually made their mark on the computer industry or changed the world. Tan Min Liang of Razer, Andrew Ng of Coursera. It is notable that they chose not to do so in Singapore but instead went to the US to do it. I had a friend who decided to quit his job and move to the States. He wanted to found a game company. He didn’t manage to do so but instead ended up working for Google. We were both job hunting at the same time and we were talking to each other quite a bit and comparing notes.

Not all were Rafflesians, of course. Then there was a Malaysian I met, studied in Singapore, is a friend of Crazy Frog. He did a PhD for the same professor who “advised” me for my master’s project. (Putting advised in quotations because he didn’t do shit). And then he founded a company with my professor, (and my professor preferred running that company to advising his students). My uncle was made redundant when he was middle aged, and so he ended up starting a small company, and it managed to survive.

So we do know about people who change the world. In fact, this changing the world thing is significant. In a way the older pre-1965 generation changed Singapore, but individually, they didn’t “change the world”. The system called for them to be cogs in the system, and they did it very well. And consequently, when we were growing up, they also taught us to be cogs in the system as well, not fully realizing that for our generation, the price of entry is to actually change the world. Like change it yourself, instead of being a small part of a large something that changes the world.

So now anyway I will move on to the main point of this blog post which is to critique the speech that Vivian Balakrishnan has given in response to the infamous comment by Steve Wozniak that Singapore would never produce an Apple.

Vivian says that we were late to this game, we only started 30 years back. Which is sorda true. Hewlett Packard was started up in… Fairchild Electronics was started in … These two were the iconic enterprises that built Silicon Valley into what it is today, and the reason why Silicon Valley is called Silicon Valley not hi tech valley, not PC valley, not internet valley.

But it doesn’t explain a few things. It doesn’t explain why, during the early days of Creative Industries, they were more interested in making Sim Wong Hoo lim kopi rather than supporting him. It doesn’t explain why even today, Singapore’s prime strategy has been to lure multinationals to set up shop here, rather than have great home-grown enterprises.

It doesn’t explain why Chartered Semiconductors failed in its quest to become a great electronics manufacturing firm. Now, wafer fab is dominated by Foxconn, Asus, Acer – the Taiwanese and Chinese. It doesn’t explain why Finland produced a Nokia and Estonia produced a Skype, and Singapore has not achieved anything on that level. It doesn’t explain why South Korea has managed to grow Samsung into a world beating electronics firm and cleaned Nokia out of business. I get a sense that Singapore is still paying the price for years of not giving a fuck about your local industry.

It’s true, what the Googlers said. Singapore doesn’t really value its engineers. The problem is the cult of Lee Kuan Yew – not that he was a useless guy, far from it – but he promulgated a great man theory. There was a period of time when he was merely the first among equals, and he should have stayed that way. Anyway, Singapore is a place where all the good things are disproportionately attributed to the managers. And suddenly everybody wants to become a manager and nobody wants to be the engineer. So the govt can say all they want about getting more people to be engineers. But until they let go of the great man theory, everybody will want to be managers and imperial eunuchs.

And yet Singaporeans aren’t actually that great at being managers. For some reason our superior education system, which has trained our primary school students to be the best at science and maths in the world, hasn’t actually created great managers. We always hear people saying that the top positions at the MNCs, even at the regional headquarters in Singapore, need to be staffed by foreigners. I don’t know whether that’s true, or whether it’s their policy not to allow Singaporeans to staff regional headquarters in Singapore. Anyway – you know that’s the hazards of allowing your economy to be dominated by foreigners.

Thing is, I’ve heard the same being said about South Koreans in Samsung. Like, the top positions at Samsung aren’t actually manned by South Koreans. IT’s as though this system, which has made us the best students in the world – at least when it comes to testing – doesn’t do shit for us when it comes to teaching us how to manage. Perhaps not allowing students to think for themselves when they are young kids is really handicapping their mental development. It’s like you’re so busy pumping into the heads of your youngsters shit that doesn’t matter, that they don’t have the time and space to develop themselves in the areas that actually matter. It’s all well and good when you’re grappling with theoretical knowledge and critical thinking. But it’s actually not enough. Sometimes you have to plan your own life, instead of sticking to a timetable that has been drawn up for you by a curriculum planner sitting in an office far removed from you. Sometimes you have to be a little disobedient and question authority. Sometimes you have to not have life planned so nicely for you, and deal with the really really big questions early in life: what am I going to do with my life? Singaporean kids are, generally speaking, not allowed to answer this question by themselves. So while they are good material for entry level jobs, or middle management, they’re not going to excel in being industry leaders.

Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs were practical jokers who got into trouble for disrespecting authority when they were young. You need to build that spirit into people, or at least you need to learn to abstain from destroying that kind of spirit in youngsters.

Same for artists. It isn’t that easy for people to create a new vision. But the same remarks for engineers apply. Basically we are living in a society where anybody other than the top executives are accorded much respect, and that’s wrong.

More importantly, it’s about what Singapore doesn’t need. We don’t need your fucking managers. We don’t need managers who think they know better than the experts. We don’t need them to obstruct the efforts of people who might want to stretch out and go beyond the stated aims of their respective organisations. We don’t need poisonous atmospheres where people have nothing better to do with their lives than to protect their fucking turf all the time.

“The point I am trying to make is that an open, secure, comfortable, family-oriented, and welcoming place, is also a core part of our strategy.” Singapore has always excelled at building infrastructure – building the hardware part. But it’s the software that has often faltered. When I was in school I was made to read the classic sociological study of Silicon Valley, “Regional Advantage” by Anna-Lee Saxenian. After that I wondered whether Singapore was closer to Silicon Valley, or Route 128, which was supposed to be an industrial conglomerate built near MIT, to rival Silicon Valley, but never managed to produce the same level of achievement in the real world.

We lack a few components that were highlighted in the contrast. We lack openness, we lack tolerance for failure. Singapore, with its high cost of living might be intolerant of failure. This may not necessarily be a problem because high tech startup scenes have flourished in places like NYC and Chicago, with their hugely expensive real estates.

Another huge obstacle to there being a flourishing startup scene in Singapore is that we have a culture which actually actively celebrates rent seeking behavior. We love it when people are bankers, and they get rich from exploiting people for labour. We love it when they are rent seekers, who earn money by monopolizing access to certain resources. We’re not that respectful of people who earn money through the fruits of their labour. But as before – if that wasn’t a problem for NYC or Chicago, it shouldn’t be a problem for Singapore.

Also useful to consider are two sociological pillars of Singapore: the HDB and NS. NS may not be anything that you'd ever worry about if you were an employee of a stable business. You get automatic no-pay leave every year to serve your country. But if you were running a start-up, it is intensely disruptive. Losing a partner for two weeks at a time, when you're struggling to stay ahead of the competition is a bit like operating with one hand tied behind your back.

Another rule that's not very conducive towards a start-up scene is the requirement that you cannot apply for a HDB flat and get a subsidy if you're not married or intending to marry. On one hand, this has prevented the HDB from becoming the hell holes that public housing has turned into in other countries. On the other hand, if you've watched "Social Network" you'd know that start-ups are usually housed in garages and bachelor pads, the sort of living arrangement that this "subsidy only for married couples" was designed to prevent.

It’s a little too early to say whether Singapore will succeed or fail in becoming a hot tech start-up location. I’m not that personally well versed in how things operate in Singapore, since I have only worked in a larger organization which happens to use a lot of high tech. I certainly hope that our software part can improve.

Lastly I hope that Vivian Balakrishnan sticks to carrying out meaningful dialogue on the future direction of Singapore instead of making slurs about the gay agenda of certain other politicians.