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Rationalising the warning signs

Joseph Teo /

On April 12, Mr. Lim Boon Heng was asked whether there was groupthink in the PAP while introducing some new PAP candidates.  He hesitated and shed a few tears before declaring that there was no groupthink in the PAP. He then proceeded to cite the issue of the integrated resorts, something to which he initially objected, but eventually agreed.  He also cited the Workfare programme.

But what is groupthink anyway? And how would one assess if groupthink exists?  If you were a member of the group, would you have the capacity to assess whether or not your group has groupthink?  A quick search on Wikipedia yields the following:

Groupthink is a type of thought within a deeply cohesive in-group whose members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas.  Indicative symptoms include:

  1. Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group's assumptions.
  2. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
  3. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.

Of the three, we shall examine only item 1, rationalizing warnings and ignoring data that conflicts with the group’s assumptions.  As any trained researcher and scientist will tell you, in examining any hypothesis, one must aggressively seek evidence that counters that hypothesis, as well as seeking evidence in support of it.  Only then can we arrive at some objective (or as objective as humanly possible) assessment of reality.

In this respect, the PAP has ignored objective evidence, and used inadequately analysed statistics in support of at least three critical policies: housing, transport and the use of foreign workers.

Housing

In the area of housing, Mr. Mah Bow Tan most famously produced statistics on 7 April 2010 to demonstrate that HDB prices have not outstripped income growth.  In producing the statistics, he conveniently chose a base year of comparison starting from 1999.  Using this base year, the statistics seemed to support his claim.  However, subsequent analysis by Hazel Poa demonstrated that by choosing other base years, his claim would have been refuted by his own data.  HDB prices have far outstripped income growth.

Yet as recently as 15 April 2011, Mr. Mah Bow Tan continues to maintain that HDB prices are affordable and called WP’s policy proposition to peg the new prices of HDB homes to median incomes irresponsible.   This flies in the face of the PAP’s manifesto which contains affordable housing as one of its goals (p. 8).  Of course, what the PAP and Mr. Mah could mean is that since housing prices are affordable now, nothing needs to be done.  Instead, the Mr. Mah chooses to call alternative proposals “dangerous”[i].

Has the PAP ignored the warnings present in their own data?

Transport

In the area of transport, the high foreign worker influx has put strains on our public transport system.  Notably trains were overcrowded, and many Singaporeans complained about the need to have more trains, and trains arriving at stations more frequently.  This went on throughout most of 2009 and 2010.  However, in a Straits Times article on 27 June 2010, Ms. Saw Phiak Hwa, CEO of SMRT was quoted as saying that “Even at its most crowded, an SMRT train carries 1,400 passengers.  This is ‘not crush load’ where a train is carrying more passengers than the standing load it is designed to carry under normal circumstances.”

Rather than using the figures to comprehend that at 1,400 passengers per train, trains are in fact crowded, Ms. Saw instead compared it to a theoretical design maximum.  This is in the face of the feedback and many pictures and posted by netizens that showed crowded trains and crowded platforms.  The Minister for Transport was conspicuously absent from this discussion.

Would this inability to observe the world as it is, and an insistence on relying on theoretical maximums, be evidence of rationalising warning signs?

To its credit, the PAP government has since put in place plans to increase investment in this area.  However, the question remains: is it because of groupthink that the PAP government is reacting slowly to warning signs?  Had they listened to feedback and observed the evidence objectively, could they have initiated additional investment in our train systems sooner rather than later?  Should train systems (and possibly bus systems) be run by not-for-profit corporations, since the profit motive in SMRT would give them a strong disincentive to increase services, and thus costs?

Foreign Workers

In the area of foreign worker policies, the wilful disregard of data is far more egregious.  As early as 31 Jul 2003[ii], AP Tan Khee Giap of NTU highlighted that three in four new jobs were going to foreigners.  This was promptly countered by the then Minister of Manpower, Mr. Ng Eng Hen, who claimed that NTU did not have access to all the figures, and in fact 9 in 10 jobs went to Singaporeans.  After first claiming that employment data was classified[iii], they eventually published it in an occasional paper[iv] in order to justify the figure of 9 in 10.

However, the conclusion was subject to interval selection bias, similar to the one on HDB housing prices exposed by Hazel Poa.  Had the analyst writing the paper chosen to study a shorter interval, he would have found that fewer than 6 in 10 jobs went to locals.  In addition, the paper claimed that Singapore’s reliance on foreign manpower declined from 30% in 1997, to 28% in 2003. However, their own data showed that in the areas where 86%-88% of Singaporeans are employed, in services and manufacturing, our reliance on foreigners increased: from 18.7% to 20.3% in the services sector, and 34.6% to 38.4% in the manufacturing sector over that period.

All of this was highlighted to the Ministry of Manpower more than six years ago, but it was ignored. As a result, Singapore has been flooded with foreign workers in the last few years.  This has led to the multitude of infrastructure and social integration issues that we now face.

Conclusion

Is this then sufficient evidence of groupthink in the PAP government? Perhaps it merits further study. The evidence might suggest, however, that it has been exhibiting at least one of the symptoms - that of rationalising warnings that challenge their assumptions.

Even though their own data showed that their position was wrong, they ignored it, and only used it to justify their position rather than using it to understand the world in which we ordinary Singaporeans live. This failure to use statistics correctly, coupled with their failure to link cause and effect, and the failure to understand basic economics calls for a new way in which we should run our country.


[i] “WP’s policies dangerous: Mah”, The Straits Times, 21 April 2011.

[ii] “Three in four new jobs going to foreigners”, The Business Times, 31 Jul 2003. “NTU wrong: 9 in 10 new jobs went to Singaporeans”, The Straits Times, 1 Aug 2003.

[iii] “Ministry: Findings are totally flawed”, The Straits Times, 1 Aug 2003.

[iv] “Employment Trend and Structure”, 31 May 2004.