Thinking about Thinking

The subject of epistemology fascinates me tremendously. What is knowledge? How is knowledge constructed? What are the various branches within such a fascinating field of epistemology? How do humans think? How are humans supposed to think? To be fair, there are many approaches one might take while discussing this issue. Neuroscience, anthropology, behavioural science, linguistics, philosophy are but a few disciplines one might take into consideration. Given my remarkable lack of knowledge about the other scientific fields, I would like to ramble on about philosophy.

As the name ‘philosophy’ entails, it is about the study of fundamentals. I would like to believe that philosophy hones our thinking skills and challenges how we think. In my humble opinion, philosophy is most important for it teaches us about the existence of axioms. Axioms such as logic, existence, reason, ‘A is A’ prove to be the fundamentals of thought. If we thought hard and long enough, bodies of knowledge will emerge and various theories thus formulate a philosophical thought.

So, what is so important about understanding axioms of thought and theories? I do not know how everyone perceives it, but if we want to learn about how we think and see the world differently, theories are extremely crucial. In this case, it might be pertinent to note that theories do not solely refer to the usual boring stuff in textbooks or academia. Instead, I would refer to theories that allow us to glean insights about social trends and phenomenon, and shed light on how we view the world. For instance, such theories might be derived empirically from a critical analysis of present trends to present a particular perspective. Most of the issues and problems we face today, be it global or nation-wide, can be stripped down to the most basic political theories and economic laws.

Here, I would thus like to share my personal 4-step methodology to thought:

  1. The broad theory
  2. Understanding the mechanism
  3. Perspective
  4. Reconciliation

This methodology seems to be all bull-shit and full of fluff for now, but hear me out please. Try to visualise it in your mind: it is a inverted triangle with a broad base at the bottom. The first point is macro and increasingly less macro till it reaches the 3rd point where it is micro. The last and final point, we then take on a macro perspective.

I believe that this methodology is clearly not universal in its application, but in understanding various policies and contentions, it has proven to be rather useful. The example I would like to use is transport in Singapore, specifically the issue of Certificates-of-Entitlement (COEs).

  1. The Broad Theory

The broad theory of COE is simple; it illustrates the basic economic law of supply & demand. In Singapore’s context, car-ownership is extremely high. To put things in perspective, comparing Singapore to Hongkong, we have 4 times the car ownership rates of Hongkong which results in almost twice the road density. Given the significant demand for private ownership of cars and our inelastic supply of roads, there has to be artificial measures to restrict the supply of cars. Indeed, there are various measures we can explore: a more flexible mechanism for Electronic Road Pricing, the sale of parking spaces and so on. However, I believe that a full revolution of idea is highly unlikely. It is not so likely that there would be an entire overhaul of the COE system, given the limitations to broad-concept policy measures. It might be important to highlight any broad ideological inclinations too. In this case, COE could arguably to be more right-wing and puts into the spotlight a rich-poor dichotomy even. This would sidetrack us to a discussion on the merits of socialism or capitalism and it is not the focus here, but I will attempt to highlight it later.

2. Understanding the mechanism

As explained above, I believe that a complete change of the policy measure is highly unlikely. Thus, it is more important that civic discourse and reasoned debate focuses on the mechanism of the policy — understanding the specifics of how COEs work.

The operational basis of COEs is Auction Theory — applied game theory to study about the behaviour of people in auctions, the auction design and mechanism and perhaps even the optimal outcomes. Stripped to its bare essentials, COEs illustrate a basic form of Vickrey auctions (a closed second-price one). In Vickrey auctions, the winners of the bids actually pay the second-highest bid when they win. This might sound particularly peculiar, but William Vickrey has actually illustrated how the revenues earned are the comparative to first-price auction. However, in the case of COE, there is actually real-time information where bidders can seek to see the lowest bid for the COE whenever they want. This adds a new dimension to Vickrey auctions: is it entirely a sealed bid? Or perhaps, it is a mixture of closed and open auction? By introducing this measure, is the COE price artificially heightened? What are the ramifications of this measure? Currently, I do not understand enough to answer this completely, but my point is that we need to start to understand these mechanisms to arrive at a justified opinion. If we do not even have any inkling of how these specifics work, what we would debate about would simply be ‘Broad concept’ ideals. They are nice to the ears, but are not when constructing policy measures.

(There are many other areas of consideration: the various Categories of COEs, the renewal periods and more but it is not my concern here)

3. Perspective

Beyond all the rational economic sense and hard logic, this part illustrates the humane aspect of understanding the issue. By perspective, I mean to say personal experiences. There were 6,973,738,433 people living on this world, as measured in 2011. All these individuals, including you and me, see the world and every issue differently because our perspectives are shaped by our experiences. None of us do share the same experience or depth of emotion when going through a similar experience. I believe arguments backed by strong logic and economic thought are powerful. Yet, when one can augment them with his/her personal experience, the whole argument is transformed. Beneath all the rhetoric, it is about emotions and humanity. It is about how a person feels and perceives, and this is a very very strong point. Relating back to the issue of COE, we can thus identify each individual’s struggle and perspective towards the problem. A divorced parent of 3 could require her own car so badly, to fetch her children to school and senile parents for monthly check-ups. A poor university undergraduate who has slogged his whole life might want some material comforts in exchange for his hard work. In this case, is the car a want or a need? Is the COE really supposed to be an entitlement? How do you see the issue? What are the challenges you face when acquiring a COE? Might there be other challenges, apart from the sole monetary barrier? There is no end to this debate, for it is clearly about personal experiences and perspective.

4. Reconciliation

This final point seeks to reconcile the 3rd point about perspectives with broader ideals, and attempts to relate the issue within a more detailed web of other challenges in society. Simply because the COE system allocates the rewards on a monetary basis, it would put into clearer focus the issue of income inequality. The present system does not worsen income inequality (simply because owning a car does not make you richer, it makes you poorer comparatively in literal monetary terms). Instead, it is about the perception of income inequality to the typical Singaporean and all the broader ramifications that accompany. It does illustrate, to a certain extent, dichotomy between the rich and poor in Singapore. The rich seek further to isolate themselves from the poor, erecting barriers — both literal and figurative, in the process unknowingly. It does not help at all that while the typical Singaporean is sandwiched like canned tuna in the train during peak hours, the comparatively richer gets to enjoy a ride back in his private transport (amidst any possible jams).

This thus brings into question the challenge of creating a Singaporean core. Here, I would like to reference an excerpt from a good article:

“At the point of Singapore’s independence, societal group feeling was largely based on identification to an individual’s ethnic group. This is common in most melting pot societies, with ethnicity — and religion — the easiest calling cards for unity. Although the government, from the point of independence, has attempted to develop a Singaporean identity that goes beyond ethnicity, it has also promulgated the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) model. The CMIO model highlights ethnic differences and reminds Singaporeans that they belong to an ethnicity, albeit defined by the government. The CMIO model is perhaps an admission that while a Singaporean “group feeling” beyond ethnicities is ideal, the reality of an immigrant society is that ethnicity will always be the boundary that people find their first source of identification to. Whether the CMIO model is the mean to the ideal is debatable, but for the time being Singapore is still not a society blind to ethnic differences.”

Notably, what do Singaporeans identify with now? Beyond all the rhetoric about national identity, our shared immigrant nature, our Singaporean food, does ethnicity still hold as a model of identity? Given the dichotomy and differences within ethnic groups themselves, what do we actually identify with? What is being Singaporean all about? As clique as it sounds, there is no right answer. Or perhaps, having no right answer is the right option.

As detailed above, an even broader question would be politics at large. Essentially, perhaps in a more idealistic and utopian fashion, politics is about enshrining ideals, rhetoric and values. Possibly, it might even be great oratory speeches or inspirational figures that aim to galvanise and rejuvenate the whole nation into activity. In a more down-to-earth manner, it is about identifying with the struggles of each and every voter. What about the auntie who sells tissue paper at 3 for 1 dollar? The young child who is struggling with his tuition work, piano, wushu, drawing, violin lessons and PSLE? How about the mother of 3 who constantly worries about the rising prices of milk powder, diaper and university fees? What are their stories and struggles? Back to basics, politics is about instilling in them confidence of a better future, by first capturing their heart and soul.

This is the part where the whole note should be summarised, but I shant do so. In any case, I believe that we do live in an exciting age now. Quality information is abundant and relatively free and there are so many platforms for us to engage in civic discourse. Read up, synthesize information and discuss.

Before we think about what we think, perhaps it is more important we think about how we think.