Thursday, March 20, 2014

Government Intervention Ensures Freedom And Equality

I reject Alan Ng Zhi Yang’s suggestion that the government should be less involved in the market. (“In Defence Of The Free Market” last Wednesday) I believe that there is a need for the government to be judiciously involved in the market.

The writer argued that it would be incorrect to attribute the cause of the 2008 financial crisis to the market alone because the detrimental decisions made by mortgage agencies such as Freddie Mac and Fanny May, were dictated “by law to meet a quota of home loans.” It is difficult to isolate the responsibility of the government in the financial crisis given the innumerable factors at play. However, even if government intervention in the hosing markets was the primary cause of the financial crisis, it would erroneous to conclude that governments should refrain from regulating the markets. 
Some government intervention has been widely recognised to be beneficial to the market. One example would be capital requirements for banks. These regulations protect depositors by ensuring the ability of banks to operate under stress conditions. While, banks could have independently met capital requirements, there would have been no guarantee that all banks would have done so. Given that no company is in isolation, the reckless behaviour of one could have serious implication on others. Hence, through government regulations it would be possible to engender a safe climate suitable for greater economic cooperation. 

In addition, the writer contended that inequality isn’t a serious problem in the free market. He reasoned that the free market has broadly improved material standards and that inequality was higher in societies that had less “free” markets. The problem of income inequality can’t be just brushed aside. If left unmitigated, different economic classes could calcify into more insulated social groupings undermining solidarity. 

Also, the set of laws- from tax rates to property rights- in a modern state are coercive in nature and affect one’s economic condition significantly. If individual autonomy is valued then it follows that these laws must lead to equitable outcomes even for the least-well-off for them to consent to it. Hence, the government is morally obligated to intervene to ensure that a level of inequality beneficial for the least well off ,as per John Rawls' “Difference Principle”. 

It is not a society which places freedom above equality which achieves both as Milton Friedman suggested. Rather it is a society which sees both these goals as intrinsically valuable and inextricably linked, with prudent government market intervention which achieves both. 

*An edited version of this article was published in The Strait Times on 24th March 2014. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Massive Open Online Courses- A Massive Hype ?

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are open courses disseminated freely via the Internet that have been hailed as a game-changer in the education landscape. The New York Times dubbed 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC.” Many reputable universities have jumped on board to make their courses freely available on the Internet.

But a deeper inspection reveals a less rosy picture. According to University of Pennsylvania researchers, just about four percent of participants completed the courses they registered for, and only about half of them watched a single lecture.

The keenness of universities to be a part of this online learning revolution has not been matched by their willingness to give credit for those who complete their courses. Concerns about maintaining academic standards have made many universities cautious to grant credit. Some universities, such as the University of Maryland and the University of Central Lancashire, have started offering credit for MOOCs, but with a caveat: Credit is given only for courses that are developed by the university itself, and not by any other university. Fears of diluting their reputation might hold back more prestigious universities from following suit.

These limitations might detract the present appeal of MOOCs, but not their underlying potential. With continuous education becoming a necessity and the ballooning cost of education a key concern, MOOCs might prove to be effective solutions.

 MOOCS’ PROMISE AND POTENTIAL

The notion that one can be productive for a lifetime after learning for a concentrated period of school time is an anachronism. While a certain level of mastery is necessary to commence work, continuous learning has become imperative.

With learning being more spread out in one’s lifetime, the barriers to entry into educational institutions need be lowered — both in terms of time and financial commitments — for them to stay relevant. MOOCs therefore have become useful. With MOOCs, participants have greater access to knowledge with the convenience of dictating pace, time and venue. The cost of education is also significantly lowered. In May 2013, Georgia Tech announced plans for a MOOC master’s in Computer Science. Its cost was 7,000 USD, far lower than the average cost of 40,000 USD at a regular higher educational institution.

MOOCs are potent levellers of opportunity too. With MOOCs, one’s educational experience would not be limited to the choices that one had in school. There would be more avenues to pursue one’s intellectual passions.

However, there exists a chasm between the sobering present state of MOOCs and the exciting potential they hold. What steps can be taken to realize their potential?

THE NEXT STEP

There are two distinct problems which need to be tackled to unlock the potential of MOOCs. The first is of accreditation. The second is of low completion of courses.

Accrediting students attending MOOCs independently has to be an important priority. It serves as a quality appraisal of student and further incentivizes students to take such courses.

But given concerns about dilution of academic standards and reputation, universities are unlikely to vouch for the abilities of someone who has never set foot on their campuses. Even if they do, other universities might not recognize their accreditation.

A more practical solution would be to have a third-party international institution, like the College Board, administering proctored tests to certify MOOCs students. Currently, the College Board administers Advanced Placement exams to measure students’ understanding in various core subjects. Most colleges recognize these qualifications. Differentiating itself from the current model, this institution could test a wider range of course-specific content over a longer time framework. It could offer feedback to students, so the assessment would be another constructive step in the process and not just the culmination of learning.

Low active participation in these MOOCs is another problem that needs to be addressed. Inducing social pressure on learners could prove useful in this regard. In MOOCs, learning is almost always solitary. This is in sharp contrast to in-school learning, where learning has a social dimension to it. There is a social pressure to turn up to school, participate actively and turn in work.

To induce social pressure, participants could be broken up into different groups upon registration, and their performance could be shared along intragroup and intergroup lines. Greater knowledge of others’ performance might spur participants on to complete their work. Given that many participants join MOOCs for solely previewing the material, they could be put into these groups only upon confirmed interest to complete them. Additionally, if these groups clustered by geographic location, they would facilitate meetups to discuss course material.

Conclusion

Though MOOCs are a recent phenomenon, distance learning has been established for a long time. From the first textbooks that shifted learning from the teacher to students to correspondence courses offered in the 19th century and now with MOOCs, distance learning has become an increasingly compelling an option because it can now closely mimic traditional learning.

Arne Duncan, U.S. America’s Secretary of Education, stated that MOOCs have “quickly become one of the most significant catalysts of innovation in higher education.” MOOCs do have incredible potential; however, there’s a long way to go for the present-day hype to be justified.

*This piece was published on The Gazelle, New York University Abu Dhabi's weekly publication.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Moral Switch

Our moral beliefs are rarely cast in stone. We often find ourselves professing a belief at one point, only to later repudiate it. New ideas and experiences can initiate shifts in our beliefs. The period of reconstructing our moral edifice — often central to our being — can be distressing and tumultuous.
I had my own dramatic about-turn from being a meat-desiring omnivore to a meat-desisting herbivore nearly 8 years back.
It was by chance, when I glanced upon an old book on yoga and spirituality during my 2006 summer holiday. Interested to learn more, I flipped through the pages. Right smack in the middle, there was a small portion advocating vegetarianism. Compared to the other humanly impossible asanas featured, the case presented was easier to follow: Eating meat requires the killing of animals. The killing of  animals inflicts pain on them. Therefore, don’t consume meat.
The case seemed lucid. I had heard of similar appeals through my Hindu faith. But I found myself nodding my head in agreement more than ever. Somehow, I felt compelled to make the switch. In the days that followed, I consistently rejected meat dishes. Taken aback by the precipitous change, my family members bombarded me with questions.
How could I reconcile the fact that plants might be sentient beings too? Would I consider myself culpable for accidentally consuming meat?  Would I discard my leather shoes?
My responses to their mostly legitimate questions were barely cogent. They duly poked holes in my polemics. To be honest, I didn’t know exactly what I believed in. I aggressively retaliated. I was not in a mood of dispassionate reflection. I felt I was right and I had to show it.
I chastised my family members for consuming meat. I played them PETA videos with graphic slaughter scenes. I even scrupulously avoided products which were remotely of animal origin.
It was insecurity that drove me to over-correct. But the nearly three-year process affirmed my new identity as a vegetarian. Chances of me slipping back to my omnivorous days were over. The hard questions thrown at me and the glaring contradictions in my beliefs were still hounding me, but I finally felt secure in tackling them.
Slowly, my zeal was softened by pragmatic reflection. I realised that living without causing suffering to animals was impossible. Much of the pharmaceutical drugs we use are a product of animal research. Even temples in India, which are bastions of vegetarianism,  horses, elephants and cows are employed for processions.Though people can be presented with facts and arguments, to vilify their position is mistaken and counter-productive.
A quote from Victor Hugo summed up my position: “To commit the least possible sin is the law for man. To live without sin is the dream of an angel.” To back-track and recalibrate was certainly embarrassing. But it was a worthwhile exchange: For short-lived humiliation, I earned back longer-lasting credibility amongst my family members.
The logic behind moral positions is far from impeccable. David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, observed a subtle jump from contemplation on what “Is” to moral commands on what “Ought” to be. For example, there is a logical gap from asserting that killing animals harms them to suggesting that therefore we ought not to harm them.  Other conclusions could have followed too.  For Hume, morality was shaped by sentiments.
Dissecting my own pivot to vegetarianism affirmed that it is emotions which bridge the realm of amoral premises and moral conclusions. But emotions are never consistent. Subjecting one’s moral position to the vagaries of emotion is untenable because our moral code requires some form of rigidity to be meaningful in guiding us. We need to anchor ourselves in the new position. Hence, we invest effort to solidify our new stance, building inertia to prevent a slide backward. It is during this process that we tend to over-correct. We plunge too deep, traverse too far in a bid to distance ourselves from the position we originally held.
This is not to say that our mental faculties have no role in shaping our moral code.  Emotions are fluid, but they require thought — however incomplete — to be its conduit. And it is through reflection that we are able to weed out contradictions and ensure views held are practical.
Emerson remarked that, “All progress is an unfolding … you have first an instinct, then an opinion, then … knowledge”. Moral shifts typically fit the template too. But often in the eagerness to detach our current selves from the previous selves, there’s a tendency to go into over-drive, parading fleeting moral impulses as the absolute truths. This turns half-baked beliefs into charred roast and limits space to feel our way forward. It is unlikely the process of over-correction can be overcome completely. It is necessary for the fledgling morality identity to take root. But being aware that one’s moral beliefs are fallible and committing to ceaselessly chip and chisel one’s moral edifice can certainly make for a less turbulent and more edifying journey.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Speak up for democracy. Speak out against "Anonymous".


HACKER group Anonymous has posted an online video threatening to undermine key online infrastructure if the Government does not roll back its website licensing framework

I am puzzled by its use of coercion to pursue "democracy". Its violent means run counter to its goal of a more democratic Singapore.

It is robust, persuasive public discourse that is an essential element of a democratic society. Ideas are accepted because people are persuaded by them and not because they are threatened to believe them.
There is no lack of peaceful and democratic means for Anonymous to push its case. Hacking websites and disrupting public services are not ways to achieve change in a democratic society.

The group ought to discard its militant means, take away its cloak of anonymity and make its case honestly and fearlessly.

Ultimately, our democratic process cannot and should not be short-circuited. Anonymous' approach of coercion should roundly be rejected by society.Let's speak up for democracy. Let's speak out against "Anonymous".

*This article was published in The Strait Times on 2nd November. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Address Poverty, Not The Shadow of Poverty : Why Defining A Poverty Line Is Ineffective ?


MR TIMOTHY Lim Wei Chong argues that setting a poverty line will increase awareness of income inequality and spur action from the state and community ("Poverty line sets clear benchmark for all"; 25th October).But he also concedes that defining the poverty line will "inevitably result in groups on the margins losing out".

I believe the Government's current approach of addressing various facets of poverty - deprivation along the lines of education and health care - is more effective. In considering this issue, it is important to not conflate measuring poverty and defining the poverty line.
Poverty measurement entails objectively looking at how Singaporeans fare on various indicators.Data on the education levels and wages of Singaporeans are examples. Such measurements will enable the public to better understand the problem of poverty in Singapore. A poverty line is unnecessary.
When a poverty line is defined, a target is set simply based on an indicator taken to be more important.A case in point is Hong Kong's poverty line, which is pegged at half of the median wage.

Certainly, there are other factors which influence whether citizens are deprived of access to basic necessities, yet they are excluded, leading to a distorted view of poverty.
When the poverty line is fixed, it is likely that the state and public will be fixated on it.

Certainly, setting targets to alleviate poverty is important, but I believe it is more effective to set specific goals based on a broad range of metrics rather than pursue a general goal.

This is the Government's current approach. It is pushing for higher wages for low-wage workers, strengthening the social safety net and ensuring that education and health care are available to all. Such a multi-pronged approach will yield better results.

Perhaps the problem of poverty and the progress made in resolving it are less obvious due to the fragmented approach in addressing it.To raise public awareness, the Government could perhaps release a comprehensive report regularly on the state of the underprivileged, citing key indicators such as wages, access to education and affordability of essential goods.

Becoming more aware of any problem is an important first step.Specifying the poverty line gives one the illusion of grasping and addressing the complex problem.

It is the nuanced measurement of the poverty, combined with specific targets and precise action, which will be most effective in reducing it.

We need to address poverty, not the shadow of poverty. 

*This is my article that The Strait Times published on 26th October 2013.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Government Support Needed To "Electrify" Singapore

I FOUND Professor Kishore Mahbubani's vision of a Singapore with an all-electric fleet of vehicles exciting, but disagree with his suggestion that a citizen-led initiative is the best way to realise the vision 

Government intervention can smoothen and encourage the switch from petroleum-based fuels to electricity for vehicles - a seismic change that necessitates coordination between numerous industry players. There needs to be sufficient charging stations, dealers and skilled technicians catering to these vehicles.
To ask citizens to push for this initiative is unrealistic. While we could help by independently adopting this mode of transport and convincing others to do so, the ripple effect would be insufficient to advance the desired changes.

Prof Mahbubani cited the example of Tesla Motors chief executive Elon Musk to demonstrate an individual citizen's power.

But Mr Musk was far from being a sole agent of change; he was supported by the United States government, which granted a loan of US$465 million (S$577 million) to Tesla under the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing programme.

Given our Government's regulatory powers, its position on electric cars will greatly influence how developments unfold.

Ultimately, the dichotomy between citizen- and Government-led initiatives is false. Much of today's technology is a product of the Government's and private sector's efforts. A case in point is the Internet, which emerged through heavy government involvement. But its potential was maximised through the efforts of private citizens, who adapted it to suit market demands.

Citizens can certainly unite to pursue the vision of "electrifying" Singapore, but the Government's involvement is crucial to make this dream a reality.

*This article was published on The Strait Times' Online Forum on 19th October 2013. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

MOE's Proposed Online Learning Portal Should Go Further

Image courtesy of Ddpavumba / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


EDUCATION Minister Heng Swee Keat recently laid out several key initiatives, one of which was an online learning portal.
While this will bring great benefits and help schools "level up", the Education Ministry could consider putting comprehensive material covering the syllabus requirements - and not just enrichment material - on the portal.
This would ease students' concerns over whether they have covered the required content and reduce their dependence on tuition.
Comprehensive content readily available on the portal will facilitate teachers as they empower students to pick up these facts independently rather than imparting them using classroom time.  The freed up classroom time be used for engaging methods of learning such as group-based discussions and experiential learning experiences which solidify the student's scaffold of knowledge. 
MOE could even consider providing these online lessons free for students from around the world. Currently, Massive Open Online Courses are proliferating on the net. But often they are unstructured and pegged at the tertiary level. MOE’s online portal- housing content from primary to secondary school education in one portal- could plug in the gap. In this process, Singapore’s education system would be “exported” to the world, boosting Singapore’s soft power.
MOE’s proposed idea to provide enrichment material to all Singapore students is a positive move. But given the potential benefits of providing the entire syllabus on the portal, the idea shouldn’t go unconsidered.

 *An edited version of this article was published on The Strait Times' Youth Forum on 9th October 2013.