Excellence: A Point of View

October 18, 2016

Excellence: A Point of View

COMMENT: Everyone in Malaysia talks about the pursuit of excellence and some pretend to know what it means, especially  our mediocre politicians in power and men in the public service who are tasked to implement our national education policy and Blue Ocean Strategy.

Image result for malaysia education blueprint 2015 higher education

We employ snake oil consultants  and experts to write glossy blueprints and reports at horrendous cost to taxpayers but fail to execute them.  We create institutions like Pemandu to promote Najib’s deformation agenda, and Permata for bright kids, while our Chief Secretary to the Government makes himself advocate-in-chief of the Blue Ocean Strategy concept to suck up to Najib Razak. In reality, we do not know what excellence is, what it takes and how to get there.

Image result for blue ocean strategy malaysia

Excellence is a simple idea if we are serious about it. All we need to do is change our attitude. Talk is cheap. Stop it and start taking action.

Malaysia has an attitude problem and it is our greatest obstacle to our future as a people and a nation. Where to begin? It has to be first fixing our education system to become a nation of high achievers and second we must stop playing politics  with the education of our future generation. But we are not doing that because UMNO politicians are afraid of  smart and pushy Malays in particular.

I wish to share with you A C Grayling’s thoughts on Excellence. This philosopher is endowed with the ability to communicate with ordinary men and women in clear and concise language. Read his article and share your comments.–Din Merican

Grayling on Excellence

When Matthew Arnold wrote Culture and Anarchy over a hundred years ago, he described the pursuit of excellence in the fostering of culture as “getting to know, on all matters that most concern us. the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.”

Arnold was an inspector of schools, and a champion of higher education, and he believed in excellence in education as the way not only to staff the economy but to produce an enculturated society which would live up to the ideal in Aristotle’s noble dictum about the educated use of our leisure.

Image result for AC Grayling with undergraduates

From China to France, every country that is or aspires to be developed has an elite educational stratum, aimed at taking the most gifted students and giving them the best intellectual training possible. In China this is done at an early age, with special schools for the brightest children. In France the system of Hautes Ecoles–superior universities, entry to which is fiercely competitive–creams off the outstanding minds and subjects them to a rigorous discipline. The aim in all cases is to enhance the best in order to gain the highest quality in science, engineering, law, national administration, medicine and the arts.

Few could object to the rationale behind this, save those for whom universal mediocrity is a  price worth paying for social equality (or in the case of Malaysia where mediocrity is a means of political control, added by Din Merican). But there is the danger to which meritocratic means to the cultivation of excellence – or what should be solely such – fall prey. It is if, after the establishment of the means, merit by itself ceases to be enough, and money and influence become additional criteria. In many, perhaps most, countries in the world, money and influence are the determiners of social advancement, even where meritocratic criteria still apply too: in America money is needed to gain social advantages, in China it helps to be a Party member.

The rich and the well connected are not the kind of elite an  education system ought to be fostering. It is easy for popular newspapers and populist politicians to make pejorative use of the term ‘elite’ to connote these elites of injustice; but they are just as quick to complain if doctors, teachers, or sportsmen playing for national sides fail our highest expectations- if, in short, they are not elite after all, in the proper sense of the term.

Although there are few if any true democracies in the world– most dispensations claiming that name are elective oligarchies–the democratic spirit nevertheless invests Western life, for good and ill both. The good resides in the pressure to treat everyone fairly, the ill resides in the pressure to make everyone alike. The latter is a levelling tendency, a downward thrust, which dislikes excellence because it raises mountains where the negative-democratic spirit wishes to see only plains.

But democracy should not aim to reduce people and their achievements to a common denominator; it should aim to raise them, ambitiously and dramatically, as close as possible to an ideal. And that means, among other things, having institutions, especially of learning, which are the best and most demanding of their kind.

The Meaning of Things–Applying Philosophy to Life by AC Grayling (London: Weidenfeld &Nicolson, 2001) pp.160-161

NY Times Sunday Book Review: Anthony Doerr Reviews a New Book on Time Travel

October 3, 2016

NY Times Sunday Book Review: Anthony Doerr Reviews a New Book on Time Travel

 I was 10 years old when my brother handed me Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” with the endorsement that it was “probably the raddest story ever.” The action opens in 2055, and the United States has just elected a moderate presidential candidate named Keith over a strongman named Deutscher, “an anti-everything man for you, a militarist, Antichrist, anti-human, anti-intellectual.”

In the story a hubristic big-game hunter named Eckels pays Time Safari Inc. $10,000 to ride a time machine 60 million years back in time to shoot a rather vividly rendered T. rex. But there’s a Red Riding Hood-style catch: Eckels must stay on “the Path,” an antigravity sidewalk Time Safari Inc. has ­suspended over the jungle floor.

Why? Because, the lead hunter explains, “the stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our Earth and destinies down through Time, to their very foundations.”

Eckels, of course, stumbles off the Path and squashes a butterfly, “a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time.” When the hunting party gets back to the future, guess who the president-elect is? “Not that fool weakling Keith,” declares the desk jockey at Time Safari Inc. “We got an iron man now, a man with guts!”

Image result for Anthony Doerr

(All of which makes one worry that a dino-hunter from 2055 has recently been mucking around in the underbrush of the Mesozoic.)

At age 10, I was gripped by Bradbury’s dramatization. I read the story a half-dozen times, then stepped gingerly through the yard, wondering if every ant I squashed spelled doom for civilization in 3924.

As I grew, so did the number of time travel stories I devoured. I watched Superman spin the Earth backward; I watched John Connor send a young soldier (who was somehow also his dad?) back in time to protect his mom from a Terminator; I watched Keanu Reeves offer Genghis Khan a Twinkie in Bill and Ted’s (not so) Excellent Adventure. Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” made me long to wake in an era when my Casio wristwatch would strike folks as sorcery, and Martin Amis’s “Time’s Arrow” wrecked my assumption that all narratives had to proceed from Then to More-­Recently-Than-Then. Indeed, as a world culture, we have indulged in so many time travel stories that, in 2011, ­China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television officially denounced them, charging that they “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.”

That’s enough to start any storyteller building her time machine. Enter James Gleick’s “Time Travel: A History.”

Bad news first: Though the title might suggest otherwise, this is not a book sent through a wormhole from the future to detail the glorious evolution of time ­travel. Darn it. Gleick even goes so far as to declare that literal time travel, as imagined and reimagined by writers over the decades, “does not exist. It cannot.”

The good news? “Time Travel,” like all of Gleick’s work, is a fascinating mash-up of philosophy, literary criticism, physics and cultural observation. It’s witty (“Regret is the time traveler’s energy bar”), pithy (“What is time? Things change, and time is how we keep track”) and regularly manages to twist its reader’s mind into those Gordian knots I so loved as a boy.

Image result for hg wells quotes

“Time Travel” begins at what Gleick believes is the beginning, H.G. Wells’s 1895 “The Time Machine.” “When Wells in his lamp-lit room imagined a time machine,” Gleick argues, “he also invented a new mode of thought.” Western science was undergoing a sea change at the same time, of course: Lyell and Darwin had exploded older conceptions of the age of the Earth, locomotives and telegraphs were transforming space, and Einstein was about to punch a major hole in Newton’s theory of absolute time. Meanwhile, in literature, Marcel Proust was using memory to complicate more straightforward storytelling, and it wouldn’t be long before modernists like Woolf and Joyce were compressing, dilating, and folding time in half.

James Gleick

But according to Gleick, Wells was the first to marry the words “time” and “travel,” and in doing so, “The Time Machine” initiated a kind of butterfly effect, the novel fluttering with each passing decade through the souls of more and more storytellers, who in turn influenced more and more of their successors, forking from Robert Heinlein to Jorge Luis ­Borges to Isaac Asimov to William Gibson to Woody Allen to Kate Atkinson to Charles Yu, until, to use Bradbury’s metaphor, the gigantic dominoes fell. Nowadays, Gleick writes, “Time travel is in the pop songs, the TV commercials, the wallpaper. From morning to night, children’s cartoons and adult fantasies invent and reinvent time machines, gates, doorways and windows, not to mention time ships and special closets, DeLoreans and police boxes.”

It’s also in the science. Gleick is a polymathic thinker who can quote from David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate thesis as readily as from Kurt Gödel or Lord Kelvin, and like many of the storytellers he thumbnails, he employs time travel to initiate engrossing discussions of causation, fatalism, predestination and even consciousness itself. He includes a humorously derisive chapter on people who bury time capsules (“If time capsulists are enacting reverse archaeology, they are also engaging in reverse nostalgia”), he tackles cyberspace (“Every hyperlink is a time gate”), and throughout the book he displays an acute and playful sensitivity to how quickly language gets slippery when we talk about time. Why, for example, do English speakers say the future lies ahead and the past lies behind, while Mandarin speakers say future events are below and earlier events are above?

“If you say,” he writes, “that an activity wastes time, implying a substance in finite supply, and then you say that it fills time, implying a sort of container, have you contradicted yourself?”

Image result for hg wells quotes

(A footnote here: Gleick is a brilliant footnoter; never more than in this book have I been reminded of how footnotes can function as breaks in the time of a writer’s sentences, wormholes in the space-time of a ­paragraph.)

As in his 2011 exploration of information theory, “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood,” Gleick’s greatest skill in “Time Travel” is to synthesize: He sees practice in theory, literature in science, ­Augustine in Rivka Galchen. If this new book can sometimes feel like a mind-smashing catalog of literary and filmic references to time ­travel, it’s also a wonderful reminder that the most potent time-traveling technology we have is also the oldest technology we have: storytelling.

Read a verse of Homer and you can walk the walls of Troy alongside Hector; fall into a paragraph by Fitzgerald and your Now entangles with Gatsby’s Now; open a 1953 book by Bradbury and go hunting T. rexes with Eckels. Gleick’s epigraph to his penultimate chapter comes from Ursula Le Guin: “Story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time,” and she’s right, of course. The shelves of every library in the world brim with time machines. Step into one, and off you go.

New Mindset required to uplift varsity standards

September 24, 2016

New Mindset required to uplift varsity standards, says my  Academic Friend, Dr. James Gomez@Bangkok University, Thailand

by Pratch Rujivanarom
The Nation


Image result for Professor James Gomez
Bangkok University’s Dr. James Gomez
ACADEMICS have highlighted the challenges that higher education institutions within the region face in trying to meet international standards, including syllabus problems, system diversity, a lack of international staff and limited government support.

With the ASEAN Economic Community officially set up this year, improving the quality of education remains one of the community’s main goals.  This topic was the focus of a forum titled “Can Asean be a Global Higher Education Destination?” at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand recently.

Prof James Gomez from Bangkok University said many universities in ASEAN were restructuring to become international institutions to improve the quality of education and, more importantly, rebrand themselves to attract more students.

“Many university administrators chose internationalisation for increasing the university brand value, because it ensures the financial viability of the institutions by attracting more students,” Gomez said.

However, he said most universities usually directly translated syllabuses from the national language into English, so the curricula were not truly internationalised. He said another issue was that syllabuses were usually drafted by nationals, which resulted in a focus on issues particular to the home country instead of a truly international emphasis.

“From my experience in the field, most of the international university staff typically work in the language institutions or international colleges of the universities and are not stationed at the main faculties or executive positions that can guide the university’s policy,” he said.

Assoc Prof Nantana Gajaseni, Executive Director of the ASEAN University Network, said there was great diversity and disparity between educational systems in ASEAN states, so it was hard to harmonise a standardised system within the region.

‘Diversity makes credit transfers hard’

“The major challenge of internationalisation of higher education in Asean is the system diversity and quality recognition of the education. This disparity is making student and credit transfers among [ASEAN countries] and beyond the region hard,” Nantana said.

Gomez added that there was a lack of international staff in the region because of low salaries, the lack of research grants and government regulatory barriers. “There is the income gap between the rich countries in the region, such as Singapore and Malaysia, and the rest of the region. This income gap makes fewer international staff choose to work in these [lower-income] countries,” he said.

“Another barrier is the limitation of research grants. For instance, Malaysia limits applicants for its grants to Malaysian citizens only. Furthermore, consideration for research scholarships usually focuses on the national perspective only and it is hard for the researchers to apply for funds to study the international perspectives.”

Wesley Teter, UNESCO senior consultant for the Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, related his experiences teaching in China, where government regulations could be a barrier for international staff. In his case, strict information restrictions imposed by the Chinese government made academic research more difficult, reducing the appeal for international researchers.

Nantana said another big problem for internationalisation was budgetary. She said high-income countries in the region such as Singapore and Brunei had an easier time encouraging the internationalisation of their universities, but for poorer countries the task was difficult.

“There are many problems from shortages of budgets in low-income countries such as the lack of infrastructure. Even in Thailand, the state has just let public universities rely on themselves to find revenue and does not grant governmental support anymore,” she said.

“However in my view, an abundant budget does not ensure quality education and successful internationalisation … I believe that the mindsets of university administrators and professors need to change as well to suit global education.”

Singapore: Countdown to next PM picks up speed

September 5, 2016

Singapore: Countdown to next PM picks up speed

Young ministers tipped for the top job have shorter ‘runway’, with less time than previous PMs to earn their stripes

by Charissa Yong


Image result for Who will lead Singapore next? THe Straits Times

Clockwise from top left: Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Minister in the Prime Minister‘s Office Chan Chun Sing, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced his new Cabinet line-up soon after last September’s general election, he made it clear that planning for leadership succession was a key priority.

Younger ministers and new office-holders were given a range of responsibilities to expose them to new areas of work.

The key assignments given to Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat – such as chairing the Committee on the Future Economy – led some observers to conclude he was the clear frontrunner among the fourth-generation leadership.

So when Mr Heng suffered a stroke during a Cabinet meeting in May, undergoing emergency surgery the same day, many were worried that Singapore’s leadership succession plans might be disrupted.

Then, two Sundays ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong caused hearts to pound when three hours into his televised National Day Rally speech – moments before he was to announce a recovered Mr Heng’s return to Cabinet – he faltered on stage and had to take a break. PM Lee rested for about an hour before returning to complete his address.

For this reason, Singaporeans should realise how important it is to have “sufficient breadth and depth in the Cabinet”.

It was something PM Lee himself addressed after returning to the podium to complete his speech on the night of Aug 21. “We’ve now got the core team for the next generation in Cabinet. But ministers or not, all of us are mortal.

“Nothing that has happened has changed my timetable, or my resolve to press on with succession,” he said, citing Chinese proverb sui yue bu liu ren, which means “time waits for no man”.

With succession now more urgent than ever, Insight looks at the issues and options.

 The plane is not just on the runway, it is picking up speed and getting ready for lift-off. That is the stage Singapore’s fourth-generation political leaders are at now.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has repeatedly said that he plans to step down some time after the next general election, which must be held by January  15, 2021. This means that the next generation of leaders is already in its last full term in office, after which one among them will have to assume the position of Prime Minister.

It was barely a year ago at the general election that PM Lee’s smiling face was prominent on campaign posters for the People’s Action Party (PAP) across the island. He is the party’s Secretary-General.

But in the time since then, there have been two health scares this year – the Prime Minister taking ill during his National Day Rally speech, although he recovered and returned after an hour to complete it; and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat having a stroke in May, from which he has since recovered.

Both incidents have put the spotlight on succession. But to think that this is the chosen young guns’ last term under the long and steady leadership of PM Lee, and that one of them is likely to assume his mantle, heightens how quickly the countdown has begun.

Furthermore, when that person becomes Prime Minister after the next general election, he will have had barely 10 years in politics – about half that of PM Lee when he took on the role.

The country may have around four more years to find out who its next Prime Minister will be. But the front runners will have had far less time than their predecessors to get ready for the job.

Previous Prime Ministers had more experience in politics and running ministries before assuming the top job. Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong had 14 years in politics under his belt before taking over as PM from Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1990. PM Lee spent 20 years in politics before he assumed the role in 2004.

In contrast, the fourth-generation leaders would have entered politics in 2011 or last year. This gives them, at most, about 10 years in politics before one of them becomes Prime Minister – before PM Lee’s planned “retirement” date of after 2021.

In the first transition from Mr Lee Kuan Yew to Mr Goh, the latter was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in 1985. He spearheaded the PAP’s efforts in the subsequent election in 1988, and became PM in 1990 in a carefully managed process.

Chances are, Singapore will see something similar this time round, with a new deputy prime minister potentially named at the mid-term round of promotions in the Cabinet, after which he will play a prominent role in the next election campaign.

But currently, as National University of Singapore political scientist Reuben Wong notes: “Some of the people viewed as a potential Prime Minister have been in the Cabinet for just a year.”

Some Leeway

Retired MP Inderjit Singh says the new team should settle in while PM Lee is in charge, so he can ensure they evolve as a united team. Otherwise, says Mr Singh, there may be a risk of “some leadership challenge among the new ministers”.

Experts also wonder about the lack of a clear heir apparent.Several believe it would be Mr Heng, given the heavyweight portfolios he has held. Before the finance portfolio, he was minister for education. Mr Singh says: “No obvious PM candidate other than Heng Swee Keat has emerged.”

But some wonder if his health scare means that he may not be up to the physically demanding job, which involves overseas diplomatic trips, on top of regular constituency events and other activities. (See story.)

“Mr Heng has been cutting his teeth on multiple issues. But the big thought is, is he up to it with his health?” says Dr Wong. However, Singapore still has some leeway in the form of its two Deputy Prime Ministers.

Says former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin, a businessman: “If anything happens, either of the two DPMs is perfectly able to run the country, to win an election and to be recognised globally.”

Image result for The smiling Lee Hsien Loong

In fact, both instantly swung into action at the National Day Rally on Aug 21. Even as Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, a trained surgical oncologist, rushed on stage to attend to PM Lee when he took ill during his speech, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean was not far behind.

Later, Mr Teo announced that PM Lee was well and would return to resume his speech, while Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam fielded questions from the media and guests and reassured them that all was well. When PM Lee is on leave or overseas, Mr Teo is acting PM, and when both are away, Mr Tharman steps in.

Political watcher and Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan says: “If there is a need for either DPM Teo or DPM Tharman to step up as a transition al Prime Minister, it will not be regarded as a risky proposition.

“Singaporeans have come to know who they are and what they stand for. We will be in good hands.” But even if either DPM takes on the top job in the next five years or so, he is unlikely to stay on for a decade or more, say the experts.

They point out that Mr Lee Kuan Yew stepped down as Prime Minister at the age of 67, and Mr Goh did so at 63. As Dr Wong puts it: “Is that renewal when your DPMs are barely five years younger than your PM? Will the next PM take over, for example, at the age of 64?”

Mr Teo is 61 years old and Mr Tharman is 59. However, it is not unusual for politicians elsewhere to be in this age range. Both Britain’s newest PM Theresa May and China’s President Xi Jinping assumed the top job at 59. As for America’s two presidential hopefuls, Mrs Hillary Clinton is 68 while Mr Donald Trump is 70.

In contrast, former British PM David Cameron took on the job in 2010 when he was 43, the same age at which former PM Tony Blair entered 10 Downing Street. US President Barack Obama took on the top job in 2009 at age 47.

Some 50 years earlier, in 1959, Mr Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister of self-governing Singapore at the age of 35, and was 41 at independence in 1965. His successors took on the role at a later age: Mr Goh was 49 and PM Lee was 52.

While a “stop-gap” sort of prime minister who holds the post for under a decade is an option, Institute of Policy Studies Deputy Director of research Gillian Koh favours someone who can run the country with an eye on the long term.

“It probably should be someone younger than today’s two DPMs,” says Dr Koh. She adds: “The country cannot be in succession planning mode every day, wondering who the next Prime Minister is. Imagine us talking like this for the next 20 years!”

Choosing the Fourth PM

As for the potential successors themselves, like their predecessors, they are going through a regime of learning the business of government. Newly elected MPs are rarely catapulted straight to the post of full minister, unless they have held high-ranking positions in the civil service or private sector.

Those that have since Singapore became independent are Mr Heng, who became full education minister fresh from his entry into politics at the 2011 General Election; and former Finance Minister Dr Richard Hu in 1984. Both were managing directors of the Monetary Authority of Singapore – though Mr Heng was a career public servant and Dr Hu had been in the private sector, where he was chairman and chief executive of Shell Group in Singapore.

Most of the time, potential ministers are first appointed minister of state, senior minister of state or acting minister. They learn the ropes and are promoted during Cabinet reshuffles only upon showing proficiency and a grasp of their portfolio. Not all of them make full minister.

This ensures that by the time a candidate becomes prime minister, he has learnt the business of government thoroughly. Mr Zulkifli describes it as a long culture of succession planning that provides stability.

This infrastructure of leadership has worked for Singapore so far and is unlikely to be drastically overhauled in the future, even given the recent health episodes and looming post-2021 deadline.

Instead, to make up for the shorter runway, younger leaders are likely to hold multiple portfolios and rotate among ministries more quickly. Says Dr Gillian Koh: “The top tier of young guns have some experience of public service, so they are not starting from scratch.”

She points out that Singapore has it good as most countries do not have the luxury of spending years getting prime-ministers-to- be ready for the job.

To most Singaporeans, the burning question is: Who is the chosen one? But the challenges of the 21st century require a different mindset of governance, beyond the 19th century “great man” theory of leadership.

PM Lee himself, in a press conference after last year’s general election where he unveiled his new Cabinet, emphasised not individual successors, but the team. He said: “One important goal of my new Cabinet is to prepare the next team to take over from me and my colleagues.”

He added: “They have to prove themselves and gel together as a team. And soon after the end of this term, we must have a new team ready to take over from me.”

That emphasis on team hints that the decision lies less with the current prime minister, and more with the fourth Prime Minister’s peers – his fellow ministers who will make up his Cabinet.

This was how Mr Goh and PM Lee had been chosen, by consensus, and by their peers. Perhaps then, one measure of successful succession planning is not whether it throws up a capable individual, but a whole team of them who can work together to take Singapore forward.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline ‘Countdown to next PM picks up speed’. Print Edition | Subscribe

An architectural beauty and brutality

August 20, 2016

An architectural beauty and brutality

by Julia Mayer

Image result for angkor wat cambodia

Image result for sleuk rith institute cambodia

Can architecture help heal the wounds of Cambodia’s genocide? Julia Mayer takes a look at the Documentation Centre of Cambodia’s new memorial to a dark past, the Sleuk Rith Institute in Phnom Penh. 

Passion and patience make strange bedfellows but are essential when best-laid plans temporarily go awry.

Youk Chhang, founder of the Sleuk Rith Institute and the Executive Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) continues to work tirelessly on his ambitious proposal to reconcile his country’s brutal past with its rich ancient cultural heritage. He is trying to build a multi-purpose centre commemorating Cambodia’s genocide and is doing this in what can best be described as an uneasy present.

Facing numerous setbacks, Chhang, who is also a survivor of the infamous Khmer Rouge era of 1975-79 in which more than two million people perished, remains undeterred.

“We were planning to start building in February this year,” says Chhang. But efforts have ground to a halt. The delay is very complicated involving government bureaucracy, and we are working to resolve it now.”

Designed by the late multi award-winning London-based Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, back in 2014, the Sleuk Rith Institute’s design immediately conjures images of a distant future as well as Cambodia’s glorious past. Five towers reminiscent of Angkor Wat rise from the monsoonal mists of the famed and beautiful jungle to inspire yet another allegory — trees of knowledge and life.

“The repression of cultural knowledge during the French colonial era, followed by the Khmer Rouge regime’s ideology as a form of education meant that links to the rest of the world were severed.It was an ideology that almost destroyed us. Today we are still chained to the past, which is why for me, only education can set us free. We should not be enslaved by the past. We cannot escape it; we have to face it,” says Chhang.

The name Sleuk Rith is highly symbolic and refers to the power of leaves, explains Chhang, as he recounts a story of Cambodian intellectuals and activists secretly writing messages on dried leaves during the colonial era to preserve their knowledge and culture.

Image result for Sleuk Rith Institute

The symbolism runs even deeper.

There are distinctive parallels between the ancient regional tradition of meticulously writing Hindu then later Buddhist texts on palm leaves, sastra, to the hundreds and thousands of leaves of paper filled with forced confessions delivered under unabated torture, to reams of survivor testimonies painstakingly recorded and collected by the DC-Cam team since it began its work in 1995.

Chhang is quick to mention that within the concept of the power of leaves exists another meaning — plain paper, or that critical moment before the page fills with ideas and feelings, and which allows for the possibility of new versions of the history of genocide.

“When I was growing up, there was no education, and very few had traveled outside of the country,” says Chhang.

“As a result of genocide, Cambodians are now all over the world, and I think, because of that, people have formed a new version of the history of genocide. Each person comes with a different idea, different ways of thinking and different views, so there’s no singular interpretation.”

The new building is meant to inspire reflection, reconciliation and the restoration of relationships broken by the Khmer Rouge’s near four-year reign of terror. However, unlike other memorials and in situ sites scattered throughout the country offering explicit and undeniably invaluable evidence of the atrocities orchestrated by the regime, the Sleuk Rith Institute aims to tell the same horror story a little differently.

“Many young people look at a skull, a shackle or a blood stain on a wall and feel that it is the older generation who are responsible for the mistakes made,” says Chhang.

“They see the past as remote and have problems seeing it as part of their identity. But if you come in with photography, with beauty, with dialogue, you bring them in, and they start to question.”

Reinterpreting the atrocities in any way as ‘beautiful’ immediately calls for a reevaluation of aesthetics, as does the message that is hoped to be shared and retold by others.

Sites like Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison and interrogation center codenamed S-21, and Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’ where the majority of prisoners were executed, all serve as important witnesses to the past.

However, it can be argued that they elicit intense feelings of pity, shame and disbelief, which can be counterproductive when trying to understand what happened and to possibly achieve reconciliation through empathy. And not everyone can visit such places.

“The best memorials evoke reflection and commemoration, but are also living, dynamic places that engage with all generations in the community,” says Chhang.

“A memorial should be enlightening, a place where both the younger and older generation can feel comfortable learning about the tragedies of the past to find new ways to heal, and to move forward.”

Image result for Sleuk Rith Institute

The centre will not only commemorate the lives lost but also serve as a tribute to the survivors via a museum of memory. It will also be an archive of all documents about the period, a library and an international research center for genocide studies, placing the Cambodian experience in context with other atrocities still being perpetuated today despite global outcries.

While such outcries have sadly done little to lessen the frequency and the impact of genocide across the globe, the fact remains that there are survivors and with them comes the arduous and initially insurmountable task of rebuilding a stable cultural identity that helps to heal. These efforts require hope and relentless optimism.

Image result for zaha hadid

Architect Zaha Hadid

Architecturally, Zahara Hadid’s futuristic designs embody this kind of optimism, as well as the belief that the past defines the future. The future depends on it, and, so by challenging the more traditional pessimistic practices of memorialising traumatic histories, her designs reach into the future as if to show that this can be, if not already, achieved. In the case of the Sleuk Rith Institute, this can be seen in the shimmering waterways and the warmth of exposed wooden beams that evoke the image of verdant and fertile trees or the themes of the rebirth of knowledge.

By widening the conceptual space for healing, the Sleuk Rith Institute has a profoundly important role to play. It shows that heritage so unequivocally rooted in pain and shame can be transformative through an oddly unsettling yet familiar kind of beauty that has the potential to evoke much-needed empathy and compassion.Content image - Phnom Penh Post

Youk Chhang, founder of the Sleuk Rith Institute and the Executive Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia

“Genocide is part our identity– it is our identity. It just takes a matter of time to accept it,” says Chhang.

Time is a great healer, and after a succession of delays we can only hope that Cambodia will see a building it so desperately deserves — one that will aid a more informed idea of the past well into the future.

Julia Mayer is a Masters of Museum and Heritage Studies student at the Australian National University. She has lived in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea, and has written extensively on traditional arts, performances and cinema in the region. She is also the Asia Correspondent for Metro Magazine Australia.

A building and brutality

Trust, Sharing Economy and Behavioral Economics

August 22, 2016

Trust, the Sharing Economy and Behavioral Economics

By D’Arcy Coolican & Lucas Coffman

Trust. It’s a complex, tricky, hard to explain, harder to define concept, but it’s crucial for so many things.

As Adam Smith pointed out, a base level of trust in society is necessary for specialization and the economic growth that accompanies it. If we didn’t trust the butcher to give us quality meat without having to inspect the cow every time — or worse yet, if we needed to litigate after every grocery run — the whole system would come to a screeching halt.

This concept is even more critical in the sharing economy — which is often, quite appropriately, referred to as the trust economy.

The sharing economy requires an incredibly high degree of trust, often based off little more than a profile picture and rudimentary reputation system. One needs only a few examples to realize how much trust is actually involved.

  •  Think about the faith required to get into the backseat of a random person’s car late at night? Seemed like a leap, until Uber made it ubiquitous.
  • Or consider letting a complete stranger staying your guest bedroom? Even visionary investors thought it was a dangerous idea … until AirBnB proved that it wasn’t.

Maybe it’s a trust in the platform (i.e., I trust Uber to screen and monitor drivers) or just trust in people (i.e., that AirBnB host looks legit), but either way it requires a tremendous amount of trust.

These successes in the sharing economy startled more than a few cynics who assumed that this reliance on trust, reputation and goodwill would quickly become a giant scam or worse.

The Subsequent Fall of the Sharing Economy

But a concept that began with such promise is already going through some tough growing pains.In many ways, the sharing economy seems to be coming apart at the seams. Whether it’s Uber drivers attacking their passengers, or Lending Club defrauding users, these recent problems — and big problems they are — have re-emboldened the original pessimists who doubted the idea of a trust economy in the first place.

Given that trust that is so crucial to the sharing economy — and that many Silicon Valley darlings seem to be getting it wrong — we thought it was time to go through the important lessons from behavioral economics on how trust (and trustworthiness) actually works, and the important consequences for the sharing economy companies.

Lessons from Behavioral Economics for the Sharing Economy

Lesson 1: Trust begets trustworthiness

One of our favorite concepts in behavioral economics is the idea that signaling that you trust someone, is a strong way to get that person to act in a more trustworthy manner towards you.

Armin Falk and Michael Kosfeld provided the first evidence of this hypothesis in their seminal paper: “The Hidden Costs of Control”. We give details on the experiment here, but the takeaway was that when Person A chooses to control or limit Person B’s options, Person B acts in a less trustworthy way towards Person A.

Put another way: If you show you trust the person, they’ll act more trustworthy towards you. Trust is self-fulfilling.

In many ways this explanation can help us understand the initial success of the trust economy.

  • The stranger that is welcomed into someone’s AirBnB might be a little more conscientious of a guest knowing that the owner has trusted them to act appropriately. After all, trust does beget trustworthiness.

This positive — and counter-intuitive — outcome helps show that people are more trusting than skeptics usually assume, especially when someone else goes out on that limb first.

This idea — and the resulting spike in trust-based activity — helped fuel much of the early optimism of a utopian trust economy where we could all operate on a system of goodwill toward mankind.

Lesson 2: Trust and reciprocity are limited in time

The TED talk types are often inclined to focus on these surprisingly positive elements of trust, but they often ignore the limitations that are just as important. While trust and reciprocity are very real phenomena, they also have very real limitations.

Most importantly, trust and reciprocity decline quickly with the passage of time.

As Uri Gneezy and John List show in their wonderful paper on gift exchange, the warm glow and good feeling of a generous and trustworthy act begins to disappear very quickly and after a few hours there is no difference in outcomes.

As one gets farther from the moment when trust was shown, the less likely one is to act in a trustworthy way.

How does this concept affect the sharing economy?

  • Maybe that AirBnB guest will be conscientious on the first night, but after 10 days in your apartment, they might spilling things on the couch and leaving a mess in the bathroom.
  • Or that 36 month loan on Lending Club or Vouch will look very different in month 32 than it does in month 2.

Many of the challenges the sharing economy has seen recently can be traced back to the evidence documenting this very real limitation on trust and collaboration: timing matters.

Lesson 3: Trust and reciprocity are limited in scope

Just as time can work to diminish trust and goodwill, so too can it diminish with decreased social proximity.

As Arun Chandrasekar from Stanford, Cynthia Kinnan from Northwestern, and Horacio Larreguy from Harvard show in their paper on Social Networks as Contract Enforcement, people are much more likely to act appropriately (even without a contract) when they share many close social connections with the person on the other side of the table. As these common social ties decrease, the degree of cooperation declines significantly.

So what does this mean for the sharing economy?

  • One might be more conscientious of refilling the gas for the car sharing service they use by their apartment that they know their friends also use, but maybe not the car they use when they’re visiting a different city.
  • Or (more controversially) an AirBnB user might be more likely to rent a room to someone that looks and sounds like they do.

Again, this evidence doesn’t mean the sharing economy doesn’t work, but we need to be aware of what the behavioral evidence says we should expect to ensure the systems that are built are fair and durable.

Lesson 4: Don’t lose trust, because it’s really hard to get back

One of the most under-appreciated concepts in the world of sharing economy start-ups is the idea that once trust is lost, it can be extremely hard to get back. “Move fast and break things” might work for a social media company like Facebook, but it can destroy an industry that relies on sharing, trust and cooperation.

For an example of this we need to look no farther than the heartbreaking history of the Tuskegee Study.

The Tuskegee Study was an experiment that started in the 1930’s that aimed to study certain diseases in poor black sharecroppers. The horrifying part was that after a cure for the disease was discovered, doctors withheld treatment in order to continue studying the effects on their patients. Revealed to the public in 1972, it goes down as one of the darkest moments in US history.

In a new paper, Marcela Alsan from Stanford and Marianne Wanamaker from the University of Tennessee, showed that this helped create a post-1972 distrust between black males and the medical community that has persisted. Over the last 50 years this distrust has led to black males underutilizing doctors and dying almost 1.4 years younger.

As the post-2009 finance community can attest, re-gaining the public’s trust after it has been lost can be an extraordinarily difficult task.

So for every sharing economy start-up that fails to foster or reward the trust of their users, the entire industry suffers. One does wonder how the sharing economy as a whole suffers for every one of these Uber driver issues or bad Lending Club loans.

The behavioral research would suggest that the price will be high.

What does it all mean?

The sharing economy was born with an incredible amount of promise. It was going to leverage trust to help create a more cooperative and efficient world. But if it’s going to actually fulfill this promise, its leaders need to begin to acknowledge and design around the limits on trust and cooperation that behavioral economists have already been helping us understand.

It doesn’t mean we should declare the entire industry dead and move on to the “next big thing”. It just means we need to be more thoughtful about where it will work and what design mechanisms can give it the best chance for success.

  • Not every exchange is ripe for the sharing economy. For example, a platform that relies on a reciprocal action years after the initial action might be too disconnected to actually work. This is probably just a no-go.
  • Some platforms might not be as big as Uber. For some, the limitation on scope means the actual circle of trust is necessarily small. I might be willing to lend my lawnmower to 100 people around me but my car to only 25 people around me. This might be smaller that venture capitalists ideally want, but at the end of the day I’m sure they’d prefer a platform that works to one that doesn’t.
  • Commitment mechanisms are critical where time is a factor. For example Frank is a P2P lending platform that allows people to borrow money from friends and family in a safe way. In Frank the reciprocal action usually happens months after the initial action, but because the platform asks borrowers to set up the repayment schedule immediately it captures that sense of trust and reciprocity at its peak. (Full disclosure: the authors of this article helped design and create Frank.)
  • Repetition is important where trust can dissipate. Every interaction can help build and re-enforce trust. Taking an Uber everyday can help me trust the system. Or getting an email from Frank with every successful payment can help restore the feeling of trust and reciprocity.
  • Technology can make the world feel smaller. Online communities — whether a Reddit board, an AirBnb reviewer, or a Facebook group — can make people who were previously distant feel “proximate” and increase that trust factor.
  • Start-up failure rates are unacceptable for the social economy. The majority of start-ups end up failing, it’s just how that system works. And it’s fine if the platforms fail, but for every user that feels a breakdown of trust, the rest of the industry suffers. Everyone needs to be cognizant of that.

I believe in the sharing economy. I believe it has the power to create economic opportunities for a part of country that is often left behind. I believe it can make the world more efficient and reduce the power of middle-men.

But until that industry begins to understand the well documented behavioral and psychology constraints of it, it will fail to meet the lofty expectations that it sparked.