Society and the Dogma of Choice Musings about happiness, the future of politics and government.

Last week, I wrote about the various tribes I was or am a part of, the tribes I rejected and the tribes to be. I shared the article with a few friends, one of whom asked me whether I concluded that I am a member of all tribes, or really a member of none. Another asked if I had not found a tribe I liked and therefore had to create my own tribe, or that I’ve ceased looking for one because I’ve created one (Silicon Straits) for myself already, or that I don’t think and worry about this anymore. A third friend sent me a link to a TED talk which I just finished digesting. The following is the result of my attempt to grasp at and manifest the mental wisps that the talk triggered, to play out a game of “chess” with myself on both ends of the board. Well, you get the idea.

I was born on 7th August 1981. Up until 2011 or 2012, for a good three decades, apart from picking my better half as my partner for life, I never really had to make many hard choices in life. I didn’t get to pick the family I was born into, or the sister that came after me. I was lucky (or fated?) to meet a great form class teacher in 1992 – 1993 and (imo, because of her) sailed through my subsequent schooling years, including university. I picked the geekiest sounding sponsor agency to join for my scholarship after my 4 years in America – Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore – because I wanted to work for an organisation that was as geeky (oh how little I knew then!) as my wonderful 6 years with my fellow computing geeks, first at Raffles Institution’s Computer Science Club, then at Raffles Junior College’s Computer Science Society. It got a little harder when I felt limited at my first job at IDA and wanted a new challenge to push myself further, but along came Ong Peng Tsin who pulled me into a reformed and restarted Infocomm Investments, and later through serendipity, Joi Ito and Neoteny Labs. It still feels like a dream when I reflect on those three decades where everything felt like it was written in the stars, as if some higher being had an invisible hand in my Game of Life, making all the “hard” decisions on my behalf at key junctures in my life story.

And then all of a sudden, with a seemingly straightforward decision to not leave Singapore for Boston, everything became infinitely harder. It’s as if I unwittingly smashed the glass bowl I was surviving in for the past three decades, and became a fish flopping on its liquid remnants, gasping for air. Each flop and gasp felt harder and brought me further from that familial comfort. Every twist and turn became decision trees and bewildering utility functions. I started to lose faith in my interpretation of my existence on this world, until my brain fog was dispersed by Barry Schwartz‘s 20-minute gust of fresh air.

NB 1: If you haven’t already, I strongly urge you to watch this TED talk of Barry’s before continuing with the rest of my article. I promise you, it’s good. +1 to Kari for sending it my way.

On Happiness

Barry is a psychologist that’s more than twice my age, with infinitely more wisdom. He persuasively explains how and why the abundance of choice in modern society is doing us more harm than good; the magic bullet to my unsettled state of mind, the scholastic science justifying my recent intuited move to spend only a quarter of my time working so I stop opening new battlefronts, limit my choices and clear my head so I’m more prepared to make happier successful decisions with fewer opportunity costs as downers.

If I had caught his talk before I wrote my article on “My Need to Belong”, I would have ended the article with the sentence, “I will find home, because I have rejected the dogma of choice.

Some parts of the Christian faith believes that free will is (or isn’t) God’s greatest gift to Man. Freedom and choice are the award-winning lead and supporting actors of our modern day soap opera of perfection-seeking, me-maximising supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

It would seem I have the key to unlocking personal happiness and light a clearer path towards enlightenment. As someone who has yet to accept God’s sacrifice of his own son, I continue to entwine the happiness of my physical and spiritual being with the health of the society that I’m a part of. Unfortunately, socio-political developments in Singapore over the past few years give me little reason to believe that happiness is to befall upon me.

As our country’s leader-of-all-founding-fathers, Lee Kuan Yew, lie gravely ill in a hospital bed on the cusp of Singapore’s 50th year of independence, our nation teeter-totters towards – intentionally and unintentionally – granting its populace with ever more choices from all things big and small. Our commercial real estate developers, some of which are state-owned, ignores the threat of e-commerce and continue nudging Singapore towards what must be a Guinness-record setting statistic of most malls per square kilometre. Our government has moved towards the left, giving its people greater flexibility for CPF withdrawals, hopefully having done its math on the acceptable future fiscal obligation by the younger generation. Heck, we’re even given an extra holiday this year, thanks to it being our nation’s 50th birthday; Madam Halima must be sorely disappointed with the majority of our populace’s choice. She should have watched Barry Schwartz’s TED talk before speaking to the press. Barry would have told her that the secret to happiness is to have low expectations.

On Politics

The jury may still be out on the culture, economics and politics of the future, and as much fun as proselytising can be, we’re still burdened with the realities of the present. I think politics used to be the coolest job in our city state because people didn’t mind fewer choices when life was simpler and were being convinced by a charismatic LKY that those choices they had were the only sensible choices that mattered. The irony of our predicament remains; as Singapore steps into the next half of what will hopefully, possibly, inevitably be its first 100 years of existence – as our greatest statesman, our “big man on a small stage” lies ailing – our nation is in ever greater need of a new wave of visionary leadership to step forward, and in LKY’s own 1984 words, “make them submerge their differences, mute it, seek common ground for mutual benefit”, or in Barry Schwartz’s context, reduce our collective choices so that we may flip that most significant bit.

At this point, I cannot resist including an equally significant video of equivalent vintage. The mood is befitting of my state of mind, and possibly others amongst you.

I most certainly do not have sufficient access and insights into what’s discussed in Singapore’s highest echelons, but what I’ve seen or interpreted have not inspired. I never used to care as deeply, but after having children and (for the time being) deciding to stay put in Singapore, such matters took on greater magnitude.

I hope this is but a passing phase. Just 100 cities account for over 30% of the world’s economy, and more than half of the world’s population are now living in cities. Unlike Ancient Greece, cities of today are tightly bound by data, commerce and people flow, and the rise of cities heralds an even brighter future for Singapore today than when we were ejected from Malaya in 1965. Singapore’s opposition parties have an easier political chess game to play out, but lack obvious talent depth and track record to form and lead our government. The vocal belligerent will find it easier to side with the opposition for now, while non-PAP moderates will continue to sit on the fence and watch how Singapore’s next generation of politics play out. The sole “swing” will be whether PAP’s own group of moderates – who are hopefully in the majority – are in a position to act decisively without losing its reins to its own lefts and rights.

Oh, how I wish someone has the power and guts to deprecate politics, or at least redefine and put into practice a new and constructive breed of politics, if not for our world of cities, then at least for my homeland Singapore.

On Government

I want to begin my final section of this atypically long article of mine with another paragraph of Barry’s words from said TED talk.

If some of what enables people in our societies to make all of the choices we make were shifted to societies in which people have too few options, not only would those people’s lives be improved, but ours would be improved also. This is what economists call a Pareto-improving move. Income redistribution will make everyone better off, not just poor people, because of how all this excess choice plagues us.

Singapore recently announced that it would be increasing income taxes for the top 5% of earners in its 2015 Budget alongside higher social spending. I caught up with a friend who shared that he had been moving some of his wealth from Singapore to Hong Kong over the past year. It sounded like he felt his choice was validated by these developments. I can already hear the collective groans by our top earners of their higher tax burden, but hope they appreciate the fewer choices that their higher tax burden now leaves them with, even if it’s a relatively modest increase. Barry Schwartz would approve of such redistribution. The greater unanswered question that remains is how much further our government can push this towards the left without losing power, while reinventing itself in the meantime.

I have an ongoing thought experiment for an alternative government model I run in my head that I find myself returning to. It may never be practically achievable given the Nature of Man, but as it is with other thought experiments and much of life, I revel in the journey more than its outcome. I may write a separate article or extend this post one day, but all of the above is enough writing for now.

NB 2: About that 1984 reference – I do think Lee Kuan Yew is Singapore’s Steve Jobs. Coincidentally, don’t you think a post-Jobs Apple is now returning to its multi-segmented product days of pre-Jobs revival? Macbook Air, Macbook, Macbook Pro, Mac Pro, iMac, Mac Mini, iPhone 5S, iPhone 6, iPhone 6+ and iWatch. I love and use their products, but man, sometimes I feel its just blah blah blah…

NB 3: My dad had asked me how long it took me to write my previous post. I’m now starting a habit of timing my writing time. It has taken me three hours to conclude this mental conversation.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.