Thoughts on data presented in "Asian Universities" Economist April 23rd 2013

This bar graph aims to show that Asia’s universities are “gaining ground on their Western counterparts”, by plotting out the number of universities in each Asian country that are in the Top 100 in Asia. The representation here is clear, with Japan having 22 universities in the top 100, while Malaysia only takes up one slot in the list. However, the graph does not adequately prove what the article tries to say. First, there is no comparison with the universities in the Western world. Even though Japan may have 22 universities out of the top 100 in Asia, it does not necessarily mean that Japan fares well on the international level. Without the comparison to the universities in Western countries, readers cannot decide whether the statements in the article are true or not. Second, there is no trend line of the changes in numbers. If the article tries to prove that Asia’s universities are “gaining ground”, then the graph needs to show a continuously increasing number of Asian universities in the top international lists.

However, some information presented on the bar graph can be interesting to address. First, the visual can show a comparison between the population size or land area and the number of top universities a country has, and study if there is a correlation between having a larger population and having a greater number of top universities. If there is no correlation there, then what should countries try to do in order to get better educational institutes? Second, there can also be an exploration of the correlation between the number of top universities in the country and the enrolment rates in these universities. Although the graph does present the gross enrolment rate in each of these countries, is there any link between this and the number of top universities that a country has? Or is it that the population figure affects enrolment rates? These are the questions that can be asked by readers, and the graph should answer them.

In general, given that education is such a complex system, and there can be multiple factors that affect its proficiency, more facts need to be given for the reader to understand what allows Japan to have such a great number of top universities, and how proficient the Asian universities are in comparison to their Western counterparts. This means that the simplistic bar graph will not be sufficient in proving the point of the article, and the information can be represented in other ways to allow readers to understand the issue better.

Are socio-economic models useful in predicting societal actions?

The world that we live in is complex, hence, models are developed to help us comprehend and predict human behavior. These models are important, not only for individuals to make decisions, for businesses to make changes to their business methods, and even for policy makers to develop their social policies.

     Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Framework for Human Development is a model which predicts how the five environmental systems with which an individual interacts will influence the character and behavior of a child. Parents can then decide how they should teach their child and impart the correct values in them. The education system can also be tailored to be more effective according to this model. In addition, from the economic theories and models that we derive, we learn that businesses operate in order to maximize their profits, and individual customers make buying decisions to optimize their utilities, like happiness and satisfaction. Hence, the price of a product is determined by demand and supply. At the same time, demand for the product reduces if prices go up. For example, if I wanted to buy a new iPhone, but when I find out that its price is increased significantly, I may change my mind and purchase a Samsung SIII instead. Understanding of such a model allows manufacturers to better predict consumer behavior, and thus business decisions to be made.

However, while models may be useful in predicting the human behavior, they are not always accurate. Some researchers conduct social experiments to verify or challenge the predictions made in models. The Milgram experiment exposed that people are willing to obey a figure of authority, even if the latter’s instructions conflicted with their personal conscience. The Asch Experiment was another famous social experiment designed to test how peer pressure to conform would influence a person’s judgment and ultimately his decisions. Back to the example of hand phones, if most of my friends have iPhones and it is perceived in society that iPhones are better, I may choose to buy the iPhone even if it costs much more than the Samsung. In this case, the economic model cannot accurately predict my final decision. It is reported that although the prices of luxury goods such as Louis Vutton handbags increased, its sales increased unexpectedly. This went against the demand and supply model which would have predicted sales to have decreased instead.  

Just because models cannot be applied to every single case does not change the fact that they are relevant to our daily lives. They allow government policy makers and business decision makers to understand and predict behaviors of a large population, since these models are largely accurate at predicting behaviors at a macro level. Models are useful because it is the only practical way of predicting the way a large population acts. On the other hand, as some social experiments show that predictions using models may not be accurate at all times, it is essential to understand the limitations of models. We can in fact modify these models to make them more encompassing of exceptions, and make them more accurate in predicting people’s actions.

Effects of Haze in the region

While it is true that haze has not killed many directly, an atmosphere obscured by the suspension of these fine particles can have many other direct and indirect socio-economic consequences on society.
Most obviously, a society will face problems with physical mobility. Due to the haze, visibility drops, and the air quality drops, giving it a singing smell. This discourages people from leaving their homes. This is especially so if the haze comes swiftly and unexpectedly like the one Singapore experienced during the 2013 June holidays. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Environment related issues may seem like an inherent harm, but these issues can bring about greater ills in society as well. 
Most tangibly, health problems arise. Especially when those with breathing problems like asthma and chronic bronchitis leave their homes without the proper precaution like the N95 masks, the perils of the haze are exacerbated. In worse cases like the haze in the South-East Asian region of 1997, a plane collided into a mountainside of Medan, killing all 256 passengers – this was attributed to poor visibility that is coupled with the haze.

This then leads to hospital bed crunches. In the case of Singapore, in the short span of a week or so, the National University Hospital (NUH) has seen a 10% increase in patients, and this caused a lack of beds considering the dengue spike prior to the haze episode. Certainly, experiencing these illnesses affects society’s quality of living in general.

Down the line, government expenditure on healthcare rises consequentially for the public is unsatisfied with the lack of beds due to the spike in health-related cases. Recognising that budget is limited and that we cannot “have the cake and eat it”, this health expenditure comes at an opportunity cost – it would mean less spending on other areas like housing or transport. These are all the indirect consequences of the haze that one cannot physically experience.

Besides health, social interaction is compromised as well – most directly people cannot attend go outdoors to meet friends or engage in personal activities like exercise. This may seem very much minor, but these small things add up to alter the way of life of the community for the worse. It is also worth noting that the extension of the haze is proportional to the limits placed on the choices of the people.

That’s not all there is to the haze – on top of health-related issues, there are economic consequences as well. Most obviously, tourism drops. Hotel rooms, travel groups and flights are cancelled, bringing tangible economic losses that, once again, are proportional to the duration of the haze. However, more insidiously is the impact on economic work in and of itself. People are less willing to go outdoors to work, more likely to call in sick, and more likely to give excuses, legitimate or not. This is pernicious not because of the pure number of hours lost, but that coupled with the fact that it is a sudden occurrence – the 30 hours lost, for instance, is not spread evenly over the entire year, but rather is concentrated in that one week. This deals great blows to businesses not only in terms of unexpected drops in revenue, but also to their reputation – people see them as less reliable. As a corollary of this, Small-Medium Enterprises (SMEs) lose out because they depend very much on a solid, constant customer support, rather than pure quality-based attraction of customers.

Certainly, the haze problem, usually existence in SEA, has and will continue to cause the above social and economic problems, direct and indirectly, in the short term and long term.

Popular leaders are influential leaders. Do you agree?

         It was apt when John Maxwell, American author, mused that “People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.” Often, people become more receptive towards the opinions and ideas of leaders if they were likeable individuals, who were kind, caring and encouraging. A group of such individuals is what forms the support-base of popular leaders — and these leaders can then gather supporters for their causes, becoming influential, for better or for worse. At the same time, though, we must also recognise that there are two types of popularity — sociometric popularity, which was what was earlier described, and perceived popularity. Perceived popularity refers to those who are well known for being popular, and are subsequently highly visible, but rarely liked by others. Both these kinds of popular leaders are people who become influential leaders, because they harness the advantages of popularity, funnelling their wide support-bases towards fulfilling their ideals and goals. The sheer number of supporters they garner bestow great legitimacy upon which they can make a difference, and they are also able to push through with necessary, though sometimes unpopular, decisions, by virtue of the support they possess. In addition, some can make use of their soft power over others to initiate change and influence others. 

Critics of the thesis would be doubtful of the influence that leaders without a clear vision can bring about. They postulate that the determining characteristic that makes leaders influential is the quality of their ideas and thoughts, not their popularity, because that is what determines if one’s policies and suggestions will be pushed through. In spite of this claim, it is undeniable that the popularity and following of these leaders would prove essential in helping them influence others around them. Sociometrically popular leaders can capitalise on the connections and relationships they share with their followers to convince and spread their vision and ideas. In this way, the followers popular leaders have confer upon these leaders a sense of legitimacy that extends the reach and impact of their policies. Hence, popular leaders are easily able to galvanise their followers towards a common goal, so as to achieve their objectives. The very structure of democratic systems lean in favour of these popular leaders — the characteristic of majoritarian rule serves to show that popularity is the premise to being placed in positions of authority, and subsequently implement their policies and suggestions. In contrast, even leaders with the best of ideas but lack a following is unable to become influential, because of the lack of recognition and support for these ideas. Therefore, those with large followings that like their leaders for their personalities and traits — sociometrically popular leaders, in short — hold the legitimacy to push forth their ideas and become influential. 

At the same time, even leaders who are perceived to be popular are influential ones. Though some may not be liked for their individual attitudes and traits, they can still garner popularity from those who share their vision, and thereby institute change, so as to influence others. Nelson Mandela is one such leader. Despite the aggressiveness and thirst for power he exhibited in order to wrest power over his political party, many look up to him for his bold vision and achievements. Such followers granted him popularity, with which he was able to influence South Africa by winning the elections and then implementing economic, social and political reform. Ultimately, it does not matter what one does to obtain it, but the popularity a leader has is instrumental to his becoming an influential one. 

Skeptics would adamantly insist that popular leaders pander too much to the desires and wants of their following, which hinders their ability to make a meaningful impact. However, there is no reason to treat such populism as an immediate harm or problem. Sometimes, the only way in which leaders are able to institute change and implement policies is by pandering to some of their followers, in order to tap on them as either financial or human resources. Without these resources being accorded to them, there would be no way in which unpopular leaders can ever crystallise their ideas and goals. For example, the Jewish lobby in the United States holds great sway in politics, especially during times of elections and campaigning. This is because the lobby is able to flex its financial muscle by agreeing to fund the political party that it agrees with most hugely for their campaign. As a result, it is these leaders who are able to gain advantage by pandering to such groups are those who actually wield the power to influence societies and make an impact. 

As a corollary, sociometrically popular leaders are able to sway over the support for certain causes by virtue of the fact that they are people who many look up to and listen to. As a result, the soft power that they possess often give them the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the people, so as to bring important issues to attention. Noting that leaders are not limited to merely the political sphere, sporting stars and media celebrities are hugely popular leaders of their industry, and hold the international limelight. By making use of their popularity in such situations, they can become powerful advocates for, and campaign for various causes. For instance, famous beauty pageant Miss World is linked to many humanitarian causes, such as starvation in Africa, and poverty in less economically developed countries, and their annual winners, whom are thrust into the limelight, go on trips around the world to promote and help out with these humanitarian causes. Angelina Jolie, a famous Hollywood actress, has also used her fame to raise awareness of displaced persons as a United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees. These are all examples of such industry leaders who are largely popular, who can make use of the attention they receive to forward important social causes to benefit others and make an impact. 

In essence, it is true that popular leaders are influential ones as well. Not only are they able to use their extensive followings as pillars of support to forward their ideals and visions, they are also able to gain reputation and support simply for being well known for being popular. Through these means, they are able to initiate change through legitimised action and extensive resources granted to them by their followers, and influence their followers to spread their ideas and to support their decisions. This makes them influential leaders. 

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Hi guys, I'm a student in Singapore, and this are some thoughts and essays I have written over the years.