What is Political Science? Why study it?

As a Political Science and Public Policy undergraduate, I am often asked “what exactly is political science, what do you actually study?”

Any meaningful answer to this question is probably not short, but it could well be sweet.

I hope what follows will clarify this question and better still, interest readers about the fascinating discipline that is political science.

As a social science, political science seeks to understand and explain human behavior. I construe different social science disciplines as seeking to understand and explain human behavior from different perspectives. For example, another social science — psychology — explains human behavior on a micro-scale, focusing on individuals and their thought processes.

Essentially, all social sciences are concerned with human behavior (hence social). In this light, economics is also a social science. As you might know, economics seeks to explain human behavior in terms of markets, costs/benefits, transactions and assumed-rationality.

So what exactly is political science? My go-to definition of it comes from Harold Lasswell (1936), who explained politics as the study ofwho gets what, when and how”.

The ‘what’ could be something tangible, such as food, money and oil. It could also be something intangible such as citizenship, rights, access to education, healthcare and a life of dignity. To further illustrate, consider the following two questions:

  • Tangible: Why do authoritarian regimes such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa prioritise urban dwellers (e.g. provide them with more affordable food) at the expense of rural dwellers (Bates, 1981)?
  • Intangible: Why do the Rohingyas in Myanmar not have citizenship while those of other ethnic groups such as the Bamars and Shans do (Calamur, 2017)?

Humans interact (conflict) with each other over the ‘what‘. How and when the conflict is resolved, who wins and achieve the ‘what‘ depends on the power relations among those competing. Yet it is not true that the ones with more power will always win. For example, in his book Weapons of the Weak, James C. Scott (1987) elucidated how the seemingly weak peasants can resist against the powerful. Similarly, Ivan Arreguín-Toft’s How the Weak Win Wars (2005) looks at the stereotypical example of conflicting humans — war.

More generally, what factors comprise power? Aside from capital, resources, technology and manpower… Isn’t legitimacy also a source of power? But… are different factors equally important? What about strategy? Or the timing in which certain actions are taken? Under what conditions do certain factors become more crucial in determining political outcomes? Who gets what, when and how?

The ‘what’ that political science studies is practically limitless. Power relations among humans shape the contests and hence outcomes for everything in life.

Like it or not, everything is political.

Therefore, one could also study the politics of

  • waiting (Auyero, 2012)
  • food (Bates, 1981)
  • water (Conca, 2005)
  • road-building (Guldi, 2012)
  • language (Orwell, 2013) and language policies (Liu and Ricks, 2012)
  • public policy
  • development (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2013; Sen, 1999; Escobar, 1995)
  • conflict and peace (Kissinger 2014; Mearsheimer, 2014; Betts, 2010; Wendt, 1999; Keohane, 1984; Waltz, 1979)
  • denuclearisation (for my analysis of Trump’s cancellation of the 12 June summit with Kim Jong-un, see here)

Political science hence provides its students with powerful analytical skills, which are hugely important in today’s world, where the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘when’ are rapidly changing.

Take Uber and Airbnb for example. For such new and ‘disruptive’ businesses, the amount of profits that they make is largely shaped by the regulations that governments place on them. Broadly speaking, why do some governments decide to ban these companies, while others do not? Of course, most choose to regulate in certain ways. These regulations will determine, inter alia, the answers to these questions:

  • Are their business models legal or illegal?
  • Should they conform to the same regulations as those in the taxi and hotel industries?
  • Is Uber a taxi company or merely a technological platform?

These businesses therefore conflict with governments in determining the answers to these questions, hence shaping their profitability and viability.

In today’s rapidly changing world, political science hence offers its students key insights into how emerging phenomena (seemingly political or not) play out. Ever since there were organised societies and scarce resources, we have had to struggle with the question of ‘who gets what, when and how?‘ And before this question is irreversibly resolved, there will always be a place for political science.


Arreguín-Toft, Ivan. 2005. How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Auyero, Javier. 2012. Patients of the State: The Politics of Waiting in Argentina. Durham: Duke University Press Books.
Bates, Robert. 1981. Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policy. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Betts, Richard. 2010. “Conflict or Cooperation?” Foreign Affairs, November 8, 2010. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/conflict-or-cooperation.
Calamur, Krishnadev. 2017. “The Misunderstood Roots of Burma’s Rohingya Crisis.” The Atlantic, September 25, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/rohingyas-burma/540513/.
Conca, Ken. 2005. Governing Water: Contentious Transnational Politics and Global Institution Building. 1st edition. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.
Escobar, Arturo. 1995. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press.
Guldi, Jo. 2012. Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Keohane, R. O. (1984). After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton University Press. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7sq9s
Kissinger, Henry. 2015. World Order. Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Books.
Lasswell, Harold D. 1936. Politics; Who Gets What, When, How,. New York; London: Whittlesey House McGraw-Hill Book Co.
Mearsheimer, John J. 2014. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Updated edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Orwell, George. 2013. Politics and the English Language. Penguin UK.
Ricks, Jacob, and Amy H. Liu. 2012. “Coalitions and Language Politics: Policy Shifts in Southeast Asia.” World Politics, January, 476–506.
Scott, James C. 1987. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Reprint edition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press.

Waltz, K. N. (1979). Theory of international politics. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.
Wendt, A. (1999). Social Theory of International Politics by Alexander Wendt (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511612183

Why Trump’s Cancellation of the Planned Singapore Summit with Kim could be Ingenious


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the morning of 24th May 2018, US President Trump cancelled the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. This was particularly surprising given how this could have been the Trump administration’s greatest foreign policy achievement.

It would not be surprising if this would be touted as a wrong move by the Trump administration.

I disagree. This move, if leveraged well by Washington, could be key in bringing about a successful summit and an eventual denuclearisation deal.

The entire history of US-North Korea diplomacy can be characterised as US offering unreciprocated incentives to a scheming North Korea that only appears interested in denuclearisation in order to extract benefits that sustain its authoritarian regime. On a similar but distinct note, Victor Cha described negotiating with North Korea as “all about contradictions” and “what can be important one day can become unimportant the next”.

Three examples should suffice.

Firstly, the 1994 Agreed Framework that would have exchanged two light water reactors and heavy oil (among other concessions) for a freeze on and eventual dismantling of the North Korean nuclear programme was eventually scrapped after Pyongyang was found to have secretly pursued a uranium enrichment project, violating the agreement. Yet North Korea had already benefited from the shipments provided by the US (among others, especially its allies South Korea and Japan)

Secondly, in 2000, there was an unprecedented summit between the leaders of the two Koreas. Yet this was only achieved by bribing then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il with $500 million.

Thirdly, towards the end of the Six-Party Talks led by China to promote denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula, the US had unfroze North Korean-linked bank accounts and provided fuel aids (among other things) as a result of North Korean concessions. For example, Pyongyang had begun dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear plant and allowed inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify its denuclearisation process. However, Pyongyang would eventually expel these inspectors and restore the Yongbyon nuclear plant.

Under all previous US administrations, such actions by North Korea to leave the negotiating table served only to entice US and its allies to offer more reassurances, economic aid, policy concessions and other benefits to the former, in a bid to encourage its return to negotiations. While it is indubitable that these concessions by the international community benefited the North Korean regime (sustained it for a longer time), their effectiveness in achieving denuclearisation is dubious — North Korea’s nuclear program never really stopped advancing. If there is one constant trait in North Korean foreign policy, it is one of rational inconsistency between its actions and its promises. Seemingly irrational diplomatic flip-flops served only to further its interests.

Therefore, it was not surprising when North Korea started signalling that the planned summit might not go on, given that it is in line with its policy of inconsistency. For example, on 15th May 2018, North Korea cancelled its planned follow-up summit with South Korea by taking issue with the annual military drills between US and South Korea. This happened despite North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reportedly understanding the “the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue“. Such actions by North Korea sends a strong message that the new regime under Kim Jong-un would act the same as its previous regimes. Hence, North Korean threats of cancelling the planned Singapore summit could well have been a ploy to extract greater economic benefits and policy concessions from the US. Furthermore, if this is true, it is unlikely that the planned summit would generate any meaningful denuclearisation deal.

Interestingly, there appears to be an uncanny resemblance between Trump’s decision to cancel the planned Singapore summit and North Korea’s traditional policy of inconsistency. If the Singapore summit was going to be leveraged by North Korea to further extract greater policy concessions from the US, the Trump administration would have successfully prevented North Korea’s ploy from succeeding. After all, if the summit was going to be cancelled by North Korea anyway, by cancelling it first, US scores a political victory in this decades-old political tug-of-war.

Further, by cancelling the summit, US sends a powerful message to North Korea: “the current administration is different from previous administrations and it will not succumb to North Korean diplomatic maneuvers”.

Perhaps most importantly, by cancelling the high-profile summit, the Trump administration is essentially practicing the traditional North Korean policy of rational inconsistency against the rogue state itself. If one would agree that the Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure against North Korea is responsible for bringing it to the negotiation table in 2018, North Korea must be desperate for a relaxation of international sanctions. In such a situation, by showing that the Trump administration is willing to give up what would have been its greatest foreign policy achievement, US signals North Korea that the traditional North Korean diplomatic play script of inconsistency will no longer work. A desperate Kim Jong-un may eventually have no choice but to pursue negotiations on Washington’s terms. Perhaps for the first time in history, North Korea would have to dangle carrots to the US to entice a return to negotiations.

Granted, depending on how subsequent events play out, North Korea may eventually have the last laugh. I think this is most likely if the Trump administration fails to secure any significant breakthrough in North Korean denuclearisation by 2020 (the last year of the Trump presidency, where he will then need to be re-elected). However, to reach this stage, the North Korean regime must have enough resources to sustain its authoritarian coalition amidst Washington’s maximum pressure campaign. Assuming the existing international sanctions against North Korea does not weaken, it appears more likely that Trump would be able to make the deal he wants.

Potentially ingenious, isn’t it?

Edit (25 May 2018): About 8 hours after the publishing of this post and 12 hours after Trump’s announcement of the summit’s cancellation, North Korea indicated that it is willing to negotiate a “Trump formula” to resolve any disagreements between Pyongyang and Washington.

This seems to support the argument above that the cancellation of the summit hurts North Korean interests much more than it does to the US.  This may indicate that the North Korean regime may not have enough resources to maintain the support of its coalition (especially the military). The Trump administration appears to have gained the upperhand in the negotiation — even before it began. I hope only for this advantage to be well-leveraged by the US in successfully achieving a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation deal for the Korean peninsula.

Culture’s relationship with development and poverty may be at best contingent

Image result for confucian

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Culture is incredibly nebulous and encompasses a broad range of specific concepts. Small, Harding and Lamont (2010) outlined seven different ways culture is related to poverty and development, such as values, frames, institutions, repertoires… And they conclude that the best approach to defining culture and its relationship with development and poverty is a pragmatic one – i.e. specifying the aspects of culture that one is discussing.

While that can help, it simultaneously puts different aspects of cultures into apparently isolated silos that does more harm than good for analytical purposes. For example, while they distinguish between institutions and values, it is hard to not recognize the intricate interdependencies and endogeneity between them. Take for instance, marriage dowry-giving as an institution in many South Asian societies – the reason such an institution persists might be how those communities value it and regard it as being important to ensuring good marriages and karma. As such, while I agree the best approach to understanding culture and its relationship with development and poverty should be a pragmatic one, carefully delineating them might do more harm than good.

Rather, I adopt a broad definition of culture – “the whole complex of distinctive, spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or societal groups. It includes not only arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs” (UNESCO, quoted in Payne and Nassar [2010]).

What exactly is the relationship that culture has with development and poverty?

First, culture is part of the definition of both development and poverty.

Echoing Sen (2004) in ‘How does culture matter?’, if the purpose of development is to raise people’s quality of life, culture is part of development. He uses the example of Caesar’s comment of Cassius – “he hears no music; seldom he smiles” to explain how having high income but without enjoying the finer things in life (i.e. spiritual, fun, music, arts, etc), cannot be said to constitute development success. Further, if poverty is defined as social exclusion – people’s inability to participate in societal life – then exclusion from cultural activities important to oneself (such as Chinese New Year, Christmas, Hari Raya, Diwali…) also constitutes poverty.

Second, culture can promote and encourage development and poverty-reduction.

Culture can encourage development and poverty-reduction by encouraging people to adopt certain behaviours that helps achieve them. Invoking Weber, Sen suggests that certain cultures encourage a kind of work ethic that is helpful for development (e.g. a strain of Protestantism called Calvinism extolls hard work, frugality and discipline helps certain countries like UK achieve development, compared to other countries without such cultures). A country that values honesty and integrity and detests corruption will similar tend to have lower corruption, which is helpful for development – especially when the government is clean and not corrupt. A similar argument can be made for Singapore, in which LKY described Singapore as possessing certain Asian Values which emphasise an orderly society over individual freedoms, that helped Singapore grew economically. This is also seen in the concept of ‘social discipline’, in which the people were willing to follow the Government’s pro-developmental policies (e.g. hard work, stop at 2) and not oppose the government’s policies. Or if certain cultures encourage social capital accumulation for people, e.g. certain communities where the people are very tightly-knit and willing to go the extra mile to help each other (say, harvest each other’s corns, unlike Hume’s metaphorical neighbours, or find jobs for each other), then it encourages poverty-reduction.

Culture, when embodied in the languages of a society, can also be helpful for development. For example, Singapore society’s mastery of English has been able to give it an advantage over neighboring countries in terms of attracting FDI (especially in the early years when most FDI came from English-speaking countries). Today, as a majority (70%+) of the population is ethnic Chinese, the relative mastery of the Chinese language (Mandarin) is also expected to help Singapore develop close trading links with China, a growing economic powerhouse.

Culture can also promote certain kinds of states that are helpful to development and poverty-reduction. In particular, Asian Values (particularly Confucianism) has been evoked by thinkers to explain the rise of the Asian Tigers, whose success have been credited to their developmental states. Developmental states are characterized by a particular feature – embedded autonomy, in which the state is autonomous (i.e. not captured by societal/external forces), while embedded within society – so that it has good information that allows it to make and refine policies best for the country, creating and achieving joint developmental projects together with societal actors.

Autonomy is achieved by both internal informal networks and formal structures that create a ‘reinforced Weberian bureaucracy’. Internal informal networks are derived from features such as meritocracy, common educational and socio-economic background; in combination with formal structures such as clear rational-legal rules that guide behaviour, merit-based recruitment and promotion in a hierarchical career progression. These encourages the pursuit of corporate goals and creates strong corporate coherence and solidarity, strengthening the bureaucracy’s ability to resist capture by societal/external forces. This allows the state to be less corrupt and works to achieve development, instead of hindering development.

Embeddedness is achieved by having institutionalised channels that connect state and society. For example, the ‘descent from heaven’, state-facilitated retirement of bureaucrats into private business organisations (amakudari) in Japan; conglomerates with close state connections (chaebol) in South Korea; and state-owned enterprises’ close linkages with private businesses in Taiwan.

Culture is said to play a part in both autonomy and embeddedness. For example, autonomy is partially achieved as a result of the society’s emphasis on meritocracy and how the best and brightest of the society is attracted to work in the state bureaucracy, giving it corporate coherence and autonomy. In Confucianism, the ‘士’ (scholar) is ranked highest, before the ‘农’ (farmer), ‘工’ (craftspeople) and ‘商’ (businesspeople). Also, the aspects of embeddedness in these countries appear to be part of their business culture – that is how business is conducted in those countries. Culture hence may well explain why the successful East Asian Tigers (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan) all have developmental states that drive their economic success.

Ironically, the very same culture can also be barriers to development and poverty-reduction.

The most controversial (and misinterpreted) argument is that of Oscar Lewis (1969), who argued the existence of a ‘culture of poverty’. I present the misinterpreted version first because it is clearer. Small, Harding and Lamont (2010) summarised Lewis’ argument as “sustained poverty generated a set of cultural attitudes, beliefs, values and practices, and that this culture of poverty would tend to perpetuate itself over time, even if the structural conditions that originally gave rise to it were to change”. In this view, certain groups were poor and remain poor because of their culture. In effect, this argument blamed the victim. In fact, Lewis was actually much more nuanced. He attributed the creation of the ‘culture of poverty’ to the structural traits of society (class-stratified and capitalist) which alienates the poor, causing them to adopt a certain set of behaviors to adapt and cope with the situation. However, the children of the poor also adopted these behaviors, perpetuating poverty.

Nevertheless, I do not buy into such culture of poverty arguments. Empirical evidence do not support them. For example, in USA, the relative poverty of Black Americans compared to the majority White Americans has been attributed to the latter’s supposed predisposition against work. However, when their unemployment rate fell, this discredited the culture of poverty argument since it suggests that Black Americans were not unwilling to work, but simply unable to find work.

Culture may also promote certain kinds of behaviors that are detrimental to development and poverty-reduction, which therefore contributes to low development and poverty-reduction. For example, many poor South Asian families continue to practice the gifting of dowries during marriages, which exacts a large toll on the poor families’ finances – already-poor families often must borrow money, sell land and the like to do so – yet it continues to be practised. Certain cultural practices hence hinder development and poverty-reduction.

Sen (2004) argued that culture influences value formation and evolution, which then influence each society’s identification of certain means to the ends of development and poverty-reduction as appropriate or inappropriate. As such, a particular method to development, e.g. focus only on economic growth may be culturally appropriate in some societies, while not appropriate in others. What this implies is that certain cultures may hence reject particular means of development on cultural grounds, regardless of its efficiency in generating development and reducing poverty. In some cases, this can retard development and poverty-reduction. For example, in Philippines, the Catholic Church’s view of family planning with the use of contraceptives and abortion as being culturally inappropriate (not sanctioned by the Catholic religion), has been widely attributed to be a contributor to Philippine’s slow economic growth as growth has not been able to keep pace with the population growth (among other reasons).

How can culture both help and hinder development and poverty-reduction? Perhaps whether culture helps or hinders development and poverty-reduction depends on the specific aspect of culture we are discussing – so some parts of culture is good, some is bad. But as Small, Harding and Lamont (2010) points out: “the right set of values or beliefs may actually undermine one’s mobility when they are exercised in a difficult (read: different) context”. Indeed, for example, while social capital can be helpful to development and poverty-reduction, it can also hinder it – for example, when social capital is so strong within a community that it engenders some kind of in-group/out-group distrust such that the community rejects help from outsiders. One example may be the Piraha tribe in the Amazon, who could benefit from lower infant mortality and better nutrition if they were more willing to receive help from outsiders.

If we combine Small, Harding and Lamont’s point with Fareed Zakaria’s “if culture is destiny, what explains a culture’s failure in one era and success in another? If Confucianism explains the economic boom in Asia today, does it not also explain the region’s stagnation for four centuries?”. I suspect whether a culture helps or hinders development and poverty-reduction would depend on whether that culture is synergistic with pro- or anti-developmental strategies or trends at particular times.

If that culture is synergistic with a pro-developmental strategy or trend – i.e. it makes the strategy easier to be implemented and results more easily achieved, or in the case of trends, advantages the community to be most able to take advantage of the trend – then culture helps development and poverty-reduction. For example, social discipline and Asian Values (in whatever form) in Singapore was synergistic with the government’s developmental strategy which favoured an orderly society that did not publicly oppose the government was attractive to foreign-direct investment hence helped achieve development and poverty-reduction. Or, how Singapore’s two main languages are English and Chinese helps development and poverty-reduction was only because at particular times in world history, the dominant economies use the same two languages of English and Chinese. Conversely, countries who do not have the same two languages as part of their culture thus do not benefit since their culture is not synergistic with the world’s economic forces.

However, when the same culture of not opposing the government is synergistic with an anti-developmental strategy, it will not help but hinder development and poverty-reduction. An example may be Malaysia, where the dominant Malay ethnic group were willing to support the New Economic Policy that favoured Malays (e.g. reserved quotas for Malays in civil service, university, etc) even though it had a net-negative effect on society (e.g. low quality of university, brain drain etc). In such a case, the culture and development strategy is not synergistic in the right way and hence does not help but hinder development and poverty-reduction. In fact (I suspect), for Malaysia’s culture to help development and poverty-reduction in terms of the New Economic Policy should be one that opposes the government.

In conclusion, culture’s relationship with development and poverty is best understood as contingent. Whether culture helps development and poverty-reduction depends on whether it is synergistic with pro-developmental or anti-developmental strategies or trends, at particular points in time.


Lewis, O. (1959). Five families; Mexican case studies in the culture of poverty. Basic Books.

Payne, R. J., & Nassar, J. (2015). Politics and Culture in the Developing World. Routledge.

Rao, V., & Walton, M. (2004). Culture and Public Action. Stanford University Press.

Small, M. L., Harding, D. J., & Lamont, M. (2010). Reconsidering Culture and Poverty. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 629(1), 6–27. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716210362077

Zakaria, F., & Lee, K. Y. (1994). Culture Is Destiny: A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew. Foreign Affairs, 73(2), 109. https://doi.org/10.2307/20045923


On the Balance of Power (Theory)

As shared previously on this blog, I will be sharing some of my essays and reflections done as part of my undergraduate studies in SMU.

This post will centre on the Balance of Power (BOP) theory, which was meant as a summary of an introduction to what it is.

The BOP is one of the oldest and most important ideas in international relations. Naturally, there are several interpretations and revisions. In essence, BOP explains the foreign policy and behaviour of states; and therefore the outcomes in the international system as a result of states’ actions.

Here, it is important to emphasise once more that there are numerous interpretations of this theory. However, I interpret it as follows.

BOP posits that:

  1. States act to create and preserve a balance of power in the international system for their own survival
  2. When power is imbalanced, the security of weaker states is threatened. These weaker states will then act to restore the balance, by internal balancing – increasing their own power and/or external balancing – forming alliances and/or going to war.

BOP is closely related to realism – the idea that power is the determining factor in international relations. This is because in BOP, states are assumed to seek survival as independent units. This is because the international system is anarchic – there is no overarching governing authority that determines and regulates the behavior of states effectively, therefore to survive, states must seek power. This leads to a natural competition for power among states. When one state is stronger than others, it seeks to impose its will on weaker states.

Some may point out that the United Nations (UN) is an overarching authority that mitigates the degree of anarchy in the international system. However, the UN is too often conveniently disregarded by powerful-enough states whenever there is a clash of opinions and interests. For example, North Korea has been ignoring UN sanctions and resolutions for decades. Similarly, UN member states can cut off diplomatic relations with other UN member states with little repercussions (yes, I am referring to Qatar). Even ‘liberal’ countries such as the United States has conveniently ignored UN rulings several times. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was also not authorised by the UN. Ultimately the UN is not an effective source of authority in the international system as its operational structure requires sovereign, self-interested states to be willing to cooperate (particularly, the Security Council). As a result, as long as these member states are self-interested, the UNSC remains ineffective in reducing the anarchic nature of the international system.

Now, back to the BOP. Let’s see the application of BOP in real life – post-1648, i.e Europe after the Peace of Westphalia. I quote and adapted the following example from Henry Kissinger’s World Order. Britain’s “control of the seas enabled it to choose the timing and scale of its involvement on the Continent to act as the arbiter of the balance of power… So long as England assessed its strategic requirements correctly, it would be able to back the weaker … against the stronger, preventing any single country from achieving hegemony in Europe and thereby mobilize the resources of the Continent to challenge Britain.” This BOP lasted until WW1, limiting the scale and casualties of wars because “equilibrium is the goal, not conquest”. Britain fought in numerous European wars, but with shifting alliances. Its guiding principle was the preservation of the balance of power – when power is in equilibrium, Britain is secure. But eventually European states saw Britain as a bigger threat than France, causing many of them such as France and Spain to support the independence of British American colonies. 

BOP theory generally predicts that:

  1. Long-lasting hegemons rarely arise in multistate systems
  2. because the other states will soon balance against it

This is seen in the example of Britain, and also the Concert of Europe more generally. Also, some realists today predict that balancing is bound to happen in the future as US power becomes too threatening (i.e. hegemony is never permanent)

There are some criticisms of the BOP:

  1. ‘Great Power Bias’ – only powerful states have the ability to balance against a growing hegemonic state. Small states, knowing that they can make at best a marginal difference, sometimes balance, but also bandwagon – i.e. side with the hegemon.
  2. Economic liberals argue that increased economic interdependence, is the main factor that determines balance of power politics. States that have stronger economic interdependence are less likely to ‘balance’ against each other militarily – because this disrupts trade.
  3. Proponents of democratic peace argue that if states involved are democratic, they are less likely to balance against each other.

To sum up, my opinion is that the world today is vastly different from the world in which the original BOP theories were developed, especially in terms of economic interdependence and globalization. The original BOP theories are too rigid and narrow, perhaps because some scholars wanted to turn it into some kind of a social science law but in reality, states can use more than just two ways to check the growing power of other states (or they might not want to check it if they see the power as benign!). Instead of a deterministic BOP worldview – it might be better to see it as a guide, used in combination with other relevant theories.

This is well summed up in the paper “Conflict or Cooperation?: Three Visions Revisited” by Richard Betts, he wrote and I quote “If good sense is to shape US foreign policy, there needs to be a fourth vision – one that integrates the compatible elements of these three in a form that penetrates the American political mainstream”

Of course, this applies to not just the US, but every country, especially if leaders do not want to be slaves of defunct economists or political theorists.

On Small States and International Relations

In June 2017, the Qatar Diplomatic Crisis erupted when several countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar.

In an op-ed article in The Straits Times, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), Kishore Mahbubani (also former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) said that there are lessons for Singapore to learn from the Qatar crisis.

Amongst many, he said that “small states must always behave like small states”. In the same breath, he also admitted that our pioneering leaders such as LKY, S. Rajaratnam and Goh Keng Swee, did not behave as such. Rather, these pioneers behaved as great statesmen, and were respected by other countries as being so.

To read Mahbubani’s article, see ‘Qatar: Big lessons from a small country‘.

In a strong rebuttal, straight-talking ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan, also another former Permanent Secretary at the MFA, clearly explained why Mahbubani is mistaken in his belief that ‘small states must always behave like small states’.

I will attempt to summarise Kausikan’s rebuttal, to see his entire post, see here.

Kausikan reminds Mahbubani that the pioneering leaders of Singapore did not become great statesmen and allowed Singapore to punch above her weight in international affairs simply by ‘being meekly compliant to the major powers’.

They were not reckless, but they did not hesitate to stand up for their ideals and principles when they had to. They risked their lives for their idea of Singapore…

They took the world as it is and were acutely conscious of our size and geography. But they never allowed themselves to be cowed or limited by our size or geography.

— Bilahari Kausikan

Kausikan believes that ‘no one respects a running dog’. To that, I cannot help but agree.

Kausikan also thinks that Mahbubani will ‘no doubt claim that he is only advocating realism’. Indeed, realism is the philosophy in which all countries adhere to, in the anarchic realm of international affairs. Even the United States which appear to advocate liberalism, is practically realist.

However, I believe that even though we must be realists, we cannot be merely realists. We must be idealistic realists. If we are merely realists, and only do what small states ‘can’ do, we will forever be small and insignificant.

Should a Pragmatist Believe in God? If So, When?

Following from my previous post on the Biological Basis of Attraction that was submitted as part of a project for my Introductory Psychology class, I would like to share another piece of academic work here today.

I wrote this paper as part of the requirements for my Philosophy of Religion class. It will be useful to note that I wrote it from the point of view from a pragmatist. Arguably, the strongest pragmatic argument for a belief in God is that of Pascal’s Wager. Being a non-believer, I attempt to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of this argument, helping me better understand my own beliefs (or lack thereof).

It is a possibly controversial piece. Here, I attempt to raise logical and substantiated points to Blaise Pascal’s pragmatic argument for belief in God (now popularly known as Pascal’s Wager). While reading it, it will be best to read it with an open mind, and definitely, always read the footnotes when referred to.

Should a Pragmatist Believe in God? If So, When?

In this essay, I will prove that for pragmatists convinced by Pascal’s Wager, they should not immediately believe in God, instead they should be agnostic until the day he or she is to die. In the Pensées, Pascal put forth a very convincing pragmatic argument, known as Pascal’s Wager, for belief in God[1]. Referring to Table 1 below, since we do not know God’s existence conclusively, choosing to believe in God even if God’s existence is unlikely, is the choice that gives me the highest expected net-benefit. For the sake of brevity, Pascal’s Wager will not be discussed in depth as there exists much literature on it. Being a pragmatic argument for belief in God, Pascal seems committed to the assumption that even if our belief in God is motivated purely by self-interest (although this will be uncomfortable for many theists), God will still reward us with the ‘promised’ infinite gain of eternity in heaven.

Let us call this assumption, A.

(A)  Belief in God will lead to the ‘promised’ infinite gain despite the self-interested rationale for believing.

Table 1

The possible contentious aspect of A will not be discussed here as this essay is targeted at pragmatists. It suffices to say that pragmatists are people who would likely not be uncomfortable with the idea of making decisions based on self-interest.

Before further discussion, it is timely to define pragmatism. I define pragmatism to be the guiding principle in which pragmatists consistently apply whenever there are competing alternatives so that the action that maximises their expected net-benefits will always be chosen.

Pascal’s argument is very convincing; indeed, a pragmatist should believe in God no matter how unlikely God’s existence is. So long there exists at least a minute positive probability for God’s existence, a pragmatist should always wager on God existing, given the infinite gain that can result if God exists and the finite loss if God does not exist.

Which God?

However, after being convinced by Pascal’s Wager, nontheistic pragmatists such as myself now face a conundrum.

Suppose there is an atheistic pragmatist named Bob. Bob has lived all his life without believing in God’s existence and he finally dawns upon Pascal’s Wager on the final day of his life. He is absolutely convinced and decides to believe in God. But wait – which God shall he believe in? Clearly, he does not have enough time to gather more information on the various religions that exist in the world. Rationally, he decides that his best bet is the religion that Pascal believed in – Christianity. After all, it was Pascal who convinced him.

The conundrum is now clear. If the God of Christianity existed, Bob would have gained an eternity in heaven. But if the ‘true’ God is not that of Christianity, he would likely have suffered an eternity in hell.

This conundrum is arguably the strongest criticism of Pascal’s Wager. Let us call it the ‘Which God Objection’ (WGO). WGO rightly pointed out that Pascal’s Wager can be applied to argue for any other religion[2], and not just Christianity that Pascal professed. To see this for yourself, replace ‘God’ with ‘Allah’ in Table 1. Now, a pragmatist who does not reflect on WGO would have believed in Allah. But he shouldn’t, at least not yet.

Therefore, Pascal’s Wager represents a set of options that is too narrow and does not reflect the multitude of options that are actually available in our lives (for instance, Singapore has 10 official religions[3] already, and there are many more in other countries). Stated another way, Pascal’s Wager considered only whether God exists or does not exists, but it gives us no clue as to which God to believe in. There exist many other religions and many (or most) of them are exclusive, believing their God to be the only true God. If only one is true, then this necessarily means that the others are false. And we cannot afford to believe in a ‘false’ God! For brevity’s sake, suppose there exists only two religions – Christianity and Islam. And a belief in the wrong God would mean an infinite loss (see Table 2 below).

Table 2

There is no logical reason to think that Christianity (indeed, any particular religion) is definitely correct and every other religion have absolutely zero chance of being true. It is certainly incumbent on anyone who might contest this to explain why only Christianity (or any particular religion) is correct and not others. Granted, we might be able to eliminate some religions, such as Pastafarianism (created to oppose the teaching of intelligent design in American schools[4]) from among the options that are actually available to us. However, it is very difficult (or impossible) to prove false those religions that are asserted to be true and especially difficult if they are asserted to be religions that received revelation from God.

Further, the arguments for the existence of God in the Philosophy of Religion advanced by philosophers have near equal strength even when used for different religions (particularly, monotheistic faiths) so they are of little use in helping us choose one religion over another.

Given that we do not know any information that would make one religion more likely true than others. It is therefore logical to invoke the Principle of Indifference to help us understand WGO:

Table 3

Taking the example of Singapore and considering only official religions, each of them has 0.1 probability of being correct.

It is clear that there is a high chance that we may very well choose the wrong God and the possible infinite gains (eternity in heaven) and risks involved (eternity in hell) necessitates us to be more prudent in our choice of belief.


Suppose there is an atheistic pragmatist named Stan. Stan read Pascal’s Wager on the day he turned 21 years old. Despite his mere two decades of life, Stan has been a very dutiful pragmatist. For every decision he had to make in the past two decades, he consistently chose the most pragmatic action. Unlike Bob, Stan has many more years ahead of him.

Being a pragmatist, Stan is convinced by Pascal’s argument. A belief in God gives him an expected net-benefit that outweighs the expected net-benefit of a disbelief in God. But he also realises that Pascal’s Wager does not require him to make an immediate ‘leap of faith’. After all, the infinite gain (or loss) can only be realised after his death.

Therefore, Stan resolves to believe in God before his death. For now, what should Stan do? Let us call this problem B.

To resolve problem B, Stan has, broadly, 3 options[5].

1.     Become a believer.

2.     Remain an atheist.

3.     Become an agnostic.

Let us analyse his 3 options in detail.

Scenario 1, Stan chooses to become a believer immediately. He immediately dawns upon the WGO. He is unable to choose one religion to believe in as each religion is equally likely to be true (recall the discussion on the appropriate application of the Principle of Indifference). To simplify our discussion, suppose Stan has 10 religions to choose from, similar to a Singaporean. Given that Stan wants to be a believer immediately, he decides that since all 10 options provide equal expected net-benefits, he should randomly choose between the 10 options. Perhaps this is done by drawing lots. Suppose he drew a lot that determined that he profess Christianity (just like Pascal and Bob). As a Christian, Stan experiences some extraordinary events, perhaps he marries the perfect woman, has the perfect career and the perfect family. He might also go through some ‘religious experiences’, such as witnessing the successful treatment of a scientifically incurable disease[6]. Let us term these set of extraordinary events C. He likely attributes C not to his own hard work or good luck, but to his Christian God, further confirming his belief that Christianity is the one true religion. This can be attributed to the confirmation bias, where people subconsciously select and interpret information to affirm their already-held beliefs[7]. At his deathbed, he recalls Pascal’s Wager but he now has confidence that he has chosen the correct religion and placed his trust in the ‘true’ God.

Let us rewind back to his drawing of the lots. There was a 10% probability that he chose to believe in Christianity and an equal 10% probability that he believed in one of the other 9 religions. Even after the many years that has passed, the probability of each religion being true should have remained equal, at 10%. Of course, there is also the probability that there is no God and therefore no true religion at all. But we shall ignore this possibility since we are discussing the next steps for pragmatists convinced by Pascal’s Wager.

It is clear that Stan’s decision to immediately become a believer has caused him to attribute C to his randomly chosen Christian God. In fact, regardless of the religion his random draw of the lots suggested, given that he experiences C and his inevitable (since he is only human) confirmation bias, he would have attributed C to his randomly chosen religion. To test this, suppose Stan drew the lots and believed in Hinduism, and he experiences C. He would likely have attributed C to his Hindu God and not any other God.

Any logical person would agree that the risks involved in choosing the wrong God to believe necessitates Stan to be more prudent. No one should randomly choose a religion to believe in.

Unlike Bob, as Stan has many more years to live, he could gather more information on the different religions and change the probabilities of each religion being correct (at least, for himself).

It seems clear that Stan should not choose to become a believer immediately.

Scenario 2, Stan chooses to remain an atheist. He experiences C. Due to confirmation bias, he attributes C purely to his own hard work and good luck, further affirming his atheistic belief. On the last day of his life, he decides it is time to make a pragmatic switch to believe in God.

Alas, he faces the WGO.

Pragmatically, choosing one religion (no matter how arbitrarily) is better than not choosing at all. Suppose Stan is therefore able to choose one of the 10 religions to believe in, perhaps also by drawing lots. With his atheistic beliefs affirmed throughout his life, it is likely that Stan will find great difficulty in convincing himself that a God exists. Pascal would likely have agreed with this difficulty as he mentioned that after being convinced by Pascal’s Wager, to believe in God, people should behave as if they believe, “taking holy water, having masses said,” and “this will naturally cause you to believe and blunt your cleverness[8]”. It takes time to convince oneself to truly believe in a God. Stan, being unable to truly believe in a God, even if that God exists, this God will likely not reward him with the infinite gain that he desires.

Some might counter that if Stan was an atheist, he might not have experienced C. This is unreasonable, seeing that amongst successful people in all fields, there are both atheists and theists.

It seems that Stan should also not choose to remain an atheist.

Scenario 3, Stan decides to remain agnostic and remain open to information that could help him decide which God to believe in. Agnosticism is defined here to be the belief that does not affirm God’s existence or inexistence and does not affirm one religion to be more correct than others, until evidence suggests so. Given the agnostic imperative[9]:

for all persons S and propositions P, if S believes that P is just as likely as not-P, then it is impermissible for S to believe either P or not-P.

An agnostic will therefore suspend belief whenever the evidence is insufficient – making a decision on what to believe only when there is evidence that suggests one option to be more likely than others. Suppose he experiences C. As an agnostic, he might profess that for C, there is a probability of divine help, but he knows definitively that his hard work and good luck contributed to C (after all, he reasonably knows that he exists and that he has free will). Confirmation bias does not affirm his belief in a particular God (as in Scenario 1), nor does it affirm his belief in atheism (as in Scenario 2). However, Stan can aptly decide what is the best explanation for the particular events that happens to him. Suppose his perfect wife unfortunately suffers from a terminal disease – late stage cancer. Whether he is advised by his close friends to pray to a Christian God, Allah, or seek more expert oncologists, and his wife recovers fully, his beliefs will be altered accordingly. To illustrate this, suppose Stan is advised by his best friend, Gaston, a Christian, to join a church service, where Gaston’s pastor will pray for Stan’s wife. A desperate Stan obliges and Stan’s wife recovers several months later. It is reasonable for Stan to mentally adjust and increase the probability that Christianity is correct.

As expected, at his deathbed, Stan faces the WGO. This problem is likely to be more easily solved now, as he had the opportunity of his entire life to seek information that support one particular belief and undermine others. Unlike in Scenario 2, Stan now would likely face minimal or zero difficulty in believing in God, as he has experienced events that suggests there to be a God.

Therefore, after Stan is persuaded by Pascal’s Wager, he should make the optimal decision to be agnostic, withholding belief until evidence suggests one belief to be more likely correct than others.

Possible Counterarguments

Some theists might counter here that Stan should not wait until the final day of his life to decide which God to believe in. Instead, he should decide immediately once he receives information that can be interpreted as support for a particular God. Recall the example of Stan agreeing to join Gaston for a church service, where Gaston’s pastor prays for Stan’ wife. After his wife’s recovery, the argument suggests that Stan should believe in Christianity immediately.

I disagree. This is not the optimal decision.

The problem with this is that we cannot confidently rule out the possibility of his wife’s recovery from cancer after Stan’s visit to the church as being due to coincidence. The problem with Stan immediately believing in Christianity as a result of just one event is that he could, from now on, be unable to objectively evaluate other events as evidence to support other religions, due to the confirmation bias. Therefore, Stan should remain agnostic until more evidence suggests Christianity to be right.

Also, some atheists might counter that despite using our entire life to seek evidence for and against the various religions, one might still be unable to choose the correct religion and therefore, we should not believe in any God at all. There is always this possibility. However, it is reasonable and justifiable for us to give our very best (indeed, our very best is our entire lives) to search for evidence that can help us best achieve the infinite gain and best avoid the infinite loss. The infinite magnitude of the gains and risks involved necessitates that we give all we have, our entire lives, to help us make the best-possible decision.

It is clear, that the optimal decision for Stan, and all of us in Stan’s shoes is to remain agnostic until the final day of our lives, where we would have maximised the amount of information we could have possibly gathered to help us best choose the correct religion among all the possible religions.


[1] I refer to a copy of Pascal’s Wager translated by John Warrington, accessible at http://www.stat.ucla.edu/history/pascal_wager.pdf

[2] Philosopher J.L. Mackie stated that “the church within which alone salvation is to be found is not necessarily the Church of Rome, but perhaps that of the Anabaptists or the Mormons or the Muslim Sunnis or the worshippers of Kali or of Odin” in his book, The Miracle of Theism, published by Oxford University Press, in 1982.

[3] Inter-Religious Organisation Singapore, accessible at http://iro.sg/

[4] James Langton, “In the beginning there was the Flying Spaghetti Monster”, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/1498162/In-the-beginning-there-was-the-Flying-Spaghetti-Monster.html

[5] The 3 options considered are arguably the most common. Therefore, other types of positions that someone can take with respect to religion, are not considered here.

[6] An example of such a miracle is described by medical historian and hematologist, Dr Jacalyn Duffin, accessible at http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/24660240

[7] Raymond S. Nickerson, “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises”, Review of General Psychology, 2, no. 2 (1998): 175-220

[8] Pascal’s Wager

[9] Defined by Jeff Jordan at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessible at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pragmatic-belief-god/#WilJamWilBelArg

The Biological Basis of Attraction

As I mentioned in my previous blog post that I would be uploading and sharing the various works I submitted for school. Primarily, the rationale is – why let good pieces of work rot in the hard disk where no one will even look at them again? In economic terms, the marginal cost of producing ideas by sharing them is zero. Yet there exists concrete gain.

I wrote an opinion piece on ‘The Biological Basis of Attraction’ some time back together with a few friends in my psychology class (Nadia, Shi Ya and Trang). I hope this will be interesting.


DO you think about a special someone all day long? Does that special someone seem so perfect and flawless? You just want to spend all day long with him/her. You are in love. Admit it.

But what makes us love? What do you know about love? Is love sacred and did anything cause us to fall in love? If there isn’t, what forces are there that make us more likely to fall for that special someone?

In this opinion piece, we are going introduce to you the little “cupids” in our bodies that drive us to love that special someone, based on a study conducted by biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher.

Just to be clear: lust, attraction and commitment are very different. Lust is purely sexual and can exist without attraction or commitment. Attraction is characterized by increased energy, possessiveness and a motivation to win a preferred partner (Fisher, The Drive to Love, 2006). We are going to focus on attraction – more specifically, romantic attraction.


To find out what biological processes cause us to feel the way we do when we are in love, Fisher conducted a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study and found that when one sees a photo of their beloved, there was a distinct increase in dopamine (feel-good neurotransmitter) activity in specific parts of the brain – the dopaminergic reward system (Aron, et al., 2005) (Schultz, 2000). This reward system is associated with pleasure and arousal, it motivates us and focuses our attention to pursue and attain rewards (Schultz, 2000) (Delgado, Nystrom, Fissell, Noll, & Fiez, 2000) – in this case, the love of our lives.


Recall the first time you met your beloved. You enjoyed his or her company and the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is produced and released in the ventral tegmental area of your brain (Schultz, 2000). This is where it all started. Dopamine sends messages saying ‘I want that’, ‘more of that’ and ‘give it to me!’, enticing you to want more and more of that good company, your beloved.


Dopamine then reaches the caudate nucleus, where the euphoria and ecstasy you experience is integrated with the sights and sounds of your beloved (Brown & Fisher, n.d.). Your brain now knows who your beloved is.


English singer-songwriter Robert Palmer famously sang ‘Addicted to Love’. It turns out that this is true. The nucleus accumbens, which is associated with addiction (Chiara, et al., 2004), is also activated in love (Aron, et al., 2005). The feelings, sights and sounds of your beloved is now associated with addiction. Indeed, as the song goes, you “might as well face it, you’re addicted to love”.


Dopamine, dopamine, dopamine… Are we therefore completely unable to control who we love? Not true. The evolutionarily newest prefrontal cortex, where higher-order cognition takes place, allows you to conduct the final review about the choice of your beloved: “Does his or her values matches mine?” “Will he or she be a good father/mother?”. Essentially, the prefrontal cortex helps you answer the question “Is he or she really the one for me?” (Fisher, Brains Do It: Lust, Attraction, and Attachment, 2000).


Now that we know what happens when we fall in love, what happens when we fall out of love? Not many romantic relationships last. In these cases, where did love go?

A recent study found that the honeymoon period in newlyweds last for about 30 months before fading fore fading (Lorber, Erlanger, Heyman, & O’leary, 2015). During the honeymoon period, couples have higher levels of nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein that is associated with romantic feelings (Emanuele, NGF and romantic love., 2011) (Emanuele, et al., 2006). NGF fades over time, possibly explaining why the honeymoon period ends after some time (Emanuele, et al., 2006). Does this mean the both of you no longer love each other? Not true! This is a natural transition to the ‘attachment’ phase of love – characterized by calm, comfort and emotional union with a long-term partner (Fisher, The Drive to Love, 2006), which is characterized by different neurotransmitters in our brain – oxytocin and vasopressin (Lim, Murphy, & Young, 2004) (Lim & Young, 2004).

To sum it up, falling in love is wonderful and miraculous, our body is biologically wired to crave for love and it facilitates this process via the dopaminergic reward system. Love naturally grows and transits from one phase to other. Remember – love is a choice – so long as you decide (with the help of the prefrontal cortex) to love, you can always find ways to relive the euphoria and ecstasy associated with increases in dopamine levels (hint: try new activities together (Marcus, 2012)).


Aron, A., Fisher, H., Mashek, D. J., Strong, G., Li, H., & Brown, L. L. (2005). Reward, Motivation, and Emotion Systems Associated With Early-Stage Intense Romantic Love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 327-337.

Brown, L. L., & Fisher, H. (n.d.). Ventral Tegmental Area and Caudate Nucleus. Retrieved from The Anatomy of Love: https://theanatomyoflove.com/the-results/ventral-tegmental-area/

Chiara, G. D., V, B., S, F., MA, D. L., L, S., C, C., . . . D, L. (2004). Dopamine and drug addiction: the nucleus accumbens shell connection. Neuropharmacology, 227-241.

Delgado, M. R., Nystrom, L. E., Fissell, C., Noll, C., & Fiez, J. A. (2000). Tracking the Hemodynamic Responses to Reward and Punishment in the Striatum. Journal of Neurophysiology, 3072-3077.

Emanuele, E. (2011). NGF and romantic love. Archives Italiennes de Biologie, 265-268.

Emanuele, E., Polit, P., Bianchi, M., Minoretti, P., Bertona, M., & Geroldi, D. (2006). Raised plasma nerve growth factor levels associated with early-stage romantic love. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 288-294.

Fisher, H. (2000, January 1). Brains Do It: Lust, Attraction, and Attachment. Retrieved from The Dana Foundation: http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/Default.aspx?id=39351

Fisher, H. (2006). The Drive to Love. In R. J. Sternberg, & K. Weis, The New Psychology of Love (pp. 87-107). Yale University Press.

Lim, M., & Young, L. (2004). Vasopressin-dependent neural circuits underlying pair bond formation in the monogamous prairie vole. Neuroscience, 35-45.

Lim, M., Murphy, A., & Young, A. (2004). ntral striatopallidal oxytocin and vasopressin V1a receptors in the monogamous prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster). The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 555-570.

Lorber, M., Erlanger, A., Heyman, R., & O’leary, K. (2015). The honeymoon effect: does it exist and can it be predicted? Prevention Science, 550-559.

Marcus, G. (2012, May 10). Learn Something New – Your Brain Will Thank You. Retrieved from CNN: http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/10/learn-something-new-your-brain-will-thank-you/

Schultz, W. (2000). MULTIPLE REWARD SIGNALS IN THE BRAIN. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 199-207.

On Sharing Pizzas and Water

Suppose, I brought home 1 large pizza. Every slice of pizza I give to my sister, there is one less pizza slice left for everyone else in the common pool.

Clearly, sharing is the act of giving a part of a larger whole to someone else.

To illustrate further, suppose the cruise ship I was on ran ashore on a deserted island. There are 10 survivors, including myself. But unbeknownst to the rest, I managed to grab 1 litre of clean water when I escaped, while they have nothing. Every drop of water I choose to share will mean that I have less water for myself. Why should I share – especially when my survival hinges upon that measly 1 litre of water, that is barely enough for myself already?

It also seems natural to conclude that everything that we possess, once shared, we retain less of them. So why share?

In psychology, discussions of altruism in homo sapiens often centres around theories such as the ‘Selfish Gene’ proposed by Richard Dawkins, or the long-run benefits of reciprocal altruism. Invoking and discussing psychological theories is not my main objective today.

Rather, I simply want to encourage more people to share. To do this, I will illustrate how sharing can actually lead to increases in the value of what is shared, allowing both the sharers and receivers to benefit.

To see this, we just need to recognise that not all sharing results in losses.

Traditionally, people understood only 2 types of resources – raw materials and energy. These resources, once consumed and/or shared, will decrease in quantity.

However, we need to recognise a third type of resource – ideas. Ideas do not decrease in value when shared or consumed, they grow in value, sometimes exponentially.

Suppose in the classroom, your teacher teaches pythagoras’ theorem. As you and your classmates realise that for any right-angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is the sum of the squares of the other two sides, does the teacher understand that theorem less clearly? Obviously, the answer is no. Instead, as students gain new knowledge about pythagoras theorem, and the teacher too – learns new things, whether they be new ways of teaching math or more applications of the original theorem.

Knowledge and ideas are such incredible things. They do not diminish in value when shared, rather, they grow in value.

Eminent historian and author Yuval Noah Harari argued that the reason why homo sapiens grew to conquer the world, bringing about the current geological period of ‘anthropocene’, where our human activities left an indelible mark on the planet was due to our ability to cooperate flexibly en masse. Some animals can cooperate on large scale – just look at ants or bees! However, they cannot cooperate flexibly, bees cannot react to happenings in its vicinity and decide to overthrow the queen and establish a republic of bees. They live and function only according to fixed evolutionary instincts. Other animals can cooperate flexibly but only within small groups. A colony of monkeys will eagerly teach its members how and where to find the best bananas. But monkeys do not and cannot travel from one colony to another to share knowledge on banana-gathering. These animals cooperate only when they know each other personally, a foreign monkey will be bashed up, if not brutally murdered in no time. Eventually, the knowledge any colony has will eventually die along with it. He concludes that the only animal capable of flexible, large scale cooperation is homo sapiens.

Yet, look at homo sapiens today. The computer that I use to share my ideas are not created by me. The buses, trains and aeroplanes that bring me all around the world are not created by me. Yet they enable me, and us, to attend school, learn from each other and build upon the knowledge of others – to reach ever greater heights.

If we are convinced, then we can safely say that the world is not built on weapons, money or institutions. It is built on ideas.

To this end, I feel compelled to share the academic works that I have submitted to my school, on this blog. Some of these academic essays, reports, reflections and scripts are well-written and can benefit others who may chance upon them. So why leave them rotting in my private digital storage space, where no one will ever appreciate them again?

I will upload as regularly as I can, while making sure to not violate any academic rules and regulations of my school.

I hope we will all share any ideas we have, today, and everyday.

Happy 51st Birthday, Singapore.


Today, the ninth day of the eight month of the year two-thousand and sixteen, Singapore celebrates its 51st anniversary since independence in 1965.

This year’s theme for the National Day Parade (NDP) was ‘Building our Singapore of Tomorrow’. The theme could not be more apt. Just last year, we celebrated our golden jubilee. As we take our 51st step, it is timely to look at how much further can we go – what kind of a Singapore can we create? What kind of a Singapore will we create? To what extent of our potential will we realise?

The future is filled with potential – there are limitless possibilities. Many of us dream of a more clean and green Singapore – with electric cars, super-efficient and reliable public buses and trains, beautiful parks and waterways for our families and loved ones to play and bask in. Many of us dream of a more cohesive and inclusive society, friendly neighbors and loving friends of all races and religions and abilities celebrating each and every step of our life. Technological advances can almost be taken for granted, the speed at which mankind has harnessed and improved technology in the past 200 years since the industrial revolution is unprecedented – the acceleration has been exponential indeed.

Amidst this jubilant atmosphere and the limitless possibilities, it is necessary that we take a good look at the challenges that we face. What are the challenges, domestic and foreign, that can impede our progress towards the future we all anticipate? How can we, as a small nation in the Malay Archipelago (which in turn lies between the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea), position and maneuvre ourselves amidst the ambitions of the superpowers and superpower-wannabes? In this era, we have to be cautious of not just state actors, but also non-state actors as well. Political activists, as seen in the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution in 2014, where students paralysed political and economic activity, have unprecedented power with the proliferation of social media. The influence of radical religion has also been on the rise, aided with the help of social media and amplified by poor governance in many areas.

The list of challenges that can come in our way will be too long for a blog post (indeed, they are infinite). I will list 2 that I think are most salient at this point in time and will require the most urgent of our attention.

Radical Religion

One, the threat of radical religion. The Islamic State is more powerful than ever in terms of its presence in the Malay Archipelago. There were so many radicalised Southeast Asians from Indonesia, Malaysia and even Singapore that went to fight for ISIS such that ISIS created one brigade just for them (the Katibah Nusantara) in 2014. Just 2 years later, ISIS have their sights set on Southeast Asia. The Philippine island of Mindanao looks set to be most suitable, the ongoing Moro conflict (since 1969) between the ‘bullied’ Muslims and the ‘bullying’ Catholics set the best context for radicalised Muslims to rally behind a different ‘government’. To add fuel to the fire, the Muslims of Mindanao have been campaigning for an independent Mindanao since forever.

Not just the Philippines, the other Muslim-majority territories of Indonesia and Malaysia are prime targets as well. Extremist groups have been operating in these countries for a long time (say Jemaah Islamiyah). Recent attacks in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur by ISIS highlights the progress ISIS has been gaining in these areas. Just a few months back, ISIS launched a newspaper aimed at the Malaysian and Indonesian Muslim population, named Al Fatihin (The Conqueror in Arabic). The language used is noteworthy – Bahasa Indonesia. It signals the attention ISIS is directing towards its recruitment efforts in Malaysia and Indonesia (not to forget Singapore is one of the countries where the newspaper is supposed to be circulating, of course our Government has already banned it and gazetted it under the Undesirable Publications Act).

Several factors in Southeast Asia makes it a prime hotspot for ISIS to recruit and consolidate their base here. The most noteworthy is the lack of political stability. In Malaysia, the Prime Minister is embroiled in a massive corruption scandal. At the same time, politics are deeply intertwined with race and religion, leading to religious fanatics as seen in parties such as the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. In the Philippines, the inability of the Government to make lasting peace in Mindanao is one of the Phillipines’ greatest failure. Let us also remember that the Thai south has a history of Muslim v.s. Buddhist violence.

Second, the geography of Southeast Asian countries make it difficult for the Government to keep a close rein on individual extremist activities, especially with the proliferation of the Internet and self-radicalisation. There exists too many rural areas in Malaysia, Indonesia and Phillipines (think – Kalimantan). The poor surveillance and control of rural areas allow extremists time and space to consolidate strength and train themselves. At the same time, due to advances in technology and the close proximity of Southeast Asian countries, Singapore is vulnerable to attacks from neighboring countries. On 5 August 2016, it was revealed that 6 Indonesian extremists tried to launch a rocket to bomb Singapore’s Marina Bay financial district from Batam. Luckily, the plot was foiled. This incident reminds Singaporeans of the danger that Singapore faces. Attacks by non-state actors can come from a neighboring state of which Singapore is friendly towards. How can Singapore protect herself from such attacks? Closer coordination between security agencies of all countries is definitely needed. At the same time, how much closer can these cooperation get? Are all of our neighboring countries willing to share information about their own citizens with us? How willing are Singaporeans willing to share their information with foreign security agencies? Other than Indonesia, it will be interesting to note that rockets can hit Singapore even from Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam… the list goes on, in fact, the rocket does not even have to be in Southeast Asia to hit Singapore. How ready are we?

Indeed, Singapore is one of the most desirable targets of attack for many terrorist organisations. We have positioned ourselves as one of the world’s safest city – any terrorist organisation that successfully strikes us will have a huge trophy to claim. Singapore, being a close ally of the USA and Israel definitely does not gain us any brownie points with the terrorists, successfully landing a strike on us will only help any terrorist organisations to gain respect and influence amongst the Muslim population that still denounce Israel as a legitimate state

The threat of radical religion must not be taken lightly. Singapore has taken many steps to ensure we do not falter as a people when a successful attack does materialise. While many policies are in place, what about the resilience of our people? Will we be able to bounce back as one people? Determined and ready to protect and preserve our way of life? Make no mistake – the terrorists and determined to tear our society apart, sow discord and create tension. As a people with many differences (and also many similarities), will we triumph over these evil-doers?

Economic Uncertainty

From being a little red dot to a ‘nose-booger’ nation, Singapore has come a long way. As one of the four Asian Tigers, our economic growth has been on the uptrend ever since independence – defying what everyone thought would happen to Singapore post-separation (sorry Tunku, you were proved wrong! boohoo!)sg gdp 1960-2015.PNG

Now, on the back of tighter labor markets, and the fourth industrial revolution finally dawning upon us. Robots and technology are replacing jobs – more so than ever. As an economy overly dependent on external trade, the global economy is increasingly sluggish as well with China’s growth slowing. The Government’s efforts to boost productivity in our companies have been showing lacklustre results. Our economic growth for the past 2 years suggests our economy is currently experiencing a host of structural challenges. Thankfully, many new and innovative policies are being introduced – the most notable of all, is the SkillsFuture initiative. All Singaporeans are given a sum of money in which they could use to learn a new skill – in any and every field. The future economy seems to be one where those with the most skills thrives.

At the same time, the world economy is facing a multitude of uncertainties. Will Brexit signal to ASEAN countries the failings of an ever-closer union of countries? How will this impact the economic goals of ASEAN and its potential benefits to Singapore? A common market of more than 500 million people that encourages more investment into the region? Closer economic cooperation and interdependence between ASEAN countries?

How will the imminent elections in the USA affect the recently-concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership? Will the failure by the new President of the USA to endorse it affect Singapore’s economic outlook? What about China’s One-Belt-One-Road initiative, as Singapore is not a partner, will potential investors be tempted away?

While the Government has put in place new policies, how will Singaporeans rise up to the challenge? Perhaps more than ever before, we need a rugged populace capable of and willing to get their hands dirty and be willing to persevere and go through tough times together. Will the newer generation (like mine) be able to do that? Or will we behave like voters in other older democracies such as the USA and the United Kingdom, where we vote out the incumbent leadership during tough times, hoping newer leadership will miraculously bring us out of the quagmire (even though the incumbent one can offer better governance).

The Need for a Singaporean Identity

How then can we overcome these obstacles and progress ahead as a nation? If these challenges are wars to be won, then we will need a much stronger Singaporean Identity as our weapon and shield of choice.

What is identity? The word ‘identity’ comes from the Latin word ‘idem’ – meaning the quality of being the same. A national identity must be built upon values. A strong Singaporean Identity will therefore require a convergence of certain key values across Singaporeans of all stratas – age groups, races, religions and incomes.

One, I think we need a rugged mindset – the ability to endure hardships and never to back down from challenges.

Two, we will need a strong sense of unity – where each and every Singaporean sees themselves as part of the same special community, inspite of our differences.

Three, we will need a strong sense of belonging – where each and every Singaporean feels included and accepted by society, where everyone feels the need to protect and preserve our way of life.

Armed and Ready

A strong Singaporean Identity will help us fend off those who threaten our way of life (e.g. terrorists) who are determined to sow discord and create tensions by playing on the superficial differences in our society. A strong sense of unity and belonging will enable us to remain as one united people, precluding the ability of terrorists to amass strength and influence within our society.

A strong Singaporean Identity will help us remain resilient during times of economic uncertainty and hardship. A rugged populace that grabs at any and every opportunity will ensure that the Singapore economy is always ready to ride the waves of the global economy whenever they come. Together with the sense of unity and belonging, we ensure that even during hard times, no one is left behind and those with more will help those with less.

As we take our 51st step into this uncertain world, deep down inside, I know we are on the right track. So long as we do not lose sight of our shared future, we will make it. Just like how we did it 50 years ago.

Majulah Singapura.


603 Days – What Have I Learnt?

20160806_192710 (1).jpgIt has been 603 days since 13th December 2014 – the day I joined Youth Corps Singapore and met Julia, Jun Rong, Kenneth, Qian Ci, Orlena and Alysha (and definitely the mentors Sky and Tracy and the other friends)!

Looking back, I remember how many people said it was a crazy decision to join YCS while I was still serving my national service. Perhaps it was not too crazy after all – I was injured and was given clerical duties. Given the circumstances, this is probably the best decision I could have made. When I enlisted, I resolved to become an officer or at least a sergeant. But circumstances do not always go my way. An unexpected injury dashed all hopes of becoming one.

What else could I have done to make the best out of my compulsory 2 year national service? Giving my all to the military and grabbing all and any opportunities definitely grew me as an individual and as a team-player, and since I have touched on my NS experience in an earlier post, I will not be touching it here.

National Service never literally meant ‘military service’ – it has always been about service to the nation in all and any domains. Youth Corps fills in this role perfectly, giving me a chance to contribute back to the society while allowing me to develop myself further. At the same time, I was looking for friends who are equally (if not more) passionate about serving the community. I am more than glad that I have made this choice.


Youth Corps Induction Programme @ Outward Bound Ubin – 13 to 17 Dec 2014

Post-induction, it was a whirlwind of a journey. For our first 6 months, I was researcher for my team, formulating survey questions and collating statistics. From near-zero base, I sent out countless emails to organisations to ask for support and finally Yishun JC’s Interact Club responded positively. From then on, Julia and I worked on engaging the interacters, giving presentation briefings, bringing the interacters to the food centre to become cleaners for a day, conducting debriefs became a norm for us. I had the opportunity to give a talk to CCA leaders of Yishun JC as well, honing my public speaking skills (this was close to zero even at the end of my J2 year, my fellow friends who heard me emcee would know… and cringe). Knocking on every single door of the x number of HDB blocks to spread the message of gracious meal habits in the food centre allowed me to practice the art of persuasion, especially with such a diverse demographic of people. Folding 1,000 paper boxes and then emcee-ing for a community event proved how steep this learning curve was. This was a crazy 6 months.


Convincing patrons to use the paperboxes (LOOK AT THAT PAPERBOX BEING USED!)

Afterwards, I took on the role of team leader for our overseas project to Kha Naung Htoo Village, in Myanmar (some 3 hours south of Yangon). Having zero experience with overseas community service project, this was another crazy steep learning curve for me to conquer. At the village, I realised how important good governance is to any society. A society can have an abundance of people, resources and what not, but without good governance, the lives of its people will never improve. Clean water was not a given in the village, most villagers had to collect water from a common tap near the village church. Floods were common in the wet season. Children helping out in the fields or working even during their primary school years to supplement family incomes. All these seemed to parallel what Singapore was in its infant years of independence.


One other stark realisation for me was the fact that inequality exists even in an impoverished village. Some households have solar panels, can afford to send their kids not just to school, but for additional tuition, their own water pumping and filtration system…

Realising the problems the village face, at the same time, we realised there is only so much we can do to help. And this is what made our efforts even more important – we had to make sure whatever we do remains sustainable by the efforts of the villagers themselves. Given a limited budget, which ‘policies’ must we pursue to ensure that this village is now given the ability to maximise its potential? We decided on two main programmes. For the hard infrastructure, we knew we had to build roads that will allow the children and the elderly uninterrupted access through and out of the village even during wet seasons to ensure that education and healthcare remains uninterrupted. For the soft skills, we introduced an English language programme designed to empower the youths there to teach the younger children in the village. At the same time, we conducted a community leadership workshop to empower the youths to see the village from different perspectives and show them what and how can they work to make the village better. Many ingenious ideas surfaced – Denar (a villager) suggested to have rubbish bins located every 50m along the village road so as to reduce plastic waste in the river (and plastic waste can be sold for some petty cash). It was a most fruitful and heartwarming project. Many challenges came along the way, and I am glad that my teammates offered unwavering support especially when I faltered at times (thanks Kenneth!) I learnt so much from all of you and all of you are the best teammates I could ever ask for.920758_10153383167657972_9084395564497610529_o.jpg

On this note, I started an internship with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (not via Youth Corps, but my Youth Corps experience pushed me to want to experience what social policy-making is about). At the Sector Planning and Development Division, I was tasked to explore new ways to improve productivity of various social service sectors in light of increasing demand for social services (e.g. ageing population, increased special needs diagnoses amongst children and rising divorce rates) while keeping the sector manpower-lean (due to tight labor force). I explored 3 areas in-depth. Namely, the early intervention programme for infants and children (EIPIC); strengthening marriages and reducing divorces; and low-income families. It was an enriching experience – gaining an inside look into what goes on behind-the-scenes of policy-making. How each and every minute detail of a policy requires in-depth review and discussion. How do we decide on an income-ceiling for a particular policy? Must there always be a ceiling? Or does a graduated income ceiling work better?

Thereafter, I started on an internship with one of Youth Corps’ community partner – Engineering Good. I chose this internship for 2 reasons. First, it allowed me to build on what I have already learnt about children with special needs in EIPIC centres from my MSF internship. Second, I wanted to try working in a non-profit organisation. Everyday was a challenge – there were new skills to be learnt. Soldering, drilling, electric circuit boards, proposing to grantmakers, social media management, volunteer management… It all culminated in a series of 9 workshops for at-risk youths from the Singapore Boys Hostel. It was my first time engaging this demographic. I definitely wasn’t sure if I would be able to do well. If I don’t, what next? Do I quit this internship? But quitting was never an option. So what now? I decided that being genuine is the best way to go. And it was a most amazing 9 weeks – the boys were an absolute joy to be with (although annoying at times, STOP STEALING MY CHOCOLATES!!!). Bringing some of them to Rainbow Centre @ Margaret Drive (thank you AnnChi for facilitating this visit!) was most memorable. The boys looked disinterested at first, but when they interacted with the children and when I conducted the reflection session afterwards, I could definitely see that they have learnt something. And this experience might very well motivate them to strive for more in the future. And I could see how boy X (not mentioning names to protect his identity) became a lot more enthusiastic and took initiative during workshops post-special school visit. I knew I had made a positive impact on their lives, at least some of them.


Some of the boys’ reflections

6th August 2016. My Youth Corps journey has come to an end (for now at least), as I await to start school and take on new responsibilities and challenge myself further. Receiving my certificate and testimonial together with all my teammates made me feel like it has been a long time, and a time well spent. I have matured and grown a lot throughout this journey. Learning to be more gracious in my interactions with other people, with the environment, learning to network and conduct workshops and reflection sessions, learning to engage strangers and persuade and convince them to support my cause, learning how to speak more confidently in public and learning how to be unashamed of doing things that need to be done.



Jun Rong high kneel on point! HAHAHAH – thats why you are still in army HAHAHHA