16 April 2007

The People's OB Markers

Out of bounds marker, or commonly known as OB markers, is a term derived from golf, a game our ministers (in particular Lee Kuan Yew) are fond of, where it refers to markers that designate the limits of area in play. First employed by Goh Chok Tong, the term is used to demarcate the kinds of topics which should never be brought into critical discussion in the public domain due to its sensitive nature. Perhaps at the government's convenience, the exact boundaries of the OB markers are left blurred. Traditional OB markers include politics, race and religion, though these, being vicissitudes of our evolving society, may have already changed.

Two major cases of overstepping these OB markers are the Catherine Lim incident in 1994 and mrbrown's satirical article last year. There were no legal actions taken against them, but both were strongly reprimanded by the government. More serious cases are dealt with a heavy hand, such as the three seditious bloggers that stirred up racist remarks. Essentially, there is this invisible line that one will cross if the degree to which the issues were discussed were deemed too critical, to public.

All this while, OB markers have been used by the government to draw an imaginary line for the people, but this ministerial hike issue has shed some light onto another kind of OB markers, one that has existed since any people have assumed governing power in a democracy. They are the unspoken OB markers from the people, for the government. The people's OB markers.

There are some issues to which the government must avoid at all cost, such as corruption, to which a parallel can be drawn to the racist bloggers. And just like the government's OB markers, these people's OB markers are also blurred and shifting. Incidents like the NKF saga and the graduate mothers scheme hinted to the government at where these markers lay. Just as in the case of the government's OB markers, these episodes invited scorching criticisms or even worse, loss of votes.

In response to this ministerial hike, the blogosphere, in its instinctive anti-establishment eruption, has blasted the government in all directions. Even the pro-establishment, nation building press sees letters to the forums enunciating the writers' displeasure. Many politically-neutral bloggers like Kway Teow Man, NMP Siew Kum Hong and even mrbrown (who, by linking to insanepoly's colourful post, hints at his agreement with it) are in general not supportive of the hike.

This is another case of the OB markers being crossed. The limit has been overshot. The tolerance of the people broken. Sure, Singaporeans can take a lot of shit, as this TalkingCock article sadly but correctly comments, but I think this time they had enough. The people are saying, "this is too much." The OB markers have been breached.

When Catherine Lim went beyond the confines of acceptable discussion, Goh Chok Tong issued a powerful warning. When mrbrown exceeded the limit, K. Bhavani dished out heavy criticisms. Now, the government crossed the OB markers, and the people are raring to let them know. What the consequences will be, how far-reaching it will go, what repercussions there are, and how it will be played by the Opposition in the next general elections, remains very much to be seen.

14 April 2007

Quantum Photosynthesis

According to Physorg (arrived via Slashdot), our understanding of photosynthesis has been wrong all the while. According to a paper published days ago in the esteemed Nature journal, the photosynthesis process actually involves quantum coherence.

From the Physorg article,

"We have obtained the first direct evidence that remarkably long-lived wavelike electronic quantum coherence plays an important part in energy transfer processes during photosynthesis," said Graham Fleming, the principal investigator for the study. “This wavelike characteristic can explain the extreme efficiency of the energy transfer because it enables the system to simultaneously sample all the potential energy pathways and choose the most efficient one.”

They aren't the ones to first propose the idea, but they provided the first direct evidence of it.

Said [Greg] Engel, "[...] While the possibility that photosynthetic energy transfer might involve quantum oscillations was first suggested more than 70 years ago, the wavelike motion of excitation energy had never been observed until now."

As I understand it, it appears that there is coherence between the donor and acceptor molecules due to impinging photons, resulting in very rapid energy transfer. However, this is not my area; I believe this belongs to either the realm of biophysics or quantum chemistry. Nonetheless, from a physics perspective it is very interesting to see quantum mechanical processes manifesting all around us.

If this is indeed the case and the underlying theory can be worked out, it will be critical in our knowledge to build highly efficient solar cells. But this also means that the simple chemical interpretation of photosynthesis has to be thrown out of the window, as thus from secondary school or JC textbooks. Ah well, at least next time there's a need to cut the syllabus, it will be clear which one will go.

And as a last thought, if photosynthesis is a quantum mechanical process, then does that means that the leaf has both photosynthesized and not photosynthesized?

11 April 2007

Movie Review: Mr Bean's Holiday

I caught this movie last Wednesday, firstly, in hope that it can give me a good stress relief in this insanely stressed period and, secondly, because I think I deserve a little treat after a mad rush of deadlines and tests. The first Mr Bean movie totally blew me off: for a comedy it was first class. Three scenes in particular - the toilet incident, the simulator "enhancement" and Mr Bean's modification to the painting - stood out as those laugh-until-lao-sai kind of gags.

Unfortunately, this second movie is woefully lacking in those. If there's a funniest scene, it was when Mr Bean is trying to beg for money in the train station. But that hardly qualifies as hilarious when contrasted with the three mentioned scenes from the first movie. Looking back, this movie is perhaps geared for nostalgic purposes than for laughing: I remember more Beanish grunts and sniggering than quality Bean jokes.

The story is a simple plot but swung into a ridiculous curve. That is forgivable if it's funny; unfortunately it's only mildly so. Personally, I have the impression that this movie is based more on the cartoon series than the first movie or the TV series. And I have to say I find the cartoons a far cry from the TV series. This poor plot is probably because it was not written by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis, the writers of the series and the first movie.

Considering that, according to Rowan Atkinson, this is the last time he will be playing Mr Bean, it is quite a sad way to end the series. For a comedy this is not worth watching, but for that purpose of the series' end, it is. Rowan Atkinson is so much more talented than Mr Bean and it has given him international recognition for his comedic abilities; it's time to move on.

06 April 2007

Two Side Issues from the Minister Pay Hike

Sidestepping the debates on whether ministerial salaries are justified, I'd like to discuss two related issue instead. They are not so much as original ideas, but something that I had came across months back in some readings, and browsing through all the commentaries and opinions on the blogosphere reminds me them. They are the government's selection process for a minister and their strategy for unveiling unpopular policies.

How does Singapore select its ministers? This question is actually not as obscure as one might think. At this point, it is important to clarify, in case of confusion, that the selection of ministers is highly different from MPs. In [1], ministers are compared to as "generals", while MPs and party activists are "foot-soldiers".

Most bloggers are right to think that being academically talented scholars is a criterion, but it is not the sole yardstick for minister selection. Quoting from [2],

On the recommendation of Ministers, MPs, senior civil servants, corporate leaders, and party activists, prospective candidates are invited to "tea parties" in groups of six to eight to chat informally with one of three Ministers, who take turns in meeting over 100 potential candidates a year. Some of these are invited to a second tea session, and those found suitable meet personally, first with [then] Deputy Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong and then with the party whip. Those who clear the process to this point then appear before the selection committee of PAP Ministers, who probe extensively into a prospective candidate's character and motivation, and ability to be a "team player". After this, those still being considered are interviewed by Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew. If they agree to the selection, the candidate is then given a final interview by the party's CEC to ratify the selection.

This is just the identification of a potential candidate. After this, the minister will be sent out to the grassroots for political work. He or she may be fielded in a constituency for elections a couple of years later. That's not all. From the same source [2],

Those among the selected candidates who are viewed as having minsterial potential go through an additional stage. They are given one-and-a-half days of psychological testing involving over one thousand questions. The PAP has adapted the system developed by Shell for its prospective new executive. The tests focus on three qualities - power of analysis, imagination, and sense of reality.

Thus it can be seen that a minister is selected through a rigourous process. Whether this process works in the future, given the supposed problem of lack of political talents and shifts in the political landscape, remains much to be seen. In addition, this selection process is elitist and may risk creating a disconnect between the leaders and population, as some has claimed already happening [3].

However, I'd like to point out that in [2], I have no idea which articles was referenced with regards to this process because the bibliography was cut off (what I have is a photocopied compilations of the two chapters).

Also seen in this ministerial salary hike is Lee Hsien Loong's way of announcing policies that he knows will create a wave of dissatisfaction amongst the public. Taking from [1],

... the government policies, largely crafted by Lee [Hsien Loong], were implemented with close attention to minimizing opposition, using an incremental approach. The emphasis lay in cooperation between the government and the public to solve a puzzle; the "solution" was to be arrived at gradually by the government, as it were, taking people along with it, step by step. For example, proposals to reduce the employers' contributions to the CPF were not produced with a flourish, out of a hat. They were gradually unveiled as a hypothetical last-resort policy, which became increasingly perceived as inevitable. The initial step was for Lim Boon Heng, Minister without Portfolio and secretary-general of the NTUC, to introduce the issues involved at a seminar in Pasir Ris. Although the presentation had been carefully prepared, the reception was quite chilly. However, the idea had really been just to broach the topic. The real presentation was done through a large number of discussions in the party, at the grassroots, and with trade unionists. The policy was formally announced in November 1998. By this time, many had been convinced that the government's proposals made sense.

Following this, a few paragraphs down, the authors summarised their strategy well,

The lesson was that, if you have to change your policy, prepare the people early and explain why the change is necessary.

Eseentially, instead of dropping a huge and smelly fart at one go, they let the gas out slowly and as noiselessly as they can, so that the public anger can be spread out over time and thus thinned out. From past events like the quoted CPF cut to the recent GST increase, it can be seen that this strategy is widely employed and does work rather well.

Nonetheless, it will be rather interesting to observe how the Internet may affect this strategy. Previously, any grouse is spoken over the coffeshop table and diluted by the time of the next election, but with blogs increasingly pervasive in local politics (particularly the anti-establishment camp), these unhappiness are recorded in words (see [4]) and may resurface when the need arises.

[1] Diane K. Mauzy and R. S. Milne, Singapore Politics under the People's Action Party (London: Routledge, 2002), 'Chapter 9: The successors', pp. 123.
[2] Ibid, 'Chapter 4: The People's Action Party - the Structure and Operation of a Dominant Party', pp. 48 - 49.
[3] See, for example, Minsters salaries - lets have a re-focus by theonlinecitizen and Earth to YPAP: Is there life out there? by kitana
[4] See the comments of Beating the dead ministerial salary horse by Aaron Ng.