Politics & government Sci-fi

[2098] Of one data point

I am unsure if I am recalling this accurately but at back in my mind, amid cobwebs of vague memories, I somehow remember reading an Asimov’s short story in a stuffy old library at the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar. You will forgive me if it is not even Asimov’s writing. It may well be a work of some other science fiction author. What I do have vivid recollection is the subplot of the story, however. Through the retelling of it, I hope that it may cause others to refrain from committing hasty generalization.

The story is set some time in the far future, maybe on Earth, maybe on Trantor or at some other place, I do not know. What is important is that the realm of human knowledge has expanded greatly. This includes in the field of statistics and in particular, sampling methods used to ascertain public opinion.

Sampling methods used today in real life suffer from certain errors arising from randomness and uncertainty. Notice how each time a respectable polling agency in reports result of a survey, it includes the margins of error of the findings, or more accurately, the standard errors, along with the averages. In the science fiction, statisticians of the future have developed a way to eliminate, fully, the errors associated with sampling.

In fact, the field of statistics in that fiction has reached a stage so advanced that the opinion of the public can be gauged accurately by simply sampling a person, who is a member of the public. In other words, all that is required to make general inference about the society is just one data point.

A sample size of one and that is it.


Only one.


Oh my, I do not know how that gets in there.

Anyway, unfortunately in real life, reliability of a sample and therefore, the ability to generalize its statistics for inferential purposes decrease as the sample size decreases, more so at some range closer to zero. We are still finding ourselves a long way from living a statistician’s wet dream.

Yet, all too often in Malaysia today, individuals are quick to generalize the result of a by-election to describe national mood. It is perhaps acceptable to make an inference out of a series of by-elections held within a certain timeframe but it is dangerous to make a claim that a by-election signals a countrywide trend. It is dangerous because it is misleading.

A by-election only gauges the opinion of a certain type of individuals and these individuals are certainly not representative of the whole country. The voters in Bagan Pinang, from instance, are quite different from voters of Manei Urai, Datok Keramat, Damansara Utama or Likas. Although the national issues that they care about may coincide, their attitude toward the same issues is not the same due to their worldviews. And then, there are local issues. It is definitely safe to say that local issues that they face are different enough that one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to failure.

These voters, taken as whole, may provide some concrete statistics on the direction of national politics but individually in isolation, they are not so helpful.

With respect to Bagan Pinang, there are many other differentiating factors that further make result of its by-election unique to itself. As an example, not many areas have an army camp resides within its boundary. Another is its status as resort town, or rather, a resort town full of abandoned projects. Suffice to say, Bagan Pinang is not Malaysia.

Therefore, I have to disagree to sweeping statements made by multiple persons after the election. In The Star, Isa Samad was quoted as saying “The people of all races have spoken and this is an endorsement of the Prime Minister’s 1Malaysia concept.”[1] Deputy UMNO President Muhyiddin Yassin meanwhile said, “This is a significant victory and more importantly the people’s endorsement of the Prime Minister’s policies.”[2]

Perhaps, the people they are referring to are restricted to the voters of Bagan Pinang only. If it refers to Malaysians as a whole, then these two politicians and others who share similar tendency to generalize in so grandly a manner will have a hard time rationalizing trends in other areas.

This is not to say information from Bagan Pinang is worthless. It is not to say information that Bagan Pinang provides with national politics in mind is worthless. Rather, information from this by-election should be contextualized by taking into account several past and future by-elections held at different places if it is to make national sense. Without such contextualization, the one data point of Bagan Pinang might as well be a noise, or an outlier.

In the meantime, save a national election itself, the best barometers of national mood are countrywide surveys done properly. Unless, of course, we are living in a world created by that science fiction.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — Isa thanked the people of Bagan Pinang for the victory, saying it was a win for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s 1Malaysia concept.

“The people of all races have spoken and this is an endorsement of the Prime Minister’s 1Malaysia concept,” he told reporters.

Isa also thanked the Barisan machinery for working tirelessly during the by-election.

“I’m also happy that the Malays, Chinese and Indians are now with Barisan. I hope this will have a domino effect for Barisan in the future,” he said. [Polling Day Live Coverage: Isa wins with thumping majority. Sarban Singh. Zulkifli Abd Rahman. The Star. October 11 2009]

[2] — A beaming Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who was present when the official results were announced just after 8pm, said the people had endorsed Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia concept.

“This is a significant victory and more importantly the people’s endorsement of the Prime Minister’s policies. I congratulate the people of Bagan Pinang, including the Indians and Chinese, who came out in full support of Barisan,” he said at the tallying centre at the Port Dickson Muncipal Council hall. [Thumping win for Isa. Wong Sai Wan Sarban Singh. Zulkifli Abd Rahman. A. Lechutmanan. The Star. October 12 2009]

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

First published in The Malaysian Insider on October 12 2009.

Politics & government

[2090] Of when the majority chooses perversely…

Much has been said about the candidacy of Isa Abdul Samad for the Bagan Pinang by-election in Negeri Sembilan. I wonder how much marginal originality I can write after all that. Yet, I am writing about it.

This piece is not so much to attack Isa Abdul Samad. Others have done so and I will let others who are more aggressive in their stance to take up that position. I have no appetite for harsh words when life has been kind to me. I am happy at where I am and I am not willing to go into a trance of strong words.

Rather, I am concerned with the conditioning that may come with such candidacy and its possible acceptance by voters.

A primer is necessary as a foundation of what I have to share.

UMNO disciplinary committee found Isa Abdul Samad — a former chief minister of Negeri Sembilan — guilty of corruption in 2005. This was a time when euphemism of money politics was used in place of a more direct term for reasons all may speculate. While found guilty, the issue was not brought up to the federal authority for prosecution and therefore, there was no criminal charge when the situation demanded of it.

But that was a time when UMNO could do whatever it wanted. It was pre-March 8 2008. The state was UMNO and UMNO was the state. Much like how the Communist Party of China is the People’s Republic of China and vice versa, there was no differentiation between UMNO the political party and Malaysia the state. Therefore, Isa Abdul Samad got off the hook.

He, as in the words of former Pahang state representative of Pekan, Mohd. Ariff Sabri Abdul Aziz of UMNO, the former chief minister “was punished with the harshest of punishment for a politician — banished from the flock, forced to resign from all official posts.”[1] Perhaps, yet it is maybe the harshest punishment for a politician, but not as harsh as a punishment for a criminal.

In our imperfect world, politicians in the position of power with influential connections tend to get away from justice. The weight of the law is frequently not applied as firm as it should to such person of power. It is worth iterating this: Isa Abdul Samad got off the hook.

Regardless of that, there is a need to move on and his story is one of old. Issue died and it should be allowed to stay dead. After all, there is an issue of punishment and accommodation and perhaps, no matter how lightly he was punished, the society can accommodate him as long as he repents. Whether he did repent is something I am only willing to assume good faith.

Of more greater importance is the perception of corruption that the candidacy brings.

Like it or not, Pakatan Rakyat is focusing on the tainted past of the UMNO candidate. The checkered reputation of both UMNO and Isa Abdul Samad make it all too natural for Pakatan Rakyat to harp on. It is a magnet. Repeat the scenario in any other country, the issue to play is staring at one’s face. If Pakatan Rakyat had fielded a candidate tainted with corruption, Barisan Nasional would have done the same thing: attack the legitimacy of the candidate. Attack his capability to become a trustworthy lawmaker.

All of us deserve second chances. I know how badly I wanted a second chance. I got it and I cherish every moment of it here in Australia. Isa Abdul Samad may contest on the premise of second chance. Yet, the timing is most unfortunate for him. If UMNO really needed to field him, UMNO must sort out its reputation as a corrupt party first. Only then, a second chance for Isa Abdul Samad can come uncontroversially.

With regrets, or with great joy, depending on which side of the political divide one is on, UMNO has yet to clean up its house. And so, the fielding of Isa Abdul Samad — assuming he is deserving of a second chance — does not do justice to the former chief minister.

As a result, UMNO candidate and UMNO itself become a symbol of corruption, if it is not yet a symbol of one. Rather than the former chief minister reaching out for a second chance, he only strengthens UMNO’s unsavory reputation and while doing so, sullies his own sullied reputation.

This is sad because it is in the interest of all Malaysians to see the creation of competitive democracy; competitive in a way in a progressive manner, not to the bottom. UMNO simply is not living up to a standard required for a progressive competitive democracy that fights on advanced issues like the economy and the environment and not instead struggling on very basic issue of legitimacy of a candidate.

Even that, however, is not the issue at hand.

The issue at hand is that Bagan Pinang is a stronghold of UMNO and UMNO is to widely expected to win.

I am not sharing this because I am partial to Pakatan Rakyat. I am in fact quietly relishing the expectation that PAS will be beaten. My attitude towards PAS, especially against its conservative side, is one of quiet hostility. i distrust PAS, as I distrust many socially conservative individuals with power and tendency to move against individual liberty. I can say this because I am not a card-carrying member of the party that I sympathize with and my position is of mine alone.

I am writing this because, if Bagan Pinang chooses UMNO, it creates the perception that the electorates are tolerant of the culture of corruption that UMNO has not only come to identify itself with, but also strengthens with the candidacy of Isa Abdul Samad. When the electorates come to that point, one has to wonder whether the culture of corruption has spread so wide beyond UMNO and into the heart of common voters.

One would hope that voters who would vote for UMNO are UMNO members, who reason is no match for blind loyalty. Else, truly, corruption has become a way of life. No longer is corruption seen as a wrong, but rather it is being nonchalantly shoved aside and ignored.

If it is the voters and the majority at that, then truly, the perverse has won. The rot has truly spread.

That is what I fear.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — Very likely, the findings of the disciplinary board are meant for internal discipline. The dos and don’ts it listed were meant as club rules and those who violate them, were punished in accordance to forms of punishment provided for. In Isa’s case he was punished with the harshest of punishment for a politician- banished from the flock, forced to resign from all official posts. Having served the punishment, we, the moral police now want to step in and punish Isa once again? We took his flesh and now we want his blood too? To make things worse, we do that via the tortured definitions of morality. The depraved past vs. the pristine future, penny wise and pound foolish etc. [The immorality of the moral high ground-2. Mohd. Ariff Sabri Abdul Aziz. Sakmongkol AK47. September 30 2009]