“You have to try this! It’s once in a lifetime opportunity!” she pinged.
“But if I get it, I can’t work in Singapore,” I texted back.
“YOU MUST REALLY TRY THIS. IT’S TOO GOOD TO BE MISSED.”
She wrote in caps lock quite often in her text messages that I had learnt to accept it at face value. Our conversations on the Perdana Fellows Programme, perhaps, would just be another temporary excitement.
“Yes, but I can’t think of anything to write about. I’m always less concerned about public policies in Malaysia,” I wrote back with a tinge of indifference.
Undeterred, she encouraged on, “Don’t worry. Take your sweet time to ponder upon it.”
Those were the exact words from a dear friend, of whom without, I would not be writing here today.
Hence, from July 1 to December 31 last year, I found myself driving on the spacious highways of Putrajaya, braving the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Kuala Lumpur, and shaking the hands of many unfamiliar though renowned individuals. I was unlearning and learnt a lot.
The programme’s orientation lightly specified the golden rules to set the exemplary character of a Perdana Fellow marked by the signing of the fearsome Official Secrets Act of 1972, which tends to guide my temperament even at this point of writing. I was entering the heavily guarded gates to the country’s top governance. Neither the Economic Planning Unit, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was deemed a fitting placement for me. My six-month fellowship, allegedly as one of the most highly paid interns of the country, began with the amicable Ministry of Education. With little preparation of education policies, I thought, “Perhaps the Ministry would know precisely what it entails for me.”
My fellowship experience was an interaction of counterintuitions – idealistic talks with realistic plans, bizarre constraints and happy surprises. At times, my performance slowed with a medley of mediocre work. Occasionally, conferences were uninspiring, marred by the worry of expensive parking rates, soon after tamed with excellent hospitality services and copious amounts of coffee. Sometimes, the Fellows and I would produce policy papers that fell below many expectations. We sparred because we wanted only the best out of our stress-tested motions. Nothing was done in a mechanical fashion. Hence, from time to time, I would feel lights sparking, metaphorically speaking, in my brain as some of us challenged major concepts. Impracticality triumphed only when our determination was not strong enough.
Networking was unnatural to me, but the ability to communicate with informed strangers was addictive. A good example of this is the initial disbelief of having greeted by people of stature and granted privileges to exclusive knowledge sharing and projects collaboration that I had not bargained for. Casually planned encounters, an email away, lifted my self-confidence like never before. Previously perceived red tapes were beginning to sound like unwarranted myths and rumours. Indeed, it is easy to make enemies of people we only read about and to idolise those cherished by public opinions.
Yet, what has my fellowship actually taught me – or, more to the point, what has it not taught me? The way that the Perdana Fellows Programme was structured has imposed on me counterintuitive decision processes given the simultaneous presence of limitations and opportunities. However, the big question that came to my mind is: why do we, as youth, tend to be less counterintuitive in this country?
We are seeing similar ideas competing to be noticed, adopting malicious trends only later to be dropped. Was it for the lack of paradoxical debate? Is the political complexity of our country only as useful as the wisdom teeth? One of the most famous, albeit somewhat hackneyed statements I have come upon is “It has to do with our educational system.” It seems no one will get around accepting the shortcomings of any imperfect system in Malaysia – that we should change and change for change’s sake.
Needless to say, a column like this cannot possibly answer why counterintuition and logical thinking would be beneficial. In fact, curiosity and logic, as Richard Dawkins pointed out, may be good for finding the answers, but they are not very good for survival in the wild. The book, The Logic of Political Survival, performed a series of statistical testing to lay out that good policies are bad politics, and bad policy is good politics – to achieve a balance of both is a tenuous affair.
I am beginning to learn more of my country. Internal schism was just as profound as before and it is something worth thinking about. Intuitive solutions, as instinctive as they are, work well for an organised society like Singapore as they strive for extraordinary achievements. It is something too worth exemplifying. As the saying goes, two opposites attract and complete each other. David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage was borne out of counterintuition, of which the theory drives the logic of international trade today.
Though my stint as one of the most highly paid interns in the country has ended, the “fellowship” continues. It has bestowed on me questions remain to be answered. The journey now is to put together a myriad of perceptions, instruments and equations into something that we can all try to understand.
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