By Steve Davidson
Recently I happened to be in Hong Kong for a cognitive education conference, and at day’s end, like many people, I took the spectacular funicular Tram and click-clacked up to the top of Victoria’s Peak to have dinner. The charming restaurant staff nicely seated me at a small table where I could gaze out over Victoria Harbour, which was slowly descending into indigo blue, as the multicolored lights of Hong Kong and Kowloon gently transformed the city into fields of jewels, linked by the diamond tracks of the much-loved ferries cruising back and forth across the dark water.
As I sipped my cold San Miguel beer in the warm evening, the restaurant began to fill up, and a pleasant looking gentleman was seated at the table next to me. He also soon was gazing out at what must be one of the most stunning views in the world, Victoria Harbour from Victoria Peak. “Beautiful”, he remarked. “Yes”, I replied. And so began my conversation with Dr. Bo Stamford, one of the chief architects of what might be called the “Singapore System”, the principles underlying the globe’s most successful city-state.
Bo appears to be a clone of Buddha. Warm, unpretentious, calm, respectful, broadly well-informed, shrewd and quick, and quietly amused. Dressed de rigueur for the territory in pale yellow cotton polo shirt, pale blue cotton trousers, and Tod’s suede driving loafers. His doctorate is in economics from a prestigious London university. As we dined on shrimp dim sum, I had a chance to interview him about the amazing, numerous successes of his home, Singapore.
I: Would anyone ever have predicted that a small British coaling station at the foot of the Malay Peninsula would morph into one of the world’s stellar communities, a model city-state? How did it happen?
Dr. S: Naturally, there are the obvious sources. An ideal location for international trade. A convenient intersection of magnificent cultures—India, Britain, and China. Vigorous, ambitious citizenry from Malaysia and Indonesia. Water from river and rain, fields for planting, and copious sunshine.
I: But those elements are true for numerous neighbors of yours. And many of those neighbors are struggling to build roads, schools, and hospitals, make money, and keep the peace. How are you different?
Dr. S: (Bo looked at me with a gentle gleam in his eye, then looked about, as if checking to make sure no one were listening from Hello! Magazine, or the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce, and finally whispered his answer.) Causality . . .
Dr. S: Not so loud!
I: Okay, okay. So, what is this—thing?
Dr. S: Academia . . . slides . . . over the concept of causality. It’s there, but it isn’t. It’s critical, but it’s neglected. It’s a necessity, but it’s inconvenient. It’s the holy grail of knowledge, then it’s Wednesday’s child.
I: Singapore, I take it, took a different tack.
Dr. S: The very thing. In every area of endeavour you can name, causality is the key.
I: I’d like to tell you that I completely agree with you, and that your insight is doubtless excellent. However, a couple of examples, would . . . you know . . . clarify a little bit.
Dr. S: Naturally. Regard, for a moment, these topics:
Leadership. Leaders are supposed to control events in a desired direction. That’s causality.
Government. Administrations are supposed to manage society so that civic conduct falls within a highly admired range, so that all have jobs, medical care, housing, food and water in a beautiful, safe setting. That’s causality.
Financiers. Accountants and bankers are supposed to carefully analyze monetary systems, then invest in the ones likeliest to bring prosperous returns to the citizenry. That’s causality.
Civic Designers. Creative engineers are supposed to plan and build roads, buildings, parks, and breakwaters so the city continues to be dry, efficient, convenient, and attractive decade after decade. That’s causality.
Students. Members of the educational community are supposed to acquire world class knowledge and skills, so they can provide world class service, resulting in world class incomes. That’s causality.
I: Yes . . . that’s what I thought you meant . . .
However, how do you know if something is causal? Isn’t there a lot of controversy around that issue?
Dr. S: There’s confusion and, if I dare say, ignorance, about causality, but perhaps not so much true controversy. The importance of causality is radically grasped all across Singaporean society, top to bottom.
I: How did that occur? Why so?
Dr. S: Nothing bearing such value was left to chance!
I: No, that doesn’t sound like that would be very Singaporean. But, what did you do?
Dr. S: First, our scientists provided us with a clear model of causality. Then, that model was adopted by our educational establishment and taught to students from a young age, as well as continuously publicized by our media.
I: Am I going to get confused here?
Dr. S: Not necessarily. It is, as a magician might say, tricky but simple.
I: I’m listening. I think.
Dr. S: The key concept is comparison.
I: I knew I was going to get lost.
Dr. S: Look down below. Ferries shuttle back and forth, from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula. It costs money to buy the fuel to keep the engines running. Hong Kong is in the tropics, where sunshine is copious. It occurs to someone that if ferries were equipped with solar collectors the sun might provide enough power to run the ferries.
I: Ah, I possibly see where this is heading.
Dr. S: Yes, yes. Good. Take ten average ferries. Spit them in half. Equip one half, five ferries, with solar collectors. Leave the other five, the “control” half, just as it was. At the end of a year, compare the fuel costs. If the ferries with the solar collectors cost much less to run, that’s probably because of the solar collectors.
I: You know that because the solar collectors were the only difference between the two groups of ferries.
Dr. S: Right. That’s a controlled comparison. A test group compared to a control group. That’s how you test for causality.
Not exactly obvious, but once you get it, you’ve got it.
I: Okay, maybe I am starting to. So, when Singapore has an idea, it puts the idea into a controlled comparison to find out if it works or not. If it works, it becomes a part of the Singapore System. If not, it’s put aside.
That’s why everything in Singapore works so well. It’s been causally tested!
Dr. S: There it is. We pilot ideas—test them out. If they work, then we implement across our city-state of Singapore.
For example, we’re piloting a new leadership training program in the financial sector. We chose ten matched banks, and broke them into two groups of five each, five in the test group, and five in the control group. We taught the new leadership style to the managers in the five test groups, and said nothing to the managers in the five control groups. In one year, we’ll compare the two sets of banks, and see which is making more money. If our idea works, the five banks in the test group should be doing better than the five banks in the control group. If so, then we can think about implementing the new leadership style across the whole financial sector.
There’s some guesswork involved in all that, here and there, naturally. But that’s our basic approach, our basic causal schema.
His espresso coffee all gone, Bo checked his Patek Philippe watch and announced, “I have a meeting scheduled this evening at the Peninsula Hotel, in Kowloon, therefore, unfortunately, I must depart. It has been a pleasure speaking with you. Please enjoy the conference.”
As we exited the restaurant to all the splendor of nighttime Hong Kong viewed from high above, a green Rolls Royce, piloted by a strikingly attractive woman, switched on its lights and rolled silently forward, stopping in front of Dr. Stamford. As the car door opened, he turned and made a final comment.
“Plutarch told the stories of numerous men who made Athens, and similar city-states, eternally eminent. We draw those stories into our hearts, into our minds, into our culture. If Athens can . . . make it happen, then, Singapore can . . . make it happen. It’s all a process of . . . causality!” Then he smiled, bowed, slipped onto the beige leather seats, the door quietly closed, and the good doctor ghosted, in his shiny green Wraith, away down the dark hill.
Steve Davidson is a psychologist from California, the author of the clinical textbook “An Introduction to Human Operations Psychotherapy”.
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