Home | Calendar | About | Getting Involved | Groups | Initiatives | Bryn Mawr Home | Serendip Home

Singapore/Science Connection
Al Albano

Letters from Singapore: 26 August | 3 October | 4 November

3 October 2005

One of the courses I teach at Singapore Management University is called "Physics for Managers". Most of the students in the class are from the Lee Kong Chian School of Business (Mr. Lee had given a few tens of millions of dollars to get the school going). The school's name is sometimes abbreviated SoB in intramural memoranda. I have yet to discover if the acronym is at all correlated with either the tone or the content of the memos that use it.

Last week, I introduced the class to what I have been calling the "Quaker Meeting mode of class discussion". It goes like this: after I raise a question for discussion, everybody sits quietly until the spirit moves someone to speak, no matter how long it takes for the spirit to move.

I used to get embarrassed by long silences in a class, perhaps feeling that to give customers .uh, students . their money's worth, there has to be constant babble. Many times, I would end up answering my own questions, defeating the whole idea of a discussion and depriving the students of an opportunity to reflect. I have gotten much better. That is, it now takes a whole lot of silence (and other things, besides) to embarrass me. I can now patiently wait while the students sit and think . or just sit. But when the spirit does move someone to speak, what is said often makes more sense than what one usually gets from an instant response.

We were finishing a discussion of the second law of thermodynamics, rehashing the analysis of an idealized heat engine, a topic much loved by 19 th century thermodynamicists. The engine draws heat from a high-temperature source and dumps some fraction of it to a low-temperature sink. Some, or in the ideal case all, of the difference is used to do work. The gasoline engine seemed to be an example with which everybody was comfortable. There has to be a temperature difference between the source and the sink in order for work to be done. The larger the temperature difference, the more efficient the engine is. This temperature difference represents a hierarchy, we all eventually agreed, an ordered structure without which no work could be done.

Then came the discussion question. Could this be used as a metaphor for the way countries operate? Does there need to be a hierarchy for a country to be able to do "work"? Hierarchy in a country could mean that some people have lots of power, others have much less. Is it so that for countries or their governments, more hierarchical or more authoritarian means more efficient? If this were an appropriate metaphor, would a democracy in which everybody is supposedly equal be able to get any work done?

The spirit seemed slow to move the students to speak either about the merits (or lack thereof) of the metaphor or the relative efficiencies of authoritarian versus non-authoritarian governments.

To my surprise, it was a Chinese student (from the People's Republic) who was first moved to speak. In an authoritarian system, he said, the government commands, and the people obey. Or at least, they are supposed to. If the people believe in the wisdom of what the government wants done, then things are done. If not, the government may command all it wants, but the people will dawdle, and procrastinate, and look busy, but nothing will really get done. A hierarchy in which some people have all the power and authority and others have none is not enough. Those who have the power must be able to convince the powerless that they, the powerful, are wise enough to decide what's good for all.

Another student observed that that is not really very different from what happens in a representative democracy. Except that in a democracy, candidates for office try to convince people of their wisdom (the candidates', that is), before power is given to them.

I sat down and impolitely put my aching feet up on a chair (we were at the last half-hour of a three-hour class) while the class continued to argue the benefits of a government that derives its powers from the consent, or at least the acquiescence, of the governed. The period ended before we had a chance to get back to the second law of thermodynamics.

Postscript .

A week or so earlier, some citizens had reported to the authorities that a couple of local blogs contain insulting and inflammatory racist remarks directed against Malays in general and Malay Singaporeans in particular.

The bloggers have been arrested and charged with sedition.

<-- Previous | Next -->

Home | Calendar | About | Getting Involved | Groups | Initiatives | Bryn Mawr Home | Serendip Home

Director: Liz McCormack -
emccorma@brynmawr.edu | Faculty Steering Committee | Secretary: Lisa Kolonay
© 1994- , by Center for Science in Society, Bryn Mawr College and Serendip

Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:19 CDT