On Pyrrhic victories
By Toh Hsien Min
One upside of working on the development of analytical modelling solutions is the opportunity to engage with interesting problems. A couple of years ago, an internal researcher was working on modelling game theoretic strategies in a multifarious ecosystem, and I got interested enough to write code to help transform the problem into one where the different species in the ecosystem would encounter one another in proportion to their numbers. The basic dynamic was built simply on the defect/co-operate choices in the prisoner’s dilemma, albeit our formulation involved more gradations of behaviour, and this was made known to all participants: a group of defectors meeting a herd of co-operators would kill all the latter and increase its own population dramatically, a co-operator meeting another co-operator would increase both populations slowly, and two defector species meeting would lead to bloodshed. We then had a number of analysts submit their strategies for how their own species would react when encountering other animals.
In running the simulations thereafter, the results were consistent across all our various trials: the aggressive animals would grow their populations for a while, and the milder animals would struggle to keep their populations intact; but somewhere along in time, the populations inevitably reversed course. The aggressors invariably came up against one another and their populations began slowly declining. At the same time, with the milder animals there came a tipping point where the two or three species that had managed to keep their numbers healthiest began co-operating with one another more and more and growing their populations at an exponential rate.
There was no practical end-product to this thought piece that I know of, though it is readily extendable to the realm of corporate politics. When every other person is pursuing an agenda at least in some way subtly different from yours, the art of getting things done is really about getting all these agendas to align, or at least not to misalign. In figuring this out, what I have learnt is that unless the scenario is for certain a true one-off where the participants will never encounter one another again, there is virtually only downside to setting up win-lose situations, even when one wins. This is because though I may get my way in the situation at hand, in the long run it would become much harder to work with colleagues who have lost. As such, my own perspective on corporate management has evolved to one of always trying to find a win-win, regardless of whether I’m already at the winning end of a win-lose see-saw, for instance by extending praise, giving others the credit or doing things for others.
All this comes to me now because in observing the controversy around National Library Board withdrawing three children’s books, I can see both sides – not to paint with too fine a brush – pursuing win-lose outcomes that will almost certainly guarantee a lose-lose outcome in the long run. It makes me pessimistic for the future of Singapore to see the extent of the lack of empathy in the behaviour churned up by three children’s books. As long as we need to share this tiny island, which short of a secession of an autonomous region of extremists of either persuasion will be for as long as Singapore exists, we need to find a way to live with one another that does not involve rubbing our neighbours’ faces in it.
This issue of QLRS, the fiftieth, has involved a number of happy and unhappy accidents. There is a poem that speaks of a “tidy family”, for instance, and in general the poetry has an unplanned focus on people being outsiders in one way or another. Ruihe’s essay began with air travel, and my review using the motif of an airplane crash was submitted well before MH17, AH 5017 and GE222. (At least it wasn’t quite as uncanny as a colleague, who over drinks on 15 July, was talking about a Malaysia Airlines plane getting shot down by mistake in a conflict zone. To be fair, this was his theory about MH370, but still.) Otherwise, we have a double-bill publisher’s special in the Proust Questionnaires, and another double-bill of reviews of Arthur Yap’s two Collecteds. Here’s to everyone enjoying a winning streak.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 3 Jul 2014