Saturday, 27 April 2013

Slightly better than chimpanzee...

There was a popular joke that made the rounds in the late 1990's about the different levels of efficiency of the election commissions in various Asian countries. At the time, many countries in the region were experiencing a surge of interest in elections and politics. The joke goes something like this:

A journalist wants to know which country in Asia is fastest in announcing the results of their national elections. First, he went to Indonesia and met with the Election Commission (EC) there. The Indonesian EC said, "we are a big country and our system isn't really good, so we can only announce the official results three months after the election." The journalist next went to India and asked the EC there the same question. The Indian EC said, "we have a huge population but our system is good, we can announce the results three days after the election". Next, to Singapore, and the journalist was told, "we are very efficient, we announce the results in three hours". The journalist finally went to Malaysia and told the Malaysian EC how efficient Singapore was, to which the Malaysian EC chief retorted, "we can do even better, we can announce the results three months before the election!"   

This was of course during the time when elections in Malaysia were more predictable and if someone did really want to fix the election, he could have done so quite easily. Civil society was not strong, election monitoring bodies almost non-existent and opposition parties most often did not have enough counting and polling agents. Elections can still be fixed today, of course, but to do so without anyone noticing it would be extremely difficult.  

Fixed or not, to predict (correctly) election results is not easy. We often rely on experts and pundits for their views but how valid really are their views? Well, according to Professor Philip Tetlock, in his book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (2005), an 'expert' is only slightly more accurate than a dart-throwing chimpanzee! A rather sad statement, isn't it? But the evidence is overwhelming.

Here, in Malaysia, we only need to go back to the 2008 General Election to find examples of how inaccurate many expert predictions were. If you browse through all mainstream newspapers the editions just prior to the election, you will find one of the most talked about issues was 'who from Gerakan will replace Koh Tsu Koon as Penang Chief Minister?'; a question totally oblivious of even the possibility of Gerakan losing in Penang. And among pro-Barisan Nasional experts, a view often drummed-up was the 'death' of Parti Keadilan Rakyat after the election and the end of PAS' rule in Kelantan.

What happened then was really quite amusing. I can still recall watching at around 7 pm on election day how excited an RTM presenter was about wanting to know the latest tally in Permatang Pauh. She was so excited because she was expecting a result that signals the end of PKR. PKR, of course not only retained Permatang Pauh but won 30 other parliamentary seats in 2008.      

Local political experts and politicians are very much more cautious this time around. Pro-government experts have lately become more philosophical. Those with statistics and numbers are gaining more prominence.

A few days ago, Professor Redzuan Othman from the University of Malaya presented 'selected findings' from his survey on the election. He reported that 43 percent of his respondents preferred Anwar Ibrahim as Prime Minister, and 37 percent preferred the incumbent Najib Abdul Razak. That is indeed good news for the opposition. Pakatan Rakyat supporters are ecstatic and many are now predicting a resounding victory.

I am not a member of any political party but for this election, I have openly expressed my wish to see PR win. I honestly believe a PR win would be good for the country, and good for Umno and BN too;) But a PR victory, with one week to go, is far from certain. Seven days is a long time in politics. Many things can still happen, many 'videos' can still be produced, and many mistakes can still be made. If everything falls into place, PR may not even need Sabah and Sarawak to win federal. But make just one mistake and PR may end up with only Penang and Kelantan to govern.        

Professor Redzuan's findings would be more meaningful if this was a direct presidential election. But that's not the case here. We have a really unfair system where even if a coalition garners more than 50 percent of the popular votes, it may only get 25 percent seats in parliament. The magic number is 112. Whoever gets at least 112 parliamentary seats will form the next federal government. And at this point, nobody really knows who will that be.

The only way any pundit or expert can validly predict the outcome is to do what Nate Silver did for the US Presidential Election last year. He correctly predicted the outcome in all 50 states. More remarkably, in 48 of those, the actual votes received by each candidate fell within his margin of error.

Nate Silver did not collect any data on his own. He uses data from various polling and media agencies, averages them and run a series of regression analyses to cater for various adjustments. The method isn't really that complicated. But you need a diverse range of present and historical data to get it right, and we just don't have that here in Malaysia.

That, however should not stop us from making our own predictions. Unlike 2008, I haven't been able to observe how things are on the ground but I still would like to offer my own humble slightly-better-than-chimpanzee's prediction. Later...

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Farewell Tribute to a 'Friend'

I went to Subang Jaya last week and went to Subang Parade, a place I frequented a lot during my teenage years. Back in those days, this was the biggest and coolest shopping mall in the Klang Valley. That remained for about a decade or so before other more gigantic malls like Sunway Pyramid and Megamall were opened. My last visit to Subang Parade was a couple of years back and at the time, the place looked run down. But now, after some extensive interior renovation work, the place is glowing and packed again with visitors.

I certainly have some fondness for Subang Parade but the place that I am more attached to is the building next to it. It is splashed in orange these days (the corporate colour of its new owners) but as recently as two months ago, it was all-white except for the iconic double arrow symbol of red, white and blue. This was Carrefour Subang Jaya, the first Carrefour store and hypermarket in Malaysia.

I have always enjoyed shopping for groceries. As a young boy, I often accompanied my mother to the local pasar malam and pasar tani. Then, when the first Giant Supermarket opened in Kelana Jaya, we went for our groceries quite often there too.

But shopping at Carrefour Subang Jaya was something else. The store in Subang Jaya was just a single-storey building when it opened in 1994 but it was bright and looked so spacious. The items on display were of such great variety, and the way they organised and arranged them was just splendid and that really matters for an OCD borderline case like me.

All these years, even after other and bigger hypermarkets has sprung all over, Carrefour remained the place I would go to if time permits. My late wife was fond of Carrefour too. So fond of it she was, it was the first place she wanted to go to immediately after her confinement when our twins were born nine years ago. When we moved to Taman Melati, the Carrefour store in Wangsa Maju became our favourite shopping place even though the Giant Hypermarket in Batu Caves is perhaps nearer to where we live.

Our fondness for Carrefour is not entirely sentimental. It is also due to a few of its practical qualities, which for me, other hypermarkets; try as they might, they simply do not have.

The first is the systematic and practical arrangement of items. In some Giant stores, the bread section is located next to the poultry and fish section, which I personally find rather disconcerting because when I'm buying bread, especially fresh bread, I want to smell the aroma of freshly baked bread. At Carrefour, the bread section is normally at one end. Next to it are the cakes and cookies section, then the cooked/packed food, and then the fruits and vegetables, and finally the poultry and fish section at the other end.

And speaking of bread, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Carrefour had the best bread in town. Just take the potato bread as an example. Other hypermarkets make them too but potato bread from Carrefour was just a class above. Others tend to overcook it or make it too soft and too fluffy. Carrefour however had it all just nice. It had the perfect tender.

Another aspect I believe Carrefour triumphed over all its rivals is its spacious aisles. Others tend to crowd the aisles with promotional and discounted items. As a result, customers face great difficulty to move their shopping carts especially during busy shopping hours. Carrefour stores however, had most of the time kept the main aisles empty. Hence, it's easier and more convenient for customers to move around with their baskets and carts.

I do concede though when it comes to pricing, Carrefour is not the best especially when compared to Tesco. You can certainly buy many things cheaper at Tesco, perhaps even at Giant. But both my late wife and I agreed that although many things are cheaper in Tesco, we still prefer to shop at Carrefour because every time we shop at Tesco, we end up buying more and at times unnecessary things. The cheap pricing is very seductive but potentially detrimental especially when you end up buying things too large in quantity and things that you don't actually need.  

So, as far as my shopping experience is concern, the time I've spent at Carrefour will forever have a special place in my heart. It pains me to witness the current 'orange invasion' in all its previous premises. But I do understand that sometimes in life, we have to make tough and painful decisions. Farewell my 'friend' and thank you for the services you had rendered us throughout the years. Au revoir!