Archive for December, 2013

Revisiting Lessons from Nelson Mandela

December 29, 2013

I refer to the 19 Dec 2013 TR Emeritus article “Lessons from Nelson Mandela & Little India riot” by Mr Albert Lim.

Mr Lim denounced Leong Sze Hian and Roy Ngerng for playing up class politics which he described as being the politics of division, envy and discord that only stirs up discontent and disaffection amongst people. He likened their tactics to those of the Bolsheviks who rose to power and reigned with terror by playing up class divisions.

Mr Lim also contrasted Mr Leong’s and Mr Ngerng’s actions with those of Nelson Mandela’s whom Mr Lim described as having many remarkable things about him that should be picked up such as: embarking on a path of reconciliation between the blacks and the whites, encouraging the whites to stay in South Africa and using his force of personality to nullify radicals and Marxists within the African National Congress.

The following were statements made by Nelson Mandela during his Rivonia Trial in the Pretoria Supreme Court on 20 April 1964:

• South Africa is the richest country in Africa, and could be one of the richest countries in the world. But it is a land of extremes and remarkable contrasts. The whites enjoy what may well be the highest standard of living in the world, whilst Africans live in poverty and misery. Forty per cent of the Africans live in hopelessly overcrowded … reserves … Thirty per cent are labourers, labour tenants, and squatters on white farms and work and live under conditions similar to those of the serfs of the Middle Ages … Yet most Africans … are impoverished by low incomes and the high cost of living.

• The highest-paid and the most prosperous section of urban African life is in Johannesburg. Yet their actual position is desperate. The latest figures were given on the 25th of March 1964 by Mr. Carr, Manager of the Johannesburg Non-European Affairs Department. The poverty datum line for the average African family in Johannesburg, according to Mr. Carr’s department, is R42.84 per month. He showed that the average monthly wage is R32.24 and that forty-six per cent of all African families in Johannesburg do not earn enough to keep them going.

• The complaint of Africans, however, is not only that they are poor and whites are rich, but that the laws which are made by the whites are designed to preserve this situation.

• The other main obstacle to the economic advancement of the African is the Industrial Colour Bar under which all the better paid, better jobs of industry are reserved for whites only … The discrimination … towards African workers is demonstrated by the so-called ‘civilized labour policy’ under which sheltered, unskilled Government jobs are found for those white workers who cannot make the grade in industry, at wages far, which far exceed the earnings of the average African employee in industry.

• The Government often answers its critics by saying that Africans in South Africa are economically better off than the inhabitants of the other countries in Africa. I do not know whether this statement is true and doubt whether any comparison can be made without having regard to the cost-of-living index in such countries. But even if it is true, as far as African people are concerned, it is irrelevant. Our complaint is not that we are poor by comparison with people in other countries, but that we are poor by comparison with white people in our own country …

Replace the word “white” with “men-in-white” and the word “African” with “Singaporean” in the texts above and Nelson Mandela’s words appear not too dissimilar to those of Mr Leong’s and Mr Ngerng’s. Like Mr Leong and Mr Ngerng, Mr Mandela employed socio-economic statistics to highlight real social injustices and to rebut government excuses. Similar people making similar statements about similar issues, yet the former is considered by Mr Lim as a unifying figure while the latter are labelled by Mr Lim as sowing discord and disaffection.

Division, envy, discontent and disaffection are born out of real social injustices; they don’t simply grow out of writings. Refraining from writing about social injustices will not make the feelings of social injustices go away unless the underlying problems are addressed. Highlighting social injustices isn’t wrong but is everyone’s moral obligation instead.

Mr Lim should realize that Mr Mandela didn’t just nullify the Marxists, he actually embraced key Marxist ideals and even adopted communist methods of sabotage and also considered communist style guerrilla warfare in preparation for civil war. These Mr Mandela readily admitted during his trial:

Mandela’s Marxist and socialist beliefs:

• Today I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organisation of early African societies in this country. The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe. There was no rich or poor and there was no exploitation.

• It is true, as I have already stated that I have been influenced by Marxist thought. But this is also true of many of the leaders of the new independent states. Such widely different persons as Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and Nasser all acknowledge this fact. We all accept the need for some form of socialism to enable our people to catch up with the advanced countries of the world and to overcome their legacy of extreme poverty. But this does not mean we are Marxists.

• The most important political document ever adopted by the ANC is the Freedom Charter. It is by no means a blueprint for a socialist state. It calls for redistribution, but not nationalisation, of land; it provides for nationalisation of mines, banks, and monopoly industry, because monopolies, big monopolies are owned by one race only, and without such nationalisation racial domination would be perpetuated despite the spread of political power.

So while Mr Lim is against “helping the poor by taking away money from others”, he should realize that his respected Nelson Mandela preached redistribution of land, the exact opposite to what he believes in. We thus have this strange situation where the person Mr Lim holds up as someone who personifies the ideals he believes in is someone who actually preached the exact opposite to what he believes in.

Like Nelson Mandela, the Leftists who fought for Singapore’s freedom post World War 2 weren’t Marxists even if they held varying degrees of Marxist beliefs. If we can honour Nelson Mandela despite his Marxist beliefs, surely we can honour the Leftists too who were our true benefactors and freedom fighters.

Mandela involved in sabotage activities and prepared for guerilla warfare

• I do not however, deny that I planned sabotage. We felt that without sabotage there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government. We chose to defy the Government. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and when the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.

• The shooting at Sharpeville, which resulted in the … declaration of the ANC as an unlawful organisation. My colleagues and I … decided that we would not obey this decree. The African people were not part of the Government and did not make the laws by which they were governed. We believed in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that “the will of the people shall be the basis of authority of the Government”, and for us to accept the banning was equivalent to accepting the silencing of the African people for all time. The ANC refused to dissolve, but instead went underground.

• A Government which uses force to maintain its rule teaches the oppressed to use force to oppose it.

• I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that … it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force … it was when all … channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of struggle, and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe. We did so … because the Government had left us with no other choice. In the Manifesto of Umkhonto … we said’, I quote:
“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom”, unquote.

• When we decided to adopt sabotage … we realised that we might one day have to face the prospect of (civil) war … we did not want to be committed to civil war, but we wanted to be ready if it became inevitable.

• We believed that South Africa depended to a large extent on foreign capital and foreign trade. We felt that planned destruction of power plants, and interference with rail and telephone communications would tend to scare away capital from the country, make it more difficult for goods from the industrial areas to reach the seaports on schedule, and would in the long run be a heavy drain on the economic life of the country, thus compelling the voters of the country to reconsider their position.

• Attacks on the economic life lines of the country were to be linked with sabotage on Government buildings and other symbols of apartheid. These attacks would serve as a source of inspiration to our people and encourage them to participate in non-violent mass action such as strikes.

• Umkhonto had its first operation on the 16th of December 1961, when Government buildings in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban were attacked.

• We felt it our duty to make preparations as a long-term undertaking to use force in order to defend ourselves against force. If war became inevitable, we wanted to be ready when the time came … we decided, therefore, in our preparations for the future, to make provision for the possibility of guerrilla warfare.

• I had already started to make a study of the art of war and revolution and … underwent a course in military training … I attempted to examine all types of authority on the subject … covering such a variety as Mao Tse Tung, Che Guevara …

Mr Lim should thus realize that the unity that he remembers Nelson Mandela by is not a single act but a series of actions that began with the questioning of societal differences and then progressing to violence before turning into the reconciliation that he is more familiar with. The moral of the Nelson Mandela story seen in its entirety is that, before there can be unity, unfair differences have to be addressed and ironed out. As long as there is anger, there can be no unity even if we make a determined effort not to highlight or talk about it.

Finally, another quote from Nelson Mandela:
I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one” – On the Larry King show 2000.

Those who decried Mr Mandela’s actions at first were eventually won over by him. So similarly, those who decry Mr Leong’s and Mr Ngerng’s actions today may someday be won over by them too.


Comments on PISA reporting

December 25, 2013

The following statements about the PISA were made in a BBC report [1]:

Seekers after educational excellence once used to head pilgrim-like towards Finland. This was the most quoted example of a high performing school system, even though in many ways it was a very distinctive and individual system. Scandinavia was the education world’s sensible successful neighbour.
But Finland has slipped downwards and the gloom has spread across Nordic countries, with Sweden among the biggest fallers. Norway and Denmark are absent from the top end of the tables. Their sluggish performances have been overtaken by countries such as Estonia, Poland and Ireland.

These statements were made based on PISA data. Anyone who quotes and therefore stands by these statements implicitly accepts the PISA data underpinning these statements. It would be strange for anyone to simultaneously denounce PISA data and embrace such statements based on PISA data.

There are also several validity issues with these statements. For example, Norway and Denmark didn’t just become absent from the top end recently, they have never been in the top 10 since PISA began in 2000. Rather than slipping or falling, Norway’s rankings have fluctuated up and down. The same can be said of the Science ranking of Denmark.

Math ranking Science ranking Reading ranking
Norway 2000 17 13 13
2003 22 28 12
2006 28 24 25
2009 21 24 12
2012 30 31 22
Denmark 2000 12 22 16
2003 15 31 19
2006 15 18 19
2009 19 26 24
2012 22 27 25


The notion that Norway and Denmark have been overtaken by Estonia and Ireland is also problematic.

For science scores, Estonia and Ireland were never behind Norway and Denmark to begin with and so cannot be said to have overtaken Norway and Denmark.

PISA science scores 2000 2003 2006 2009 2012
Norway 500 484 487 500 495
Denmark 481 475 496 499 498
Estonia 531 528 541
Poland 483 498 498 508 526
Ireland 513 505 508 508 522


For reading scores, with the exception of 2009, both Estonia and Ireland were already better than Norway and Denmark when they joined PISA in 2006 and 2000 respectively so once again overtaking is not the right word to describe their achievements.

PISA reading scores 2000 2003 2006 2009 2012
Norway 505 500 484 503 504
Denmark 497 492 494 495 496
Estonia 501 501 516
Poland 479 497 508 500 518
Ireland 527 515 517 496 523


For math scores, Estonia was never behind Norway and Denmark and so could not have overtaken them. The latest score difference between Ireland and Denmark is too fine to be useful for ascertaining anything. Ireland also didn’t just catch up with Norway, Ireland has always been better than Norway except for 2009.

PISA math scores 2000 2003 2006 2009 2012
Norway 499 495 490 498 489
Denmark 514 514 513 503 500
Estonia 515 512 521
Poland 470 490 495 495 518
Ireland 503 503 501 487 501


Thus, the claims made in those statements were more wrong than they were right and are therefore not worth quoting.

In the case of Finland, there is no evidence that its science scores have slipped over the years although its math and reading scores may have slipped by 3.2% and 4% respectively since it first participated in PISA rankings in 2000. It may be over presumptuous to associate this 3.2% or 4% dip in math and reading scores respectively as evidence that the Finnish education model is finished already. Given the many measurement issues with PISA, the 3.2% or 4% could simply be due to measurement issues. There is no strong enough evidence yet to condemn the Finnish education model.

2000 2003 2006 2009 2012 2012 / 2000
Finland math 536 544 548 541 519 -3.20%
Finland science 538 548 563 554 545 1.30%
Finland 546 543 547 536 524 -4.00%


Furthermore, Finland’s science score still ranks amongst the top 5 in the world, not a gloomy ranking at all.

2000 2003 2006 2009 2012
China Shanghai, China #N/A #N/A #N/A 575 580
Hong Kong, China #N/A #N/A 542 549 555
Singapore #N/A #N/A #N/A 542 551
Japan 550 548 531 539 547
Finland 538 548 563 554 545

Finland’s reading score is still ranked 6th in the world, again not a gloomy ranking.

2000 2003 2006 2009 2012
China Shanghai, China #N/A #N/A #N/A 556 570
Hong Kong, China #N/A #N/A 536 533 545
Singapore #N/A #N/A #N/A 526 542
Japan 522 498 498 520 538
South Korea 525 534 556 539 536
Finland 546 543 547 536 524

Finland’s math score is now ranked 12th, not as sterling as before but definitely not something to be ashamed of.

2000 2003 2006 2009 2012
China Shanghai, China #N/A #N/A #N/A 600 613
Singapore #N/A #N/A #N/A 562 573
Hong Kong, China #N/A #N/A 547 555 561
Taiwan #N/A #N/A 549 543 560
South Korea 547 542 547 546 554
Macau, China #N/A #N/A 525 525 538
Japan 557 534 523 529 536
Liechtenstein 514 536 525 536 535
Switzerland 529 527 530 534 531
Netherlands #N/A 538 531 526 523
Estonia #N/A #N/A 515 512 521
Finland 536 544 548 541 519

What is interesting to note is that by and large, Finland’s rankings have fallen over the years, not because it was overtaken by other countries but because of the gradual addition of East Asian nations into the PISA list of countries. East Asian nations have shown themselves to be quite good at topping PISA rankings and displacing other nations to lower ranks. The fact that Finland is still the best scoring non-East-Asian nation in science and reading is itself a very commendable achievement.

The following statements from the same report [1] are also problematic:

The runaway success story has been the achievement of a clutch of Asian education systems. But results saw the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher challenging any stereotypes about some places having an inherent “culture” of education. Results in Shanghai and Vietnam are much better than three years ago, he says, but the “culture” hasn’t changed. The improvements reflect a deliberate policy of ensuring that a high proportion of pupils will succeed.
This also applies in other parts of the world. Poland has been transformed into one of the best school performers in Europe and the OECD argues this reflects an active policy of change and not any inherent quality of its culture. The implication of this is that other countries could follow their example.

Improvement despite having kept culture constant is no proof that culture is therefore not responsible for the improvement. Just as a car rapidly increasing its speed from 0 to 100 km/hr while carrying the same engine doesn’t prove that the engine is not responsible for the rapid speed increase. Or a school with rapid improvement despite having the same principal and teachers is no proof that the principal and teachers hadn’t contributed to the improvement.

Holding Poland up as an example that rapid improvement can occur outside Asia is again no proof that Poland will eventually attain the high levels achieved by the East Asians. Just as a school that won the best improvement award is no proof that it will eventually become an RI.

Inaccurate labelling
Another report [2] by the same BBC author carries a picture with inaccurate labelling. The picture below suggests that the UK’s math PISA score is just average amongst nations that include Brazil and Peru. But ‘494’ is not the average score of all nations that participated in PISA but the average of OECD countries instead. The average of all nations’ PISA math scores should be ‘473’ instead. The British thus performed better than average of all nations by 21 points.


[1], BBC Business news, Pisa tests: What do we know now?, Sean Coughlan, 4 Dec 2013

[2], BBC Education & Family news, Pisa tests: UK stagnates as Shanghai tops league table, Sean Coughlan, 3 Dec 2013