Trapped in physical, mental silos
Published on: Sunday, September 08, 2019
By: Tan Sri Andrew Sheng
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opponents do not talk to each other because they come from separate disciplines, cultures and beliefs. The world is divided into silos of academic disciplines that do not know how to communicate with each other. Without a common basis of communications, divisions, fragmentation and polarisation can only worsen, which is exactly what we are observing today.

As our students learn more and more about a particular discipline, they know less and less about the big picture. An old Chinese saying is that frogs at the bottom of the well think that the sky is the light above them. As anyone involved in arguments would know, misunderstanding of terminology and lack of empathy for the other side’s position or point of view make for heated debates with little resolution.

In 1959, English physicist and novelist Snow created a stir when he lamented the fact that scientists and artists (including writers and those in humanities) had separate cultures that were not talking to each other. He felt that the intellectual life of the West was being split along two polar groups. “The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition. On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment,” he wrote.

Since the West (mostly America and Europe) has dominated the sciences and the media, it is not surprising that in the last 60 years, Snow’s “two cultures” split has become global. In school, I had to choose either the Arts or Science stream. My parents, influenced by the archetypal Asian Tiger mum, wanted us to be doctors, engineers, lawyers and accountants — in that order. They were obsessed by the idea that we might not have a job if we chose literature, history or philosophy, worried that we would end up “at most, school teachers”. I chose instead to be a practical accountant when I discovered that so many Malaysians were training to be lawyers in London that I feared for my career prospects.

While my accounting and economics training served me well in my career, it was the learning of history, philosophy and today, science and technology, that is needed in this complex and fast-changing world.

This streaming of students into Arts or Science continues till today, resulting in a lack of understanding of each other.

Snow observed that most non-scientists do not appreciate the profound meaning of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, nor do most scientists read Shakespeare. During most of my professional life, I was trying to catch up on my economics, finance and regulatory reading, and the next crisis or urgent email to clear. I hardly had enough time to read or re-read all of Shakespeare’s works or the Chinese novels that I loved in my youth. Television, movies and today, YouTube and mobile blogs, are the main sources of our daily information.

The reality is, of course, much more complex, because when we are trapped in our physical and mental silos, we end up seeing a partial or even distorted view of the world. The upper classes are now living more and more in gated communities, completely separate from the rest of society. The elite media feed the desires of the rich and famous, whereas the mass websites fan prejudices in almost every arena you can think of in the name of freedom — porn, crime, scams, religion, race and tribalism, or them versus us.

No wonder polarisation is worse than ever.

This is why the global financial crisis of 2007 forced me to think outside the box. If the best and brightest among the economics, finance and accounting experts and regulators did not see the crisis coming, what went wrong?

The answer is if we are trained to exclude certain things, of course we will have blind spots, moving into crises with our eyes wide shut. In the First World War, the French army built the defensive Maginot Line across the border with Germany, thinking it was impenetrable. What the French planners were blind to was that the German army simply marched into France through Belgium, completely bypassing the Maginot Line. Similarly, during the Second World War, the British trained their guns in Singapore towards the sea but the Japanese army successfully invaded the island from the mainland.

Many of us have eyes that do not see!

Large organisations have group-think, which means they train their staff to think in a special way that makes the organisation distinct, but there is always the risk that if the organisational culture goes wrong, then very bad mistakes will and can happen. Kodak became successful from making chemical film, but completely missed the digital revolution.

Every businessman knows that one of the biggest headaches in any firm dealing with implementing computerisation is that the business managers don’t understand IT, and the IT experts do not understand the business. The result is that many IT projects are wrong in design, bad in implementation, delayed and often not user-friendly. Murphy’s Law, which many people have observed to be true, says that if anything can happen, it will.

Economics, which is built on the idea of a “rational agent”, with rationality defined as “utility maximising”, basically adopted 17th-19th century Cartesian mathematics and science, excluding the human element from economic models or theories. They thought that homo economicus was rational and therefore predictable. 

They forgot that homo politicus and social behaviour are messy, complicated and often unpredictable. Increasingly, because the economists were relatively resistant to moving out of their comfort zone, business studies incorporated elements of psychology, anthropology, sociology, technology and other disciplines. Today, some of the better ideas in economics come from outside the discipline, rather than from the purist schools.

This is where open minds have great advantage over closed minds. If you are open to new ideas and listen more than you talk, chances are you will bridge different cultures and diverse points of view.

The culture of success is built on mistakes and failure. In our success is our failure, and if we learn from our mistakes, success will come. Having an open mind — to have good feedback as to whether we are on the right track — means asking the right questions.

And finding the right question often gives you the answer.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global 

issues from an Asian perspective

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