The perils of over relying on trade off analysis – there is no soul there!

February 21, 2013

RSCN1544A trade off is just a decision tool. It’s a pretty niffty tool as what it will do is maximize your returns under a given set of conditions.

I guess you could use it to decide whether you should buy car A or B. Or to decide to whether firm A’s offer is better than B’s, if you’re buying an endownment plan.

Having said that, that’s really as far as I am prepared to use a trade off. And one reason for my reluctance to take it further beyond that point is simply because it elides so much that it can only produce errors, if it’s applied to people.

It’s definitely not something that I would consider using to decide the optimum population to have in the year 2030. And it’s definitely not something that I will premise my decision on – as a trade off is really just a tool like a spade or power drill – it’s got no soul. So only a bloody fool will try to fashion a trade off as something akin to a justification or rationale.

If the imperative is to decide on the welfare of the masses. Then I would probably use a principled approach. As that’s the only way I know how to palliate many of the fears that will come from the whole process of trying to sell change.

I happen to believe very strongly that is one main reason why the PAP is getting so much flak – they simply don’t understand the limits of a trade off.

Maybe all politicians should spend some time in a plantation. Maybe if they do so, they will begin to see the error of their ways. Maybe then they will understand the word sympatico.

Darkness 2013


“The surest way to go belly up in commercial farming is to take the attitude – the best trade off wins the day. How do I know this? Simple the last person who owned the parcel of land that both you and me are sitting on – did exactly just that. He ran his plantation with the sole goal to make as much money as possible.

In the short term. I don’t deny, he surged ahead. But in the long term. He simply found himself buying into a whole lot of grief. And soon he started slipping into the red. Till he had no choice but to throw in the towel.

I wanted to know why this man failed. This case study was strategic to me. Because when you take over a failed business. Somewhere at the back of your mind. You never want to commit the same mistake that the last guy made. So that was really my motivation to find out more about the sequence of events that led to his failure.

The more I began to investigate. The more I discovered that his one biggest failure was his inability to develop a rapport with the local community. This fellow just did his own thing in a skyscraper faraway issuing out orders to his plantation manager who carried it out like an automaton. To cut a long story short. He alienated the local community to such an extent where it became almost impossible to maintain the requisite discipline to run an enterprise effectively. Theft was rampant. He did not get the cooperation he needed from the local community. Since his policy was the tender out his harvesting, pruning and landscaping to the lowest bidder – most of the work were given to faceless Bangladeshi workers. He brought so many in that it began to displace many harvesters in the local community. Their wages even nosed dived. Even their way of life was affected as many of these Bangladeshi workers started to hit on the local girls.

At the end his influence diminished to such a point where it became impossible for him and the local community to co-exist any longer. So he threw in the towel.

Now this case study prompted me to ask myself – do I need a philosophy to succeed in business? Because if I had to list only one reason why this fellow failed, it all boiled down to his mindless attitude of chasing profit at every turn and opportunity. He chased it to such a ridiculous end because all he had in his tool box was his trade off machine.

So I want you to understand when I say I needed a philosophy. This is not trivial pursuits or something resembling poetry. There’s a very serious intent here. One that is even jugular, if I am not to repeat many of he mistakes this fellow once committed.

I came to the conclusion I needed one. To paraphrase I couldn’t just run my business doctrinally or even in such narrow terms where I prioritize profit at every turn and opportunity. There had to be a balance between the quantitative and qualitative. The hard and soft. There even has to be room to even accommodate contradictions. So nothing is ever written in stone. They’re is plenty of room for give and take. If I give this year. I can reap back the next year in kind or something – that sort of arrangement.

At the end I settled on a philosophy that I called the way of the farmer. And this concept really had only had a few simple leitmotifs – the idea that we are all in this together for the better or worse. That was the rough outline, it was nothing fanciful. It was just very basic, simple and straight forward.

So whenever possible I will always try to benefit the local community first. Even if the price is slightly higher. For example my harvesters, pickers, farm hands and lorry drivers are all natives from the local community. They cost slightly higher than the Indonesian foreign harvesters. And at first this may not make any business sense at all. But I don’t have problems with theft. Since the harvesters are paid by tonnage. That means I get the whole community to police my lands for free. If anyone steals from me, they don’t just deny me the fruits of my labor. They also throw sand into the rice bowl of those who turn the wheel of life on my land as well.

I don’t deal with faceless workers. Unlike the previous owner who ran this plantation. Everyone who turns the wheel of life in my plantation. I know their wife, children and relatives. This is very important as it allows me network and extend my sphere of influence.

When I started this. I did not say a lot. I was just really focused on being consistent. As I had enemies then who were spreading rumors about me.

Now what I did not expect was this. After a period of about two years. It was a slow gradual process. So slow that if you ask when the shift occurred. I wouldn’t even be able tell you. But very slowly, I realized the local community elders would invite me to join them in their weekly meetings. With the Chinese merchants, landowners and petty traders I would met them for tea on a Wednesday morning to discuss local issues. With the Muslims after their Friday prayers we will sit beneath the shade of a tree on floor mats and do the same. With the Indians we will go to one corner during temple festivals and talk about serious things. Very slowly I realized that I could no longer just do my own thing.

It was as if I had suddenly found myself in a position where both my destiny as a planter and the community were suddenly one of the same reality.

Many people say that I am wasting my time. But I know they are wrong. You see my enemies. They don’t exist any more. All their lands now belong to me.”

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