Opinion

Limits to the wisdom of the crowd

FEB 26 — Liberal Malaysians in general are happy to emphasise the wisdom of the crowd. In a context where the government holds a condescending attitude towards the public and in times when information spreads faster before the government can act, it is an appealing point to subscribe to. 

Travel around and try to talk politics among critical and liberal urbanites especially, and somebody in that circle will remind you that the public is not stupid. Whether it is an honest opinion or words tailored to appeal to the post-2008 crowd, even Prime Minister Najib Razak said the days of government knows best are over. That is an acknowledgement of the idea from the very institution that traditionally sits opposite of the liberal crowd in Malaysia. 

In heated political discussions, it is easy to take the black-and-white approach and engage in hyperbole stating that the crowd or the public is always right. Put a liberal and a statist in the same room and the game is on. 

The truth is more nuanced. The crowd can be brilliant at times, and utterly stupid at others. The validity of the idea depends on the situation at hand. The examples that strengthen and undermine the idea exist all around us if only we care to see. 

The chaos at the KTM Komuter train station at KL Sentral on Thaipusam Day provides contradictory examples all at once. 

The trains were late. The platform was full of impatient commuters. When the trains arrived 30 minutes late, those on the platform found the coaches were full. If that did not make things bad enough, everybody wanted to go Batu Caves. With the roads closed, the trains were the most convenient means of transportation for ordinary folks. 

The adjective convenient, is of course only used in superlative terms. There is nothing convenient about the service provided by KTM Komuter. For those who depend on the service daily, every day is a battle to be won in the scrappiest of all manner. The least painful way to go through the day is to embark and disembark as quickly as possible. This was what the crowd did exactly on Thaipusam day at KL Sentral. 

The crowd did it by ignoring one unrealistic policy introduced by KTM and the government: the ladies’ coach. The ladies’ coach is meant to address complaints about sexual harassment that have happened before. The intention is good. Yet as with any policy, there will always be sacrifices that need to be made and the ladies’ coach policy sacrifices efficiency. 

It just takes too much time to choose coaches to start with. For those who travel together, like families, friends or lovers, separation on the train is a hassle. And at least in theory, because the ladies’ coach is meant only for women and children while everybody is free to board the other coaches, the other coaches will be filled up quickly while the ladies’ coach will be relatively empty. Its inaccessibility effectively reduces the capacity of the train. All that means slower embarking, slower disembarking, and longer waiting time on a crowded platform. 

With an already lamentable train service and a spike in ridership, something has to give. The crowd throughout the system implicitly and collectively decided to ignore the ladies’ coach policy and treat all coaches as the same. In doing so, they immediately improved the train efficiency by themselves without relying on good-hearted bureaucrats and politicians holding public office, whom by the way do not ride the KTM Komuter train and are essentially divorced from the reality on the platform. 

That is one point for spontaneous order arising from the wisdom of the crowd. In the ladies’ coach, nobody minded men boarding it because it solved a big problem painlessly while the KTM policy, if adhered to, only exacerbated the issue at hand. All they wanted to do was to get on the train and get to Batu Caves either as tourists or Hindu devotees. 

At the other end of the spectrum is a thoughtless mob of sheep. 

The sun was strong but it was on its way down. The visitors were now tired and weary. They began to head to the Batu Caves station so that they could get back to the city. In the station, the crowd packed up a small compound. Even as there was no more space to stand, more came in. 

With nowhere to go and too many standing too close together, restlessness set it. Some was pushing and shoving, struggling to get into the train, which was characteristically late. Some were shouting and others were panicking, making the scene surreal. Instead of spontaneously finding the solution, they were clueless until they made a danger out of nothing. 

KTM officials and the police were there to monitor and eventually address the situation, albeit poorly. Nevertheless, they did prevent the situation from turning worse. 

The fact that it did not turn worse when it easily could have, and the fact that the situation did not need to be like that if there had been proper crowd management, highlight the limit of what a crowd is capable of. 

The same contradictory lessons from the very bottom of society can be applied nationally too. The majority knows what corruption is when they see it. Given a chance at the ballot box, they will possibly do the necessary to address it, as they had done in 2008. 

On the other extreme, the majority is happy to receive handouts from the government but does not realise that somebody has to pay for those handouts. Either higher debts or higher taxation, it will come sooner or later. The separation between cause and effect in public finance is so great that they cannot see what these handouts mean on a wider scale. 

With the folly of economic populism coupled with a magnified replication of what happened at the Batu Caves station, the wisdom of the crowd will be harder to argue for. The wise mob of Greece resorted to sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails wanting more when there is no more, with only the few to reason their way through with less. 

This is a piece of advice to those liberals referred to in the beginning. They who overly emphasise the wisdom of the crowd need a more nuanced view of the argument.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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