Business World, 28 September 2015


Coherence is the foundation of modern civilization. A world without coherence is unthinkable — it is a world without electric power and that’s the Dark Ages. How you ask? Well, electric current is produced when a coil of copper wire moves from one pole of a magnet to the other. Michael Faraday made this wonderful discovery in the 1830s. But a magnet is just an iron bar exhibiting the capacity to attract other iron bars from a distance. Most iron bars do not exhibit this almost magical property — a magnetic field. But how does an iron bar acquire a magnetic field? At ground state, the electron spins of an iron bar are pointed in every which direction. They are said to be incoherent. But under the influence of a nearby magnetic field, the electron spins begin to align and point in a single direction — they become coherent. This coherence produces the magnetic field without which modern civilization will fall back into the dark ages. Coherence fuels the capacity to achieve miracles.

Coherent societies also tend to exhibit better economic performance. Think of Japan, the People’s Republic of China and Denmark. Incoherent societies tend to bite the dust of coherent ones. Think of the Philippines in the last 25 years. This was the message of Francis Fukuyama’s celebrated volume Trust. But societies consist of actors who, unlike atoms and electrons, have an expanded freedom of thought and action. Physicist Richard Feynman once remarked that if physical units have the recalcitrance of human actors, known Physics would be impossible.

Coherent societies are able to align member behavior towards the solution of collective problems — those that individual members separately cannot solve. Salient among these problems are public infrastructures. The Three Gorges Dam in the People’s Republic of China is the iconic present-day example of a collective problem transformed into a collective achievement. The collective problem is as old as China’s history: killer floods when the Yangtze River overflows its banks every 10 years. The Three Gorges Dam started in 1994 and completed in 2012 displaced 1.3 million people, 13 cities and 120 municipalities in the process of becoming a modern wonder of the world. It has reduced the frequency of monster floods from one every ten years to one every hundred years. As a bonanza, it is now the largest power station in the world (22,000 megawatts) in terms of installed capacity. By contrast, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 delivered in 2002 but idled for more than a dozen years by unresolved litigation exemplifies the massive waste from collective failures in the Philippines. The Supreme Court has just (September 2015) decided that the Philippine government should now pay the Piatco group $521 million. Somebody‘s head should roll since the Canlas Committee formed to advise on the issue recommended to President Arroyo a course of action that could have made the facility pay for itself. But that head won’t roll.

Because Philippine society suffers a serious pathology: it is unable to punish even heinous injuries to our society. That means repeated slaps on the face of law abiders. Still it hit me like a punch in the gut when the Supreme Court decided that Juan Ponce Enrile can walk free on bail even when the charge is non-bailable by law and by the Constitution. The Supreme Court, the presumptive ultimate protector of the rule of law, contravened both law and Constitution by enacting a new doctrine of jurisprudence — “humanitarian grounds”. A friend and fellow age-grouper in a flight of mischief and irony quipped: “Every senior citizen has now been granted a free pass to rape.” Don’t count on it! The nagging suspicion is that the new doctrine derives not from humanity but rather from the power and stature of the accused. We still have to see the perpetrators of the Ampatuan massacre get their just dessert. The Priority Development Assistance Fund case threatens to drag on until all the perpetrators shall have attained the right to invoke clemency on “humanitarian grounds”. Meanwhile the Supreme Court allows itself to be dragged into the thoroughly useless “Torre de Manila” controversy. Inability to punish gnaws at our sense of selves and our allegiance to the law.

For coherent societies do not come about without a grim determination to punish agents of disorder. Tolerant Denmark had a long romance with the skarpretter (head chopper). The People’s Republic of China still lines up people against the wall. It is now a canon in Evolutionary Economics and Biology that coherent (cooperative) societies cannot emerge where anti-social behavior goes unpunished. Which makes what recently transpired in Indonesia most compelling.

Defying the howl of protest from the West, Indonesian President Joko Widodo ordered in April 2015 the execution of eight convicted drug-traffickers. To pesky western journalists, he growled: “This is our legal sovereignty… Don’t ask me again.” In Elizabeth Pisani’s piece, “Widodo’s Desperate Executions”, published on May 1 in The New Yorker, she echoes the spin in the West: “Widodo, however, is far too weak politically to have hesitated over these issues. He desperately needed to signal his strength at home, and he could most easily do that through the crack of the firing squad. He doesn’t give a fig how it sounds to the rest of the world.” So if you don’t bow to the West’s bidding, you are weak in the polls if not in the head. And many of our so-called leaders oblige by raising bowing to Western whimsies into an art form. Thankfully, Widodo wears Indonesia’s future in his noggin and the West’s fig in his bum. Being of the same race, I consider that a reason for hope.