The curious case of Donald Trump: Is polling a useless predictor of outcome?

By Jamari Mohtar | Nov 10, 2016

The reliability of political polling to predict the outcome of an election is put into question when despite and in spite of most polls predicting Hillary Clinton as the favourite to win, albeit in a close fight because all polls are within their margin of error, Donald Trump against all odds clinched the trophy of the presidency.

Before we come to the conclusion that polls are a useless predictor of outcome, let’s hear some quotable quotes on statistics:

“There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” Mark Twain

 “It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.”  George Bernard Shaw

 “Smoking is one of the leading causes of statistics.”  Fletcher Knebel

I like most the quote by Fletcher Knebel because it hinted at arriving at something with no concrete substance as the aim of statistics, and to wit, we are all indeed “smoked” by the polls that said Hillary Clinton has a 90% chance of winning the presidency on the eve of Election Day.

Ignoring historical precedent at one’s own peril

 There are more than one ways to predict the outcome of presidential election other than polls.

A few hours before the results of some exit polls were announced on Election Day, I told friends through one of my WhatsApp groups that Hillary Clinton might not be elected as President, if we go by historical precedent.

Since term limit was imposed in 1947 – curbing presidential term to no more than two terms (eight years) – there has never been an instance where a Democratic presidential nominee won an election after eight years of incumbency by a Democratic president.

That is why Clinton lost after eight years of a Democrat Obama; Al Gore too (2000 election) after eight years of a Democrat Bill Clinton; and finally Hubert Humphrey (1968) after eight years of Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

Whereas Donald Trump has a greater chance to win because there is one instance of history in which a Republican nominee won the election after eight years of incumbency of a Republican presidency. Who was he? None other than the one term President HW Bush who won in the 1988 election after eight years of Republican Ronald Reagan.

I am an ardent fan of history (and of ‘isteri’ too) although I’m aware that students pooh-pooh the study of history, one reason being it does not make you fabulously wealthy as compared to the study of law or medicine although I have come across poor lawyers and poor medical doctors. But as the outcome of the recent US presidential election, the Brexit vote and in fact most significant global events – even significant event at the personal level – have shown, one ignores history at one’s own peril.

This peril of ignoring history is famously encapsulated in the adage that history has a tendency to repeat itself. Even the natural phenomena of life have a habit of repeating themselves such as the repetition in the observable change in the days following the nights, of being healthy followed by being sick, of birth and death, and the boom and bust of the economic/business cycles.

Nonetheless, I’m not that naïve to believe that historical precedent is the only thing that matters. My view of history is as follows:

History seldom moves in a linear fashion. And that is why we don’t see new changes or new things everyday. Instead it moves in gradual non-linear twists and turns, giving us glimpses of an approaching historically repeating event in the making, where we feel things on the surface are the same as of yesteryears, yet with some qualitative differences in their essence. Once we get to feel this sensation of the same yet different, there will be many more non-linear twists and turns for years, before the full force of the repetition occurs.

At times history does not repeat itself at all but propels forward with a quantum leap as if in a three dimensional setting that demolishes every known assumptions with the onset of new inventions and discoveries or simply paradigm shift, heralding the emergence of a brave new world instead of the repeated old world. This then becomes a new normal and ultimately a status quo normal when it keeps repeating time and again before another quantum leap occurs.

Statistical disinformation or the fallibility of statistics

Now, let’s come to the crunch. Are political polls really useless as a prediction of outcome? One cannot blame those who say they are when the example of the Brexit vote is still fresh in our mind. Despite the narrowing of margin in polls as voting drew near in June, the majority of the polls were still predicting the Remain in EU would win, albeit with a small margin.

And last year in Askenazi Israel, despite exit polls had forecast a dead heat, Bibi Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party still won a surprise victory over its main rival, the centre-left Zionist Union.

But if you understand statistics in the context of the probability theory, you’ll be humbled enough to know that a poll which said that Hillary Clinton has a 90% chance of winning the election does not mean it’s a sure 100% win and that the 10% chance of Clinton losing is something that can take place in the realm of reality. In this sense, there is really no big deal in blaming polls for the different outcome than what was expected, as long as the different outcome is not a regular feature of the US election polls.

The last time the polls were dead wrong was in 1948 when Harry Truman was predicted to have lost the election, with one newspaper having circulated an early edition the day after election, which showed Thomas Dewey to be the winner as its page one lead story. The editors had had a hell of time in withdrawing that early edition.

Hence, the utility of polls as a predictive tool lies not so much in its accurate predictive power of the outcome ALL THE TIME, but rather a prediction that is dead accurate MOST OF THE TIME – giving credence to the notion of the working in the real world of the principle of an exception to the rule.

We can’t even predict with dead accuracy what’s going to happen to us in the next few hours, and yet we don’t want to eat humble pie in accepting that our prediction – the prediction of mere mortals – might go wrong when it comes to election polls. That is indeed arrogance of the highest order!

Of course there is nothing wrong in doing a sort of post mortem to get the answer on why and where did the polls go wrong, especially after the humble pie has been eaten. The least that this will result is in the lessons learnt to ensure that there will be a less frequent occurrence of the principle of exception to the rule, which it is meant to be for otherwise we would be living in a world of chaos. And then He who is in Heaven will smile approvingly at our action to learn from past mistakes and to minimize the exceptions!

And that is why I’m deeply moved when an intelligent and scholarly man says, “It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.” (Ahem, ahem…)

A ‘new’ normal?

 So what went wrong? I’m in no position to tell what went wrong scientifically though I took statistics at the undergraduate level but didn’t do well in that subject (actually within a certain margin of error, I did well in the exam, hehe). Based on news reports in the US, it is not so much statistical error that is at fault but systematic error.

Statistical error has to do with the methodology the pollsters used which will lead to among others, the questions of the representativeness of the sample (sampling error), the sample size so chosen (size error) and the degree of freedom assumed which will impact the level of confidence in prediction.

Experts have all been unanimous that the statistical errors were all within the threshold of acceptability statistically. Remember that statistics is not a science that is about 100% accuracy all the time and if you perceived it as such and refused to accept the existence of acceptable statistical errors, you (the layman) are exhibiting arrogance of the highest order.

So it is the systematic error that is in question which in layman term can be phrased this way: “Yes, the sampling method was right, the sample size was right but what are the questions that you asked the voters? Is it leading questions such that the result of the poll is what you (the pollster) want to hear rather than asking objective questions that beget objective answers?

The systematic error could also be explained in the way the final consumers of the poll (not the pollsters themselves but the media and Clinton’s campaign staff who commissioned the pollsters) spin the pollsters’ analysis in accordance with their own agenda of supporting Hillary at all cost whether consciously or not.

In this regard, Trump actually made sense when he alleged during campaigning that the election was rigged but he was far off the mark when he said that these people (the pollsters) were interviewing each other rather than random voters.

Perhaps he gave this stupid reason out of desperation because the analysis of his own pollsters had shown him that he had a good chance of winning in the battleground swing states.

But instead of seeing all these in term of polling errors, I’m of the view that the 2016 US election is a watershed election because it sees the emergence of a new normal as exemplified in Trump getting away unscathed for:

  • Not showing his tax returns;
  • Speaking outrageously against women, the Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, China and Mexico, etc;
  • Mimicking the gestures of the handicaps and his opponents; and
  • ‘Brawling’ with his fellow Republicans including Speaker Ryan

Seeing the above as a new normal also implied that perhaps the Muslims and others too should ultimately judge him based on the policies that he will finally implement as a President, rather than based on his speeches during the heat of the moment when campaigning.

The fact is for about three months after winning the election he is not the President of the USA, Obama is. President elect Trump will be just as lame-duck as the real President during these three months until his inauguration in late January, and due to this, it does not make sense to be emotional about him during this period.

So how do we predict the outcome of a Trump presidency under this new normal scenario? Is there any historical precedent? There is, actually.

When Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Josef Stalin as the Soviet leader in 1954, his outrageous behavior at the UN Assembly in 1960 by repeated banging of his shoe in protest at a speech by the Philippine delegate, Lorenzo Sumulong, had made him a Soviet leader with a relatively brief reign as compared to his predecessors who ruled until their deaths.

So in light of a new normal and a historical precedent, the relevant question to ask about Trump in relation to predicting the outcome of his presidency is not so much whether he will be a one term president; rather the question is will he serve the full duration of his first term?

Only time will tell whether the latter outcome will see the light of day! So far since winning the election, Trump’s actions and sayings are presidential.


Hub for cross-border dispute resolution

Consider this: You’re often criticised at home but out there, outsiders have full trust in your system. This is the hidden message in the article below.

Consider this too: Very often when you’re ahead of your time, you’ll be criticised BIG TIME for introducing new ideas or innovation but when you’re six feet under the ground, the compliments come in fast and furious for that very new ideas and innovation in line with the Malay proverb : “Harimau mati meninggalkan belang, manusia mati meninggalkan nama (forgive me if the phrasing is slightly out as I’m not that good with proverbs – both Malay and English. Btw, this is not the message – hidden or explicit – of the article below).

So don’t be afraid of criticisms. People out there especially in the social media sometimes have nothing better to do but criticise and criticise BIG TIME. It is always easy to criticise but give these critics the chance to implement their ideas, they will more often than not mess it up BIG TIME.

But of course there are others even in the social media who give meaningful and constructive criticisms. Pay attention to them BIG TIME and you won’t fail.

You can criticise whatever you like on Singapore politics but don’t pray-pray with Singapore economic and financial system – it’s one of the best in the world. You can criticise, after all this is a free country, but make sure you do your homework well.

On another issue related to this article, it is a smart move on hindsight on the part of IIUM that when it started operations in 1983, it introduced only two faculties (or Kulliyyah in Arabic) – Economics and Law. See why the combination of economics and law which is not out there but affect every facet of our lives is a win-win situation in the article below.


Hub for cross-border dispute resolution

By Jamari Mohtar

Singapore Correspondent

Focus Malaysia | Nov 8 2014


Stage set for formation of Singapore International Commercial Court to resolve cases in the region

WHEN economics and law strengthen each other, the result is a win-win situation. This is aptly illustrated in Singapore.

The intersection of economic activities in Singapore as represented by growing cross-border trade and investment in Asia, and the city-state’s position as a neutral third party venue for dispute resolution in this region, have resulted in the need for a formation of an international commercial court.

With a highly trusted and sound legal system, the efforts to develop international arbitration in Singapore began some years ago that has been achieving significant success.

The economic context for such an effort is that global GDP is expected to increase by 73% to over US$100 tril by 2020. During the same period, it is expected that Asian economies will more than triple – from US$10 tril to US$34 tril. The volume and complexity of cross-border disputes are expected to grow in tandem.

Singapore’s legal sector has also grown substantially too. From 2008 to 2012, the nominal value-added of legal services sector grew by slightly more than 25%. The value of legal services exported from Singapore grew by more than 60%. Hence, demand for effective and trusted dispute resolution services will continue to rise.

The initial effort at making Singapore a hub for cross-border dispute resolution began when the Economic Development Board (EDB) and International Enterprise (IE) Singapore set up the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) in March 1990. Its formation was one of the recommendations of the 1986 Economic Committee to speed up the settlement of commercial disputes.

The SIAC commenced operations in July 1991 with the main objective of developing Singapore to be a regional and international hub for commercial arbitration. In August 1999, the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) took over the responsibility for SIAC from EDB and IE Singapore.

From 1 April 2003, in yet another move to allay any perception of its link with any branch of government, stewardship of SIAC was transferred from the SAL to the Singapore Business Federation (SBF). The SBF is the apex business chamber that represents the interests of the Singapore business community, whose membership comprises more than 15,000 companies, chambers of commerce and key industry associations.

SIAC operates as an independent, not-for-profit organisation. SIAC’s operations are overseen by a broad-based Board of Directors, composed of representatives from the international and local business and professional communities in Singapore.

The republic is now the third most preferred seat of arbitration, after London and Geneva, and SIAC is the fourth most preferred arbitral institution worldwide. In recent years, Singapore law firms ranked amongst the top international arbitration practices in Asia.

Early this year in Parliament, Singapore Law Minister K Shanmugam said SIAC’s caseload is also growing with new cases rising from 99 in 2008, to 259 in 2013. The total value of disputes rose to a record high of more than S$6.06 bil in 2013, and exceeded the combined total of S$4.93 bil for 2011 and 2012.

“SIAC’s caseload is predominantly international and more than 80% of the cases involve at least one foreign party. Establishing the Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC) and the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) will extend our success in arbitration into adjacent areas of commercial mediation and court-based commercial litigation for international cases. The idea is to provide users with an entire suite of dispute resolution services, and they can choose from those, which best meet their needs,” added the Law Minister.

The Singapore International Commercial Court

In November 2013, the SICC Committee, chaired by then-Justice V K Rajah and Senior Minister of State for Law, Indranee Rajah, recommended the establishment of the SICC as a division of the High Court, to hear international commercial disputes.

The SICC was proposed to bolster Singapore’s ability to provide a full suite of commercial dispute resolution services, which span litigation, arbitration and mediation and address the rise in complex cross-border commercial disputes arising from the growth in trade and investment into Asia.

Separately, the Committee to Review the Regulatory Framework of the Singapore Legal Services Sector (Regulatory Committee) chaired by then-Attorney General Sundaresh Menon, had also submitted its set of recommendations to the Ministry of Law in January this year. The recommendations are aimed at modernising the regulatory regime of the legal profession in Singapore, which now comprises not only Singapore-qualified lawyers (SLs) and Singapore law practices, but also a growing number of foreign-qualified lawyers (FLs) and international law practices practising foreign law, and where licensed to do so, Singapore law in permitted areas of legal practice.

These developments coalesce in the introduction of three bills by the Ministry of Law on Oct 7 for their first reading in Parliament: the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill; the Supreme Court of Judicature (Amendment) Bill; and the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill 2014.

The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill and the Supreme Court of Judicature (Amendment) Bill include amendments that will enable the establishment of the SICC, while the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill 2014 contains amendments to implement regulatory framework changes recommended by the Regulatory Committee along with SICC-related and other miscellaneous amendments.

On Nov 4, these bills were passed by Parliament, paving the way for the establishment of a court – the SICC – that will be the first of its kind in Asia to cater to foreign parties and foreign laws and make Singapore an attractive venue for international businesses to resolve their disputes.

Speaking in Parliament during the debate to pass the bill, Shanmugam says achieving a reputation as the go-to place for dispute resolution in Asia, and perhaps even the world, will not be easy and will take time but that is something Singapore must try for, and the new court is an attempt to achieve this.

“I think it is not going to be possible to precisely track the direct and indirect economic benefits, but we have to define success at two levels. One the number of cases, and the type of claims that have come through but second also the intangible, which is how does it position us as a legal hub? As a place to go to in all of Asia? So if you sit anywhere in the world and you think of a dispute resolution in the courts in a neutral forum, would you think of Singapore? That is what we want to try and achieve,” adds the Minister of Law.

The new court will see a panel of judges that will include both Supreme Court judges and international judges. Parties to the dispute will be given the option to apply for a foreign-qualified lawyer to represent them in some cases.

The court may also allow the parties to apply alternative rules of evidence that they’re more familiar with.

This will help to make the SICC a more attractive option to foreign parties with little or no Singapore connection, says Shanmugam.


Singapore tops survey as most business-friendly economy

SINGAPORE was named the world’s most business-friendly regulatory environment for the ninth straight year, based on a World Bank’s survey, Doing Business 2015: Going Beyond Efficiency, released on Oct 29.

The survey bases its scores on factors such as corporate tax rates, set-up costs, energy prices and transparency. Also in the top 10 in order of merit were New Zealand, Hong Kong, Denmark, South Korea, Norway, the US, the UK, Finland and Australia.

Malaysia’s increased efficiency in dealing with construction permits helped its ranking – from 20th in 2013 to 18th this year. It was fourth in Asia ahead of Taiwan at 19 and Thailand at 26.

“Through an ambitious reform agenda, Malaysia has gradually improved the ease of doing business. This has benefited local entrepreneurs, who now have fewer regulatory hurdles to deal with and more resources to focus on their business,” said Rita Ramalho, Doing Business lead author, in a statement which accompanied the report.

“Malaysia’s case also shows how the latest technologies can be used to improve the regulatory environment for businesses. Over the past five years, for example, the implementation of electronic systems has made it easier for businesses to pay taxes and execute contracts.”

Now in its 12th year, the report showed that Malaysia has improved its business regulatory framework through 17 reforms since 2005, compared to the global average of 12 reforms per country in the same period.

It is interesting to note that none of the eurozone’s core economies – Germany, France, Italy and Spain – made it to the top 10. Italy was ranked 56th, below Bahrain, Rwanda and Armenia.

Eurozone economies are facing recession risks according to the International Monetary Fund. The survey raises an interesting question of could it be that a country facing recession risk slackens in enhancing its business regulatory environment. That’s something for the experts to think about.

For Singapore, the No 1 position is very timely when viewed in conjunction with the passing of three bills in its Parliament on Nov 4, which paves the way for the establishment of Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) in an attempt to make the republic a hub for cross-border disputes resolution.

The debate preceding the passage of the bill was robust when it came to the issue of the appointment of Senior Judges to hear cases in the High Court, including those in SICC. These are retired judges of the Supreme Court who can be appointed for a specified period of time.

Opposition MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) opined that since these judges are appointed for short terms and contract renewal is dependent on recommendations from the Prime Minister and concurrence by the President, the uncertainty of reappointment carries a risk.

“Short-term judges would be wary of making decisions that put the government or ruling party politicians in a bad light, and might make safe decisions so as not to jeopardise their reappointment. I’m not saying this has in fact happened, nor am I impuning the integrity of the President or Prime Minister. But if we are to improve the design of our constitutional institutions for the long-term, these provisions do not help instill the highest public confidence in the independence of the courts,” Lim said.

The rejoinder from Law Minister K Shanmugam: “What we should be looking at is the appointment of persons with the right timbre. At the end, that’s your best guarantee. And judgments in public, we have a highly-educated public. They can look at the judgments and they can decide whether the bench is or is not of the quality we want.”