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.


Combining the fast of Syawwal with other fasts

Fast-paced events in the capitals of the West

As I’m writing this, we are already entering the final week of Syawwal, the tenth month (the equivalent of October in the Gregorian calendar) of the lunar-based Hijri taqwim (Islamic calendar).

This time round, Syawwal seems to be a month full of fast-paced events taking place in the world. Early into Syawwal, as the ummah was celebrating Eidul Fitr to mark the end of fasting in the holy month of Ramadan, we were greeted with an upset – Portugal claiming the crown of the Euro football championship for the first time by beating France, the favourite to win.

This was soon followed by another epochal event of Britain having a second woman prime minister since the 1980s with Theresa May holding the rein of power in Westminster, leading Britain into negotiations with the European Union (EU) in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Whether Theresa may (pun unintended) turn out to be another Iron Lady in the mould of the redoubtable Margaret Thatcher; or better still a newly minted Steel Lady; or worse a Wood Lady, and worst, a Plastic Lady bending to the will of the EU in the negotiations (from the perspective of Britons of course), only time will tell.

Not enough with these two exciting, and perhaps heart-rending Euro events (France in losing the trophy, and Britain in exiting EU), the month of Syawwal also saw high drama in Turkey about a fortnight ago when a putsch by some members of its military outside the chain of command to take over the country was outmanoeuvred by its President, Recep Taiyyip Erdogan in what analysts say was an epochal event – the utilisation of technology in the form of the app known as Facetime by Erdogan to rally the Turkish people to go out to the streets to defeat the “putschists”.

Turkey is still reeling from the aftermath of the failed coup – the massive arrests of those in the military, judiciary and police alleged to be involved in the coup, plus Erdogan’s declaration of a three-month emergency period have spurred a concern in the EU and the US of a retrogression from democracy. It is difficult to blame Erdogan in this regard when he was reportedly marked for death during the failed coup despite being a legitimate, democratically elected President of Turkey. And mind you, it is not as if the attempted coup was bloodless.

Moreover, at that critical time when the direction of where the wind was blowing as the coup was progressing was uncertain, the support of the US and EU can at best be described as lukewarm. In saying “we are monitoring the situation in Turkey”, instead of an unequivocal statement of support for a democratically elected Head of State and his government, the seed is sown for distrust and suspicion among friendly nations in international relations.

Perhaps what Obama, John Kerry and leaders of EU need is a crash course in PR 100 in International Relations because this is definitely not the way to treat one of your closest allies, however disagreeable you are with his domestic policies and leaning.

Remember, the world owes it to Turkey in the fight against the radical Isis or Deash, as it’s willing to let its Incirlik air base be used by US and Nato forces in the fight against Isis. Any actions or nuances that reflect the sense of ungratefulness towards Turkey could lead to a dramatic tragedy with the endgame of ‘biting the hands that feed you”.

And finally… the US Department of Justice (DoJ) media conference last week in which a complaint of a civil action in rem was filed by the US authorities to seize the assets in US allegedly bought by using the siphoned money from the Malaysian Sovereign Wealth Fund, 1MDB in what is dubbed as the biggest claim ever filed by Kari (the Kleptocracy Assets Recovery Initiatives… kari yang amat pedas dan tegas) to the tune of USD 1 billion.

This has riveted attention back to Malaysia, causing the ringgit to fall again to the 3.00 level against the Singapore dollar, after strengthening to a very good level of 2.94 in the week before the DoJ announcement.

All eyes are now on the DoJ for subsequent actions and follow through. But for most Malaysians, the burning and pertinent questions are: will justice ever be meted out to the perpetrators of, in the words of AG Loretta Lynch, “the international conspiracy to launder money misappropriated from 1MDB”, and most importantly of all is, when will we (the Malaysian people as a whole) ever get our looted money back!

The last question is a bit mind boggling… would it be conceivable for a new US Administration, say under Donald Trump, to return the money when the dust has settled. For all we know, he might have some side deals with the perpetrators before even the dust has settled, as the saying goes money makes the world go round and round… that by the way is a joke Mr Trump! Don’t get worked up as you have already achieved the extraordinary feat of being crowned as the Republican nominee for the coming November elections which was unthinkable a year ago…

What a month Syawwal turns out to be… God knows whether there will be more high dramas or the epochal ones (doesn’t matter lah drama swasta or drama awam…) on the world stage as Syawwal bids us goodbye. In the meantime, hope it is not too late to wish Eid Mubarak to all Muslims…


Combining the fast of Syawwal with other fasts

By Jamari Mohtar | July 28, 2016

I am triggered to restart my blogging hobby when a dear friend asked me to find some ahadith soheh (authentic sayings of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w), as evident that it is perfectly okay to combine the six-day fast of Syawwal with other voluntary fasts encouraged by the Prophet (s.a.w).

Two voluntary fasts of the Prophet s.a.w (i.e. his Sunnah) in question are the fasting on each Monday and Thursday, and the 3-day fast on the 13th, 14th and 15th of each month of the Islamic calendar known as white day fasting (Ayyaum al Bead). The question here is whether while performing the six-day fast of Syawwal, one can also simultaneously combine it with these two voluntary fasts.

What happens here is let say one begins the Syawwal fast on 13 Syawwal which happened to be the Monday of 18 July, then one can also perform simultaneously the white day fast and the Monday fast, giving a phenomenon of 3-in-1 fast. All one has to do is to insert the three niyyah (intentions) of performing the three fasts before performing the first of the six-day fast of Syawwal.

But this 3-in-1 fast takes place only on the Monday of 13 Syawwal as the three-day white day fast ended on the Wednesday of 15 Syawwal. So from Tuesday to Wednesday (14 to 15 Syawwal), one will experience a 2-in-1 fast – Syawwal fast and the white day fast. However, the Thursday of 16 Syawwal is still a 2-in-1 fast – although the white day fast has ended, there is the sunnatic Thursday fast to replace it. By Friday 17 Syawwal, it’s back to a 1-in-1 fast of Syawwal.

It gets interesting here because it brings to mind a conversation of two years ago when an Ustaz told me one can also combine the Syawwal fast with a qada fast (making up of a missed fast of Ramadan on any day after Ramadan and before the onset of the next Ramadan, provided the reason for missing the fast is a legitimate one. Of course, one cannot fast on the few days designated by Islam as forbidden to fasting).

Although this is new to me at that time, it raises the spectre of a 4-in-1 fast on the Monday of 13 Syawwal, a 3-in-1 fast from the subsequent Tuesday to Thursday (14 to 16 Syawwal), and a 2-in-1 fast from Friday to Saturday, assuming the number of the qada (make-up) fast of Ramadan is six.

When I told the dear friend about this 4-in-1 fast, she cautioned me that although she has no problem with the 3-in-1 fast as her request is just a matter for her to be doubly sure that there is a hadith pertaining to it, she is not so sure whether the 4-in-1 fast is permissible since a number of asatizah had told her it is not, for one cannot combine a qada fast as it has to stand on its own.

Small mind

This is a classic case of one Ustaz says can and another says cannot, but it is alright because it is a discussion on issues of khilaf – periphery matters that have no repercussion on the fundamentals of the religion. It was discussion of this nature that had stimulated the minds and intellect of the Muslims of the past such that they inherited a dynamic and progressive civilization that held sway over a large swathe of lands stretching from China to Spain.

But a proviso though: Discussion on such issues must be conducted with an open mind by nipping at the bud the self-centred tendency to prove one is always right with a khilaf opinion, come what may; or having a personal agenda to label your adversary in discussion as deviant i.e. Syiah, Salafi, Wahabi, Sufi etc for holding a view contrary to yours. These are small-minded people whom you can see lurking in the social media with their favourite pastime of putting down others that differ from them on peripheral matters, despite being the adherents of the same religion.

The fact of the matter…

Now, here’s a blow-by blow the argument for combining fast (whether it’s a 2-in1, 3-in-1 or 4-in-1) as discussed by the classical fuqaha (jurists):

First the points of agreement

  • The Hadith “Whoever fasts Ramadan and follows it with six days from Syawwal, it is as if they fasted the entire year” is an authentic hadith.
  • The direct general meaning of the above Hadith is, if one fasts on any 6 days (even make-ups or qada) in Syawwal, one gets the reward of performing the sunna of fasting six days of Syawwal
  • It is not obligatory to perform one’s make-up fasts before performing voluntary fasts, though one should not perform the latter in a way that unduly delays the completion of one’s qada.  This depends on one’s circumstances and adeptness at fasting regularly.

Points of disagreement

  • An obligatory fast cannot be combined with voluntary fast because they are of a different genre. The obligatory fast must be completed first. A make-up fast is obligatory, so it has to be cleared first.
  • Although not obligatory, there is greater merit in completing the make-up (qada) fast of Ramadan before attempting the six-day fast of Syawwal.

As there is no need to belabour the point in matters that are in agreement, my focus is on the points of disagreement. As to the first point of disagreement, the issue is this: how can you focus on the voluntary stuff when your obligatory stuff is in abeyance. This is a valid point especially in the case of solat (prayer). Why would one need to focus consistently on performance of the voluntary night prayers and other nawafil prayers when he or she is in the habit of wilfully ignoring the performance of the five daily, obligatory prayers?

This is different from a situation in which one occasionally misses the five daily prayers (i.e. not habitual, after all to err is human) and tries to make up the missed obligatory prayers by performing as many nawafil prayers as possible and carry a huge expectation of hope against hope that the performance of these voluntary prayers will be accepted by Allah as a redemption for the occasional lapses in the obligatory prayer.

The situation is graver in the case of solat as compared to fasting because in an authentic Hadith, it is said that in the Day of Judgement, solat will be the first item in the agenda that is being scrutinised. If your five daily prayers are not in good stead by wilfully ignoring them in a habitual manner, Allah doesn’t even bother to look at your other good deeds.

But for other ibadah (rites of worship) other than solat, some jurists say that it is permissible to subsume the intention of a voluntary deed under an obligatory one, and as such, combining the make-up (qada) fast of Ramadan, which is obligatory with other voluntary fasts is acceptable.

In an attempt to reconcile this issue of obligatory vis-à-vis voluntary fast, some fuqaha opined that the reward is higher for one who completes the six day Syawwal fast after completing the qada fast compared to one who perform them before completing the latter fast.

But other jurists pointed out if this is the case, why would the Sahabah (Companions of the Prophet s.a.w) who were the upholders of Sunnah were in the habit of delaying their make-up fast of Ramadan until near the end in Syaaban, the month just before the next Ramadan.

From an authentic Hadith of Aisyah and other Hadith of other Sahabahs, we know there was a “mad” rush to perform the qada fast of Ramadan in Syaaban and this gave rise to the misconception of the “special” virtue of fasting in the month of Syaaban which was further exacerbated by a number of weak and fabricated Ahadith extolling the special virtues of fasting in the month of Syaaban. The Sahabah in actual fact were fasting in Syaaban not so much because of the special virtue of Syaaban; they were merely rushing to meet a deadline of ‘paying’ back their missed Ramadan fast because the next Ramadan is around the corner!

This raises two interesting questions.

  • First, why would there be a “mad” rush among the Sahabahs to make up the qada fast of Ramadan in Syaaban if the qada fast can be combined with the 6-day fast of Syawwal? The assumption here is being the upholders of Sunnah, they must have already performed their six-day Syawwal fast (a Sunnah) while still owing the performance of their qada Ramadan fast.
  • Two, does it befit Sahabahs as the upholder of Prophet Sunnah to delay an obligatory matter till to the last minute?

As to the first question, the mad rush refers to those who missed their Ramadan fast for more than six days. Because the voluntary Syawwal fast is only six days, you can only combine this voluntary fast with the obligatory qada fast for a maximum of six days. If you missed the Ramadan fast for, say 14 days for whatever reasons allowed by the Syariah, then the mad rush in this case refers to making up the balance which is (14-6) 8 days in Shaaban.

On the second question, unlike solat which many Ahadith had admonished on the habit of delaying it to the last minute, as for e.g. performing the Zuhr prayer at 4.30pm when Asr is at 4.50pm, there is no such admonition for delaying the qada fast of Ramadan till the last minute. One can see it as Allah’s Mercy and Compassion to us. A period of 12 months is given to repay back what is owed to Him without any insistence to settle it immediately. A Generous, Merciful, Compassionate Allah indeed!

Err… perhaps it’s a “number game” actually…

The following is my own view on the issue. You can agree or disagree with it or even ignore it. No sweat because as I said earlier this is an issue that does not have any repercussion on the fundamentals of the faith.

In the Hadith above on the basis for performing the 6-day fast of Syawwal, the only number specified in the Hadith other than the six (days) is one (year). In the hadith below which is an authentic hadith, an additional number is given.

“Whoever fasts for six days after Eidul Fitr has completed the year: whoever does a good deed (hasanah) will have ten hasanah like it.”

Two other Ahadith clarify what hasanah means in relation to fasting:

“Allah has made for each hasanah ten like it, so a month is like fasting ten months, and fasting six days completes the year.”

“Fasting for the month of Ramadan brings the reward of ten like it, and fasting for six days brings the reward of two months, and that is the fasting of the whole year.”

The above Ahadith in essence are giving a mathematical formula on why the fast of Ramadan plus the six-day fast add up to one year i.e. 12 months. Here’s how it works:

Since one hasanah (good deeds) = 10 hasanahs,

Therefore, one month of fasting in Ramadan = 10 (1×10) months of fasting.

6 days of fasting in Syawwal = 60 (6×10) days.

As one month comprises 30 days, hence 60 days = 2 months.

Therefore total is 12 (10+2) months of fasting.

So the bottom line lies in getting the reward of a year long fast for fasting just 36 days. It doesn’t matter whether you complete the 36 days early or at the last minute in Syaaban, as long as it is done before the onset of next Ramadan, and six of the 36 days of fasting were done in Syawwal. Some may achieve this 36-day fast earlier say in Syawwal, some at the last minute in Syaaban and others in between Syawal and Syaaban. It doesn’t matter. As soon as the 36-day fast is completed, all will get the same reward of following the Sunnah of the Prophet. It is in this sense that it’s just a number game.

Wallahu a’lam bi sawab.


p.s. There is no need to get worked up on these differences of opinion. You can either accept the premise of this post that it is alright to combine obligatory fast with voluntary or even qada fast. Or you can  disagree with it and do such fasts separately. Nay, you can even agree with the main point of this article theoretically but in your daily life, you do not practise it because you observe the fasts separately.

p.p.s. I actually did not fulfil the request of my dear friend, as indeed there is no hadith, which explicitly say you can combine the various fasting simultaneously. It’s just a matter of interpretation of all the Ahadith concerned. The beauty of Islam lies in the creative way it encourages one to use and exercise the intellect to get a better understanding of religious principles and obligations via the use of ijtihad (logical reasoning) which will impact positively on our ability to problem-solve the daily difficulties in other aspects of our life – from the smallest “headache” to the biggest crisis of life. However, this permission to be creative does not apply to the fundamental aspects of religion.