Malaysian Elections and the Black Swan
It is probably difficult to exaggerate the impact and import of the Malaysian election of March 8th. This is certainly not for want of trying; it has been hailed as an election we will be talking about decades, if not centuries from now. The "political tsunami" which the electorate unleashed, to the surprise of all but a few diehard optimists. But what caused this unexpected immense groundswell of public opinion against the government? It is certainly going to be an unpopular theory, but perhaps it is the case that this was all just an accident.
How could we get the election results so wrong? I would be some sort of political God if I could tell you why. It is a pretty damn safe bet that no living human being will ever be able to explain what we saw two weeks ago at the polls.
Still, there is no harm in trying to explain. All sorts of hypotheses have been proferred: a backlash against racial politics, the chickens coming home to roost for BN's economic mismanagement, a heightening fear of overreaching Islamisation, infighting within BN — the list goes on and on. In this radically different political environment, previously unthinkable explanations can suddenly seem sensible. Information Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek says he believes "middle-class urban voters ... shape the ideas and the outcome throughout the country" — an absurdly laughable contention before the election, but hardly something to be laughed off the table now.
Now, I don't doubt that all of these factors had something to do with the results we saw. But can any of them truly explain the overarching big picture, the sudden tipping of five states and half the popular vote into the hands of the informal PKR-DAP-PAS coalition? You could make the case, but I am skeptical.
If you indulge a bit of statistical showboating, the opposition's proportion of the popular vote across all previous 11 elections has a mode and median of 41.5%. The mean is actually 42.2% — we have always been close to a 2-party system in terms of the popular vote. Even in "landslides" for BN like in 1995 and 2004, the opposition won a third of the popular vote. Since the mode, mean and median are so close to one another, it is not too off the mark to generalise and call this a normal/Gaussian distribution; the standard deviation is about 4.666, for anyone nerdy enough to care. On the roll of the dice alone, the opposition has a 7% chance of scoring above 49% in the popular vote.
This is not to say that this would just randomly happen. But it is to say that simply by the luck of the draw, circumstances would eventually combine to create an election where the opposition could win half the popular vote and sweep an unthinkable number of seats, as indeed they have.
This thinking is borne out by one hypothetical modeling of changes in society. As long as people react to others around them, this simulation shows that you can witness an overnight change from a small and insignificant minority into an overwhelming majority. The change does not necessarily need any stronger underlying cause than a handful of people willing to be on the side opposing the initial majority; simply because people react to others around them, the model dictates that they will eventually respond. An easy to read account is provided in economist Tim Harford's book The Logic of Life; a book expanding on this topic is Paul Ormerod's Why Most Things Fail.
Some would say this reasoning does not go far enough. Harford writes that "transitions can be dramatic; they can have tiny causes, or even no cause at all, being just the product of random events." One thinker, Nassim Taleb, according to Wikipedia, contends that "almost all consequential events in history come from the unexpected — while humans convince themselves that these events are explainable in hindsight." Taleb rejects the normal distribution as a basis for analysing real life, arguing that other statistical distributions with a less ordered view of the population are a better basis for modeling the world. (As an aside, the research Harford discusses is not based on the normal distribution, and is simply a simulation of the world using a basic set of assumptions meant to reflect how people respond to incentives.)
Taleb's hypothesis can be found in his book The Black Swan. Note again that Taleb's conjecture does not mean that if the opposition had sat back and done nothing, they would have eventually won handily. It simply means that as long as they keep up what they have done in the past, at some point the circumstances would collide to provide them with an unexpected win.
Taleb illustrates this with the terrorist attacks of September 11. How can we explain them? You could mumble some explanation based on rising discontent in the Islamic world, but it is difficult to say that there was any gigantic turning point that provoked the attack. Rather, things just seem to have built up to the point where all this fury was unleashed without warning. Sure, all sorts of factors contributed to this fury, but none of them were the ultimate deciding factor.
To apply this to the Malaysian situation, consider all the explanations that have been put up. Sure, they each contributed in their own way to the "political tsunami", but did they really trigger it? Things have always been bad before, but the opposition never really seemed to capitalise on them and ride to victory. Perhaps even the astounding 1969 election when BN lost the popular vote was just an accident too; there were no real precipitating events to speak of either in that case.
In the end, regardless of whether you prefer the orthodox statistical approach of the normal distribution, a simulation of the real world, or a heterodox prediction that the unexpected will always eventually materialise, all roads lead to the same conclusion: maybe the incredible things we saw were just luck. It certainly could be the case. After all was said and done, the grand old man of Malaysian politics, Mahathir Mohamad, declared that he had warned this could happen. Taking a page from Taleb's book (quite literally, since this is a quotation originally attributed to him), Mahathir claims he told UMNO leaders not to try to swim in a river that was on average four feet deep. Maybe it was just BN's bad luck after all.