Join! It’s Free! Or is It?

When Raffles Town Club first opened, it was positioned as a top-end members’ only haven and enclave. Fiercely touted were its supposed European design, central location (no, no, not tucked away in the boondocks) with superlative fine dining restaurants and a small, invitation-only very special membership offered exclusively only to the elite, yes, the crème de la crème of Singapore, no less.

Aggressive marketing through credit card companies (pay through affordable monthly instalments!) saw a huge surge in membership, as suckers who desired to belong to the more expensive (translation: “old school and stodgy”) and difficult-to-get-in clubs like the Tanglin Club and the Singapore Island Country Club fulfilled their aspirations and would now also be deemed “someone with a club membership.” Yes, they felt they’ve finally arrived.

Soon after, Raffles Town Club hit the news and all for the wrong reasons.

First of all, it wasn’t a club at all, it was a company with the word “club” in its name and “members” have no voting rights. Zero, zip, zilch, nada. Never had, never do and never will.

European design? It looks worse than a train station in Moldova! Strategic location? It was at a road corner in the Bukit Timah area far from public transport access. Superlative dining facilities? You got to be kidding – even eateries at established clubs are mediocre at best. In fact, some have to pay you to eat by sending you free vouchers every month redeemable at their F&B outlets. Exclusive membership? Members complained of overcrowding – membership was sold to anyone and everyone who applied and people were appalled to see their neighborhood ex-convict and their neighborhood pork seller slurping their French onion soup and stuffing their faces in the same mess hall masquerading as “a fine dining establishment.”

And as if it couldn’t get worse, the owners fought, but deals were made and the founders all got away with their millions while members fumed.

Talk about being screwed!

Since then, the Club has changed hands a couple of times.

What made people sign up in the first place?

They were all victims of bounded rationality: you only know what you know at the decision point. Sure, you can try game theory to see what transpires – usually nothing different – but who has the time and resources to do that? Besides, you may end up over-analyzing a decision to the point of paralysis. (Analysis paralysis, anyone?) Absent some solid data to guide your decision, you then refer to whatever basic tenet you live your life by; in this case, to belong, to be a member of a club, so you can flaunt it. That, is about the best an Ah Beng can do and, hopefully, result in the best an Ah Beng can get. Or put differently, making the best decision on limited information available, according to beliefs and desires, is the best an Ah Beng can be.

Say a supposedly charismatic (translation: “seemingly rich”) person rises from nowhere and promises to convene an interest group – no charge for membership, nothing to lose, just join for the fellowship, hey, it’s free, so be part of the community. Who wouldn’t join? People will jump in for fear of missing out. In fact, some will fight tooth and nail to snag an invitation! But have you considered the person’s character? His past behavior? His track record? Is he prepared to spend, say, a million bucks of his own money to promote whatever cause the interest group purportedly has? Is the person open, sincere, honest or has he got dollar signs in his eyes and pecuniary intents in his mind? In other words, what’s his pedigree and raison d’etat? Remember, a simulacrum of a saint is not a saint.

You wouldn’t know about this person, would you, because of bounded rationality – the idea that your rationality is limited when you make that decision at that point in time. Limited by what? Not to beat a dead horse, but limited by the tractability of the decision at hand and the time available to say “yes” or “no” among other factors. Thus pressured, you act as a satisficer and you end up seeking what seems to you at that  moment to be a satisfactory solution rather than an optimal one.

Not only that, you make decisions based on your mental capabilities, your own cognitive limitations, your own brainpower, your own intellectual fire power and what others are doing. I hate to break it to you, but the bottom line is: the quality of your decision is limited by your IQ. So, you take comfort in numbers. Everyone else has gotten the invite and clicked “yes” so what about you?

The more lemmings there are, the more they will collectively jump off the cliff.

Are you a lemming?

A very wise man just reminded me that “sometimes the idiots you know are better than the devils you do not know.”

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