“To lead, you must be able to see first further, and tell people what is unpleasant sometimes. I try to say what’s right. Pleasant or unpleasant to me, is not as important as what is right, what is rational.” Khaw Boon Wan on leadership.
There is a terrible old cliché in leadership theories that good leaders do what is right. The claim sounds logical—almost indisputable—simply because we do not expect good leaders to do what is wrong instead. We must remember, however, that there is often no universal consensus on what constitutes right and wrong. For someone in a position of leadership to self-indulgently see and market himself as a good leader who does what is right, he has to first be presumptuous enough to impose his beliefs regarding right/wrong on those he is leading and pre-empt the possibility of dialogue. His right/wrong becomes the only possible configuration. His worldview is immutable truth. This is the sort of political leaders that Singapore has.
In a rather ironic moment, Minister Khaw Boon Wan shares with us his take on leadership, which turns out to be an indirect claim that he and his PAP colleagues are leaders par excellence. It is difficult to tell if he is even trying to be subtle about it by not referring to himself and his colleagues, but makes references instead to what he considers bad political leadership elsewhere in the world. What Khaw says is yet another signal from the PAP, whether it is deliberate or not, that the PAP will never change. Khaw’s words negate any promise the PAP has made to listen to the people, though this is not at all unexpected—who amongst us but the most naïve (to use a word that I consider to be a tad too positive in this context) would believe that the PAP is going to be receptive to noisy, untalented Singaporeans?
One cliché that will always be used to describe the PAP government (and I make no apologies about using the term “PAP government”) is: the government knows best. Actually it ought to be: only the government knows. If you disagree, you are wrong. Be grateful that you have a good government that will correct you, plebeians! We may not want to disagree with Khaw excessively when he claims that political leaders need to “tell people what is unpleasant sometimes.” To be sure, leadership is not about courting people with honeyed words and vague promises or even crowd-pleasing apologies sans sincerity. But let us first ask why there is even a need to tell people what is unpleasant. I would assume that it is necessary when the people are wrong or are not aware of unpleasant truths and thus need to be enlightened. This is the underlying assumption when a leader tells people what is unpleasant. However, when a leader brings this a level higher by self-consciously explaining that good leadership involves telling people what is unpleasant, it reflects deep-seated anxieties about people’s confidence in him (which explains the need to define good leadership) and/or a belief that those he is leading tend to stubbornly refuse the enlightenment that he has to offer them. As it turns out, perhaps two characteristics of excellent leadership are, quite paradoxically, insecurity and condescension.
Not quoted: Sorry, I'm going to continue telling you unpleasant things because I'm a good leader.
While Khaw is quite unambiguous about his definition of good leadership, he is also introducing an element of uncertainty or inconsistency—“sometimes”—in his statement. How does a leader decide when to tell what is unpleasant and when not to do so? Allow me to propose that good leaders say the nicest things when garnering votes and dispense with pleasantries at all other times. This is like a preacher who makes promises about how God will bless people when he is trying to convert them, but who constantly reminds them that they are sinners who should be punished once they are converted. Blessings? What blessings? This is a conclusion about good leadership I have reached after years of observing the PAP, whom we must assume the one entity that has the highest concentration of the greatest leaders in the world.
We must not make the mistaking of over-simplifying Khaw, of course. There are at least two other qualities of good leadership that he mentions: foresight and rationality. Foresight is, for him, linked to saying what is unpleasant. It has got to be an extended condescension of sorts. I have doubts about how farsighted it is to define foresight narrowly as a leader seeing beyond what no-leaders can see and conveying the vision to them. One could very well define foresight in political leadership as the ability to take into account why what they say is unpleasant to the people they are leading. We can do without leaders who constantly tell us how good their policies are for the country when the people simply experience increasing misery and suffering. The tendency of the PAP to impose on the people its third-world-to-first grand narrative is itself a sign of bad leadership. Would these leaders have the foresight to see that setting up a thousand Facebook pages will not help them “engage” the people if there is no aim to go beyond the usual condescending leadership style and the only aim is to create a semblance of engagement and hoping that people will be taken in.
We may also fault Khaw for his emphasis on rationality in leadership. Khaw is saying that leaders have to be rational and make decisions that are unpopular (we have heard that many times from the PAP), but what gets neglected is how rationality can actually lead to different decisions. Given the same situation, two different leaders may make different but nonetheless rational decisions. It may be entirely rational to, for instance, ban a work of art because a significant segment of society deems it objectionable. It may be equally rational to not ban the work because no matter how objectionable it is to some people, it does not and cannot harm anyone and we should not disallow creative expression. To tyrannize based on one mode of rationality is bad leadership and this is a persistent problem with the PAP. Its rationality is always the only right. So they are more self-righteous than right.
"Good leaders do the right thing. And I'm always right."
We should, however, not fault Khaw excessively for we cannot say that he is wrong and that leaders should not be rational. We should not give him much credit either since his point, when it is acceptable, is commonsensical and not at all insightful. We wonder also how rational he and his colleagues are.
Khaw dishes out seemingly good advice to Singaporeans about the need to save. As it is reported:
“Sometimes you get fine weather, sometimes rainy. But if you have always saved for the rainy day, you’ll be pretty steady and safe,” he was quoted as saying by The Straits Times.
Speaking at the sidelines of a National Day observance ceremony in Sembawang on Sunday, Minister Khaw noted that even saving S$100 out of S$1,000 each month would go a long way in sheltering Singaporeans during rainy days. (Source)
He gives the example of Americans and Europeans who overspent instead of saving their money. It is all good advice except that before we can follow his advice, we have to earn enough to save money. If I earn as much money as Khaw as a minister, I would certainly be able to save $100 out of every $1000, which is just 10% of my salary. But what if I earn only $1000 per month? How am I going to save $100, especially with “fair and balanced” transport fare hikes and the ever-rising cost of living? At least the Americans have a minimum wage and many European countries have unemployment benefits. In Singapore, we have to save for a rainy day; when the storm floods our pathetic lives, we go begging our very sympathetic MPs for a food voucher or too and get constant reminders not to have a crutch mentality. If this is an example of sound, rational leadership, the PAP will score better than anyone else.
It seems that our political leaders are more interested in telling us what great leaders they are than in leading well. Admittedly, this is itself very rational because so long as the people believe that they are led by the best leaders in the world, they will be good and grateful citizens despite their misery. They will know that they only have their lack of prudence and their sheer incompetence to blame when they have financial problems. What else should matter? Successful propaganda counts more than substance.
Filed under: Leadership | Tagged: rhetoric | 7 Comments »