Of leadership, trust and integrity

One of the weaknesses of any political system is that no criteria are laid down as regards qualities or competencies required of anyone aspiring to become MPs

There is always the risk that with one revelation about politicians allegedly involved in improprieties or misconduct driving out each other from the public space week after week, the concerned parties might escape from public censure, given the people’s short-term memory and their focus on their immediate concerns in these difficult times. The people’s apparent loss of faith in investigations relating to inquiries involving politicians close to power does not help either. They seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that the politicians – most, that is – and their retinues are all the same, and public censure will have to wait until the next elections given the absence of any constitutional provisions for recalling governments whose continuation in office might not be in the country’s interest.

The list of politicians – mostly those operating within the governing alliance establishment – who are involved in matters that call for exemplary sanction is getting longer by the day. From the chap who blurted out the threat of gunning down the leader of the opposition, to the alleged sexto messages exchanged within the precincts of the National Assembly and next the safe conduct letter issued by the former Attorney General for the benefit of a self-confessed swindler… one is tempted to ask: Who’s next? One could have qualms about the media’s particular agenda and its persistence in tracking down – selectively, some would contend — politicians belonging to targeted political parties with a view to discredit them, but that should not distract us from expecting from elected MPs that they uphold the highest standards in personal and political ethics.

Things were not perfect in ages past too, but then sages and philosophers in ancient times who had examined in depth their societies and offered guidance for ethical living to their fellow human beings had at the same time defined the contours of what an ideal society should be like. Among other things, they said that the common people tend to mimic the behaviour of their leaders. And that for this reason it is a paramount responsibility of leaders to give the good example in all that they undertake. Today we say simply: leaders must lead by example, implied of course is good example.

This truism was already evident so long ago, but since human nature has not changed from the beginning (or very little if at all), with the same drives, temptations and impulses persisting down the generations, it is necessary to re-state such truisms in every age, in language and terms that suit the times. Many of our leaders do cite the examples of great leaders in their speeches. Would that they put into practice even a small percentage of what they preach! However, as the proverb goes ‘’twixt the cup and the lip there’s many a slip’. In other words, saying is one thing and doing is another. It is this disconnect which lies at the basis of many of the dysfunctions in contemporary society.

Unfortunately we have of late had to bear with such dysfunctions on the part of Members of Parliament, including Ministers as pointed out earlier. They seem to have made no effort to honestly understand the nature of public service, that they are public property and their behaviour is on the public record. As such they are supposed to be examplars of decent behaviour and of practices that comply with the rule of law wherever they are, and more so while performing their official functions. For a start they are expected to use suitable language whether they are being rhetorical or whether they are interacting with any person(s). The foundation of this expectation on the part of the public is the trust that they have put in their elected representatives when the latter came seeking votes for the elections.

One of the great weaknesses of any political system is that no criteria are laid down as regards the qualities, qualifications, skills or competencies that are required of anyone aspiring to become a representative of the people. Instead, it is lobbying on the basis of various narrow and selfish interests that seems to prevail. Such interests can be tribal, sectarian, business, economic, financial, communal or, as we have been seeing in the US and Europe in recent times, populist. Singapore, however, may be the only country where candidates wishing to stand for the party founded by the first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew have to go through a very rigorous selection process before they are anointed. And this, no doubt, explains why this island state has such a high international reputation. It may be worth recalling the Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s own brother was prosecuted on corruption charges. Is this even imaginable in Mauritius, when obvious defaulters who badmouth at every occasion are still allowed to strut about on the national stage without hindrance, not to say with the blessings of their masters?

Precedents of this kind are no doubt what give others the impression that they can similarly misbehave and get away. And thus the MP who has been exposed and who instead of paying attention to the deliberations going on in the august house, which he was elected to do, is busy with his smartphone, allegedly exchanging texts of an indecent nature with a lady who is in need of a job. Alas, this may not be the only instance of people in positions of power trying to exploit those in vulnerable situations who are genuinely, sometimes desperately, in search of a means to make a living to support themselves and their families.

We are here directly confronted with the major issues of probity, trust and integrity which we have a right to claim in those who we send to the Parliament. Going by the misbehaviours on the part of some of them that surface on the national scene, it is clear that they give scant regard to these traits even as they focus on their many entitlements and privileges, secure as they are behind the curtain of parliamentary immunity. What a pity that instead of holding themselves up to the highest standard – that of ethics and morality – that a human being is capable of, they should rather sink to the lower level of an investigative police enquiry. It may clear them, but will that make them clean from an ethical point of view?

As has been observed in a similar setting elsewhere, it is not by executive fiat that such deviations can be resolved. Rather, since it is not possible to make a rule for every possible situation, the solution is a culture of integrity that is driven from the top. Leaders must lead, and be above suspicion themselves.

Clearly, there is a strong message here for all leaders – and that includes MPs – to engage in critical self-analysis and find out for themselves where they have so faulted that they have incurred public disgust. There is a ‘trust deficit’ on the part of public figures, mainly politicians. It is up to them to do whatever is required to restore that trust, and to put themselves truly at the service of those who are in greater need than themselves without indulging in cheap thrills and in full respect of their own dignity and that of those who approach them for help. They are playing with ordinary people’s lives and careers, and if that is not enough reason for them to be serious and respectful, irrespective of gender, then what is?

 

*  Published in print edition on 6 October 2017

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