Leadership: Doing and Saying

October 29, 2008

Leadership. Its one of those words our PAP ministers love to bandy about. What separates them from fly-by-night opposition, they like to ask. Leadership. It’s about taking charge, showing the way and inspiring confidence. Unfortunately, since the Wall Street crisis broke, there has been very little evidence of leadership from our PAP ministers. Many of them, like our Finance Minister, were reduced to trite assurances like “our banking system is sound”. Our Prime Minister very comfortingly told us not “overreact”.


Meanwhile, all round the globe, this crisis has given the opportunity to some folks to shine and rise to the occasion, and for others to flounder. Leaders, in other words, are made by the situation.


Take Gordon Brown for example. The British PM, prior to the crisis, was deeply unpopular and was taking a trouncing at the polls. Brown announced major equity injections into British banks, backed up by guarantees on bank debt that would get banks doing what they were meant to do – start lending again. Brown, an economic wonk, is in his element with the crisis. A bit like how Churchill was in his element in WWII. Post-WWII, not so. And the same goes with Brown. We have to see if he can sustain his popularity post-crisis.


On the other hand, across the Atlantic, Henry Paulson, U.S. Treasury secretary, infamous for begging on his knees for the US$700 billion bailout, had initially rejected Brown’s course of action. Only after seeing that it may actually work has he reversed his decision and now plans to buy equity stakes rather than bad mortgage securities.


Of course, these men, at the thick of the action in London and Washington, have far greater pressures and media spotlight on them than PAP ministers. But the point is, leadership is about bold action, not platitudes.


And action is what former NTUC CEO Tan Kin Lian has shown. For some weeks now, about 500 members of the public affected by the crash of Lehman Brothers have gathered at Speakers’ Corner to listen to him educate them on their possible courses of action. Tan took the initiative to speak out and bring his expertise to bear while our ministers waited for the crisis to unfold in order to get a firmer picture. And while it is always safer and more prudent to wait for the data and facts to come in, guess who the over 500 people at Speakers’ Corner are grateful to?


This leads to two points. Firstly, all those nay-sayers who warned against the destruction and slide into chaos that would result with the opening of Speakers Corner in Singapore should come out and apologise for being plain stupid. I remember commentators poo-pooing the opening of Speakers Corner in 2000 as being ‘un-Asian’ and not in keeping with our ‘conservative’ culture. These folks should apologise to the over 500 people who have seen their life-savings disappear because it the very Speakers Corner that they decried that is providing these victims a platform to be heard and to be educated. God knows there are very few of these around.


Second point: Why did Tan Kin Lian do what he did and our PAP ministers do what they did? It all boils down to how these folks define leadership. For people like Tan, it’s about doing. It’s about taking charge and addressing immediate fears and concerns. For our PAP ministers, leadership is a word, an idea, a catchphrase that is taught in expensive MBA or MPA programmes in Harvard or Yale. It’s about what you say and what you say you are, but very rarely about what you do. Leadership for them is about gathering as much information as possible, speaking to as many ‘experts’ as possible, then doing what the majority of these experts recommend. It’s not their fault, they are a product of their education and charmed circle. It’s just a different concept of leadership as practiced by a different bred of people.  


And at the end of the day, we all know which kind of leader we would instinctively turn to in times of crisis. Perhaps one good can come out of this. Maybe this crisis will teach Singaporeans to look at themselves for leadership.




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