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Don’t look left or right

Dr Wong Wee Nam/

There is a Chinese saying which goes like this: 王顾左右而言他。Translated it means “The King looked left and right and talked about other things”.

It is used in reference to a person who tries to evade an issue in discussion by going off into some other subjects.

This saying is derived from a passage in the Teachings of Mencius, one of the Four Books of the Confucian Analects.

It forms one of the tenets of Confucianism that governs how a ruler should or should not behave when governing his people.

To Mencius, the common citizens are the most important people in the state. It is, therefore acceptable for the subjects to overthrow (nowadays we call it vote out) a ruler who ignores the people's needs and rules harshly. This is because a ruler who does not rule justly is no longer a true ruler.

A ruler must justify his position by acting benevolently before he can expect reciprocation from the people. In this view, a King is like a steward or what we nowadays call government servants.

In other words, although a ruler has presumably higher status than a commoner, he is actually subordinate to the masses of people and the resources of society. Yes, indeed, this is what a Confucian-style of government should be.

Alas, in practice, this concept is found more in Western-styled democracy. In Confucian societies, history is littered with plenty of autocratic leaders and despots.

So how is the idiom “The King looked left and right and talked about other things” related to a more democratic way of good government?

In the Teachings of  Mencius, the story goes like this:

“ Suppose” Mencius said to the King Xuan of Qi , “that one of your Majesty's ministers were to entrust his wife and children to the care of his friend, while he himself went into the State of Chu to travel, and that, on his return, he should find that the friend had let his wife and children suffer from cold and hunger;-- how ought he to deal with him?'

The King said, 'He should cast him off.'

Mencius then proceeded, 'Suppose that the chief criminal judge could not regulate the officers under him, how would you deal with him?'

The King said, 'Dismiss him.'

Mencius again said, 'If within the four borders of your kingdom there is not good government, what is to be done?'

The King looked to the right and left, and spoke of other matters.

(The original text in Chinese below)

孟子谓齐宣王曰:“王之臣有托其妻子于其友而之楚游者,比其反也,则冻馁其妻子,则如之何?”

王曰:“弃之。”

曰:“士师不能治士,则如之何?”

王曰:“已之。”

曰:“四境之内不治,则如之何?”

王顾左右而言他。

From this conversation between Mencius and the King of Qi, it is evident that accountability is a necessary quality of good government. It is not a just a Western concept. What it simply means is that a ruler or a leader must always acknowledge and accept responsibility for actions taken, decisions made and policies implemented. It also means the need to be answerable for consequences for actions not taken or decisions not made.

Take, for example, a flood that results in loss of property, assets and income for the affected. It is only natural for those affected to feel aggrieved. It is only natural for other people to empathise with the victims and speak on their behalf, call for investigations to be made and ask for the problems to be addressed. It is certainly not in the spirit of community if fellow citizens just keep quiet and thank their lucky stars that they are not the ones affected.

So under this type of circumstance, what is accountability? It is to look into the problem, find the cause and deal with it as a state’s responsibility and also give a satisfactory answer to everyone concerned.

Declaring the problem to be a freak event that happens once every 50 years when it is a repeated happening is not acknowledging and accepting responsibility just as it would not to blame it on the act of God when the statistics do not bear this out.

When a horrendous blunder or a bad investment is made, it is not enough just to say it is an honest mistake and move on.

As recently as 12 March 2011, SM Goh Chok Tong said:

“I am not saying we shouldn’t do anything about the flood. But the amount of noise you made with just sporadic flood compared to the Japanese. I saw them on TV. Very stoic looking. You don’t see them crying. This has happened, just get on, that’s the kind of spirit you want to have and you call it nation building.”

Making noise, Mr. Goh? I am sure if the authorities had given a satisfactory explanation, no right thinking citizen would make even a single sound.

The Senior Minister may admire the Japanese stoicism but our citizens do not expect our leaders to be as stoic as the Japanese when they make mistakes, There is no need for them to commit political hara-kiri like what the Japanese prime ministers, Hatoyama and Shinzo Abe did.

We would be more than happy if they just don’t look left and right and talk about other things.