Sunday, 24 September 2023

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The Origin of Nepotism

By Dr Yuen Chung Kwong



The above painting by Raphael shows Pope Leo X (from Florence's Medici family) with his cardinal nephews.

The word "nepotism" comes from the Latin word "nepos" for nephew. In the middle ages, "nephews" were often the bastard sons of bishops and popes who were officially required to be celibate so could not publicly acknowledge their own children. These "nephews" would nevertheless hang around their "uncle" and receive various favours, including preferment in church appointments.

In this context it is useful to point out a cultural difference between east and west: the Orientals make connections with each other based on concrete factors, whereas Westerners place more emphasis on shared ideas. Hence the high relevance of family, personal knowledge and past association in Asian systems, compared to the greater prominence of interest group lobbying in the West. Whereas Chinese people consider it right that rich relatives should share their good fortune with poor ones, Americans give to charities and foundations. Confucius may be considered to speak along the Chinese line in ¡°To promote talent, promote the talent you know¡± and ¡°Be a good person; then a good family man; then govern your state; then rule the world¡±.

Yet, Confucius was credited by historians as advocating meritocracy rather than nepotism: in his Spring-Autumn world it was the tradition to give government offices to family members, or at least, nobility from one's own state or neighbouring states. Unfortunately, the noble families' restrictive inbreeding and indolent lifestyle led to rapid degeneration, so that able/well educated members of lower status families were drafted for service. Confucius was himself a beneficiary of the new practice, and his own political philosophy was based on a close link between government and education, with rulers "setting good examples" for subjects to follow, i.e., good rulers must also be good role models and educators, and the widely known idea of good education as the basis for gaining power, a practice long institutionalized in China's imperial examination system and still followed in various modern forms today.

In building up modern organizations and corporations, including political parties and government bodies, Asians have certainly taken Confucius's talent promotion maxim to heart. Li Ka Shing, for example, has carefully laid out plans to divide his business empire between his two sons. While he also established sizable charity operations, he did not put his major assets into these in the way Warren Buffett and Bill Gates handled their fortunes. Despite long histories of public listing and shareholder participation, many important Asian business corporations remain family companies in essence.

Americans do use family connections too. While Buffett and Gates do not plan to hand over their fortunes to their children – among other considerations, this would attract huge inheritance or gift tax obligations, which are avoided if the assets are donated for charity – they do involve family members in their charity operations, and George W Bush obviously benefited from his father's political status in helping him to attract the attention of voters, journalists, donors and prospective campaign organizers from the start. Americans merely have different experiences about what would work well and look good in their own society.

"Connection" is of course not confined to family relationship. Cory Aquino designated as her successor General Fidel Ramos, the Philippines army chief under Marcos, whose support for Mrs Aquino ensured the success of her people power revolution; in fact, half way during her reign there were some rumours about her having second thoughts, and she quickly reassured Ramos that she would "take care" of him and made sure others knew about this. The presidential succession history of South Korea was even more intriguing: the military strongman Roh Tae Woo, who succeeded two other military strongmen Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan, chose Kim Yong Sam, a longstanding opposition leader, as successor, and even handed him a billion-dollar slush fund to use for patronage and electoral success – by then Kim was the familiar "devil we know" that Roh could connect with. Now Park Chung Hee's daughter has been nominated by the party he founded as its candidate in the next presidential election.

The changes of governments that occurred in South Korea from Roh Tae Woo to Kim Yong Sam and then Kim Dae Jong, in Taiwan from Jiang Jing Guo to Lee Teng Hui then Chen Shui Bian, and in Indonesia from Suharto to Habibi then Wahid/Megawatti, each followed a process that reminds us of Roman imperial succession in the Antonine age: a reigning emperor would adopt an able lieutenant as his heir, who will upon the death of the predecessor be proclaimed by the senate and the praetorian guard, representing the civilian and military power blocs, as Principes, the first citizen of Rome.

By using personal networking to identify work associates, maybe successors, the modernized Confucian system has frequently led to suspicions of nepotism, an emotionally charged word that reeks corruption and immorality in view of its Italian history. To some extent, the great emphasis on paper qualifications and examinations results, which are supposed to have unambiguous correct/incorrect answers rather than reflecting free thinking ability, is frequently a way to counter this, for the system to be seen as open and fair. Academic brand names are particularly important, (a practice now also increasingly adopted in USA and other western countries) and seen as more dependable. MIT and Stanford graduates fill the top positions in governments and corporations all over Asia, and Berkeley is over 40% Asian with many ambitious foreigners from East Asian countries among them. If you want to pass your company to your son, at least make sure he already has an Ivy League degree, so that people do not doubt he has brains and would be more inclined to agree that he is not getting the position purely because of the connection.

In Singapore "nepotism" is a particularly "sensitive" word. On multiple occasions, journalists were taken to court for suggesting that nepotism had been practised at the highest level in Singapore, each time resulting in retraction and payment of significant sums in damages.


Yuen Chung Kwong completed his PhD in Computer Science from Sydney University in 1972 and worked in Australia and Hongkong before joining NUS Computer Science Department in 1983; he was department head from 1985 to 1993 and retired in 2007.


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