Leadership and Elite

By Dr Yuen Chung Kwong

"I am their leader, I have to follow them!" - Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin (French revolutionary leader)

The above sentence might strike some as being very strange: arent leaders supposed to "lead"? Actually, people choose a leader with the expectation of getting something from him/her, maybe material benefits arising from a movement's success, maybe just inspiring ideas and words. Since leaders have to deliver something that the followers want, they "follow" their followers' wishes.

But leaders have to be more than mere executors of the followers' collective will, however democratic that might sound. They also have to guide their followers towards a consensus, using their own superiority of character, experience, understanding, analytical abilities, etc, so that the collective will of the group is more than the sum of its parts and consensus formation is more than just taking an average. In other words, leaders need to give people what they want as well as what is good for them, even if they do not want it; to do what is popular as well as what is necessary. The former is what democracy is about; the latter is what leadership is about.

Knowing "what is good for the people" arises from a person's innate beliefs. It is not enough to, say, pick up some ideas from textbooks and develop a belief in capitalist free enterprise or Marxist class struggle. These ideas will have to be integrated into the person's life experience so as to influence his/her judgement in any specific situation, often in a subconscious way, not necessarily through an explicit analytical process. As in the case of generals in quickly evolving battles, leaders often intuitively know the right thing to do even in hurried and confusing conditions.

I would guess the number of people who have such beliefs and values is rather small. Few people are gifted with the strong personality and self confidence, even in adverse circumstances, that is needed for leadership. Our modern society's formularistic and pre-digested knowledge acquisition process could only have made things worse, with pupils picking up information that can be regurgitated in examinations but is not well integrated into one's thinking process.

In a feudal society, leadership was seen to be vested in the aristocratic class; the modern equivalent of this is the elite. But who exactly are they? Once an upper high school (called Junior College in Singapore) student Wee Shu Min, daughter of a then member of parliament and senior executive in a government linked company, wrote a blog article telling off someone who complained about the adverse condition he suffered from, calling him a whiner and herself an elite member. A high school student already part of the elite? How?

Her subsequent activities might provide some clue; as her linkedin.com page  shows, she later attended Wharton School and now interns in a major management consulting company. In short, in high school she already felt confident that, with her family background and educational trajectory, she will join the capitalist money class, today's aspiring equivalent of feudal aristocracy. What she had not learnt was the sense of noblesse oblige that once permeated the aristocracy, who believed that they held their positions "by the grace of God" and had a spiritual mission to look after their subjects.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had on multiple occasions enunciated the idea that developing the self-discipline of the citizens has to come before democracy. There is no doubt recent events in various Asian countries have born out what he says. However, LKY's statement was rather general and therefore easily misconstrued: self-discipline is not the same as simple obedience to authority. In fact, it is more applicable to the people in authority than those under it. For example, the lack of self-discipline displayed by Marcos and Chen Shuibian families and associates in Philippines and Taiwan not only had negative impact in themselves, they also set bad examples that make it harder to ask the ordinary people to show self-discipline.

In other words, self-discipline first has to prevail among the members of the elite, that they should use their power and wealth with restraint, that they should be scrupulous in their methods to acquire power and wealth. Further, only with awareness for the need for self-discipline would they be in a position to establish relevant monitoring and prosecution systems to impose discipline on the whole society.

A society in which the elite think that discipline applied only to others and not themselves soon finds that even the most efficient monitoring system would break down as the people in charge of enforcing discipline lose confidence about whether they can apply the same rules to everyone, and then learn to twist the rules to gain benefit for themselves. In other words, failure of elite members to apply self-discipline soon corrupts the whole society.

Looking at the elites of Asian nations today, in particular in the newly capitalistic mainland China, it is difficult to feel optimistic that they will learn this lesson.


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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