Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the gala celebrating CNA's 20th anniversary on Fri (29 Mar 2019). Source: CNA/Facebook

Where is the leadership?

by Brad Bowyer

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong makes a statement that many think was undiplomatic and is rightly questioned for it but what has the reaction been?

Instead of any critical discussion on whether the twice repeated statement was called for and a clear action being taken we now have: –

  1. Debates going on about historical interpretation and justifications for past actions and other distractors.
  2. Shouting matches between polarised segments of our population with claims of disloyalty and traitor being bandied around and even egged on by the supposedly neutral speaker of the house.
  3. Our Foreign Minister and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in damage control mode with the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments.
  4. Anger and upset amongst the Vietnamese and Cambodian people who vented their frustrations not just locally but in Singapore via the internet and social media.
  5. Parts of the international press and community reporting on this and reflecting the situation and rightly asking what the hell is going on.
  6. The situation appearing to be getting worse and not better the longer it drags on and is leaving a very bad feeling behind it with no closure.

And against this highly charged backdrop what has the man who caused all this done?

Stayed silent and has just gone for a week-long holiday!

Now we don’t know for sure, but it is highly likely that the statement in the Eulogy and the Shangri-La speech may have been written by some kid in the Prime Minister Offices who didn’t know his history well or understand the regional sensibilities. It may have been written with a scholarly diplomatic agenda in mind, as the statement was used twice in two different contexts, but the reaction was miscalculated or not properly thought through. It is unlikely to have been written by the PM himself but surely was read by him for approval, but he seemingly accepted it without questioning the goals or validity of their nature or if he did he himself didn’t fully understand the implications of what he was saying.

This a speculated series of events but follows how members of the civil service typically prepare ministers for public communication although I understand in the past the ministers themselves had more of a hand in what is said and done. Whatever the case may have been the ultimate responsibility for what is said is borne by the minister making it and it is his or her responsibility to lead the effort if a mistake is made and needs addressing or it goes higher up the chain if it’s a big mistake.

You can’t go higher up the chain than the Prime Minister so why has he done nothing?

In the past, there was protocol, accountability and a due sense of responsibility.

In the past, our ex-PMs are on record as having stepped in to apologise or calm matters where necessary when mistakes were made because I believe as leaders they understood their role included maintaining stability and harmony both at home and abroad and knew their words and actions were more important than their self-image especially in times of distress.

In the past, we had leaders who I believe accepted their role including publicly taking responsibility for the results of what they said and did and stepped in to correct the situation when unexpectedly things blew up regardless of whether they themselves believed they were in the right or not.

And in the past, I believe we had leaders who not only did this because it was the right thing to do but because they also knew it matters to build confidence and respect from everyone watching and accepting responsibility, good or bad, is what good leaders do.

So, I must ask… silence and then going on holiday while others deal with a worsening situation… what kind of leadership is that?

The world is changing, geopolitically it is changing, financially and in the nature of the economy it is changing and socially it is changing. In times of change there is uncertainty and of course, mistakes can happen as it is a learning environment and not a stable one.

In this environment of change and uncertainty, one thing you can find stability in is good leadership.

Leaders who you know are worldly wise and not just book-wise. Leaders who have a sense of the people and their environment. Leaders who can accept responsibility and get everyone back on track and moving forward when things go wrong. Leaders who unite and not divide. And leaders who put everyone else first and themselves last who you know you can trust, respect and have confidence in.

You can’t manufacture leadership from a book and force it on others like rulers do, there must be a spark within you that is lit through circumstance, enlarged through experience and then appropriately recognised by the people when the time and call for its need is there like true leaders in the past have been made.

So, are we seeing true leadership or manufactured leadership in action?

Do we have an accountable leader or an unaccountable ruler?

It is for us all to decide because it will be critical to our survival as a nation in the changing world we face today and because if we don’t have confidence and trust in our leaders how can we have confidence and trust in our future?

This post was first published on Mr Bowyer’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.