Respecting the Mandate of Leadership – Lessons from the “Clash of the Titans”*
Posted by inspir3d on February 12, 2007
“You will all do it again!” the man said in a calm voice to the assembled concubines who had begun to break out in a chorus of laughter. The stranger nodded to his officers as they proceeded to arrest the two lead concubines. These were no regular soldiers, the King of Wu said to one of his ministers. Their chain mail battle worn and their movements sure possessing a confidence which only those who were accustomed to warring possessed. When the two concubines were brought to kneel before the stranger, the King of Wu leaned forward from the raised pavilion. Sensing something amiss, he scribbled a note, it merely read,
“Spare these ladies, our meat and wine will be tasteless without their company.”
When the note was brought to the stranger, he merely looked up at the distant figure seated in the pavilion and smiled, then with a wave of his hands the two ladies were decapitated by his men.
That chilly morning as the King of Wu and his ministers watched his army of concubines marching flawlessly to the sound of the drumbeat, the stranger looked on with the practiced eye of a commander who had seen more wars than the countless hairs on his head.
In the far distance in the raised pavilion, the King of Wu, turned to his retinue of advisors and said, “Did you all see that, he dares to defy your King.” Slamming the teacup down he whispered. “I will have his head for this!”
Along a row of faceless men who overheard the words of the King of Wu that morning not a single one spoke as the tension mounted. Looking on from afar, the stranger trained his eyes on the distant figure of the King of Wu. He was, after all, no ordinary man. Accustomed to years of danger and risk in the battlefield, this was merely one of many perfunctorily calculated risks he was accustomed to. Above all, he was familiar with the laws of power. And as he looked on, he knew that given time, sense would prevail and eventually the young King would calm down. He knew that once power was given neither heaven nor earth could stand in its way, not even a man who had once given him the mandate. It was a divine rule that was written somewhere in stone, so the man thought, like the invisible lines which ran far and deep within this world. The man who looked on that morning realized, this was the first lesson the King of Wu, his benefactor would have to learn that morning.
He was none other than the man many would call the greatest warrior who ever lived, Sun Tzu.
As A*Star’s Philip Yeo and NNI’s Lee Wei Ling trade barbs over the direction of Singapore’s bio-tech research drive, who is actually in the right? To the perceptive reader, I am not asking who is right factually, strategically or even conceptually. As an observer, I am asking a very fundamentally grounded moral question, does LWL even have the right to question the mandate that has been given to Philip Yeo?
It is a question that dwells on the question, what is a right? In this instance, what are the rights of someone who has been mandated to plan and actualize Singapore bio-technology drive?
A right is a justified claim on others. For example, if I have been mandated with a task, then I should have a right to do see it through any way I wish, providing it is in accordance with the law and my reasoning has been communicated to the relevant stake holders. Turned around, I can even say that those who have once mandated me to do the job have a duty or responsibility to leave me alone and not to interfere unduly with what I need to do.
The “justification” of a claim is dependent on some standard acknowledged and accepted not just by me, but also by society in general. The standard can be as concrete as a Constitution which guarantees the right of free speech and assures that the accused of a crime “shall enjoy the right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury,” or a local law that spells out the legal rights of landlords and tenants.
Moral rights such as the right to do what needs to be done without undue interference are justified by moral standards that most people acknowledge, but which are not necessarily codified in law, but exist in social conventions; these standards may mean different things to different people. It is even arguable a mandate alone is not enough, after all Durai had a mandate when he was tasked to head NKF. As we all know, he did it “his way,” only for the whole storyboard to read like an onion story – the more we peel, the more we cry.
So, what rights, in the form of autonomy, should bureaucrats be given once they have been mandated to see a program through?
Immanuel Kant, an eighteenth century philosopher maintained that each of us has a worth or a dignity that must be respected. This dignity makes it wrong for others to abuse us or to use us against our will. Kant expressed this idea in a moral principle: humanity must always be treated as an end, not merely as a means. To treat a person as a mere means is to use a person to advance one’s own interest. But to treat a person as an end is to respect that person’s dignity by allowing each the freedom to choose for him or herself.
Kant’s principle is often used to justify both a fundamental moral right, the right to freely choose for oneself, and also rights related to this fundamental right.
A right to freedom, then, implies that every human being also has a fundamental right to what is necessary to secure a minimum level of well being. Positive rights, therefore, are rights that provide something that people need to secure their well being, such as a right to an education, the right to food, the right to medical care, the right to housing, the right to a job, or in the case of Mr. Philip Yeo, the right to be given the latitude and time to see his mandate to its logical or illogical end. Positive rights impose a positive duty on us—the duty actively to help a person to have or to do something. A young person’s right to an education, for example, imposes on us a duty to provide that young person with an education.
Respecting a positive right, then, requires more than merely not acting; positive rights impose on us the duty to help sustain the system that makes it all possible. The key word here is “sustain,” because that is what positive rights imply. It doesn’t mean who is right in an argumentative sense, but rather it harks back to the tenets of natural justice, such as “nemo judex in causa sua,” that no man can be a judge of his own cause. It’s one that appeals to our innate sense of natural and basic justice i.e. justice needs to be seen to be done, and this brings into sharp focus the question whether Miss Lee even has the “locus standi” to raise the issue of the directional questionability of the bio technology drive in Singapore. She is after all a member of the Lee family, and this raises the question: if she were not so, would her views have been accorded the prominence and publicity they were given? Would the Straits Times have bothered publishing Ms Lee’s rants if she were simply one of the faceless statistically insignificant? This I leave to you, my perceptive reader.
What should factually be so should not be the sole consideration in ethical decision making. I want to make clear that I am not an adherent of Philip Yeo’s concept of linearity. I don’t for one moment believe that innovation and creativity can be managed or even directed in the way that A*Star is going about. The last time the world conducted such a cracked brained experiment, it went down the chute along with the notion of the thousand-year Reich that Hitler so envisaged.
But in some instances, the social costs or the injustices that would result from not respecting the rights of a man who has been mandated to see a thing through, need to be borne for no reason other than to respect the ambit of a mandate. Morality, it’s often argued, is not just a matter of not interfering with the rights of others, it also has to do with making sure those rights have every means to exist. Relying exclusively on a rights approach to ethics tends to emphasize the individual at the expense of the community. And, while morality does call on us to respect the uniqueness, dignity, and autonomy of each individual, it also invites us to recognize our relatedness—that sense of community, shared values, and the common good which lends itself to an ethics of care, compassion, and above all to respect the rights of those who we have mandated to see through a task.
For this reason and this alone, bureaucrats like Philip Yeo should be given the necessary leeway to see their mandate through to its logical end, unfettered and unencumbered. For whether they are conceptually right or wrong isn’t the issue here, rather it’s one that has everything to do with doing the right thing in the moral sense i.e. once a mandate is given, let it run its course unfettered and unencumbered. Even if it means seeing it through to its logical or illogical end – that must simply be the right thing to do, when the mandate has been handed over to another, otherwise what else is there for mankind except perhaps to brood no end on the voice that emerges continually from the wilderness.
( By Harphoon – Ethics / Politics / Ep 9003992-2007/ The Brotherhood Press 2007)
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