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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)

* Aaron Ng of Hear Ye! Hear Ye! coined the phrase, “Clash of the Titans” And, unlike the Straits Times, we actually acknowledge Aaron in full.


27 Responses to “Respecting the Mandate of Leadership – Lessons from the “Clash of the Titans”*”

  1. inspir3d said

    interesting POV, harphoon.

    however, is philip yeo’s mandate necessarily a sacred one? when does it expire, and what are its limitations?
    surely the mandate comes with a responsibility and accountability to Singapore and her people.

    also, retaining the mandate of leadership does not mean one has to exclude antagonistic input from others.

  2. Aaron said

    LOL! Thanks for the acknowledgement!

  3. ben said

    Part II. Clash of the dwarf v. a titan. Who is the dwarf you ask? Haha.

  4. fish said

    very well said, how is someone supposed to be effective if there are all sorts of kay poh ppl around?

  5. footloser said

    I like this very much, it goes straight to the issue, respect and giving people the space to do a good job, but I agree with inspirid, where do you draw the line? When is interference constructive dialogue? When is questioning a form of check and balance?

    Another thing, I am not a chinese scholar, but I would like to know more about the incident you mentioned concerning sun tzu and the emperor of wu’s concubines, it is a famous story which highlights the importance of mandate, but I am not so sure it supports you theory. I do hope someone here can pick this query up.

    I am starting to like this site very much, though I must admit I hated it at first.

  6. hdbcat said

    true. my father used to tell me, men of honor only fear one thing, not being able to look the man in the mirror in the eye.

  7. Hey, very interesting article. I agree with some of the points made by Inspir3d. I would like to clarify something about the article though. I think the article isn’t saying that there cannot be antagonistic input and also not saying a mandate should not come with responsibility and accountability. But maybe when a member of the Lee family comes out and say something, it is more than just providing input.

    I think it would not be presumptuous to say that Dr Lee’s input might have the power to actually affect the outcome of Mr Yeo’s plans and thus create a situation where it is more probable than ever to be doomed to fail.

  8. sarahlee said

    I love the opening, its a hubris. How far do we trust? How much regulation? Really tough questions here. Very interesting perspective on the whole spat, really I never saw in from that perspective bfr.

  9. johnanger said

    In fact, since billions of dollars have been spent, then why not let Yeo continue to lead since he is the champion for such project ? The problems with Singapore leadership is this. The leadership here want too much face and cannot tolerate failure. If leader sense that they cannot win the battle or no longer sustain his self-interest, or even incapable of implementation, he will find way to exit the situation while it is still early, and letting other leader to take over it. In this way, if the project ever failed, no one can blame the original champion, and if it become successful, credit will be given to the original champion. This kind of mindgame is very common for very high-flyer kind of person. Perhaps Yeo is not kind of person but if he do nothing, ppl will think otherwise.

    I see this leadership going on not only from gov and also lot of MNC. Faces, reputation etc means a lot to them.

    We all know all human beings are fallible but to disguise this fallibility under reason of excuses is pathetic and unethical.

    If Yeo want to prove himself, gov should let him be and not going Left and Right. It might be true that biotech take that long to bloom, only god knows.

    We just hope that Yeo want continue on his mission in blooming biotech if he is indeed sincere and capable. Gov trust Yeo because he think that Yeo has the capability and foresight. Then what’s the hell gov changing course to replace Yeo with someone that lack knowledge and confidence ?

    I don’t believe the reason that Yeo want to leave biotech and focus on SME because if he cannot even sustain his credibility on the biotech industry, what’s are the chance he will provide credibility to the SME’s industry ?

  10. waterflask said

    First of all who gives yeo the mandate? The govt? The govt btw has not won its own mandate in a clear and fair manner.

    Secondly, the question of accountability. If Yeo has been given mandate to see things through, why is he leaving now or being “shipped out”?

  11. Daryl said

    I disagree with your view. In my opinion, everyone has the right to question the direction a leader is taking, even if that leader has been given a “mandate”. And this is exactly what Dr Lee is doing.

    A mandate does not immure one’s decisions from questioning or criticism. What a mandate does/i> confer, is the right to continue doing things in the way one thinks is best regardless of criticism – at least until the mandate is revoked.

    Thus, respecting a leader’s mandate does not mean withholding criticism or feedback. If that were the case, no one should be allowed to criticise the PAP, since the PAP was given a “mandate” by the people through the elections.

  12. tokyo said

    Perhaps LWL should be, or in fact is, questioning whether the mandate given was right in the first place, and asking who had decided on that particularly strategy and mandate, and whether it was well thought through, before the power was bestowed on Philip Yeo in the end. At that point, she might run into men more powerful than the King of Wu… 🙂

  13. Harphoon said

    Good Morning,

    I am afraid that I do not have time to address all your questions.

    Inspirid and the others pls feel free to comment.

    Thank you all for coming here.

    May I take this opportunity to wish you all happy CNY.

    Yours Haprhoon.

  14. Harphoon said

    “Thus, respecting a leader’s mandate does not mean withholding criticism or feedback. If that were the case, no one should be allowed to criticise the PAP, since the PAP was given a “mandate” by the people through the elections.”

    The issue here is what is the way? And let me be very clear here, was it the “way” in the Brown case. I think not.

    We watched for two weeks and our conclusion was unanimous no one would be persuaded by that sort of “criticism.” Not the serious ppl at least with the greatest respect to brown and his supporters.

    Fire must be fought with fire, there are no short cuts here, if you expect the serious men of this world to accord with you, you too must be able to come across as serious and equally persuasive.

    That is all I have to say for the time being.

  15. tokyo said

    stem cells key to bigger boobies!

    LWL might change her mind about bio-tech now… :p

  16. LVgirl said

    “I am afraid that I do not have time to address all your questions.” – standard brotherhood tagline, why even bother with the obvious.

    Agree with and disagree, though the post came across as clever there are enough holes to suggest it is a pastry of truths.

    I still believe Dr Lee has the “locus” to bring the matter up and she is doing a terrific job.

  17. LVgirl said

    If she didnt have the gumption the bring it up who do you imagine could have challenged the King of Yeo in Biopolis disneyland?

  18. psasecretary said

    zero customer service

  19. astroboy said


    I think you are taking an extremist bipolar view of the whole article, it is not a “A” or “Z” situation. I dont think Harphy was against criticism per se only he cautioned against hobbling someone who already has a clear mandate. Fundamental to the whole debate is the whole ethical dimension.

    From my POV when I researched the subject of bio-tech, I realized the real issues had little to do with merit and everything to do with the traditional struggle between new and old, that is what bio-tech brings with it, the winds of change and I guess that scares many people. That I believe is a huge chunk of the missing jig-saw which till today remains undiscussed, namely how do you align the mind with goals.

  20. tokyo said

    This may become an interesting examination of the dynamics of the First Family (LKY, LHL, LWL etc.) and how strategic decisions are made for the nation.

    Simply put, at some point in the past, LKY and LHL, among others, were very likely involved in the decision to identify bio-tech as a strategic industry to try to grow in Singapore, and therefore also in the decision to give King of Wu the mandate and money to do so.

    Now that LWL is questioning that mandate, is she in effect questioning the decisions in which LKY and LHL were likely to have been involved? I wonder what LKY and LHL think of that and how they would respond?

    Perhaps something to expand upon?

  21. melvin loh said

    This is an interesting take. I agree and disagree. All of us know how chiat lat, it is when we are not given the free rein and autonomy to see through a project. I doesnt matter whether it is a journalist, minister, general, project leader or even a supervisor working in a factory.

    I agree that too much interference can have a “kachau’ effect, but in the light of the NKF saga, we have also seen the reverse side of the debate, when mandate remains unquestioned and worst of all resides in one man. This leads me to ask, did Mr Yeo communicate the biomed plan and did he plan enough flexible features to allow it to switch gears along the way, should the strategy require further tweaking. Reading Dr Lee’s points, I cannot but agree with her somewhat, Mr Yeo is in a ivory tower of sorts and I personally think his initial response was rude, uncalled for and condescending, its one that I certainly did not expect from a leader of his calibre.

    Perhaps all of you should do a follow up article on the identifying what needs to be done to discuss the merits proposed by Dr Lee instead of blindly supporting Mr Yeo simply bc he has a mandate. To me by adopting such a narrow view it morphs the debate and doesnt quite hit the nail of the head. Just a friendly POV. Very insightful and well researched article. 🙂

  22. A? said

    No Valentine’s Day post = no customer service = brotherhood. usually when you ppl come out with something heavy, it is followed by something light, heavy, light, heavy, light, heavy, light, heavy, light, so where is the light in the heavy now. Pls dont break the ryhtm as there are many people here in the office who come over to this terminal in the pantry to read your rag! Do take this positively for once, it called constructive feedback!


  23. inspir3d said

    Hi A.

    the irregularity of the publishing is my fault.

    i hope u can bear with us for a while, as IS is a little short handed on my end. I hope to add an editor to the IS team on the commentary side soon, then we will be able to roll out the essays much more rapidly and consistently.


  24. jeannie yeo said

    “the irregularity of the publishing is my fault.”

    Oh that is so sweet to take the blame for those irresponsible boys, but we all know this is so typical of them. IT IS VALENTINE DAY, SO WE WANT SOMETHING LIGHT, ENTERTAINING AND PERSONAL! I AGREE WE HAVE HEAVY AND LIGHT DAYS, HEAVY AND LIGHT, HEAVY AND LIGHT ETC.

    As for Harphyboys post, it is indeed a very unique perspective. I like the may he has researched the ethical dimension of the entire question of “right to question.” Pls bear in mind, he has deployed a very specific word here, “locus standi” and this naturally leads a lawyer like me to take the issue further by asking. What is the privity of contract between Dr Lee and The king of Biopolis?

  25. astroboy said

    His moniker is darkness.

    His moniker is darkness.

    His moniker is darkness.

    We dont have anyone by the name of bambie, bambie boy, bambie bad boy, bambie bad lover boy or any bambie this or bambie that. Bambie is a baby dearling, it has nothing to do with darkness.

    For the very last time, his moniker is darkness.

  26. Harphoon said


    Pls try to understand, blogging or writing is not a full time job for ALL of us. Its a hobby, so we all need to direct ourselves to first thing first stuff meetings, conference calls etc and if there is spare time, we will most definitely respond.

    Pls bear with us. As darkness will not be very disappointed if you ALL of you do not behave yourself.

    Happy Valentines

  27. Harphoon said

    I mean he will be very disappointed.

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