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The First Word in the First World Dictionary

Posted by intellisg on March 8, 2007

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament on Monday that he would not apologize for women who were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, even if called on to do so by a US Congress resolution, according to the local media.

“I must say we will not apologize even if there’s a (US) resolution,” Abe, the first premier born after the war, told the House of Councilors Budget Committee.

The US House of Representatives Foreign International Relations Committee is discussing the draft resolution demanding Abe’s apology following his remark Thursday that there is “no evidence” of Japan’s forcing women into sexual slavery.

“The resolution is not based on objective facts,” said Abe in the budgetary meeting.

South Korea expressed “strong regret” over Abe’s remarks disputing the “comfort women” issue.

If you are getting that all too familiar déjà vu feeling only to say, “I have seen all this before,” join the rest of the crowd. It’s a scene that gets played out all too often, one that compels us to ask, why is a public apology so difficult? Is it a high risk move? Most definitely, since leaders speak on behalf of their followers. Their apologies usually have far reaching and broad implications. It doesn’t really matter whether one is a national leader or even a factory supervisor who leads a team of technicians – an apology is an act carried out not merely at the level of the individual but also at an institutional plane, be it nation, firm, department or even as something as small as a household.

For leaders to apologize publicly remains a high stakes move, not only for them but also their cachet of supporters and the broader community they represent. Get it right and the pay outs are great, get it wrong and it will just blow up. To add to the complexity, the willingness to apologize too readily may be perceived as an admission of guilt or even worse a sign of weakness, incompetence and recklessness.

Why even bother apologizing? Game theorist will be quick to point out the risk – the possibility of humiliation and coming across as weak and incompetent, just isn’t worth it, might as well bite the bullet suck it in and ride out the storm. After all if nothing else it simply reinforces the idea all leaders are supposed to be all knowing and surefooted. Surely you cant go too wrong by sticking to the tried and tested formula.

That theoretical construct only holds true if you believe people will forgive and forget with time. But as modern history has shown the aggrieved have a habit of monumentalizing their grievances through remembrance. The Jews did it big time by building Yad Vashem smack in Jerusalem to perpetuate the legacy of the Holocaust. The Arabs remember the crusades by approaching a Bedouin encampment by keeping the breaches of the rifles open and tying their swords to their hilts, lest they be mistaken for blood thirsty Christian invaders. Conversely Eastern Europeans continue to remember Islamic expansionism during the reign of Saladin by regularly consuming the crescent shaped croissant with their morning coffee – the idea here being the West will eat up the Muslim invaders (the crescent is the motif of Islam). Even the mainland Chinese are into the remembrance culture when they regularly protest whenever the Japanese Historical Institute regularly substitute the word, “invasion” for “campaign” to describe their military expedition into China. People have memories like elephants – they are just not going to forget or forgive that easily. Not by a long shot. Neither can one say,

“Well they are not that important, we don’t need to apologize.”

That’s only true if you don’t need to continue to have a rapport with that nation, firm or institution, but these days who actually can afford to be an island? Or a hermetic sealed capsule floating in space? Politicians need the support of the electorate to secure a mandate. They need to cooperate with neighboring nations to leverage on collective knowledge and maximizing their resources. Firms need to cultivate customer trust if they are to remain profitable as for the individual we are all part of a community, no man stands by himself, not even the lone ranger who incidentally happened to have a side kick by the name of Tonto whose only line was, “Yes, kinasabe.”

Lets face it, Singapore isn’t such a big place, cross one person and the likelihood is you end up making enemies with a hundred other people who you didn’t know existed. As Miss Wee.S.M rudely discovered when she passed her famous disparaging remark at Derek Wee, “Get out from my elite face!” Only to be run over by the blogosphere train a few times over and more to spare to warn others not to do the same. People not only remember they hit back when you don’t apologize!

That’s why it makes sense to apologize for tactical and strategic reasons in order to secure the basis for a long term working relationship. As modern day Germans have shown by successfully pursuing a policy of apologizing for their trespasses during World War II to their neighboring countries and especially the Jewish community. By demonstrating unequivocal contrition, remorse and making restitution, they (the modern day Germans) have successfully transform enmity into reconciliation paving the way to move on. Conversely refusing to apologize simply reinforces the image, one is out of touch with the prevailing sentiments and even down right irresponsible and recalcitrant as R. Nixon discovered during the Watergate crisis when he resolutely maintained his moral high ground despite a tome of evidence showing the contrary – the result, impeachment and disgraced followed by a boot out of office – that could well be the reason why president Clinton apologized profusely for his inappropriate relationship with intern M. Lewinsky – by accepting full responsibility for the affair, he immortalized himself as a par excellence apologist who managed to do the impossible: healed a rift between leaders and followers and effectively restored the relationship between the white house and the electorate, granted it wasn’t a perfect heal but it was enough to see him through the term without further controversy – that’s what a strategic apology can really do, restore the trust, close the divide and pave the way forward.

Though there has been much debate about what it takes to elevate Singapore to the status of a first world nation – one cogent question hinges on it all. To me, the onus is not even whether we have a first class political system with all the trappings of a credible opposition which can effectively counter the excessiveness of a one party monopoly over power. Or whether we are lacking in intellectuals who may provide us all with an alternate perspective as to what should be against what must simply be. The case simply boils down to what we really consider to be real – real relationships between state and people, leaders and followers. Real politics and relationships simply demands that people in power should be on the side of right. It demands generosity at the heart of their activities that seems so often absent, that’s why people get worked up and riled, not because politicians are conceptually flawed or even philosophically wrong. Rather it’s the whole notion of being marginalized, disrespected and simply treated like dirt – its one that so apart from the whole idea of community politics when everything was worn, impromptu but genuinely appealing, when politics simply meant real relationships when politicians were no more politicians as much as they were real people who worked with local organizations, tenants groups and amenity campaigns to help them achieve their goals for a better tomorrow. The community politicians used the slogan, “if you win we win – you win!” – and they meant it, They had to mean it, otehrwise the whole thing would just mean nothing.

Now that every politician claims to be a community politician, and the new sheet style has descended all too often into diatribes to explain away the failures of why Crazy horses failed and it wasn’t really our fault because Eng Wah knew exactly what they were entering thrown in along with Gong Li bobbies in some flick, I don’t even care to remember. Or why being a reporter in Singapore is the hardest job on this planet because a few obscure academics in the US were vilified because they weren’t able to publish their seminal treatise in the main stream press – it seems to me, that clever conversations and repartees have replaced real accounts and narratives, where real arguments are really not as important as what they can actually accomplish in terms of stopping the dialogue dead on its tracks – it runs counter to the ideal of owning up to the responsibility of leadership. Leadership doesn’t just mean taking responsibility for ones actions, that’s the easy part, it means taking an equity in an enterprise, idea or project, one where the politician isn’t as much an observer as much as a partner, one that implicitly buys into the notion, if you fail, we all fail too and if we succeed, we all go one step further and alongside this – the whole notion of just saying sorry goes a long way to flesh out much of substance and verve that accompanies this higher level of equity.

As I mentioned before my ideal of Singapore being transformed into a first world country is one that will hopefully allow us to experience real and authentic governance and adherence in the true sense of the word – it is one that excites me no end as to the possibilities it can deliver to the nation at large and more importantly the statistical insignificant, people like you and me – its one that is at its heart very real and confident enough to face up to its responsibilities – that’s why the case for creating a culture that comfortable with apologizing is so important to the extent it may simply have to be called the cornerstone of what it means to be first world governance.

It is one that compels us all to re-examine old wounds and consider whether the rift could have been closed by the mere act of apologizing: Should Mrs Bhavani have apologized to Mr Brown? What would have been the outcome if Thaksin simply apologized to the Thai people for this insistence not to pay tax or his hard stand on righting the wrongs which he saw as his inalienable right during his tenure as the prime minister? Should President Bush apologize to the American people for launching an ill conceived crusade on Iraq? Should the Japanese premier Abe apologize over the comfort women issue? Should Ronald McDonald apologize to burger munching teenagers for creating a generation who have only known artery clogging fast food as a staple?

All these questions along with their answers or their outcomes are of course hypothetical and though we may all speculate no end on their final pay outs or deficits – one thing remains clear, to say “sorry,” is simply to say, you are important enough for me to keep as a friend and that goes a long way to show the true measure of how we choose to value others and ourselves.

It’s a lesson that every nation simply needs to learn if they aspire to be a first world, otherwise all one really has is muted bricks and mortars which speak of the language of the first world but deep inside something will always remain amiss – the confidence to say, ‘I am sorry.” And we all know those are the magic words makes the 99%, the 100%.

(By Harphoon & Trajan / Socio / Politics / EP 9937028 -2007 / The Brotherhood Press 2007)


5 Responses to “The First Word in the First World Dictionary”

  1. Steve Canyon said

    New York city, by all accounts, is a first world city. I long to see how anyone would make the average New Yorker say; “I’m sorry” to any number of inconsiderations or mistakes, trivial or epic.

    It seems you’re asking for quite the ideological fantasy. Wouldn’t it be more productive to understand the mistakes and work towards their solutions than navel gazing and constantly apologizing. I’m not asking for a culture that feels comfortable with apologizing; I much prefer a culture comfortable with making mistakes, and the fortitude and humility to learn from it.

    Also, please, please, please, run on sentences make my eyes bleed. It’s as if you started on a train of thought, ruminating on some highly philosophical point, and eager to illustrate the depth of its ideological logic by rooting it in anecdotal evidence and metaphorical meanderings, but lost the momemtum midway and reached a conclusion that had little relevance to the opening few words.

  2. Steve Canyon said

    Avoid lengthy sentences, it makes for easier reading. The length of the sentence has little correlation to the erudition of its content.

    Brevity is, after all, the soul of wit.

  3. Harphoon said

    “It seems you’re asking for quite the ideological fantasy.”

    Makes good business sense to apologize:

    consider the case of Johnson & Johnson during the 80’s and their product Tyenol, which was once laced with cynanide by a sabotuer.

    The management acted promptly by issuing out a public apology along with a product recall (despite technically not even being responsible for the contamination)

    Public trust was restored and within 6 months Tyenol regained back 90% of market share.

    Compare this will the Exxon Valdez debacle, when management remained stoically silent for over a week when environmentalist and NGO’s requested for clarification and information.

    They hid their heads in sand hoping that the shit storm will blow away.

    It didnt and as a result translated into billions in losses, because the CEO miscalculated.

    To say that an apology is ideological fantasy is like saying particle physics is childs play.

  4. anon said

    Dear harpoon,

    Dun yr research haven’t you pretty boy? I bet you didnt know this. In Mea Culpa: A sociology of apology and reconciliation, Tavichis mentioned an apology speak to acts that cannot be undone but that cannot go unnoticed without compromising the current and future relationship of the parties.

    Thus dear boy, it has very little to do with your notion of “real” or “authentic” politics. As darkness bad boy likes to always say, “it is a straight line calculation with zero margin for error” i.e if politicians perceive the cost to be high if they proceed with an apology, they will simply defer the decision. Conversely, if the cost is low and the pay outs are high, they will. Its not exactly a hard science is it dear boy? It depends very much on a host of variables e.g culture, context and even sociological drivers.

    How then does an apology in this context have anything to do with, doing the right or moral thing? Nothing as you can see.
    Sophocles teaches us all leaders cannot escape their flawed humanity, but even he admitted they have a right to play down the error of their ways by sticking to their POV.

    I believe when you wrote this, you didnt really consider the strategic cost of an apology from a philosophical standpoint. It isnt just an act of damage control. Rather when one apologizes, it is an acceptance of the POV of the aggrieved party. Thats why the cost for apologizing will remains high.

    Politics is after all a dirty game along with the rest of the genre business, foreign affairs and managing high powered relationships.

    I understand where you are coming from. However, I just want to press home the point although a well timed apology can ameliorate a worse case scenario. There are also legal rammifications. Its nothing short of an unequivocal admission of guilt and for this reason alone, it will always remain a business trade off decision rather than as you mentioned, an act premised on doing the right thing i.e morality.

    Nevertheless a refreshing read. Do keep it up.

  5. third wife said

    This is a very interesting article. I have never really seen saying sorry as a strategic act. However, I can understand what you are trying to say. I am surprised the author didnt elaborate on the ego issues associated with apologizing. I think that forms a large part of the motivation and de-motivation to either apologize or not.I do agree with the Clinton and Nixon casestudy, it shows two sides of the same coin. However, I dont really believe apologizing (as the title of the article suggest) should necessarily be a pre-condition to qualify as a first world country. Unlike the West, we in Asia typically put alot of credit on “face” value. Losing face is as good as being discredited or buang into the wilderness. I dont have any specific data, but I believe this could be one reason why traditionally leaders in the East have always stuck to their guns, rightly or wrongly. That could be the real difference that explains why in the West leaders are more inclined to apologize.I am also puzzled why the Japanese have to keep apologizing, while the same onus is somehow not imposed on the Germans. Are we in Asian less inclined to forgive and forget? That will of course lead to another line of reason, is it then worth apologizing, if the apology wouldnt be greeted favorably? Again face value comes into the equation. I think the author has made the assumption and apology will always be greeted favorably that is not usually the case in reality. Thanks.

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