Monday, 22 February 2010

Do We Really Want The Best and The Brightest?

Professor Doran Hunter, Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Senior Fulbright Scholar was at IIUM recently where he delivered a series of talks centred around the issue of moral and good governance. During his last lecture, he was asked about his views on the necessity to have the best and the brightest to lead a moral and good government. His response was quite astounding.

He first made reference to the classic book The Best and The Brightest by David Halberstam who explained how the best and brightest people who advised President John F. Kennedy on Vietnam; all of them were wrong on how to best deal with the tensive situation. JFK in fact was the only one who was sensible enough to understand that war should be the absolute final resort, not a strategic move for any kind of psychological and moral victory. And the reason JFK was so adamantly against full military action was not because he was the best and brightest or even smarter than all his expert-advisers. He felt so strongly about it simply because he was once a soldier, thus knew very well what wars are all about especially the countless sufferings and hardships they bring.

Professor Hunter then drove home the point that the best and brighest are not always right. They may be the brightest as far as intelligence and academic achievements are concern, but without any real experience dealing with real-life situations, all their knowledge could be dangerously superficial. Which is why Americans have most often voted in presidents who were either former senators or former governors. These people may not necessarily be the brightest but they have the experience and the practical understanding on how to govern effectively and get things done. Hence the conclusion by Professor Hunter, he would never agree with the idea of using technology in genetic science to 'breed' an elite group of the best and brightest individuals to lead nations and governments.

Professor Hunter however seemed to have contradicted himself when responding to queries on his views on President Obama and his cabinet members. Although a Republican, Professor Hunter admits that he voted for Obama because he graduated from the best law school in America (at Harvard University) and has deep respect and understanding of the American Constitution having taught 'Constitutional Law' at several universities prior to his direct involvement in politics. Professor Hunter further exclaims that President Obama has managed to put together a remarkable cabinet whose members are among the best and brigthest in America.

These views may appear contradictory at a glance but once thought about further and deeper may not necessarily be so. President Obama's academic credentials were not the only reason why millions of Americans voted for him. His unique family and social background and experiences as a community organiser convinced many Americans that he truly understands the routine hardships and predicaments of millions of ordinary Americans. As the comedian Chris Rock once said in an interview during the campaign period back in 2008; "it's simple, vote for the guy with one house (Obama)... The guy with one house really cares about losing a house, because he is homeless. The other guy (John McCain) can lose five houses and still got a bunch of houses." (McCain and his wife were reported to own 12 houses)

Intelligence and academic credentials alone are not enough. But if they are blended with a deep sense understanding and experience of realities as viewed by the common people, that would be a powerful combination.

In my recent article to the Centre for Policy Initiatives, I expressed the need to find Malaysia's very own Manmohan Singh. I admit the article focussed more on the current Indian Prime Minister's impeccable academic and professional credentials, but those who are familiar with his personal background would know that Manmohan Singh also came from humble origins. His experience growing up in pre-partitioned India and as a Sikh in a Hindu-majority society I'm sure has helped him enormously while serving as prime minister.

Which begs us to ask, are only those from a lower social class whose families were poor and endured extreme hardship capable of becoming a compassionate and just political leader? Or from another point-of-view, are those with upper-class family background who grew up with wealth and comfort incapable to fully understand the plight and realities of the common people?

Malaysia's current Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is a living-ebodiment of this challenge. As a son of a former prime minister, how can he possibly understand the daily and routine hardship faced by many Malaysians? How can he possibly for example appreciates the struggles of a fisherman or a rubber-tapper who wakes up at 5 am every morning to work? Does he know what it feels like to struggle every month to pay various bills and expenses - water, electricity, food, children's expenses etc?

I'm sure he doesn't, which is why he appears most of the time like the feudal leader he is rather than a leader for the people. But that's not his fault, isn't it? I mean, should his father Tun Abdul Razak denied him the comfort of living in the Prime Minister's official residence and sent him to school in a far away kampung and let him live a wooden pondok just so that he knows what it feels like to be poor?

This is fast encroaching into issues in parenting vis-a-vis the challenges of modernity, which deserves a different posting, later...


Anonymous said...

i remember u said once in class something like the best person to be a leader is someone who doesnt want to be a leader. one of your confusing ideas that i think is related to what u wrote here. maybe u should explain more. salaam.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that you mentioned Mr. Manmohan Singh of India.Like any post-colonial nation-state,He has a mountain to climb in order to make his country prosperous and slash the poverty rate to record low.With a population of more than 1 billion,(in the next 30 years, India will overtake China as the most populous nation in the world)it is not an easy task.Currently India is wasting golden chances to move the country forward by spending too much time to become democratic.Well-intentioned and noble efforts to move the country forward were buried deep in the sands of bereaucracy.
One of the reason is that India boosts herself by being the world largest democracy and so proud of it that they forget to find the best man on how to create and distribute the wealth equally with a huge population they have where half of them live in the slums.
A country just need a good governance to progress,it does not necessarily Malaysian style democracy or China's Communist Republic.In the past, before the birth of democracy,The were myriad of empires were govern successfully and effectively and made so much progress in arts and sciences without using the tool of democracy.
The point that I trying to make is that you just need to have the RIGHT people to govern,not the systems. The systems or the forms are just vehicles to go where you envisioned the country to move.Be it parliamentary system, absolute monarchy,socialist communist,Republic etc; as long as the people in charge know how and what need to be done to improve the life of its people then the country is in the right track to prosper.
In Malaysia Mahathir seems the best we had out of 6 Prime Ministers that governed Malaysia for the past 52 years.He was the first 'commoner' to reach the pinnacle of power.His father just a school teacher.
Before him,if you are not coming from an elite aristocrats family;with the like of Tun Razak, Tun Dr. Ismail, Tun Hussein Onn or having royal lineage within your family trees (Tunku, Ku Li), there is no way you can be admitted into that elite club who have the power to chart the course of the country after the British left.
Luckily for him,he slipped into that club with the risk he took in the form of 'The Malay Dilemma'which almost landed him in jail.Before that book and the letter he wrote after the May 13 riots, he was nobody in Malaysian politics.It took the humility and intelligence of Tun Razak to spot his talent and promoting him thus ignoring his humble family origin.
It was the maverick side of Mahathir that made the country where it is today.Before him,all the prime ministers were playing safe.There weren't significant growth and progress.In the space of 23 years,with an intense desire to modernise the country,he blazed all the trails and destroyed pretty much anyone or institutions who stood in his way to make his fream comes true.
He took all the risks that need to be taken in order to fulfill his vision.The repurcussions of it have now come back to hunt him after he retired.And he's got his hands full to overcome it.It looks like he struggles a bit.That's what we call a leader.

bluntly sharpened said...

In my humble opinion... it all boils down to empathy :) Good people who are able to empathize can make great leaders if they want to...

But of course, that trait is only one from the many a good leader should have (others being for e.g. integrity, sternness, efficient, honesty, etc.)

In the end... in our times especially... to be a good leader... one just needs to refer :) And I know this might sound 'skema' and text-book and also to some, naive... but if we look at the traits adorned by the prophet muhammad (pbuh), then one need not look any further... as all the necessary examples have already been set by him

Zaki Samsudin said...

Anon 10:08, 24/2/2010,
Thank you for your brief comments. Yes, at some point in the future I would like to explain further that particular 'confusing idea'. :)

Anon 09:27, 25/2/2010,
Thank you for your comments. While there are many things I believe we can agree with, there are a few others where our opinions clearly differ. Firstly, I do believe structural and institutional reforms are important. What we have seen in India and also in Indonesia in the last decade are reforms in their respective democratic mechanisms that I believe are pre-requisites to a more sustainable and equitable development. On that note, I have to disagree with your views on empires in the past. Of course they achieved many great things, but underlying all these achievements were untold and countless tales of oppression and sufferings of the common people. These authoritarian models of leadership and governance are no longer relevant in the 21st century. On your views about Dr.Mahathir, any objective person would surely salute him as a leader and acknowledge his achievements. I agree his rise to the country's premiership from relatively humble background is what made him somewhat unique. However, I do believe on quite a number of things, he overdid things and these were done at the expense of democraty. And much of the mess that we have today on various social-political areas are indeed his legacies. I would be happy to explain more these points in future postings inshaAllah.

Thanks for dropping by.

Zaki Samsudin said...

Mr. bluntly sharpened,

Thanks for dropping by. The Prophet SAW was indeed a remarkable man. For me personally, one of important characteristics he had was his willingness to share the burden and struggle just like anyone else. He was a leader who was revered and respected yet he was always down-to-earth and never demanded or expected any of his followers to worship him.

bubu said...

Slm w.b.t.

Interesting indeed. In reference to Anon, 10:08, I also did remembered you said that in class.

Also, another issue that is not to be left aside is followership. I've read several articles/books regarding this when I was completing an assignment and found it very interesting and we often forget this element when we talk about leadership/govern system etc.

Would love to hear a piece of ur thoughts in the coming posts i'Allah.

Anonymous said...

interesting views! i'm sure u r aware of a new thinktank in town, institute of democracy and economics (something like that). read about the people behind it and their glorious opening ceremony few weeks back. feudal! damn feudal!!! that's all i say.

Zaki Samsudin said...

Brother Bubu,
Appreciate your comments, as always. About followership, I think that relates to another of my confusing ideas (not mine entirely or originally) that voters are not necessarily rational which is the basis of my criticism against the "one man one vote" doctrine; something that I've written about before.

Anon 10:03,
Thanks for dropping by. I don't know personally the three guys who are behind IDEAS but I respect their views as articulated by the many essays/articles written by them. I guess it's easy to criticise them as feudal considering their family and educational backgrounds but let's be fair to them and appreciate the fact that they are doing something good for the country.