Who should we respect?

JULY 20 — When Donald Trump shook Queen Elizabeth’s hand instead of bowing to her, the United States president was accused of breaching royal protocol during his first official visit to Britain.

The bumbling president allegedly broke etiquette again when he walked in front of the Queen while they inspected the guard of honour, blocking her with his massive body.

Royal etiquette prohibits one from walking in front of the Queen.

Although one should respect one’s hosts when visiting a foreign country, how such respect should be expressed is perhaps questionable.

Bowing to royalty indicates respect for a person based on her noble birth and station in life.

None of us get to choose the manner of our birth. A tiny minority are born as royalty. Some of us are lucky enough to be born in middle class families, while others are born to poor, struggling households.

Very few are born to very wealthy families where the second generation has a much higher chance of succeeding in business than other people, simply because they can afford to take bigger risks due to their rich parents’ safety net.

If our birth is a matter of luck, why should we treat certain people as if they are better than us simply because we ended up with the short end of the stick?

Asia has very high levels of power distance, defined as “the degree to which less powerful members of institutions and organizations accept that power is distributed unequally.” This means that in cultures with very high power distance, the lower level person always defers to the one in a higher position, whereas in low power distance cultures, people expect to be listened to regardless of rank and do not defer to authority.

Malaysia has the highest power distance in the world, which Harvard Business Review attributed to the Malay feudal system and British influence.

Besides Malay culture that accepts division of power, Confucianism in Chinese culture similarly promotes the separation of roles and a society where lower level people obey their superiors, who in turn protect and mentor their followers.

The reluctance to challenge authority can hinder learning and good decision-making in any organisation, whether it is in family, business, or government, as Malaysians across race are taught from young not to question their parents, husbands, elders, teachers, bosses, or religious teachers, even if they are wrong.

Of course, when I am on duty as the news editor, I sometimes find it annoying when people question me and don’t automatically follow my instructions. It is difficult for leaders to be effective if they are constantly being challenged.

However, though it is a more difficult process, I believe that the to-and-fro between leaders and followers, who treat each other as equals, is necessary to make the best decisions as people are free to give their honest opinions and feedback.

The final authority, of course, lies with the leader, but taking the time to hash things out instead of automatically granting that power to the leader means a more well thought out decision.

Malaysia’s constant deference to authority can be seen in the way people insist on being addressed by their titles, even though “Datuks” and “Datuk Seris” are no better than everyone else.

Malaysians’ subservience to politicians by addressing them as “YB” outside Parliament — instead of Mr or Ms, Puan or Tuan — also makes it difficult to hold lawmakers to account, or demand that they serve our interests as our elected representatives.

If we treat politicians as our superiors instead of our equals, we will naturally hesitate to challenge them on every single decision they make, even if it is our tax monies that they are spending, preferring instead to leave it to their “wisdom.”

We forget that in Malaysian politics, unlike in business where you have to prove basic qualifications and do an interview before you can even get an entry-level job at a fast food restaurant, people can assume positions in Cabinet equivalent to a director (paid for by taxpayers) without so much as a CV or a public interview.

The lack of any skilled requirements or open competition for top government positions necessitates even more rigorous questioning by paymasters, ie: the taxpayers, on the rationale behind each decision made by ministers, state executive councillors, Members of Parliament, and state assemblymen.

The attitude of treating politicians as our superiors and expecting them to “care” for us low-level folk will only result in complacency and corruption. It is not their job to care for us.

A working democracy demands active engagement and challenges from citizens, which is meant to overcome the intrinsic flaws of democracy that gives the job of running the country to the most popular person, not the most qualified one.

If we want a culture of knowledge in our schools and universities, a culture of innovation in our companies, and a culture of good decision-making in politics, then we must learn to question our so-called leaders and treat them as our partners, not superiors.

Respect is earned, not given.

We just need to treat everyone else — including the rich and the titled — like how we want to be treated, with politeness and civility, but as equal human beings.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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