Stay loyal to principles, always question authority — Nathaniel Tan

APRIL 19 — A recent Malaysiakini article ran the headline: “Stay loyal and don’t ask too many questions, PAS supporters told.”

The article reports:

“PAS vice-president Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah likened the mentality and outlook of the grassroots and the leadership, especially party president Abdul Hadi Awang, to those sitting on the ground, and sitting at the top of a tree, respectively.

“We, on the ground, can only see what is in front of our eyes. If we are in the jungle, we can’t see anything but the trees and the bushes.

“But the leadership, when they are sitting on the tree, they can see what lies beyond the jungle. We see the jungle, but we don’t see the tiger. But the president sees it.

“This is why we should trust the leadership. When (the president) asks you to run, don’t be stupid and ask why you should run. Otherwise, you will be eaten by the tiger.

“When he asks to run, just run, and then ask questions later,”

These throwbacks to the feudal mentality of ‘father knows best’ makes one feel hurled back decades — centuries even — into the past, at a speed that is liable to make one’s head spin.

It is exactly the culture of not asking enough questions that has held Malaysia back for so many years.

Of all the questions citizens in any developed democracy should be asking, the first should be: Why would our political leaders ask this of us?

It is fair to assume that one possibility is that said leaders are truly all wise and all knowing, and always only ever want what is best for the rest of us.

In the interests of being thorough though, other potential motivations must also be considered.

After all, would it not be eminently convenient for a leader — one who say, just for the sake of argument, has corrupt tendencies — if no one ever questioned him or her?

Leaders who are never questioned tend to feel that they can get away with more and more, and more often than not, it’s only a matter of time before leaders who feel that way start doing things that they shouldn’t.

This is one of the main reasons that countries with high freedom of the press and high standards of transparency see less government corruption.

It is not that the leaders of countries that repress media freedom are just inherently worse or more corrupt people, but that with less ways of holding leaders to account, leaders tend to behave worse.

I am reminded of an analogy I used to hear a lot during one Singaporean election season.

In a political landscape where the opposition clearly had no chance of winning, it was important to indicate why it was important to vote for the opposition.

The analogy used was that: even if the car has a good driver, sometimes you need someone in the passenger’s seat whose job was (and this was the part the crowds loved) to give the driver a tight slap when he was falling asleep at the wheel.

In the internet era, the degree to which citizens scrutinise their government and leaders can hardly be understated.

Every move is being closely watched. Another analogy I heard that stuck was how someone can sneeze in Semporna and you’ll hear about it in Langkawi within seconds.

In this era of transparency, increasingly aware citizens are demanding ever higher standards of accountability from their leaders.

The pliant, unquestioningly obedient followers Mohd Amar speaks of may still exist in some small amounts in PAS, but if he thinks he can appeal to the general public with such condescending arguments, one imagines he will be in for a rude shock.

To dismiss critical thinkers and those who speak up as disloyal is disingenuous. Loyalty should always first and foremost be to sound principles and values, and not to fallible individuals.

Some people get very excited about speaking truth to power, but take a completely different attitude when they are the power and not the truth speaker.

It is fair to give leaders a certain amount of latitude and faith, especially for some short periods of time, or on issues that may involve highly sensitive national security, state secrets and the like.

In the long run though, asking people to accept that leaders are high and mighty, almost godlike lofty beings, such that they can see so very much more than the lowly, ignorant citizens of the ground, is likely to backfire.

The citizens of today are perfectly able to see for themselves when tigers are running after them. The only question is, will they be able to recognise tigers disguised as leaders?

*Nathaniel Tan currently works at EMIR Research.

**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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