Wednesday, May 21, 2014

禮義廉恥 (Lĭ Yì Lián Chĭ); 公明正大 (Gōng Ming Zhèng Dà)

I love Chinese idioms and these two are particularly dear to me. They are my beacons in life. Every of these eight characters can stand on its own.

However, simple as they sound, few of us can profess to have practiced, or be practising, them in full. It is just understandable; all of us are humans. Who is not vulnerable to temptations in the absolute sense?

I am going to write about these eight characters as each comes to my mind:

I read from today’s online news that someone tweeted that the new airport Klia2 was operationally unsafe – hardly after three weeks of its opening on May 2. Apparently torrential rains have caused some parts of the apron grounds and taxiways to sink down. Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB) the owner and operator was quick to point at AirAsia for whistle-blowing and went on to say that only 1 percent of the airport is damaged. This is what I call a lack of (Chĭ) in MAHB’s leadership. The concept of Chĭ is much more than “shame” which is its apparent meaning. It also carries connotations of “defensiveness” and the lack of prepared to take responsibility.

In the South Korea ferry SEWOL tragedy, the deputy head of the school where the children were from took felt so bad that he took his own life. The prime minister also resigned and the president went on air live to apologize to the nation. In the case of MH370, we didn’t have anyone who felt Chĭ enough to do any of these things. I suppose if we had had this value in our culture, then there would be no one left to man the daily news briefing held in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Whether any of the “take responsibility” rituals performed by these three Koreans is warranted is debatable. In Malaysia, they would be totally outlandish. But in countries like Korea and Japan, they are to be expected. Malaysians may ask, so what? If we cared to see deeper, we would see that this Chĭ culture represents the very foundation of the greatness of these two countries in many things – safety and quality of their products, the level of cleanliness, the sophistication of their lifestyle, their mannerism, so on and so forth. Of course, there are always odd balls here and there to put my argument to rest.

Coming to mannerism, it is the character that I should now go to. My wife and I take morning and evening walks around our neighbourhoods every day, weather permits of course. We run into people we know living in the neighbourhood houses and apartments, many, especially the young, would simply breeze past you without expressing any desire to greet or to be greeted. This state of aloofness is also very evident in Singapore. We live in an apartment in Killiney Road for three years. Everybody seems to be invisible to everybody in the lifts. In Sydney where we spent three years there and in Melbourne where we now call ‘home’, strangers on your way will always try to make eye-contacts with you to exchange greetings or at least a hello. Women, especially the more elderly ones, in the less hectic cities of Japan can put many of us to shame when it comes to . The gentle bow and the soft smile – be there in the shopping mall, or restaurants, or in tourist spots, or in the lifts, or along the road – will tell you that you are in an entirely different world.

Besides etiquette, is also about decorum, conscious and respect for other cultural and religious norms. Propensity to jump queues, weave in and out of traffic, clear throat and spit, and toss things out of car and apartment windows, to the way many front gardens and back alleys are pathetically maintained, to the sloppiness of attire, to the way public toilets are being abused, and to not being sensitive to other societies' taboos, one can easily see the vast gap that still exists between us and the more refined societies.

Again, these observations are not 100% accurate. But aren’t cultural norms are based on generalization of observations?

I am a man of prejudices. I hate to watch Chinese movies and dramas especially of the Hong Kong and Taiwan varieties. Few have original themes and stories. Many are about personalities in Chinese history. I have no problem with the latter, except this: their blatant distortion of the history to accentuate half-truths! And about the kung-fu stuff, someone remarks: Chinese have both Kung-fu and pandas, but they can’t do anything close to Kung-fu Panda! Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was an insult to our intelligence; if these people can fly, they don’t really need to take such an arduous in the first place. No wonder John Howard could use the opportunity to catch up with some sleep when he was invited to grace the movie in Sydney! I am so contemptuous of Chinese movies and dramas that I nearly lose my train of thought on what I am writing here!

When my wife cultivated a liking of Korean DVDs, I left her alone until I accidentally sat through with her to watch one of the episodes. They are indeed DIFFERENT! Not only am I an admirer of Korean creativities in this industry, I really relish their wholesome understanding of – from their practice of filial piety to the way they conduct among themselves in neighbourhoods, communities and offices. After all, geographically Korean is just across the province of Shandong in China. Wasn’t Kung-tze (Confucius) born and taught there? That’s the real finger-licking good KFC of Confucianism where epitomizes his philosophy and teaching. Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore sure have a great deal to relearn form these Koreans.
Yì () is synonymous with Guan Yu (關羽) or Guan-kong of the Romance of Three Kingdoms fame that the warrior is now a deity worshipped wherever you see Chinese. It is about honour, it is about trust, it is about respect, it is about reciprocity and it is about humanism. It is also about friendship, camaraderie, thoughtfulness and the likes. A subscriber of this value is happy to lose his or her ‘head’ over the loss of some of these shortcomings. If someone does a good deed to you, it is incumbent upon you to reciprocate, even it means extreme sacrifices. You see these acts of selflessness in many Korean movies and dramas. Not being able to ‘repay’ is a sin of the highest order. Cultures in every society have both strengths and weaknesses. We can easily stereotype some of them. Among themselves, Japanese and Koreans uphold to extreme extent. Many historical in China also exhibited this ‘virtue’.

is you vis-à-vis your benefactor, regardless of nationality, race, religion or colour. But as life becomes more competitive, this is increasingly taking back-seats now. I don’t mean to be racist, but the lack of it is quite pronounced in some communities. We had a peon in our office during my MIDA (Malaysian Industrial Development Authority) days. He borrowed fifty ringgit from me; not only did I have to say goodbye to that fifty ringgit, I was also deprived of his service not long after that. He would avoid me at all cost! I was stupid enough – chiefly out of awe and delusion of ‘privileged association’ with Who's Who – to be enlisted by my chairman in Highlands & Lowlands, who is also a senior member of the Perlis royal family, to be a director in his family company and went on to act as a guarantor to a loan his company took from a bank. It was nearly a death warrant I signed for myself! I had to suffer in silence for many years. What is particularly hurtful is that this man did not show any sign of remorse at all. I visited him from time to time before the fiasco; as a matter of fact, I hardly missed any of his Hari Raya invites. He would always tell me everything was fine. Being a ‘name-only’ director, I could not do anything. Little did I realize that this man was totally bankrupt of  .

I never seemed to learn. A Singapore man whom I befriended when I was in IMC asked if I was happy to go into a joint venture with a party in Indonesia to do timber processing. I had to be the financier. The numbers look good. I made them sign all the undertakings. The bottom soon fell out. This Indonesian partner blatantly swallowed all the money. I sued the Singapore party, who acted as the overall guarantor of the whole scheme. Although he was not the culprit, he at least agreed to settle part of the debt. At least there is some in him. As for the Indonesian party, sue him? A lawyer there promptly took my deposit of one million rupiah (slight more than USD1K); after a few letters of demand here and there, he also didn’t to respond to my emails any more. Personally, I do not believe in divine interventions; but these did happen: the eldest son of the royalty passed away very suddenly and the Indonesian is now semi-paralysed. I am sure friends would tell me ‘cause-and-effect’ (因果, yin-guo) stuff is for real.

I have been a beneficiary of from bosses and friends. Two are particularly thoughtful to me: Tan Sri Low Yow Chuan and the present principal of mine. On hearing that I was heading to Australia to settle down, Tan Sri Low lost no time in offering me a position in Australia. Without this break, I would not be what I am today. A university teacher struggling to make ends meet, maybe. My present principal, who shuns publicity, shows me how wealth can benefit friends. I still can keep myself busy, thanks to him.

Last but not least is (Lián), which is ‘above board’, righteousness, humility and spiritual cleanliness, and incorruptible conduct roll into one. Many who have lived through the Tunku Abdul Rahman days will nostalgically talk about this element of governance during his premiership. Corruption was present, but it was not of the earth-shaking magnitudes. I suppose Rolex, Hermes and Louis Vuitton were not quite known to Malaysians then.

One man whom I would like to single out to exemplify Lián is Raja Alias, the immediate past chairman of Federal Land Development Authority, or Felda. Ungku, as he is fondly addressed by his friends and staff, was also chairman of Malaysian International Shipping Corporation (MISC), Boustead and director of many companies, including Malayan Banking. The he principally kept, which was in Felda, was Spartan by any measure. He was fair and did not hesitate to promote non-Bumiputras if they were good. I had the opportunity to help him build two subsidiaries in MISC: one on container haulage and the other, port warehousing. So much was at stake in procurement; he was totally above board. There was absolutely no air of arrogance in him, even though he was so very powerful! Unlike many big bosses, he was prepared to spare time to listen.

As for 公明正大 (Gōng Ming Zhèng Dà), many prefer to lump this four-character idiom in one breath. But each of it has its own wisdom really. Gōng is ‘subject to public scrutiny’, ‘above board’, ‘for all to see’, ‘without personal gains’, and the likes; Ming is transparency and not opaque; Zhèng is ‘the right or correct or proper way’’; and is the ‘big picture’. Abstract nouns, verbs and adjectives can be tricky in Chinese language. Being a novice, I can only explain these characters of wisdom descriptively or illustratively.

If the officials in the MH370 briefing sessions can handle the press with full transparency, without tying their own hands and legs with defensiveness, attempts to cover weaknesses, oversights, and sheer ignorance, and pretensions, then there would not be so much anguish around, let alone the conspiracy theories that have been put forward for all and sundry to believe and spread.

Sustainable leadership also boils down to these four characters. As a whole, it represents good governance, whether it is about national politics, uniformed services, or in corporate suites. Devoid of it is tantamount a complete loss of credibility. Without credibility, no leaders can survive for long.

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