CRUCIBLE: Leadership and Asian Values (1)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 22 Apr) – When in our previous khutbah (discourse) we praised Nelson Mandela and the rather unique “lightning rod” that defined his leadership as critical in ending Apartheid in South Africa, we say, it is not wholly a rarity that singular person like him has absolute monopoly of “great man” quality. In truth, any “lightning” produces varying sparks animating peoples and nations with their unique struggles and circumstances.

Lee Kwan Yew

Similarly, when Lee Kwan Yew passed away on March 23, 2015 the world grieved the passing of another highly respected Asian leader. He was remembered as a rare leader who walked his talk.

The quality of leadership and values that guided him and his governance is revealed more glaringly with the fact that Lee Kwan Yew is the longest serving Prime Minister elected seventh time by the people of Singapore. He is also known as the voice of reason in world affairs.

As former US Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger, wrote: “[Lee Kwan Yew] developed into a world statesman who acted as a kind of conscience to leaders around the globe.” 

For sure, Lee Kwan Yew’s differs substantially with the “lightning rod” – to use Thomas Carlyle’s term – with that of Nelson Mandela and his global charisma or Imam Khomenei with his revolutionary-spiritual mystique, and few other exceptional Asian and Muslim leaders.

But for a leader who was forced to take the cudgel of leadership when Singapore was kicked out from the Federation of Malaya in 1964 and yet had transformed from Third World grade to First World status within simply a generation must be more than a feat in modern nation-state history.

Moreover, it is even more exceptional for a leader like Lee Kwan Yew who could weigh power, its value and limits and who could just relinquish it when time is up and allow other more able leaders to do the job.

This rare quality of a leader is worth contemplating especially as today’s Muslim/Arab leaders, including a number of them in the Third World, are falling one by one with their countries devastated and bleeding profusely. Sadly, those leaders have to be deposed to relinquish power.

There are certainly immense lessons that could be learned from Lee Kwan Yew’s life and his leadership and value formation he developed which are responsible in defining his politics and governance of Singapore.

Asian values

To begin with, the rise of leaders in any community or country is a universal phenomenon that is well recognized in Islam. That some people are better endowed with qualities including leadership traits while having the ability to command and exact obedience from their fellows in order to accomplish some tasks is well recognized too. For instance, the Qur’an says:

“And We raise some of them above others in ranks, so that some may command work from others (Az-zukhruf: 32).”

I hope you would understand why I have to create an angle of Lee Kwan Yew’s feat particularly the issue of leadership as we relate to current crisis in the Muslim world.

Obviously, it is not difficult to make some valid points. Starting practically from scratch in 1965, Singapore after merely four decades, became one of East Asian countries dubbed in 1990 by Megatrends guru, John Naisbitt, as a tiger economy like South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. This happened, as we said, first and foremost, when Malaysia, a Muslim country, ousted Singapore from the Federation.

Second, just across the Indian Ocean is West Asia, particularly the Middle East, with many Arab countries suffering with leadership crisis with generally uneven social and economic development. Except for GCC countries that leapfrogged from being simply a swatch of oasis to economic power house, both regions – West and East Asia – are two phalanxes of continents in Asia; yet why are they so different in molding leaders and shaping national values?

There has been buzz of so-called Asian values in the 1990s as a factor in the rise of Southeast Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia. Why do such values so unevenly appropriated in political and economic development among Asian countries? How much is the role of culture and religion as factors of development? What about colonial experience given that Singapore and Malaysia, for instance, were previously ruled or heavily influenced by the British, like that of Iraq and Syria?

Let us return to Naisbitt where he explains the unevenness of Asian values among Asian countries:

“The collection of countries and cultures that make up Asia did not undergo any systematic integration until recently, when free-market mechanisms began to be embraced. The cultural, religious and linguistic diversities of the region made harmonization otherwise impossible. Historically, there has been no movement to blend Asia together, except the activities of traders and political conquests. In pre-colonial and colonial days, strong imperial powers dominated separate states, which remained isolated. Since the rise of nationalism, Asian states have been pre-occupied with the struggle to gain sovereignty, and after independence, to build and strengthen their own states. These national preoccupations have until now prevented solidarity with neighbors and the forging common systems (“Megatrends in Asia,” p. 59).”

Arabism is not Islam

There is no doubt that varying history of peoples reveals distinct values among leaders in different regions in Asia. If we may add some points into Naisbitt’s thesis lack of systematic integration in Asia, it could also be advanced that traditional society has been defined by varying Asiatic values honed by different, albeit intersecting civilizations characterized by cultural pluralism than integrative socio-economic system.

The multiple religions in Asia, for instance, became identity markers of people prodding them to cave in inside their own shells. The stronger the hold of certain religion on certain peoples or regions, the harder is their resistance against colonialism and modernization.

This is generally the case of the Arabs where they have to practically wade through the demand of sustaining their tradition even as they have to adopt with the requirement of modernity and nation-state system.

Whereas other regions in Asia are quite pliant to adapt and crop up foreign influences to meet their needs as in the case of Sinic (e.g., China, Japan, Korea) and to some extent Indic (e.g., India, Sri Lanka) civilizations enriching thus their culture and tradition, Arabs, on the contrary, suffer generally with difficulty in adapting new influences while they are too encased in their own patriarchal and nomadic culture as they remain attached to their desert lifestyle and Bedouin tradition.

Despite Islam’s imperative for cultural and territorial pluralism as shown in Qur’an’s popular injunction of lita’arafuu “for you to understanding each other,” Arab society continues to hide in their own tribal, Bedouin world. Moreover, despite Islam’s democratic tradition with such Qur’anic imperative of “wa amruhum shura baynahum” (and who conduct their affairs by mutual consultation), many Arab leaders remain autocratic and dictatorial. They generally view power not as trust (amanah) that carries with it immense responsibility and accountability. Rather, they take and love power as if it is their own endowment and their own property. As we frequently allude, many of them succumbed to Adamic pitfalls of “shajaratu l-khuld wa l-mulk” (tree of immortality and power).

This is the backdrop in the fossilization of patriarchal, dynastic and monarchical culture in the Arab world.

There is no doubt that Islamic tradition is rich with concept and principles of leadership. For instance, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said: “Behold! Each of you is a guardian, and each of you will be asked about his subjects.”

The Prophet also said: “When three are on a journey, they should appoint one of them as their commander.”

We could innumerate more leadership principles in Islam. They are very important to remind us about the universality of leadership as espoused by other Asian civilizations, including Islam’s.

But the problem in the Arab world, including the rest of the Muslim world, is as much as the problem in appropriating leadership values as much as imperative in reconstructing structural and social conditions that paved the way in the constriction of Islamic values of leadership while subverting them into personalistic, tribal, and dynastic milieu of the days of old.

Despite the promise of modernity and nation-state system, Arab leaders hide behind the veneer of patrimonial tradition while merely engaged in superficial projection or, at the very least, promoting catch-up policy with the rest of world, as they are afraid of being dislodged from power while too protective of their privileges.


To say this point however does not imply universal bearing in all Arab countries. As previously noted, we are quite careful not to fall into sweeping generalization as we take exception the case of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that almost rose quite simultaneously with that of Singapore while enjoying relatively sustainable growth rate these past decades.

Since we’d already discussed elsewhere the case of Dubai, for instance, particularly the historical and social conditions that led in its economic pole-vaulting in so short a period, it can be said thus that the GCC tried to break, at least partly, the old Arab values of leadership by steering economic development through modern, and even, post modern ways. This aspect of Arab’s stride should be heartedly recognized.

But as we say, it is only half the fulfillment of Asian values. In other words, GCC’s success remains short of Singapore’s. While the latter relies on Lee Kwan Yew’s values of leadership, economic liberalism and foreign investment, GCC countries rely generally on paternalistic, tribal endowment, autocratic tradition and petrodollars.

Moreover, while governance of Singapore and Dubai, for instance, took advantage of the fact that they are mere city-states with their small sizes facilitating people’s obedience and administration, Singapore has generally distributed equity and responsibility while taking bold steps in enlarging the fruits of democracy. On the contrary, Dubai and other GCC countries continue to hurdle with strong, aristocratic tradition while still limiting the reach of democracy on their peoples.

Jim Krane in his “City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism,” could not hide his criticism with what he refers to as world’s “least democratic places.” Krane writes:

“Dubai and the UAE are among the world’s least democratic places. Like China, Dubai has embraced unbridled capitalism without political freedom. Most people here prefer it that way. Sheikh Mohammed’s maneuverability in planning and execution depends on acting fast. The city is not going to surpass Hong Kong and Singapore if the boss has to sell his ideas to parliament. He doesn’t want to put everything on hold every few years to run for reelection (p. 271).”

With unconcealed wealth while relatively short with political freedom, Krane could not help but compare UAE to less democratic countries in Africa. He writes further:

“Therefore it’s no surprise that the UAE sits in the cellar when it comes to democracy rankings. The advocacy group Freedom House rated the UAE 150th out of 167 countries, saying it was less democratic than Zimbabwe and Congo. The UAE got the Economist Intelligence Unit’s lowest possible score – zero – on its electoral process and pluralism. The only reason it’s dead last is that researchers also measured variables such as a functioning government, civil liberties, and political culture, on which the UAE scores better. Saudi Arabia, despite holding men—only elections for municipal government, ranked below the UAE (ibid).”

Democracy and Development

Given the imbalance between democracy and development in the Arab world even in GCC countries, it brings to question if such imbalance has something to do with Asian values and leadership. Lee Kwan Yew and, to some extent, long-time Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, criticized other countries that overdo with their freedom and democracy but fail miserably to put their houses in order and to provide foods to every family.

While the two Southeast Asian leaders did not mince words the values of discipline and strong governance, people thought that they are probably just like any dictators in the Third World who’d the preponderance to cling to power perpetually. Many were proven wrong: both leaders had the humility to recognize their achievement and limits. Upon deciding that their political fortune is up, they retired from power and politics and allowed younger leaders to take the helm.

These are rare qualities of leadership that are glaringly absent among Arab/Muslim leaders. They continuously cling to power even if it’s too high a price to maintain where their countries have to bleed profusely amid people’s protest and civil war.

The implications of Singapore and Malaysia’s experience showing strong leadership and value formation with corresponding economic development, relative freedom and political order is immense. Whereas the two Southeast Asia countries are able to sustain their political stability and economic growth, many Arab leaders have been falling one by one since the Arab Spring even as their countries have been embroiled in intense strife, schism and civil war.

Most ironic, it is countries with strong semblance of democratic tradition like Egypt that have been deeply enmeshed in political instability and disorder while Arab monarchies continue to remain standing and seemingly sturdy from protest and strife.

Obviously, Singapore and Malaysia, like many Arab countries, were previously under colonial control by the British. While both countries had waded quite smoothly neo-colonial imposition while transforming their past into strength, most Arab countries failed miserably in handling their colonial past even as they are practically at a loss how to transform it into their collective strength.

Despite Islam’s bond or imperative of unity, many Arab countries continued to suffer with political myopia and tribalism. As days went by, many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere retrogressed far beyond the standard of 20th century nation-states.

Perhaps, our survey of Asian values and Islamic leadership would have to skip today’s Middle East to regions like Africa including Latin America as shown, as we’d previously highlighted with the case of Nelson Mandela; and quite recently, with Uruguay President José Mujica, known as the “world’s poorest president.”

Without us necessarily sounding too romantic, President Mujica’s people-centered type of leadership is more reflective of Prophet Muhammad’s formula in handling power: as one holds power, the more s/he has to embrace selflessness and humility.

It is fair to say that qualities of leadership and Asian values cut across region, culture and tradition. If we are quite keen in looking for substance than form, rare traits of leadership as a force behind the rise of modern great men are embedded in every person and in many societies – except that those qualities are deeply submerged in some people while revealing on others. One thing is clear: when great impulse of history happens, any leader could appear like flash of lighting anywhere, anytime.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A prepared khutbah at UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 10 April 2015. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.]