Category Archives: Power, Politics and Leadership

Should we boycott the Olympics?

The Sochi Olympics in Russia has attracted enough attention to detract from the Games. Russia’s track record of human rights violations and the 2013 controversy of enacting a slew of anti-gay laws have been deemed incompatible with the Olympic ideals. There is also criticism against the Putin government for using the Olympics to elevate the prestige of its regime. This was the reason President Vladimir V. Putin “personally lobbied the International Olympic Committee and Russia offered to spend $12 billion on preparations, twice as much as the nearest competitor.” Others meanwhile believe that a boycott of the Games is nothing new – throughout history, athletes have been used as pawns in a political war. These critics claim that the real sacrifice is that of the athletes careers at the pedestal of Lost Causes.  They cite the example of the Moscow Olympics, as well as the Soviets’ boycott of the Los Angeles Games which eventually achieved minimal effect in driving change.

What is your perspective? Have sporting platforms been hijacked? What would your response be to those who advocate the boycott of the Sochi Olympics and why? 

NY Times Room for Debate this this on here 

Here is one view: Human rights violations in Russia are incompatible with Olympic values. But I am against a boycott.

First, boycotts are an indiscriminate sanction that punishes hundreds of millions of innocent people. Second, there are other, more targeted and more effective, actions. Third, given the censorship in Russia, participating in the Olympics may be more effective in spreading Olympic values than boycotting the Games.  Continue reading

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Self Defeating Soft Power – Revisiting the ghost of Yasukuni

Only one step could have made conditions worse among Japan, China, and South Korea, with spillover effects on America. That is the step Japan’s prime minister has just taken.

 DEC 25 2013, 8:56 PM ET, The Atlantic

Main hall of Yasukuni Shrine, via Wikipedia.                 

At first I didn’t believe the news this evening that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. I didn’t believe it, because such a move would be guaranteed to make a delicate situation in East Asia far, far worse. So Abe wouldn’t actually do it, right?

It turns out that he has. For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it’s close. Continue reading

Meritocracy in politics: Singapore’s Influence on China

POLITICAL meritocracy is the idea that a political system should aim to select leaders with above average ability to make morally informed political judgments. That is, political meritocracy has two key components: (1) the political leaders have superior ability and virtue; and (2) the selection mechanism is designed to choose such leaders.

Political meritocracy is central to both Chinese and Western political theory and practice. Political thinkers – from Confucius and Plato, to James Madison and John Stuart Mill – struggled to identify the best strategies for choosing leaders capable of making intelligent, morally informed judgments on a wide range of issues.

But such debates largely stopped in the post World War II era. In China, they stopped because Maoism valued the political contributions of farmers and workers over those of intellectuals and educators. In the West, they stopped because of the intellectual hegemony of electoral democracy. A democracy demands only that the people select their leaders; it is up to voters to judge the merits of candidates. While liberal democracies empower experts in, say, administrative and judicial positions, they are always accountable, if only indirectly, to democratically elected leaders.

In Singapore, however, political meritocracy has remained a central issue, with the country’s leaders continuing to advocate the institutionalisation of mechanisms aimed at selecting the candidates best qualified to lead – even if doing so meant modifying the democratic process in order to facilitate the election of these pre-selected candidates.

In order to win support, they have sometimes appealed to Confucian tradition. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained, one of the many Confucian ideals that remain relevant to Singapore is “the concept of government by honourable men, who have a duty to do right for the people, and who have the trust and respect of the population”.

After attaining independence in 1965, Singapore’s leaders gained the population’s trust and respect by presiding over spectacular economic growth. Over the last few years, declining electoral support for the Government suggests that the public’s trust in its political leaders has diminished, compelling the Government to adopt a more accommodating stance.

While Singapore’s leaders still contend that meritocratically selected officials will take a long-term view, rather than cater to electoral cycles, they recognise the need for greater equality and wider political participation. To this end, they have eased restrictions on political speech and stopped pursuing harsh retaliation against opponents.

Moreover, to reduce income inequality and enhance social mobility, Singapore’s Government has increased benefits for the socioeconomically disadvantaged and the middle class, including by investing in education and making health care more affordable. This new approach has been dubbed “compassionate meritocracy”.

Singapore’s discourse on meritocracy has failed to gain much traction abroad. This is largely because it was not presented as a universal ideal. Rather, Singapore’s leaders have consistently emphasised that the need to ensure that the most capable people are in charge is particularly pressing in a tiny city-state with a small population, limited resource base, and potentially hostile neighbours.

Nonetheless, the discourse on political meritocracy has been revived beyond Singapore in recent years. One reason is the increased realisation that electoral democracy is a flawed political system, and that meritocracy can help to remedy some of its flaws. Winston Churchill famously said that democracy is a flawed political system except for all the others. But he had Nazism and Stalinism in mind as the alternatives.

The most obvious problem with electoral democracy is the “tyranny of the majority”, which allows the voting community to oppress unpopular minority groups. But today, an equally serious problem is the “tyranny of the minority” in which a well-funded minority group can block necessary reform.

But perhaps the most serious problem is “the tyranny of the voting community”. This occurs when voters support benefits for themselves at the cost of future generations, who lack representation in the political process. On issues such as global warming, the “tyranny of the voting community” might well spell the end of the world as we know it. At the very least, meritocratically-selected political leaders could help to check such tendencies.

The second reason for the recent revival of political meritocracy is the rise of China. Here, Singapore has played an important role. Notwithstanding claims about Singapore’s unique context, the actions of Singapore’s political leaders suggest a belief that Singapore’s model of political meritocracy should influence other countries, especially those with a Confucian heritage.

Since the 1990s, thousands of Chinese officials have travelled to Singapore to learn from its experience. While Singapore’s political system could not readily be transferred to a huge country like China, it constitutes a model that has helped to shape China’s recent move towards meritocracy. Inspired by Singapore’s example as well as its own history, China has developed a sophisticated and comprehensive system for selecting and promoting political leaders that involves decades of training and a battery of exams for officials at various stages of their careers.

These meritocratically selected leaders have overseen an economic boom that has lifted several hundred million people out of poverty. At the same time, however, problems like inequality, environmental degradation, official corruption, and repression of political dissent and religious expression have worsened.

In order to reverse these trends, China needs to implement democratic reforms aimed at checking abuses of power. It also needs to develop its meritocratic system further. Government officials should be selected and promoted on the basis of ability and morality, rather than political loyalty, wealth, or family background. And officials should be rewarded for their contributions, not just to GDP growth, but also to reducing social and economic inequalities and promoting a more caring form of government. Here, too, Singapore’s example of compassionate meritocracy can offer useful lessons.

With the global balance of power shifting rapidly, China can no longer be judged solely by Western liberal-democratic norms. Meritocracy, which is central to the Chinese political tradition, will almost certainly serve as a reference point from which to assess the country’s development. But what precisely should be the standards for assessing meritocratically-selected political leaders? That will be the subject of my next comment.

The writer is visiting professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Political Science, National University of Singapore. An earlier version of this article was published by Project Syndicate. His latest book is The East Asian Challenge For Democracy: Political Meritocracy In Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press).


Nonetheless, the discourse on political meritocracy has been revived beyond Singapore in recent years. One reason is the increased realisation that electoral democracy is a flawed political system, and that meritocracy can help to remedy some of its flaws. Winston Churchill famously said that democracy is a flawed political system except for all the others. But he had Nazism and Stalinism in mind as the alternatives.

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Singapore – a Place or a Nation?

By Lee Soo Ann

IN WRITING Singapore: From Place To Nation for students, I came to the paradoxical conclusion that Singapore is no more than a place where foreigners sustain foreigners. More accurately, it is a case of one kind of foreigner sustaining another kind.

Singapore may be returning from being a nation to being a place again. What had sustained Singapore, then, in its history?

During the British trading settlement in 1819, Singapore was established by the East India Company out of maritime rivalry between the British and the Dutch at that time. Located in Malacca, the Dutch had a chokehold on shipping going to China unless the British could establish a station south of Malacca.

Stamford Raffles had heard of Temasek from the Malay Annals, which he could read from his knowledge of Malay acquired when he was governor of Java. Consequently he sailed to the mouth of the Singapore River and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

The location of Singapore at the tip of the Malay peninsula gave sailing ships an advantage when resting between the two monsoons, unlike resting in Penang, which was already British, as it was too far north. Chinese junks used to sail from China to South-east Asia from Zheng He’s time.

Its location on the Strait of Malacca route to Australia and New Zealand gave Singapore a further advantage when the telegraph and telephone linked Britain to these colonies. With the shift to steam from sailing ships, Singapore became a coaling depot, for ships sailing to Japan and China as well. Singapore’s proximity to oilfields in Sarawak made it into an oil distribution centre.

One may conclude that the prime maritime location of Singapore is responsible for its success in its first hundred years as a British territory. However, the location of Singapore has never changed in its entire history.

What did change was the capacity of foreigners to meet foreigners in Singapore in safety and to make a living for themselves. The Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824 ensured that Dutch rivalry did not menace the economic growth of Singapore. The Dutch had all of the 15,000 islands of what is now Indonesia to grapple with.

Foreigners meeting foreigners is not a new concept but British rule made this concept real in Singapore. When foreigners brought with them different currencies as the medium of exchange, the British instituted the Straits dollar. This dollar gave birth to local banks which complemented the previous dominance by British exchange banks. Continue reading

A call for moral courage among artists

Salman Rushdie for New York Times | 27 Apr 2013

WE find it easier, in these confused times, to admire physical bravery than moral courage — the courage of the life of the mind, or of public figures. A man in a cowboy hat vaults a fence to help Boston bomb victims while others flee the scene: we salute his bravery, as we do that of servicemen returning from the battlefront, or men and women struggling to overcome debilitating illnesses or injuries.

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Police officers carried off an Occupy D.C. demonstrator in Washington, October 2011.

It’s harder for us to see politicians, with the exception of Nelson Mandela and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as courageous these days. Perhaps we have seen too much, grown too cynical about the inevitable compromises of power. There are no Gandhis, no Lincolns anymore. One man’s hero (Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro) is another’s villain. We no longer easily agree on what it means to be good, or principled, or brave. When political leaders do take courageous steps — as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, then president, did in Libya by intervening militarily to support the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi — there are as many who doubt as approve. Political courage, nowadays, is almost always ambiguous.

Even more strangely, we have become suspicious of those who take a stand against the abuses of power or dogma.

It was not always so. The writers and intellectuals who opposed Communism, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and the rest, were widely esteemed for their stand. The poet Osip Mandelstam was much admired for his “Stalin Epigram” of 1933, in which he described the fearsome leader in fearless terms — “the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip” — not least because the poem led to his arrest and eventual death in a Soviet labor camp.

As recently as 1989, the image of a man carrying two shopping bags and defying the tanks of Tiananmen Square became, almost at once, a global symbol of courage. Continue reading

Why China won’t Rule

Robert Skidelsky, Published on May 22, 2012

LONDON – Is China poised to become the world’s next superpower? This question is increasingly asked as China’s economic growth surges ahead at more than 8 per cent a year, while the developed world remains mired in recession or near-recession. China is already the world’s second largest economy, and will be the largest in 2017. And its military spending is racing ahead of its GDP growth.

The question is reasonable enough if we don’t give it an American twist. To the American mind, there can be only one superpower, so China’s rise will automatically be at the expense of the United States. Indeed, for many in the US, China represents an existential challenge.

This is way over the top. In fact, the existence of a single superpower is highly abnormal, and was brought about only by the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The normal situation is one of coexistence, sometimes peaceful sometimes warlike, between several great powers.

For example, Great Britain, whose place the US is often said to have taken, was never a ‘superpower’ in the American sense. Despite its far-flung empire and naval supremacy, nineteenth-century Britain could never have won a war against France, Germany, or Russia without allies. Britain was, rather, a world power – one of many historical empires distinguished from lesser powers by the geographic scope of their influence and interests.

The sensible question, then, is not whether China will replace the US, but whether it will start to acquire some of the attributes of a world power, particularly a sense of responsibility for global order.

Even posed in this more modest way, the question does not admit of a clear answer. The first problem is China’s economy, so dynamic on the surface, but so rickety underneath. Continue reading

Why scientists are smarter than politicians

TIME, Jeffrey Kluger, 30 Sept 2011

One of the best things about being an artist is that nobody can tell you you’re doing things wrong. There’s no true or false in a Picasso painting, no yes or no in a Mahler composition. That, of course, is how it should be. The opposite is true for science — and that’s how it should be too. The scientific method is defined by the search for the irreducible truth. The riddle of a disease isn’t solved till you’ve isolated the virus; no particle is fully understood till it’s been successfully smashed. It’s not for nothing that recent news of a neutrino that may have traveled .0025% faster than light is causing such a stir.  If that vanishingly tiny anomaly can’t be resolved and disproven, a century of physics could collapse.

But the stone walls between art and science aren’t nearly as thick as they seem; indeed, in some ways they’re entirely permeable. That’s a lesson we badly need to learn if we’re going to make sound policy decisions in an era in which science and politics seem increasingly at odds.

In the Oct. 3 issue of TIME, theoretical physicist Lisa Randall of Harvard University made a plea for greater deference to reason in the still-young but already-ugly 2012 presidential campaign. Randall lamented “the fundamental disregard for rational and scientific thinking” in a political culture in which Texas governor Rick Perry can dismiss evolution as “merely a theory that’s out there,” and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann can traffic in poppycock about the HPV vaccine causing mental retardation. Continue reading

Libyans Vote in First Election in More Than 40 Years

New York Times  |by DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK on July 7, 2012

Tomas Munita for The New York Times

A man casts his vote during elections in Benghazi, Libya on Saturday.

BENGHAZI, Libya — Libyans voted on Saturday in their first election in more than 40 years, in some places braving sporadic gunfire and threats of violence in their determination to conceive a new nation after the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

“We will vote for the fatherland whether there is shooting or not,” said Naema el Gheryiene, 55, fixing a designer veil over her hair as she walked to a polling station in an upscale neighborhood shortly after a gunman in a passing car had sprayed bullets into the air. “Whoever dies for their country is a martyr, and even if there are explosions, we are going to vote.”

The shooting here in the capital of the country’s eastern region came mostly from protesters worried that the more populous west around Tripoli would dominate the new national congress and the writing of a constitution. In recent days, protesters have attacked polling stations and burned ballots here and in other eastern cities. On Friday night, they downed a Libyan Air Force helicopter carrying voting supplies, killing an election official. By midmorning on Saturday, about a hundred men armed with rifles, machetes and rocket-propelled grenades had stormed at least one polling place here, emerging with at least seven red-topped translucent ballot boxes and stacks of voter rolls that they brandished as trophies.

“It is still early — this is after just one hour,” a triumphant attacker declared as they began to debate which polling place to go to next.

But the interim authorities of the self-appointed Transitional National Council had vowed to push ahead with the vote despite concerns about violence. The officials hope that even a flawed and incomplete election will give a new government the legitimacy needed to impose the rule of law on the militias of former rebels dominating the country. Continue reading

Billions Down the Afghan Hole

BERLIN — The major donors and Afghan government officials meeting in Tokyo on Sunday to discuss future aid to Afghanistan have to face up to a bitter truth: As much as $1 billion of the $8 billion donated in the past eight years has been lost to corruption. All governments in Tokyo must show that business as usual cannot continue. An agreement worth $4 billion is at stake.

Turning off the aid taps is not an option. This would hurt the poorest, increase instability and likely lead to illicit flows taking the place of donor funding. Donors and the Afghan government need an enforceable plan to tackle the issue. They don’t need more words.

Corruption in the country is nothing new, but it is worsening. Afghanistan has had a long history of conflict, contraband and war. It falls almost at the bottom of the list of the most corrupt and poorly governed countries, including the Corruption Perceptions Index produced by Transparency International.

Estimates from local watchdog Integrity Watch Afghanistan show bribe payments — for everything from enrolling in elementary school to getting a permit — doubled between 2007 and 2009, topping $1 billion a year. Corruption and black-market trading, which is closely linked to drugs and arms trafficking, have reached over $12 billion annually, according to calculations by NATO.

Yet the Afghan government is reportedly going to the meeting without a clear plan of attack against corruption. There is a strategy — known as the National Priority Program on Transparency and Accountability — but it has not been fully endorsed by the government or international representatives. A large part of the critique is that it is not realistic or ambitious enough.

In the past, many mistakes have been made in addressing corruption, including turning a blind eye. Corruption has been used as a “currency for peace” and is interwoven with the Afghan political economy. Shifting the tide on corruption will have to start from the top down — on the part of the Afghan government and donor countries — as well as the bottom up from local communities.

At the top, there already have been some positive moves. There is now a joint Afghan-donor government body on anti-corruption. It combines a highly reputed group of Afghan and international experts, including a former French judge, Eva Joly, who work to monitor anti-corruption progress against clear goals and benchmarks.

Still greater political will and stronger leadership are needed in order to take action against those accused of state looting. This includes members of the government and their families. Continue reading

Excellent read: When should nations intervene?

This illustration is by Margaret Scott and comes from <a href=""></a>, and is the property of the NewsArt organization and of its artist. Reproducing this image is a violation of copyright law.

Joseph S Nye, Project Syndicate, June 8 2012

CAMBRIDGE – When should states intervene militarily to stop atrocities in other countries? The question is an old and well-traveled one. Indeed, it is now visiting Syria.

n 1904, US President Theodore Roosevelt argued that, “there are occasional crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror” that we should intervene by force of arms. A century earlier, in 1821, as Europeans and Americans debated whether to intervene in Greece’s struggle for independence, President John Quincy Adams warned his fellow Americans about “going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

More recently, after a genocide that cost nearly 800,000 lives in Rwanda in 1994, and the slaughter of Bosnian men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, many people vowed that such atrocities should never again be allowed to occur. When Slobodan Milošević engaged in large-scale ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution recognizing the humanitarian catastrophe, but could not agree on a second resolution to intervene, given the threat of a Russian veto. Instead, NATO countries bombed Serbia in an effort that many observers regarded as legitimate but not legal.

In the aftermath, then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan created an international commission to recommend ways that humanitarian intervention could be reconciled with Article 2.7 of the UN Charter, which upholds member states’ domestic jurisdiction. The commission concluded that states have a responsibility to protect their citizens, and should be helped to do so by peaceful means, but that if a state disregarded that responsibility by attacking its own citizens, the international community could consider armed intervention. Continue reading