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Thinking Aloud

Lessons on how not to pick a leader

Troubling developments around the world show how democracies need safeguards against flawed leaders

One newspaper described him as a "most unlikely pretender to high office", a "dunderhead" with a "big mouth", known for his "scattershot, impulsive style".

He had a penchant for long, rambling speeches, presenting himself in messianic terms, promising to lead the country to a new era of greatness.

Hankering after a national golden age, he painted "the present day in hues that were all the darker. Everywhere you looked now, there was only decline and decay".

He emerged amid a "constellation of crises" - economic hardship and unemployment, an "erosion of the political centre" and a "growing resentment against the elites". This fed a hunger for a strongman touting radical solutions.

Donald Trump? Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage? Rodrigo Duterte?

No, actually, those lines above are from a recent New York Times review of a new book titled Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

Of course, to be fair, for all their faults, Messrs Trump, Johnson or even Duterte have, so far, not done anything as heinous as the atrocities the former German chancellor unleashed on the world. But the parallels in the underlying forces that led to their emergence on the political scene are uncanny, and troubling enough to warrant pondering.

This thought came to mind after I sat through the 90-minute bust-up between Mr Trump and his Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton in their first television debate last month.

The exchange was long on rhetoric but short on details, with both candidates playing to the deep-seated fears about trade, immigration, and jobs of those in the audience.

By the end of the debate, I could not help feeling a little sorry for American voters. After a long-drawn campaign, they find themselves in the unenviable position of having to choose between two candidates both of whom have "unfavourability" ratings hovering above 50 per cent in recent polls.

Depressed at this prospect, I lamented to an American friend how alarming it was that someone as clearly ill-suited to the task as Mr Trump might even be a contender for the nation's top job, let alone having a chance of winning.

"Don't worry," he replied sanguinely. "It won't happen."

The US presidential election, he explained, is not a direct vote. The American Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, had set up an electoral college to thwart populist candidates sweeping the field and also to ensure a good geographical spread of electoral power.

So while the national polls might look close, winning the election would require a candidate to chalk up delegates in a long slog of state-by-state victories.

 

Going by recent surveys, Mr Trump "has no path to the White House on these delegate counts", he assured me. He seemed oblivious to the irony that America's much-vaunted democracy might be saved from a political disaster only by dint of not being quite as democratic as it is often made out to be.

Now, of course, how America picks its president is for its people to decide. But for us here in Singapore, the unfolding campaign holds a certain fascination, not just because of the uncertainty of the outcome and what it might mean for global politics, but also as there has been much discussion lately on how Singapore might go about electing its future presidents, as well as throwing up potential prime ministers.

The debate here has focused on who should be eligible, how to ensure fair racial representation, and the manner in which candidates should campaign for the people's support.

Here, there are lessons to be drawn from recent events, including the unexpected rise of the likes of Mr Trump, Mr Johnson and Mr Duterte. Chief among these are conclusions on what societies should, and should not, do when picking a leader.

To begin with, as I see it, potential leaders must be men of their word; they must say what they mean and mean what they say. Any leader found to be "economical with the truth" , deliberately vague, serially inconsistent, or downright mendacious, should be exposed, and roundly rejected by voters. When political discussions, whether in Parliament or during the hustings, require an army of "fact-checkers" to keep politicians honest, you know the rot has set in.

Anyone aspiring to lead the country should also have a proper sense of the significance of the job they are undertaking. They must know what they can - and can't - do, or what lies within the scope of their office and what does not. They should not abrogate powers to themselves (as some contenders for the elected presidency here in 2011 appeared to do).

Indeed, my greatest fear about Mr Trump stems not just from his megalomania or messianic delusions, but his seeming lack of a sense of the limits of presidential power within the US system, with its checks and balances. He seems to believe that as president, he could do anything he thinks necessary or deems fit. No one seems to have had the temerity to tell him - assuming he would listen - that this is not how a democracy based on the rule of law works.

Would-be leaders like Mr Trump should also not be attacking or dissing key national institutions and their officials, from the judiciary to military, the Federal Reserve or the mainstream media. Voters should hear alarm bells sound when they do. For while government policies and the people who make them are not without flaws or beyond reproach, those who aspire to preside over the system of government should uphold the integrity of the country's key institutions. They should seek to build them up, improve or reform them, not tear them down or tarnish them.

On the flip side, political and civic organisations must do their part to ensure the political process works. They should stand ready to call out flawed characters and alert voters before it is too late, rather than hold off in the name of being politically correct. As the book Hitler: Ascent makes clear, Germany, and the world, would have been spared a tragic catastrophe had key players spoken up forcefully to stop him when they still could.

Political parties which field flawed candidates, unprepared or ill-suited to the role, or who end up having to flee or resign soon after taking office, should rightly be punished at the polls. Indeed, Republican leaders in the US will have much soul-searching to do after the Nov 8 polls over the way they allowed their party to be hijacked, and thereby put their country, and the world, in serious peril.

But most of all, leaders must stand for something. They should have a clear sense of what they would do with the power they seek, rather than see it as an end in itself. They owe it to voters to spell out their plans and say just how they intend to deliver on their promises.

Voters were rightly angry at accounts of how some leaders of Britain's Brexit campaign were left flummoxed when told their side had won the closely fought referendum. "Gosh!" was how one of them is said to have reacted when an aide woke him up to tell him the news. Then, there are the recent revelations that some US Congressmen voted for a controversial Bill to overturn a presidential veto, only to admit soon afterwards that they had not read it or understood fully its import before doing so.

Developments such as these explain why voters in many countries have turned against political elites, who seem not to be driven by any sense of purpose beyond furthering their own careers. The mystery though is that these same angry voters are ready to back the likes of Mr Trump or Mr Johnson, who hail from the same affluent elite and seem to have no wider agenda than promoting themselves. Go figure.

The upshot of all this is clear: Good politics does not happen by chance. Good leaders don't just emerge, ready, able and willing to do the job. Choosing the right leaders is critical to a nation's success, not least one as nascent, disparate and fragile as multiracial Singapore. As events now unfolding show, societies pay a heavy price if they don't do what it takes to get this right.

@theSTeditor

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 09, 2016, with the headline 'Lessons on how not to pick a leader'. Print Edition | Subscribe