What is necessary for the making of a sound politician?

June 09, 2022 10:07
Photo: Reuters

Now, some posit that a necessary ingredient of a genuinely profound public servant – is their devotion to the people. In jurisdictions where the “people” are equated with the results of popular, majoritarian (or constrained majoritarian) votes, the upshot is that a democratically elected government, purportedly accountable to the public, is thus devoted to the people. We may not agree with this proposition, in light of recent events that have rocked many an established democracy – but this is at the very least the view held by many who are self-anointed, diehard apologists for democratic puritanism.

Then there are jurisdictions where the “people” are equated with the ruling political elite – in this quasi-circular argument, the people ground the normative rights and political authority of said elite, because the elite are sourced from, and source their corresponding legitimacy, from the people. Here, the public servant must be devoted towards the elite – and in their so doing – vicariously contribute their fair share towards the public good. Of course, the composition of the elite is often opaque, the product of a mixture of obscurantist rules and a fundamental dearth of need or appetite for transparency. So we culminate at an end-product where the politician is beholden to himself.

I would posit that devotion towards one’s people, as defined in either of the two senses above, could amount to what is more colloquially referred to as loyal subservience. Subservience to the popular will – in the former case, amongst the masses; in the latter, amongst a select few with access to the upper echelons. Loyalty is necessary for one to be a competent and adequate public servant, on three grounds: first, public servants must orient themselves towards a higher goal, as opposed to their own careerist objectives and narrowly defined self-interests; second, public servants, eponymously, must serve the public – as opposed to an arcane constitution, an anachronistic set of rules, or, indeed, puppet masters who live and die in the shadows; finally, public servants wield substantial influence over the public – with great power comes great responsibility towards the subjects of said power. Hence, to be motivated out of concern for one’s people is not an optional bonus, but a clause of necessity that must firmly bind any and all granted the privilege to govern.

Yet we should not stop there. Yet we must not stop there. Devotion is necessary, but by no means sufficient. We have seen many a constituency around the world where loyal sycophants – bent on bootlicking their way to the top – have come to flood the ranks of governments. These sycophants claim to be devoted towards their people, yet are often merely exploiting their performative gestures of ebullience and feigned sincerity to advance their personal goals. Indeed, many more have been found to engage in graft; some in embezzlement, and a few here and there in the most intense backstabbing through manipulation of public institutions. We could ill-afford to let these ‘loyal’ goons come to run any polity – especially polities of substantial national importance. Loyalty, as married to the dual notions of devotion and commitment to one’s public, is a necessary but insufficient condition for someone to become a sound public servant.

There are a few more requirements. The first, of course, is the possession of little grey cells (Poirot is very fond of this phrase) – we need folks who can govern with competence, understanding, and access to a modicum of wisdom and adaptiveness in face of adversities. Intellectual profundity and eruditeness are too much to ask for these days, but at the very least we must not settle for anything less than a functioning and walking homo sapiens. After all, that’s how we got through World Wars 1, 2, the Cold War, and then some – is it not obvious that our survival has largely been down to the unyielding efforts of intelligent, wise, sagacious men holding the fort? (Absolutely not – I spoke in jest only!) In any case, having a decent level of understanding of this curious entity called facts, paired with a globally informed mindset with an appreciation of one’s weaknesses and defects as compared with one’s peers, is a prerequisite for accurate diagnosis and grappling with problems. Elsewise, all talk of solutions would remain futile and vacuous.

The second, then, is for one to possess the resolve to set aside short-term personal advances, in favour of medium- to longer-term societal gains. This is easier said than done. Not everyone’s like Gandhi or Mother Teresa (both controversial in their own rights, but here assumed to be broad paragons of virtue). I am not here to extoll the merits of samaritanism and giving up all one has – after all, not even Effective Altruists would advocate that. But is it too much to ask for public servants who reorient their actions towards the public, as opposed to their friends, best mates, and random colleagues in their alma mater and public schools? Is that too avaricious, too bold an ask? I certainly hope not.

Governance is a complex art – and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to an easy career. For the latter, one could always opt to become a writer. Just look at yours truly. I jest again.

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Assistant Professor, HKU