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Those who lead for the few cause perpetual turmoil

Every so often you have to look at the world around you and wonder what on earth is wrong with human beings.

There seems to be turmoil everywhere. Massive public demonstrations, often turning violent, are occurring in every corner. Hong Kong, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Lebanon, Spain, Iran, Iraq, India, Thailand – is that a long enough list? All those nations are facing raging unrest right now. 

At any moment in human history, this seems to be the par for the course. There will be some nations enjoying some peace and quiet; and some others on fire. Those at peace will often find it is short-lived, and they too face petrol bombs and looting when their time comes. Those in turmoil often take a break before returning to daily battles on the streets. Why, though? Why can’t humans live in peace together?

I wrote about this on this page five years ago; and I fear I may be doing the same five years from now. It’s all about leadership.

To repeat: “There are islands of peace in the world, where people have learnt to co-exist in peace, share resources, divide wealth without resorting to bombs and guns. If it can happen, why doesn’t it happen everywhere? Who would not choose peace over endless strife and danger?

The answer: those who don’t choose peace are precisely those who have no stake. When you have invested in your society, built something in it, have a family you care about, have hopes for the future – you don’t throw a petrol-soaked rag to set that society ablaze. But if you have nothing, and have no hope of anything, and staying alive is not much more attractive than dying…then all the bets are off.”

In other words: when leaders lead for all and construct societies and organizations that work for everyone, peace is given a chance. When they systematically alienate parts of their populace, oppress them or sideline them, they create the conditions in which unrest will be a constant.

Hong Kong, the latest surprise, is burning because its young people have taken matters into their own hands. They are using modern technology to conduct regular hit-and-run demonstrations, following the fighting philosophy of one of the city-state’s icons, Bruce Lee: “Be Water.” Hong Kong may be one of the world’s richest societies – but that counts for nothing if inclusivity is not perceived and faith in a common future is not shared.

If leaders impose oppressive policies or skewed economic opportunities on a section of their people, they will only ignite perpetual unrest. Violent crackdowns don’t work – if they did the Israel-Palestine conflict would have been snuffed out decades ago through military force. It wasn’t, and won’t be, until a genuine spirit of conciliation emerges. “Teaching them a lesson” doesn’t work. It just prolongs the tit-for-tat violence which then transcends generations.

I wrote in 2014: “Wise people have known this through the ages. They have understood the need to take everyone – everyone – along, and to be fair and equitable. Unfortunately the wise are not the many. Too much of the world is led by chest-thumping, self-centred, narrow-minded bigots who can’t see a big picture. They can see only a world in which they must maximize the gains for themselves, their families, their clans, their tribes, their religions – and to hell with ‘those others.’”

Good leaders see beyond their narrow circles and the primitive bigotries of their people. They bring people together; they see the common gain that peace brings; they build institutions that are fair and inclusive. A sustained growth momentum only comes if people are in it together. Essential healthcare, education and economic and political opportunity must become available to the great mass of people, not just the privileged elite. Societies advance and stay peaceful when everyone is given equal opportunity to advance. Otherwise, they create a pool of seething resentment, waiting for a spark.

As voters, we must learn to beware of leaders who poison the well of national discourse. Those who work with veiled or open threats; who use power to enrich some selectively; who are nakedly bigoted. Those leaders are not going to help you in the long run, even if they are “yours.” You may feel they are protecting your interests, but they are actually setting you up for decades of conflict. Your children will inherit the problem caused by today’s poison.

(Sunday Nation, 22 December 2019)

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