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Our political class is okay, let's cut them some slack

Kuk tried his best to fend off allegations of impropriety and nepotism that involved his wife, son, and daughter.

By Allan Jacob

Published: Tue 3 Sep 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 3 Sep 2019, 10:50 PM

Constant scrutiny can take a toll on mortal leaders who lack nerves of steel or a tough hide for criticism. The masses, both on social media and on the ground are demanding to a fault as they engage in moral combat. People want public figures to mouth the best lines that they want to hear and don a mask of 'values' that makes them so invaluable and indispensable to the world.
But here's the truth. Hypocrisy is written into leadership. Leaders who are often in the public eye are also poor keepers of secrets - they often let it slip through their behaviour and statements.
Take the case of South Korean justice minister nominee and the darling of the country's Left, Cho Kuk, who was grilled for 11 hours by journalists on Tuesday. The session stretched through the night and ended in the morning, reports said.
Kuk tried his best to fend off allegations of impropriety and nepotism that involved his wife, son, and daughter. At the end of the press conference Kuk reluctantly admitted that he was wrong but would still stay in the fray for the job of justice minister. "I am deeply sorry and apologise over the fact that I was not strict towards my family," Kuk said.
I marvelled at the way he took tough questions from reporters. Even US President Donald Trump, the global leader who tops our collective hate-list, does press conferences with journalists but never admits to mistakes or errors in judgement in his quest to Make America Great Again. He lords over a family presidency that makes America its footstool for some easy business deals.
Trump's longest press conference was on February 16, 2017. It lasted 77 minutes but that was not a patch on the marathon 11 hours put in by Kuk on Tuesday. That conference was peppered with 'sit down', 'be quiet', 'wait, wait', 'I know who you are,' 'you are rude,' 'the reporting is fake,' while Kuk was almost apologetic on Tuesday when he said: "I have not been thorough with issues related to my daughter and other issues that surround me. I think I was complacent."
Kuk and Trump may be a study in contrasts which makes me wonder how leaders handle the pressure without losing their cool. The exacting standards imposed upon them by citizens and netizens can be cumbersome - it's less than human to err or make mistakes. Every action, every word and tweet that goes out to millions of followers are dissected; opinions shared, retweeted, and explained.
Most of these opinion-makers populate social media, living far away from their countries of origin. They rustle up myriad solutions and apply salves to problems that afflict real people.
They seem to have their ears to the ground even if it has shifted from under their feet. The economy is the issue these days and there are fears that the world could be staring at a recession.  Demagogues are taking over the world, we are told, and trade wars could see the end of the world. But those indulging in this dark art of politics also have a limited shelf life, I tell myself. They too shall pass. The question I'd like to pose is this: did our best leaders this past century possess the moral rigour to be shining lights of governance, to be elevated and feted as they rose to statesmanship? The answer is no. We never knew much about them, and much of what we know came years after they were gone, like Josef Stalin's Gulags. Some of our legendary leaders never faced such high levels of media and public scrutiny even as they introduced policies of extermination. But history is written by the winners, and they can rest in peace.
Therefore, Winston Churchill, who was a great war prime minister of Britain, turned a blind eye to the Bengal famine in India which saw three million perish in 1943. It wasn't caused simply by drought but by wartime inflation, speculative buying, and panic hoarding. This made food expensive for the poor, according to Amartya Sen, the noted economist. Rice was diverted for the British war effort because Churchill thought Indians "were breeding like rabbits." Josef Stalin, the Soviet strongman, sent some 18 million to Gulags, or forced labour camps, from the 1920s until his death in 1953. Millions never returned. Chinese leader Mao Zedong's the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), a social engineering project, also claimed several million lives.
Hitler's Holocaust, on the other hand, gassed six million people, but he was on the losing side of the new bold order that emerged from the ruins of World War II. John F. Kennedy was considered a winning American president, though he blinked during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. American history, however, thinks otherwise and made him a hero, more so after his assassination. The Kennedy family called the shots and meddled in affairs of state just like Trump's does now but the Kennedys remain the country's first family for all generations.
Scrutiny of leaders has changed over the decades; it is now intense and aggressive, with a moral dimension. I think we demonise our current political class way too much. Perhaps it's time to cut them some slack. At least, they are not mass murderers who became winners and made us believe in some made-up truth.
- allan@khaleejtimes.com

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