Monday, May 09, 2005

AcidFlask saga throws up issues on media control and leadership style 

The AcidFlask saga continues in the mainstream media. Huichieh Loy has the updates.

The Financial Times is the latest to join in the coverage. An excerpt:

Singapore threatens to sue internet dissenter
A threatened libel suit against a blogger by a Singapore government agency has raised concerns among international press freedom groups that the city-state might be cracking down against dissent on the internet.

A*Star, the city-state’s science and technology agency, has set a deadline of Monday for a student who criticised its scholarship system and policies on his web log to make an “unreserved and sincere apology” or else be sued in what would be one of the first such cases in Asia against a blogger...

International press freedom groups are watching the case since blogs could challenge the Singapore government’s tight media controls... But A*Star defended its libel threat, saying it had “the responsibility to protect its reputation and also that of Singapore”...
It certainly looks like A*STAR has been successful in protecting Singapore’s current reputation. One suspects that government leaders are actually pleased with that.

The New Paper also joined in the fray yesterday with two articles — “White knight, Black knight” and “Forget wimps, I prefer women” — focusing on Philip Yeo, chairman of A*STAR.

This line from the first article grabbed my attention:

”You can call me names,” he said. “I don’t care. Just don’t criticise my work... I will bomb you flat.”
Is he saying that he cannot take criticism? If he “bombs” people who criticise his work, what kind of feedback is he likely to get, especially from subordinates? Is he likely to get the critical feedback necessary for him to learn from his mistakes? Or to avoid making them?

Or perhaps the question should be: how well does he learn from his mistakes? If not well, how effective can he be as a leader of a research organisation? And what kind of a culture is he — intentionally or not — promoting in his organisation — an organisation dedicated to an activity that is, by its very nature, all about making mistakes and learning from them?

And if he cannot be an effective leader in his organisation, or promote the right culture, why is the Singapore government still keeping him in charge of it?

But don’t get me wrong. I think Philip Yeo is actually a great leader — if he were a battalion commander leading soldiers into battle. He is a doer who has no patience with dawdling. In many situations — like in the heat of a battle — decisiveness must take precedence over debate and dissent.

But not every situation is like that. In many other situations, analysis and subtlety may need to take precedence over decisiveness. Different situations require different kinds of leadership.

Dr Kevin Tan puts it well, as cited by The New Paper:

Political observer Dr Kevin Tan said Mr Yeo’s style could be seen as loud and colourful.

“Yes, we need leaders in the top echelon who dare to make the decision. In that sense, Mr Yeo’s spirit is commendable. But his style can be grating and not go well with others,” said Dr Tan, an expert in constitution and government laws.

“So should we have more Philip Yeos? Yes, in terms of his spirit but not his style.”
There is also this comment by Zulkifli Baharudin, a former Nominated MP, at the end of the other article in The New Paper:

“We should not be dogged by kiasu mentality and avoid controversies. We must look at the net benefit. If they are doing much good work for the nation, we must try to accommodate the personality and style that comes with the man.”
True, we need to look at the net benefit, but we must also bear in mind that a leader’s personality and style plays a large part in determining that net benefit. They are not independent of each other.

The Singapore government has to seriously reflect on whether it is getting the right people for the right jobs. Especially at a time when it is soliciting opinions and ideas from ordinary citizens and promoting inclusiveness, it needs to think carefully about how it uses leaders who talk about bombing critics, both for the sake of the organisations involved and for Singapore society as a whole.


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