The ethics of winning an election

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
My View - The Sun Daily
April 10, 2018

DISCERNING students of leadership are convinced that the "election campaign" began long before the dissolution of Parliament last week. The hint is not hard to find. It is most apparent with the change in leadership style. Earlier, we were accustomed to being bombarded with the word "transformation" (think ETP, GTP, TN50), but of late it is something different. The rhetoric may be similar but what is translated on the ground is hardly the same, be it consciously or otherwise.

Slowly but surely the style of leadership has taken a major twist to what looks like a "transactional" model. So what is the difference?

For one it is not necessarily transformational in nature, in fact it can be the contrary. In this case, the model is often regarded as "inferior", rather passive and inefficient because it can recede into the "laissez-faire" type. Therefore it is less preferred except for the purposes of some quick short-term gains.

By definition transactional leadership is more commonly regarded as one that seeks to maintain the status quo rather than change, let alone a transformational one. It is often routine- and procedural-based, locked down on existing rules with a business-as-usual mindset. It is not known as being proactive or creative. And more about authority, supervision and command-and-control focused on "finding" fault and deviation from the existing norms instead of empowering the followers. Indeed transactional leaders are keen to promote "compliance" among the followers through the use of both reward and punishment. This enhances the culture of fear and even blind loyalty or herd mentality since most are averse to risk-taking thus preferring to play it safe. Hence maintaining the status quo.

As such the leadership style works on motivating the followers by appealing to their self-interest while asserting the leadership authorities to get the "transaction" done as a measure of performance. The level of performance will then be the measure of reward and/or punishment depending on what suits the interest of the leaders. The analogy that best describes the situation is: "I scratch your back, you scratch mine." If either one fails to live up to what was agreed then the transaction lapses. It is therefore easy to see why and how leaders switch to the transactional mode when election is in the air where power becomes the most decisive means to an end. After all transactional leadership style is most suited for short-term, project-based activities (as in political elections) where the use of "money" acts as a very convenient form of medium to facilitate and forge a transaction in exchange for votes.

It is therefore not a coincidence that in almost all election-related speeches or activities some amount of "money" is being mentioned or offered "dressed" in various forms (perks, projects, positions) for various reasons – right or wrong. At times it is more directly "given out" to those purported as "needy" in full view of the media with the giver smiling away at the camera rather than sympathising with the recipients. There is also no shortage of billboards and advertisements depicting picture of "cash" as some form of incentives promoted by political parties.

What is sad about all this kind of "transaction" is the pressure to stay beholden to the "giver" taking away the democratic rights of the "receiver". Some dub it as "voter buying". Sadder still is when this breeds a culture of dependency and subtly corruption latched to the perks, projects and positions as a form of unethical political favours.

The concern for such subtleties is heightened in today's era of sophisticated technology, when transactional leadership is easier to abuse away from the scrutiny of the public eyes. Firewalled by the specially designed programmes (even laws) most "transactions" can be clandestinely protected and executed. This seems to be at the very heart of what is plaguing modern democracy as witnessed in some recent elections involving democratically matured nations. That leaves a gaping question as to where developing and less democratic countries stand in the practice of the same beginning with the electoral process.

To what extent will the all-encompassing "transformation" previously promoted remain ethical is the crux of the question that continues to be asked. More so taking the perspective of James MacGregor Burns who replaced the "transactional" leadership model with the "transformational" version. He defined the latter as "leaders and followers racing each other to a higher level of morality and motivation" in achieving common goals. Unlike the transactional approach, it is not based on a "give and take" relationship but governed by integrity and ethical values which are of absolute importance as in all manner of elections. Because it will ultimately colour the kind of democratic principles and processes shaping the "real" future of the nation. Our duty is to ascertain that elections are ethically won before they can be regarded as truly transformational.