Our Compass: Who are the moral leaders for these times?

November 27, 2013

Our Compass

In each issue, the editors of Turning Points invite contributors to explore one of the big questions of the year. For 2013 we asked Elif Shafak, Salam Fayyad, Liao Yiwu, Rowan Williams, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Mata Amritanandamayi Devi: Who are the moral leaders for these times?

Elif Shafak — A Turkish author whose most recent novel is “The Forty Rules of Love.”

Few people can connect with fellow human beings as beautifully and powerfully as Rumi did. Born in the 13th century in Afghanistan, he spent most of his life in Turkey and wrote in Persian. A man of myriad cultures, his writings cut across national, religious and gender boundaries.I was in college when I first came across Rumi’s poetry. As a leftist, feminist, anarcho-pacifist devouring the Western classics, I had no interest in Islamic mysticism. But I loved books, and books opened up doors that I would not normally knock on. One of them led to Rumi.

Rumi was many things at once: a poet, teacher, lover and father, but also a great storyteller. He celebrated music, dance and creativity, all of which he regarded as bridges to the divine. His worldview had love at its center. Instead of fearing punishment in hell or expecting to be rewarded in heaven, he focused on the here and now. Amid chaos and bloodshed he radiated calmness and compassion, and formed a center where people of all faiths felt welcome.

Rumi was a man of words as much as a man of silence. He was an orator who did not preach. He was a believer who did not pass judgment on those who did not share his beliefs. He was a scholar and yet knew that one could learn more from the heart than from the mind. He celebrated diversity and interconnectivity, standing in stark contrast to those who claim that Islam is essentially incompatible with Western culture.

This peaceful, life-affirming and inward-looking voice from the Islamic world needs to be heard more loudly today than ever before. If we know about the terrorists who gunned down women and children in Kenya but have heard little about Rumi — in other words, if bigotry has a louder voice than peace — then we are doomed.

When Rumi died, Muslims, Christians and Jews attended his funeral. How many of us can dream of such an end? So many of us live in mental ghettos, surrounded by the comfort of sameness. But people like Rumi remind us that stereotypes and dogma are products of our minds. Behind all appearances, we are, and have always been, one.

Salam Fayyad — The former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority

As Nelson Mandela fades from view, his legacy shines brighter than ever. The man who devoted his life to the universal cause of justice remains a beacon of hope for all those who long for freedom.

Along with the rest of the world, Palestinians watched Mandela become a universal symbol of the struggle for self-determination and human equality. His persistent defiance exemplified the immense power of nonviolence in resisting the entrapment of victimhood and overcoming the burdens of injustice.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords. As a Palestinian who has always felt empowered by Mandela’s indelible mark on the story of human progress, I feel that his legacy is especially pertinent at this juncture — 20 years after an act of great political courage that sadly failed to deliver on its promise of a just and lasting peace.

We venerate Mandela for the transformative message he carried with boundless magnanimity — a message of unity and brotherhood in the face of division and bigotry; of peaceful transformation and justice in the presence of senseless violence and oppression. His message awakened the world to the fundamental principle espoused by Martin Luther King Jr. — that “true peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

The presence of justice requires that the fundamental asymmetry in the balance of power between occupier and occupied be redressed. Twenty years after it gained full Palestinian recognition of its right to exist in peace and security, Israel should reciprocate by recognizing our right to a fully sovereign state. It should be prepared to accept an internationally mandated date for ending its occupation, and a mutually agreed-upon path for getting there. In the interim, justice also requires cessation of all practices that undermine our right to live with dignity on our land, or impede our quest for freedom and justice, as we persevere in our effort to build our state and deepen our readiness for statehood.

A lifetime of indignities taught Mandela that “there is no passion to be found playing small — in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” If his story teaches us anything, it is that a people denied the right of full human equality will never accept a life that offers anything less.

Liao Yiwu — A Chinese poet in exile and the author of “For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison.” He lives in Berlin.

My moral authority is Confucius. He can be considered the forefather of political exiles.

Confucius was born into humble circumstances. He experienced many difficulties, but kept persevering despite all setbacks and eventually became a master known for learning and integrity. He founded a school and had more than 3,000 students, 72 of whom were outstanding disciples.

Confucius also rose to high political office in the state of Lu. There he showed results in the first year of his administration; in the second year there was an abundant harvest, and in the third, honesty pervaded society. But soon, a neighboring state, fearing that Lu would become too rich and strong, dispatched spies to spread rumors about Confucius. More wickedly, they sent a theater troupe with 80 beautiful women to seduce Lu state officials. Rulers and subjects of Lu forgot all about good governance while indulging in sex and leisure. Confucius’ reform program was subverted and he came close to being assassinated. The sage fled that very night and remained in exile for 14 years.

Confucius’ entourage was large. It reminds one of the myriad followers of the Dalai Lama. The difference is that after fleeing Tibet, the Dalai Lama put down roots in India and established a government-in-exile. Confucius led his followers in a vagabond’s life. They traveled to more than a dozen states and did not settle in any one.

It was a dark era, life was rough, and the outcast Confucius was confused about his fate. He carried the fortunetelling “I Ching,” or “Book of Changes,” with him on long journeys, analyzing the trigrams to avoid trouble and seek good fortune. In his declining years, he began annotating and amending the book, defining the version that has been handed down to us.

In the years since my imprisonment for actions connected to the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989, I’ve used his version of the “Book of Changes” to analyze the trigrams. Innumerable times I have met with the compiler, Confucius, as if we were in the same situation and shared the same language.

Confucius said: “Time passes like a flowing river, never to return.” I previously didn’t understand this statement, and asked myself: If time passes like a flowing river never to return, then what is the significance of “homeland” for a political exile like me? Is it in the “Book of Changes,” or in the “Records of the Grand Historian” of Sima Qian, these famous books of Chinese history?

All political rulers fall eventually. One’s native land may become one’s enemy state for a time, and if one stays in exile long enough the erstwhile enemy state may become one’s adopted home. Then what is the ultimate meaning of exile and return?

After 14 years in exile, the scarred old outcast Confucius was permitted to return to his homeland. He was almost 70, declining like a dying candle, and posed no threat to anyone. His political opponents had died off. His star disciple, Yan Hui, had died of hunger; his most devoted follower, Zi Lu, had died in battle. Confucius thought, what do I have left?

He felt disheartened about his home and country. In his final three years, he concentrated on study and collecting ancient books, and left us a rich cultural heritage.

On his last day, the cold penetrating to his bones, he whispered:

Mount Tai will crumble.The temple will collapse.The sage will wither.

More than a century later, his follower Mencius said: “If Confucius wasn’t born, the long night would have no bright lamp.”

Rowan Williams — Formerly the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, now chancellor of the University of South Wales.

Dag Hammarskjold, the second secretary general of the United Nations, represented a coming together of the active and the contemplative. He recognized that public office is not about anxiously conserving status or winning arguments. He was sharply aware of the shadows in his own motivation, and confronted them patiently and remorselessly in his private writing. He expected others to share his own careful self-reflection, and used the platform of the office of secretary general to prompt this sort of questioning. And he kept his own spiritual discipline alive in the most demanding circumstances, while maintaining strict public discretion: he did not need to flaunt his religious commitment to win public applause.

This is the picture of an adult politician in a not very adult world. One could say that he expected too much of professional politicians and all those whose job it was to defend local interests. But he offered a perspective without which all politics is empty. His work and words declare that it is possible to see the world with what could best be called creative detachment, and without self-pity.

Contemplating Hammarskjold’s life, I am left with two uncomfortable thoughts. The first is that this is what I should have been trying to realize in my own ventures into public life, and how profoundly I didn’t manage it. The second: a truly terrifying amount of public rhetoric assumes that we are both incapable and frightened of this level of honesty of seeing, speaking and feeling. Yet in private, most of us are capable of seeing at least something of this, and acting on it. Why is our public language so corrupt and corrupting?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky — The former head of the Yukos oil company, currently an inmate of a Russian prison colony in northern Karelia.

For me, my mother has always been an undeniable moral authority.

She has not had an easy life. But then again, Russia has always been a land of hard destinies. Her father, a Bolshevik, was kicked out of the Communist Party for marrying my grandmother, who was considered a “class enemy” because of her noble background.

My mother’s childhood coincided with the war years. Evacuation. Cold and damp living conditions in barracks. Tuberculosis. In those days it was virtually impossible for a civilian to get treatment for this deadly disease in Russia — all the antibiotics in the country were being sent to the front lines for the wounded.

But by a miracle, she survived.

She had always dreamed of becoming a doctor, but ended up having to work at a factory instead. In all, she spent some 40 years there, in practically the same department the entire time. That is where she met my father. They have been together for 55 years.

When she was 45, my mother learned that she had advanced cancer. The hazardous working conditions at the factory had taken their toll. Extremely serious surgery. Several times. Chemotherapy. Then more of the same.

Again, luck was on her side — my mother entered a long remission.

Life was hard. The question of what we were going to eat for our next meal may not have come up daily, but it was always there, nevertheless. Standing in line to get ration coupons, then standing in line again for food.

Not once in my life do I remember my mother complaining or falling into despair. I can only imagine what must have been going on inside her. But on the outside there was always a smile and a head proudly held high.

My mother is now nearly 80 years old and again facing cancer and more surgeries. Her son has been in jail for 10 years, and there is a high probability that we are never going to see each other outside of a prison again.

But my mother does not give in.

Journeys, dozens of visitations. And always with her head held high.

My parents never told me what they thought of the Soviet system. They did not want to see me suffer the fate of a dissident. Only once, after I had gone to work for the Young Communist League, did my mother tell me that she felt ashamed for me. I did not understand her then. But I understood later, when I was standing on the barricades in front of the White House in 1991.

Mother, you will never have to feel ashamed of me again.

Mata Amritanandamayi Devi — Hindu guru from India, known as Amma (Mother) and revered by her followers as the “hugging saint.”

Unfortunately, moral leadership has been in short supply in governments around the world this year — a time of continuing wars, increasing violence, natural disasters often caused by our own greed, and political intractability. Happily, however, there are people who cannot look at someone lacking food, clothing, shelter, education or medical care without trying to help. These are today’s real moral leaders; their compassion warms my heart and fills me with optimism for the future.

Not long ago, a young boy handed me an envelope containing 300 euros. He said he wanted it to be used to help the orphans at our ashram. I asked him to keep the money, which he had won in a music competition, but he refused.

Two weeks later, his little sister came to me with an envelope containing her ice-cream pocket money. She told her parents: “I eat ice cream all the time. This time I want to give to the orphans, like my brother.” The sister’s compassion was awoken by her brother’s moral integrity.

During the government shutdown in the United States, a man mowed the lawn around the Lincoln Memorial as a service to his country. He was a moral leader. The universe is like a vast net; if one corner is shaken, the vibration pervades the whole.

Following the Japan earthquake of 2011, in the face of extreme danger, scientists and technicians at the nuclear plant in Fukushima remained behind to secure the reactors. Even today the plant is not fully stabilized, and some of these individuals continue to serve there despite the risks. If not for their willingness to stay, millions of people could be affected.

We are all capable of such selflessness. To awaken compassion to its full capacity, we should strive to see our own divine essence in everyone and everything around us. If we start tending to the poor and sorrowful with the same alacrity with which we tend to ourselves — trying to feel their pain as our own — our sense of unity will awaken and, along with it, compassion.

In 2014, may the leaders of every nation remember that they belong to their citizens. May they see that this world is like a flower of which every nation is a petal. May they see that the well-being of each petal affects the life and beauty of the whole.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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