WHEN Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi chaired his first Cabinet meeting, on assuming the Prime Minister’s post, he had a message for his ministers – he would defend them if they were right.
But if they were wrong, they would have to fend off the criticisms, sort out the mess and bear the consequences themselves.
It was a simple leadership style – unlike that of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who led the government for 20 years with his strong shadow on almost everyone. Pak Lah was going to let his ministers have more space.
But the price is that if the person fouls up, then the minister concerned would have to go, so as not to burden the Government.
So, when Abdullah accepted the resignation of Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek as the Health Minister last week, it came as no surprise.
The news of the controversial sex DVD came quickly and the issue was not allowed to drag on. It ended just as quickly.
Within 48 hours of Dr Chua’s admission, it was all over. He made his confession, had his final words and exited swiftly.
By this week, Dr Chua would no longer be news. That is the harsh reality of politics and a veteran like Dr Chua is well aware of this.
One week, as they say, is a long time in politics. The media moves on to new issues and follow-up news are relegated to the back pages or not used at all.
But the issue of leadership qualities, in a general manner, would be discussed. Dr Chua will go down in history as the first Cabinet minister to be caught in such a controversy.
But he has also set a benchmark. With his forthright admission, he has sent a message to other politicians who have not been caught – you have to quit too if you have been caught with your hand in the cookie jar.
Adultery is one thing but worse crimes include corruption and stealing land belonging to others.
Dr Chua has paid a heavy price for his actions. There is no need for any witchhunting exercise, such as trying to locate the woman implicated in the DVD. Let it go.
But the lesson to be learned from here is that capability, optimism and strength are not enough in politics. The person can be forceful, dynamic and self-deprecating but society expects more from their leaders.
They don’t expect their leaders to be celibate but values count, which must be difficult for many traditional Asian male leaders.
The late president Sukarno of Indonesia was well known for his sexual passion; he was reportedly filmed and blackmailed by the Russians.
On a trip to Moscow, he was said to have befriended a few stewardesses, all KGB spies, who later seduced him in a hotel room. After he was secretly filmed, he was taken to watch the film.
But the delighted Sukarno asked for copies of the film and asked that it be screened in Indonesia, as he expected his countrymen to be proud of his sexual exploits with the Russian women.
In Thailand, it is a common practice for the rich, and even poor, to have second wives, or mistresses.
For Muslim politicians, the religion allows them to have four wives, so it is not an issue.
But times have changed. Even in the United States, Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani is struggling with such problems.
He has made New York a safe city and demonstrated crisis management skills during Sept 11 but his three failed marriages and apparent adultery continue to dog him.
Former US President Bill Clinton, who was caught in a string of sex scandals, said in an interview that he has learnt not to judge people too harshly after his downfall, adding that he understood the pain he and his family had to go through in those difficult times.
Unfair as it may sound, politicians find themselves judged on a different basis, including by those who don’t practise what they demand of their leaders.
But that’s the price to pay when one stands for public office, fair or otherwise.