On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

ACCEPT responsibility and apologise. These two actions seem foreign, or, to put it stronger, alien, to our Malaysian leadership culture.

It is exceedingly difficult, almost impossible, for those in leadership positions to be willing to take the rap, admit to a wrong­doing or rectify an error.

And we are not just talking about politicians with their over-inflated egos who refuse to budge from their positions.

Even in the corporate world, the NGO fraternity, and also the religious institutions, few would bravely own up to mistakes, or concede that they could be wrong. Some simply choose to remain slaves to their own ideologies even if the whole world has changed.

Everyone makes mistakes. We are mere mortals after all. Decisions have to be made daily and we all know that not all decisions come out right. But even if we make bad decisions, we can always learn from such experiences to improve ourselves.

Elected representatives are humans too, even if some of us may wonder about their so-called human traits, or lack thereof.

Like everyone else, they will have lapses in judgment. In the heat of the moment, and when they face enormous pressure to respond, they can sometimes make remarks that will get them into deep trouble.

We have seen so many examples in our Dewan Rakyat, and while they can always get away by “withdrawing” their offensive remarks, the recalcitrant ones probably use this tactic to keep themselves in the news.

The astute politician, however, knows that he should never say anything in a fit of anger. In fact, he can always rely on the phrase, “I have no comment to make at this moment”, until things cool down.

But such politicians are rare. Most of them not only want to say something, but also want to share their instant wisdom on social media so that it can spread far and wide, whatever the consequences.

Once posted, there is no turning back. Even if one were to delete an offensive post, someone would have captured that moment in a screen-grab and make it go viral. Even if you are truly pissed off about some issue, it may be wiser to sleep over it before making your views public.

Let’s make this clear. If you tweet or post on your own Facebook account, you cannot blame anyone but yourself. You cannot even blame the press for misquoting you, since it is all there in black and white.

Even the ordinary people have learnt that an offensive or seditious post can have serious consequences because social media platforms are public.

You can set your privacy settings but the moment it is published, don’t be surprised if groups of people turn up at a police station to lodge a report against you. From Mr Nobody, you will become an instant celebrity.

Actually, if the brickbats start to fly, the most noble thing one can do is to own up, admit it was done in a moment of weakness, apologise and move on. Simply deleting the post after the fact can be construed as an admission on one’s part.

Those in prominent positions who now embrace the power of social media should take some lessons about crisis management.

Malaysian leaders, in all spheres of life from political to corporate, need to brush up their skills on how to manage crisis in today’s world. One has to understand social media ethics and manage public relations quite differently in a high-paced world.

For example, if a CEO learns that the products his company makes has a slight problem that may necessitate a recall, he can no longer afford to take his own sweet time to make a decision.

If someone posts about it on social media, he has to respond just as fast. He may have to immediately say sorry even if his lawyers tell him that saying sorry may create liability issues.

I like what life coach Audrey Marlene has to say about situations like this.

“We all like to feel important and have others have a high opinion of us. Some more than others develop an over-inflated view of themselves. These tendencies act to wrap us in what many call ‘denial’, which creates a false perception of self and the inability to accept the truth about us,” she writes.

“It then becomes painful to accept that mistakes are possible and when we make them the first reaction is to point the finger at someone else. We refuse to think objectively and accept any involvement for our actions. Taking responsibility can be a very painful thing to do.”

She goes on to say: “The inability to accept responsibility for our actions and behaviours is a result of insecurity. By taking responsibility one feels they are admitting to being weak, powerless, or an opportunity to lose the respect of others. It may cause one to feel they will lose their sense of value and importance.”

But until more Malaysian leaders learn to accept responsibility for their actions, they should be thankful that we Malaysians are quite a forgiving lot.

During Hari Raya, the “maaf zahir dan batin” practice is so wonderfully enshrined. All religions also emphasise forgiveness and tolerance. To err is human, and to forgive is divine, as we were taught from young.

Taking responsibility and admitting one’s mistake is not a sign of weakness. It can earn you even more respect from the wider public.

Only the insecure and unreasonable diehard followers will tell you to stand your ground, even when it is obviously shaky.

At the end of the day, accepting responsibility is a measure of one’s self-worth and the true sign of strength and courage, as one commentator puts it.

In Malaysia, we have seen how difficult it is for people to own up even if they are caught in the act, so to say.

A politician can be caught on video, not once but a few times, for the most scandalous acts but can still get away by denying it. And there will always be enough fans to swear that the person in the video cannot possibly be their idol.

The same line has been copied by other politicians and, more recently, by one preacher.

A lawyer can be filmed engaging in a questionable deal but he can get away by stating that there may be a physical resemblance, and the person may even sound like him, but of course it is not him.

This nation needs leaders who embrace humility and celebrate diversity. We need leaders who can see things objectively. And we also want them to be human and know how to say sorry.

Even if they slip up, no one will think too badly of them if they admit their errors and are sincere in their repentance. They should not try to wriggle themselves out of sticky situations or, worse, look for scapegoats.

Japanese linguist Namiko Abe said that “apologising is considered a virtue in Japan. Apologies show that a person takes responsibility and avoids blaming others. When one apologises and shows one’s remorse, the Japanese are more willing to forgive.”

Author Brian Koslow wrote, “the more you are willing to accept responsibility for your actions, the more credibility you will have.”

It is Chinese New Year and I wish all readers Gong Xi Fa Cai. I seek your forgiveness if anything said in this article has hurt anyone. I write simply to remind ourselves to learn to take responsibility, to apologise and to forgive. These are noble traits for all of us.