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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On Lee Kuan Yew's Crocodile Tears

"We should not underestimate the importance of organized and ritualistic follower response behaviour because its antithesis was probably the most potent political action of disaffected followers in Singapore and Malaysia in the 1960s. The riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969 — causing 196 deaths — sent shockwaves through the peninsular and there were also racially motivated riots in Singapore in July and September 1964, ln his biography, Lee blames these on a propaganda campaign by the Malay leader Ja'afar Albar and his mouthpiece, the newspaper Utusan Melayu, which reported speeches in which he argued that the Malays were discriminated against by the largely Chinese People's Action Party.

I would suggest that Lee was assisted by observing an important form of symbolic action of the Malaysian leader - the Tunku: like Mahathir later, he responded to the 1964 riots by dramatically breaking down in tears in public. The abandonment of Asian social norms that require tight restraint on emotional expression by losing emotional control is a type of symbolic action that seems to characterize Asian leaders and makes crying an effective communication technique. At the end of the merger between Singapore and Malaysia, Lee gave a televised press conference:

And I would like to add one . . . You see, this is a moment of . . . every time we look back on this moment when we signed this agreement which severed Singapore from Malaysia, it will be a moment of anguish. For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life... you see, the whole of my adult lile I have believed in Merger and the unity of these two territories. You know, it's a people, connected by geography, economics, and ties of kinship .. . Would you mind if we stop for a while?

At this point: ‘As if to prove his anguish, he broke down and wept before the cameras, and the press conference had to be postponed for 15 minutes to let him recover his composure. The Tunku later expressed surprise at the TV tears and remarked: "I don't know why Mr Lee acted like that . . . He was quite pleased about it". Evidently, then, there was some questioning as to the authenticity of‘ these tears and although taken us a genuine instance of being overwhelmed by emotion, it may have been Lee's awareness of the powerful symbolic effect that led him to emulate the act of breaking with cultural constraints on the display of emotion. I will discuss the role of metaphor in the breakdown of the merger in the section on legitimacy."

--- The Communication of Leadership: The Design of Leadership Style / Jonathan Charteris-Black
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