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One bad apple

What happens when a leadership becomes dysfunctional? What is its impact on the health of the society they rule over? Just as children mimic their parents, do citizens mimic their leaders? Does our need to follow authority make us betray the positive, fundamental values that define our humanity? Asks Latheefa A. Verall



By Latheefa Ahmed Verall 

There were five children between the ages of three and thirteen behind that door. My attempts to contact the parents over the phone had been unsuccessful. So, I had arrived at the house to inquire why one of my students had failed to turn up to school for three days.

My first impression of the occupants of the house- there were no adults around- created more confusion than provide solutions. The children, crowded round the front door in different stages of undress, held no strong resemblance to each other. Single mother, different fathers perhaps?

The lawn boasting of an entire summer’s growth added to the sense of chaos. A southerly wind pushed a single swing back and forth, back and forth, each time banging into the carcass of an old, abandoned Holden Zephyr partially submerged in the grass. I was glad that the Dean of the Year 9s had accompanied me to the child’s home.

I am no stranger to dysfunctional families. My early teaching career in an inner city co-ed school was a daily reminder of the fact that poor parenting is a defining characteristic of children who fail to thrive socially or to achieve in the classroom. We all know it is a vicious cycle of failure, often leading to socially unacceptable behaviour, substance abuse, marriage breakdown, family violence or the inability to hold down a job.

The pattern is often repeated again and again and again, generation after generation after generation, and it is extremely hard to break the cycle.

There is a simple explanation to this. Children do what they see. As they grow this continues. It is a part of our genetic survival mechanism. Like all mammals, we learn from our parents. We watch and we follow.

Consequently, most human beings are followers. The majority of us are hard wired to follow. In early life we follow the patterns established by our parents, particularly by our mothers. Nature, in all its wisdom, had made us natural born mimics. It is part of the grand design meant to increases our chances of survival.

We know that when things go wrong in the parent -children relationship, it can leave lasting scars on children and their development. Thus, our hard wired inclination to follow can create life-long social problems as in the case of dysfunctional families.

But I believe it goes further than this. The vast majority of our species live in groups where the question of who must obey whom inevitably appears. So, our tendency to follow does not end with our childhood. Regardless of whether hierarchy is a natural part of human behaviour or a social construct, it would appear that leadership discourages fragmentation of social groups and binds individuals together.

There is, therefore, a crucial aspect of the leader-follower phenomenon which goes beyond child rearing, one that is hugely relevant to the Maldives of today.

What happens when a leadership becomes dysfunctional? What is its impact on the health of the society they rule over? Just as children mimic their parents, do citizens mimic their leaders? Does our need to follow authority make us betray the positive, fundamental values that define our humanity?

When we have a government that is embroiled in a corruption scandal that takes even the most hardened of its detractors, like myself, by surprise, and the head of that government publicly accepts such acts as normal by saying, ‘who checks the money they receive is legitimate?’ then the leadership is providing a destructive, immoral and unjust model for society.

What then happens to the citizens? What happens to the followers?

Am I being extremely obtuse in thinking that this is utterly and horrendously wrong? Am I incurably romantic when I recall a time before the regime when we used to laugh at Indian and Sri Lankan officials for the ease with which they accepted bribery?

No, I am not. Nor should the rest of you regard this change in our society as inevitable and unavoidable. Honesty and responsibility are not just old fashioned values that should be thrown out without as much as a second thought. They are the fundamental building blocks of any group dynamics: they bind groups together and increase the individual members’ quality of life. We cannot and must not accept dishonesty as the norm.

And yes, the evidence seems to suggest that one bad apple does spoil the whole barrel; or to choose from my grandmother’s long list of proverbs, ‘ahi vakakaa jehi ahi vakeh faavaane yey’. Yes, there are consequences when leaders fail to take responsibility for their behaviour.

While it is incorrect to assert that all cases of corruption in the Maldives have started with the present government, it is not an exaggeration to say that our president’s immoral and laissez faire approach to embezzlement and corruption under his watch had helped to normalise such behaviour.

After all, who was Ahmed Adeeb but a propped up, arrogant little puppet of the latest reincarnation of the regime? Did not the culture of corruption which surrounded him make him feel invincible? And while some of the MPs are purging themselves by calling others thieves and robbers, what is the impact of their despicable actions on young Maldivians who – god help them- may aspire to be civil servants one day?

I am pleased to see several Maldivians publish their thoughts about the predicament of women in our country. I condone their sentiments that women’s rights are part of the human rights spectrum; rights that people are entitled to, to live with dignity. Despite traditions and despite various interpretations of our religion, I cannot help but think that our women’s lot is also connected inextricably with the way our leaders treat people and conduct their public lives.

Bullying, I find to be one of the most contemptible of human frailties. It frightens me to see that the president of our country and his brother before him have bullied our people into submission, albeit the level of submission has altered. The prevalence of torture under Gayoom, the use of the police to beat, drag and pepper spray demonstrators, the unjust incarceration of political opponents by Yameen, the complete corruption and castration of the justice system by both the brothers so that they could do as they wished, are the acts of well seasoned bullies.

Take it from me, these are not sophisticated political manoeuvres or signs of strong leadership; they display the mindset of little boy- bullies who have aged but not matured.

In such a climate of bullying, is it any wonder that some of our men-folk believe might is right? Just as children imitate their parents, citizens imitate the tactics of their leaders. We are, as I stated earlier, natural born followers, hard wired to mimic those in authority, be it parents or leaders.

To function effectively, all societies need norms and values. When the regime breaks these norms and values, they break the taboos that stop anti-social behaviour. The results are what we see all around us: gangs, killings, drugs and disappearances. This is a society following its leaders!

It is a process of desensitising and normalising until there is something VERY rotten in the state of the Maldives.

It does not take a huge stretch of imagination to fathom that a culture of bullying that seeps down from the top of the country would always work against the most vulnerable of our society- the women. Where else in the world would the Majority Leader of the ruling party, a male, spit a mouthful of water at a female opponent and the action be dismissed with ‘she deserved what she got’ by many of his party members?

Let’s wake up. ‘Planet 50-50 by 2030’is an impossibility in a country where the people at the top have opted to violate every code of decent behaviour. No amount of explanatory tweets or ‘thumbs down’ emoji can justify such an aberration of decency.

The regime is immoral. Its actions, its beliefs, its overt self- interest, its absolute disregard for the moral and physical welfare of its citizens makes it a leadership that displays the very worst of human characteristics: greed, dishonesty, hatred, distrust, jealousy, disloyalty. This is the leadership that the citizens are to learn from and follow!

As in the case of dysfunctional families, an amoral leadership normalises unacceptable behaviour for its followers. The pattern is often repeated again and again and again, generation after generation after generation and it is extremely hard to break the cycle.

What is scandalous is not just that the government is implicated in robbing the people of billions of American dollars. That is appalling enough, I agree. But, what we are also being robbed of is something a great deal more pressing and profound. They are robbing us of our moral radar- the ability to function as decent human beings.

Latheef Ahmed Verall is an educator, working in the New Zealand. She is former President Mohamed Nasheed’s maternal aunt.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of The Maldives Independent. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]