Monday, 24 March 2014

Plato’s Ideal Ruler Today

Philosophy Now: a magazine of ideas

We live at a time when there is a general distrust of people towards their governments, perhaps because governments who should do what is for the common good instead reveal their ugly sides. Instead of seeking to secure the good of the people, motivated by public service commitments, governments can be perceived as doing nothing but consolidating power for themselves, motivated by self interest. This perception has led to a cynical attitude towards governments, and a scepticism concerning the sincerity of those in public office. The UK Parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009 was a clear example of the betrayal of the people’s trust. More recently, we saw the US government prying into the private internet correspondences of people all around the world. It is pertinent to note that both the UK and the USA are regarded as ‘model’ democratic nations. But this is a global issue, not limited to Western nations: Bo Xi Lai, who was a rising star in Chinese politics, has been tied with allegations of corruption, murder, espionage and sex.

To help us choose better leaders, we should draw upon the philosophical principles in Plato’s dialogues, primarily The RepublicThe Republic stimulates ordinary citizens to reflect on the state and to make an appropriate reaction to it, so it can guide our deliberations and subsequent actions too. In particular, its principles could assist us in our choice of leaders and governments, which might in turn help us overcome our distrust and cynicism towards them.

First, Love Wisdom

In the twenty-first century, most governments are democratically elected and ordinary citizens are allowed political participation in a concrete way through the ballot box. If those in power are more conscientiously selected by citizens, then there will be a reduction of distrust and cynicism towards them. The question is, what amounts to a conscientious choice?

I would say that such a choice must be made on the basis of reliable criteria. I believe Plato’s Socrates provides one such criterion in The Republic: that one ought to be a philosopher to govern. In a literal sense, the ruler must be a lover of wisdom, which is the meaning of the Greek word philosophia. In Plato’s Crito, he affirms that the thought of one wise man may be better than the many thoughts of the foolish (Crito 47a-b).

But what does it mean to be lover of wisdom, or philosopher? As Plato’s works suggest, for him ‘philosophy’ is not to be understood in a narrow sense. It is not a compartmentalized subject disconnected from worldly affairs, as today’s academic philosophy can be, but is a passionate desire to understand all there is. The main thrust of his argument in The Republicis that those who govern must do so with the relevant expertise, but the philosopher king must be trained in the following in particular: (a) physical education, (b) music, and (c) mathematics (Republic 398b-412b, 522c-e, 525b-526c). Let us therefore consider these disciplines in turn.

Physical Education

For Plato, as for most Greeks, physical education was as important as cultivating the mind.This attitude inspired the later classical Roman saying, mens sana in corpore sano: ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’. Physical education enhances general health and fitness, which is often a precondition of a sound mind. This is not an absolute law, but one would find it difficult to disagree that a healthy body is crucial to efficiently carry out the daily tasks of government. The people must be physically fit also to protect the citizens from internal and external threats. This is not limited to security personnel (the police, armed forces, etc) but applies to their leaders as well. He who would defend justice or the people must first have the power to defend himself.

I find a parallel here in Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, where he argues that “justice without might is helpless.” (Section V, 298). I am also reminded of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, where he writes, “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Officers adhere more willingly to the directives of a general like Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte who can fight on the field with his soldiers. Generally, the ability to relate to one’s subordinates is a distinctive leadership quality, indispensable in governing. To put it simply, political leaders must not be detached from the populace.


However, physical fitness is not a sufficient condition for good governance. Brute force, if unconstrained, is dangerous. As Plato says, our leaders should never be ‘savage masters’ – more like “wolves attacking the sheep than dogs looking after them” (Republic 416a-c). So physical power must be tempered with reason. Rational political control is the path of good governance.

For Plato training in mathematics was necessary because it enhances one’s logical and reasoning faculties. But in today’s era of an unending chain of financial crises – for instance, China’s economic slowdown, the financial problems and bailouts of EU nations, or the rising debt of the US Government – mathematical skills would be useful in and of themselves. It’s also true that a training in mathematics simultaneously enhances one’s other logical faculties; ergo, the understanding of mathematics allows one to handle more than just fiscal issues. In order to formulate effective policies and pass appropriate legislative measures generally, those in government must be able to sift through, prioritise and ascertain the truth of information from multiple sources, for example think-tanks, research institutes, consultants or political lobbyists. To give an example of the complexity of governance: on one hand, austerity measures may cut spending but create additional unemployment problems; on the other hand, increased spending which may help kickstart the economy, may also increase government debt. Only leaders who understand the delicate balances involved can have the capacity to subsequently render these problems manageable. Logic allows one to perceive propositions with clarity. The development of the logical faculty thus enables leaders to better analytically unpack the myriad problems facing governments.


Proceeding to the last discipline required for a philosopher king, the requirement of a training in music is consistent with Plato’s association of justice with harmonious order (Republic 434c). Music teaches us the harmony of sounds: the Christian Platonist St Augustine understood that harmony applies to good political relationships as well. In his De Musica of the fifth century AD he uses music as a metaphor for cosmic order.

The coordination of sounds in music also illustrates the delicate coordination required of political idealism, where the state exists to work towards the common good. The formation of a cohesive society involves the prioritisation of social and economic issues across various interest groups, as well as the efficient utilisation of available resources. Harmonising these needs is not unlike the process of composing a musical piece.

Furthermore, a good musical composition adheres to certain rational principles. Similarly, good governance would involve the utilisation of the self-evidently worthwhile rational principle of ‘practical reasonableness’. Practical reasonableness, as John Finnis lays out in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980), would require the state to have a rational plan for the community, to be committed to that plan, and to act in a non-discriminatory manner towards all in the community (Chapter V).

This sort of idealism is not in any way naïve, nor ignorant of Realpolitik, where governments do only what is practical or expedient, rendering what is moral irrelevant or secondary. Realpolitik has contributed to the cynicism I talked about. Political idealism, on the contrary, provides an opposing force to such cynicism.

A Minimalist Focus

Only with the acquisition of the skills that this tripartite form of education provides would one become fit to govern, according to Plato, since with such an education one is able to transcend the shadows of uncertainty, go beyond the cave of ignorance and into the light where one would be able to determine what is for the common good (Republic 514a-520a).

We can intuitively agree that a person with a well-rounded education is better equipped to face and engage the world, and so our choice of leaders should be from among such people. I would like to clarify that this minimalist focus on the three disciplines of physical education, mathematics and music is not advocating a neglect of other important fields such as economics, science, IT, etc. I am simply proposing, like Plato, that studying these three would increase one’s aptitude in other fields, and that the skills they inculcate are applicable across many disciplines. They are foundational disciplines upon which other forms of expertise may be built on. Neither does this mean that only those with a good formal education are fit to govern – it does not discount the possibility of natural leaders who possess good leadership skills through other means. However, there is a difficulty about such natural leaders being selected to lead. Due to the fact that the electorate may have no prior knowledge of the candidate’s skills, we may have to rely on a candidate’s accredited formal education. But in any case, this meritocratic openness would counter any claim of elitism.


If we chose our political leaders using the criterion of wisdom gained through a Platonic education, we would gradually reduce our distrust towards those who govern. This is because Platonic education means the enhancement not only of one’s intellectual capabilities, but also of the virtue of temperance or self-control, since the process by which expertise is acquired requires the exercise of will and self-discipline. In other words, expertise is attained through reason’s control of emotion and desire. This sovereignty of reason over emotion and desire is Plato’s conception of justice in the soul. In present day politics, where we hardly have any in-depth knowledge of our political candidates, the assessment of the suitability of a person’s character based on his achievements would be a pragmatic and workable compromise.

We can see how deeply engaged Platonic philosophy is with political affairs. Applying it would allow us to avoid the prejudicial mental jump into cynicism that is often our default position in matters of politics, and open up the possibility of building a society where there is mutual trust between citizen and state. That may be perceived by some as too idealistic or utopian, but I would urge any positive steps towards that ideal. Those who deny even the slightest possibility of achieving it betray only the scepticism they cherish.

First published in Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas, Issue 101

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

At the Heart of the 'Allah' Word Issue

Ever since the government's ban of the usage of the word 'Allah' in the Malay section of the Herald in 2007, we have seen many arguments, both logical and illogical, for and against, the usage of the word by the Catholic Church in Malaysia. I think the controversy over whether the Church (or other religious minorities) has the 'right' to use the word 'Allah' is misplaced.

Here are some examples to illustrate my point. The Court of Appeal held that the word 'Allah' is not an integral part of the Christian faith. In light of this judgement, Fr. Lawrence Andrew argued that "Allah is a term in the Middle East and in Indonesia, it is a term both for Christians and Muslims. You cannot say all of the sudden it is not an integral part." At the other end, Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, a lawyer representing the government, told the BBC that "if they [non-Muslims] say they want to use a Malay word, they should use Tuhan instead of Allah."

The focus is almost always on the word 'Allah' and who has the right to use it. I would argue that this 'right' to use the word 'Allah' is an important but misplaced issue. The question is not so much whether the word 'Allah' can be used in a non-Muslim context, but whether a third party ought to interfere in the internal affairs of religious institutions. Imagine the Catholic Church as a family, and within this family there are practices just like every other household. Then imagine that you are the head of that family; would you like other non-family members to interfere in your family affairs? Would you like them to say 'you should do this,' or 'refrain from doing that', especially when they have no grounds to do so? Certainly not. 

Intuitively, we reject outsiders trying to interfere with our affairs. This may be the underlying reason behind Fr. Andrew's recent insistence that the word 'Allah' would be used in all Catholic Masses in Selangor, despite Jais' intent to prohibit its usage on the authority of a state enactment. The discontent stems more from a recognition that non-Muslim religious minorities have the right to manage their own affairs without external interference. This claim is not without a constitutional basis. 

Though Article 3 of the Constitution provides that Islam is the religion of the Federation, it also provides that 'other religions may be practised in peace and harmony…'. What it meant by 'peace' is the absence of unnecessary state interference. The Bar Council Chairman, Christopher Leong's interpretation of the words 'peace and harmony' further bolsters my argument. He stated that "the words simply mean 'the  right of other religions to be practiced unmolested and free of threats'." This is also supported by a fundamental liberty outlined in Article 11 that every religious group has the right to manage their own affairs.

One may object that this argument would disallow state interference in the affairs of dangerous religious groups like the practice of some Rastafarians in consuming cannabis for spiritual purposes. It does not follow that these constitutional rights would be an absolute immunity against legitimate state interference.

However, I find no justification for it in the 'Allah' saga, as the constitutional values of Malaysia, common to all Malaysians, are not threatened by the usage of the word Allah by non-Muslims, since the word is not used to convert Muslims to the Christian faith. Instead, it is as Dato Zaid Ibrahim has put it,  'a part of Christian linguistic tradition in this country.' 

I believe that these issues would be prudently considered and wisely adjudged by the Federal Court if the appeal by the Catholic Church arrives at their bench.

First published in the Malay Mail Online on 1 January 2014

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Malaysian Political Reform must have a Common Purpose

Almost everyone would agree that there is a necessity for political reform in Malaysia. Sadly, any step towards reform is met with 'Goliath-like' obstacles. These obstacles, if not removed, would be detrimental to the nation in the long run. With this in mind, the following paragraphs discusses what these obstacles are and how we can overcome them.

Malaysian Politics in a Nutshell
Malaysian politics is defined by self-interest and realpolitik. The first refers to a political reality that our vote is swayed by the question 'what do I stand to gain?' To express it differently, almost everyone votes for their own pockets. Political parties on either side appeal to the masses by giving handouts and freebies. To name a few, the electoral manifestoes prior to GE13 revolve around the expansion of the BR1M, the increase of fuel subsidies to decrease fuel prices, and the abolishment of the PTPTN loan scheme.

Malaysian politics is becoming increasingly dominated by populist agendas. Both the ruling coalition and the opposition seem to be competing to be like Santa Claus, striving to fulfill the wish list of the masses. This is especially so during the general elections.

Realpolitik refers to a political practicality; that every policy, decision or action is a carefully crafted choice of political leaders to appeal to their power base. Race-based politics is an example of such an appeal. The fact that several political parties are delineated along racial lines, UMNO, MCA, MIC and DAP (often associated with the Chinese), make what I am saying almost self-evident.

Even though certain policies may prove to be controversial, for example, maintaining that the word Allah is for the sole use of Muslims, it is not as important as securing their mandate to govern. This 'mandate', of course, stems from their power base. It seems that keeping the power base happy is higher on the priority list than that of the welfare of the entire nation.

Malaysian Politics at an Impasse
The political realities has lead Malaysia to a political impasse where no true and lasting progress is possible. Voting out of self-interest without regard to the common good would allow Malaysia's economic, social and political ailments to remain uncured. For example, the increase of fuel subsidies may reduce one's daily living expenses, but if no concrete plans are laid out to resolve inflation or to encourage economic growth, it would only be a short-term gain in exchange for a long term loss. In the long run, a shrinking economy or corrupt governance would negatively impact both present and future generations of Malaysians regardless of their individual background.

The appeal of political parties to their power bases which are largely divided along racial lines would inevitably give rise to racial tension. In Malaysian realpolitik, race-based politics is nothing but a means to secure the vote, a means to gain or keep the support of the power bases. This may, at best, result in unnecessary anxiety among citizens and at worst, lead to racial conflict. A classic example would be the May 13 incident of 1969.

This political practicality of race-based politics risks the polarisation of Malaysia into communities delineated by race and political instability may ensue. The more polarised Malaysia becomes, the more difficult it is to achieve racial unity. This seems to be more so the case with each passing day where unity seems to exist only in inspiring Merdeka day advertisements.

Malaysian Politics at a Crossroad
Malaysian politics now stand at a crossroad between a seemingly unending regression and the hope of progress. But progress is an empty word without a compelling common purpose that unites all citizens for various racial, cultural and religious backgrounds.

Is there such a common purpose? Yes, and despite our distinctive races, cultures and religious beliefs, Malaysians share an overlapping consensus of a good society. This is made manifest in the Rukunegara which values social cohesion, the preservation of a democratic way of life, the equitable distribution of wealth and resources and the appreciation of Malaysia's lmulticulturalism. These values should serve as the public purpose of our entire nation. Our politics must be rooted in the common vision of the Rukunegara.

Civic virtue inspired by the Rukunegara should replace pure self-interest. Privileges are attached with our citizenship but so too are duties and responsibilities for the common good of Malaysia. This is what we as citizens often forget, we claim our rights but often at the expense of forgetting our obligations. Through civic virtue there is a prioritisation of the common good over an individual's or a sectarian good.

As for political parties, it would be difficult (if not impossible) for them to avoid realpolitik. Political parties are like tailors, their policies are 'custom-made clothing', based on the 'measurements' of their clients. In other words, their power bases must always be pleased for them to stay in power. This reality cannot be changed, but may still be worked to the advantage of the common good. For if civic virtue is the voters' priority, this too would become the priority of political parties.

Hence, the hope of a just, fair and prosperous Malaysia lies not so much in the hands of politicians, but in the hands of every single Malaysian citizen. This is a practical step, a step that all of us can take. The question then is whether we are willing to take that step towards civic virtue? The first is a step outside our very own self-interest, and the second is a step backwards; to see the bigger picture of what would constitute as the common good of all Malaysians.

First published in the Malay Mail Online

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Sub Specie Aeternitatis

O scales upon mine eyes, pray let them fall.
'Ut videam,' heed my plea, O may it be!
Tend my wounds, soothe with Eternity's call.
Seduce me and let your waves consume me.
Come, plead I, lights of Eternity's dawn.
For the darkness so black has knifed me through.
Dispel the murk my soul has undergone,
From mine own tyranny, now stage a coup!
Leave me not with a caged mind, set me free!
Guard me -as the ruins all-round tumble.
From mind's deep, those splinters, remove from me
Rise I then -from ashes, from the rubble?
Unto the skies and bursting forth I fly?
Perceive I then the Love that was so nigh?

Mark Tan

Monday, 9 December 2013

Mantle of My Mother

Beneath your mantle, I hide, sweet Mother,
My refuge, my shelter, from gales so strong.
Under your mercy, I find safe cover,
'O fear not sweet child'; this, to me, your song. 
Hidden beneath your cloak of protection,
Quiet, in silence; like a weaned child am I.
No storm I fear; stilled by your affection,
Kept safe, secure, no longer shall I sigh.
O with loving eyes, your gaze upon me,
Love's great overflow, in that I wallow
With hands so gentle, wrapped tight across me.
Pray you, don't let go! With you, I follow.
Hold me close, that I may never lose you.
Mother, sweet mother, you make all things new.

Mark Tan

Monday, 2 December 2013

Jesus Christ: The Truth That Sets All Our Minds Free

As law students or law grads, we are trained to think logically, to seek for the justification behind every action or decision. We seek to understand the ratio behind every judicial decision. We intuitively grasp that such decisions should not be arbitrary. We would habitually ask ourselves why the judge did what he did. What was his reasoning that led him  to such a conclusion?

In the same way, we comprehend that our actions as persons must not be wholly arbitrary as well. There must usually be reasons or justifications behind our actions. It must also be addressed that all our practical reasoning are dependent upon principles. For example, the fact that we do not act upon the impulse of killing is rooted in the principle that life is valuable. Reason cannot operate in vacuo, it needs to be based on principles. One's practical reasoning would be empty if it is without principles. And our principles are formulated by religious, moral and cultural factors. Surely, there would be a diversity of principles, for cultural, religious and moral standards differ. This raises the possibility of having contradictory principles. How then would we judge between these principles? Upon which set of principles should our decision-making process take into account?

If all these principles are subjective and there is no Truth in these principles per se, then I can see no reason (unless there is a logical error) in criticising the reasoning of those of whom we do not agree with. But why then do we reject the reasoning of a terrorist in his efforts to bomb up a building? If all principles are subjective principles, why do we intuitively reject the reasoning of a suicide bomber? Perhaps, this may imply that there are such things as objective and universal principles. Granted, it would be controversial as “to what those principles are, but this does not mean that there is no objectivity in it.

As Christians we have found this objectivity, and He is not an abstract, but a person. His name is Jesus Christ. This we see clearly in the first words of the Gospel of St John: 'In the beginning was the Word...' This Word is that Logos, that Reason that upholds the universe. Only in Him (consciously or subconsciously) can we distinguish good reasoning from bad reasoning. He is the ultimate reference point. And in Him should our reason rest, in Him should we put our trust. It is our faith in Christ that saves us from the fallibility of our minds and the uncertainty that follows. Christ is not only the bulwark against the storms that occur in the material world, He serves also our defence against the storms of our minds. In this Truth, in Christ Jesus, our minds are set free.

A message intended for the ATC Christian Fellowship, Penang