Do more, talk less

Do more, talk less is the advice given by Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Minister, to current Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, on his war of words with China. How do you tell politicians to shut up? As Fu Manchu might say, you are free to criticise your best customer but they are free not to buy from you. Fair, dinkum?

The world is a downright mess because the elites told the masses that with freedom, democracy and globalisation, life will be better tomorrow. Tomorrow came and the middle classes (most of us) felt that our living standards are going down, jobs are being lost and we got sold a load of myths. So the middle class voted for change, but the elites like Hillary Clinton had the cheek to call them "deplorables". Well, we got Trump for four years, and we are in a bigger mess than ever.

Global strategist Ian Bremmer thinks that Trump is not the problem, he is only a symptom, not the cause of global troubles. He blames four underlying big causes as: American middle class wanting change, becoming anti-immigration, not wanting to be involved in foreign wars, and finally, technology creating social bubbles that cause more polarisation within society, not just in America, but everywhere. Nice words, but action on any single one issue might take a decade at least to solve.

Bremmer's thinking represents much of what is flawed with neoliberal Western logic that dominates the world today. Don't look at symptoms, look for the cause, fix them, and the world will be fine. This linear approach misses the systemic whole where the symptoms are entangled outcomes of complex interactions between the individual and the system. Democracy cannot fix its own structural problems, because if it cannot democratically agree on the cause, it cannot implement the right solutions. Indeed, electing someone who will be blocked democratically to act itself slows the reforms. The populists have already agreed that the neoliberal elites are the problem, which is why Biden needs all the help he can get to heal his own country, let alone the world.

Trump's place in history proves this point. He was not only the symptom, but the driver at a critical point in world history, changing the course and discourse of America, whether you like it or not. Individuals can and do make a difference, but their ability to do so comes from awakening a common cause.

As a human being, Trump lacks all the empathy, social graces and qualities you normally associate with top leaders. But 73 million and 47 percent of the American voters stood by him irrespective of these personal flaws, because to them, he delivered change (never mind the train-wreck), tried on immigration, withdrew from foreign wars, and exploited the Twitter technology to connect directly with them. He did something but talked too much. To succeed, Biden will have to talk less and do more.

Thanks to Trump, the ugly reality of buying electoral democracy has been exposed for the whole world to see. The 2020 US presidential elections cost USD 14 billion, equivalent to the GDP of the Republic of Congo with 84 million people. How many fledgling democracies in the world can afford USD 300 million in election advertising alone for the Senate seats in Georgia, with a population of 10.6 million? Implementing democracy is expensive business.

The global system has changed because America, Europe, Australia included, assumed that when the rest of the world becomes richer, they will want to become like them and play by their rules. As America has found out at bitter cost, she cannot enforce her rules on the Middle East, let alone elsewhere, because each country eventually will have to sort out their own problems in manners that Americans may not like. The legitimacy of every regime depends ultimately not on the form of democracy but whether it delivers what its citizens legitimately want and deserve, which will be very different at different times and stages of development.

In blunt terms, if democracy demands that every adult in the world has a vote, the one billion votes in the rich Eurocentric countries would be in the minority. They would be out-voted by the six billion rest of the world, which is why they do not want to relinquish their majority voting power in the IMF and the World Bank. The world is insecure today because the rich minority has a majority complex that it is their incumbent right to rule. On the other hand, the rising majority has a minority complex that the rich will not treat them as equals.

This tense conversation between the incumbent powers and the rising powers is only just beginning.

However, at a higher moral plane, the issue is not between the haves and have-nots, but between the "I"s and the "We"s. Trump is the quintessential narcissistic "I" who cares mostly about himself, his family and power. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who unfortunately died last month, argued in his new book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times that "Societal freedom cannot be sustained by market economics and liberal democratic politics alone. It needs a third element, morality, a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me, but what is good for "all of us together". It is about "Us", not "Me"; about "We", not "I"."

Thus, the current war of words is mostly about the egoistical "I". In any divorce, "I" may be right, but both parties lose. We all live in one planet, burning slowly but surely because of excess consumption and exploitation. Australia and China are amongst the largest carbon-emission offenders in the world, one on per capita basis and the other on total. If both would worry less about the "I" face, and act more to work together on climate change, the whole world, "We", would be the beneficiary.

In short, talk less, do more. Fair, dinkum?

Andrew Sheng is an honorary adviser with the CIMB Asean Research Institute and a distinguished fellow with the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong. He writes on global issues for the Asia News Network (ANN), an alliance of 24 news media titles across the region, which includes The Daily Star.

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