Monday, March 31, 2008

Breaking Bad News

As expected, my last blog entry has provoked the ire of my favourite young grassroots leader. He's most upset that I happened to know another grassroots leader who had a different point of view from the Mas Selamat affair. He's now determined that I tell him where my other friend came from because he's very sure that "The Grassroots NEVER called for the Minister to resign" over the Mas Selamat affair. Of course, there's only one appropriate measure to deal with adolecents who can't handle anything beyond their perceptions of the world - ignore their demands. Seriously, the young man seems to have forgotten what the grassroots movement is supposed to do - namely provide those in power with opinions from the ground.

Breaking bad news is never a pleasent experience. Unless you have a particularly sadistic streak, watching people get upset is generally not pleasent. Optimism is infectious but pessimism is lethally contageous. If getting depressed is key to your happiness - hang around the distressed.

Throughout history people have done everything in their power to avoid bad news. The Romans even went as far as executing messengers who brought bad news and those that brought good news were covered with gold. These day's we've become more civilised, we just hire PR consultants to make bad news sound good. I've been in and around PR long enough to know that PR people only find real appreciation when things turn really sour.

I must admit that I'm guilty of breaking the policy of "Honesty being the best poilcy." When a friend working in a restaurant ask me how I found the special dish, I always say I thought it was good even when I might think otherwise. If I don't like the dish....I just avoid ordering it the next time round. My friends in the restaurant business in particular are so earnest about wanting to please that I'm terrified of crushing their hopes.

I was even like this with my ex-wife. She'd ask - "Are you seeing anyone?" I'd always say no and I would go into details of how my sex life has died because she wasn't around. It was simply easier to stick to that line than deal with the crying and screaming.

But as in the example of my ex-wife, the truth is often necessary to make life liveable. Our desire to protect the feelings of others often does more harm than good. Yes, I had to put up with a crying and screaming ex-wife when I accidentally revaled that I had actually slept with someone else but since she stopped speaking to me...life has become remarkably peaceful. Both of us have gone onto better things...free from our self-destructive habits when we were together. As Simon Cowell, American Idol's nasty British judge has consistently argued, causing a bit of short term pain is sometimes kind - incidentally, much as American's may boo his sarcastic remarks, their voting paterns on the show agree with him.

There are times when there is no possible way to not break bad news. I remember Dad once got very upset with me because, well, I delayed breaking bad news to him. He was under stress, and somehow I didn't know how to tell him something that would only increase his stress. When I finally told him...he was actually more upset with me. His words were, "Did you avoid telling me because you didn't want to upset me? Well, you've actually cost me time - time I could have spent solving the problem."

And he's right. Life is full of problems and problems basically need to be solved. However, we can't do anything about the problem if we don't know the problem exist or how serious the problem actually is. But how do you break the news of a problem particularly when the boss is not in a terribly good mood. Is it worth getting a shelling in the morning?

So here lies the dilema for many people at the top. Nobody actually wants to offend them and so nobody actually tells the truth when they ask. Are you seriously going to tell the Prime Minister to his face that you think the nation is going to the dogs when he's dropped by your home and made sure your neighbours saw him akowledge you?

In Singapore, where political power is especially adictive, those in power never get the chance to see gound realities. It's easier to sweep things under the carpet when the VIP is being shown around. Once again, why risk upsetting your boss if you can avoid it. As a former teacher from a neighbourhood school, I know that there are "Problem" schools in Singapore. However, whenever someone vaguely important arrives, the "Problem" school is made-over into something quite swanky - that is until the VIP leaves. As such, our Ministers are forced to rely on statistics concocted by whatever focus group.

The media is of course a party to this situation. Editors who have been sued silly by the government over the smallest of things, have become so weary of offending people that not only do they avoid publishing criticism of government policy, they've even reached the stage of bargining good news for ads and bad news about advertisers hardly hits the news stands. Issues are ignored because...why talk about them when you risk offending someone you should not.

But this cannot be healthy for anyone. The Romans recognised that it was necessary to have a slave remind a triumphant general he was merely mortal when they had "Triumph" parades. These days those in power need to look for ways to get a glimpse from the view as it is. King Abdullah of Jordan even goes as far as walking around town in disguise so he can get a feel of what it's like on the ground.

Of course, not everyone can do what King Abdullah does. But don't worry. Blogs are there to create a debate, a questioning of society that somehow never apprears where it should.


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