Learning morality from literature


WHAT makes Sophocles’ play Antigone so relevant even today? The old world of Greek kings and gods may sound distant to us.

But the story of two personalities – a man (Creon) and a woman (Antigone), both clinging to their principles, is a morality play that current leaders ought to learn from.

When Antigone’s brother died, she naturally wanted a proper burial but Creon forbade it for the brother was labelled a traitor.

When Antigone proceeded with the burial, he sentenced her to death. The two leaders were committed to what they believed in, their agendas differed, and both refused to see beyond their own interests.

There is a treasure trove of examples what leaders – political, corporate or community leaders – can learn from literature.

There are many characters in the world of literature that can provide better understanding of failures and flaws in leadership. Unfortunately we are treating leaders like lab animals, demanding them to perform the way we expect them to do.

We want them to set examples we knew they can’t achieve. We judge them by performances that we know are unnaturally impossible to achieve.

Serious literature is not just about a rich boy falling in love with a sick girl or a love-struck protagonist fighting his way to win a damsel despite the odds.

It is also about Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick confronting a whale while the crew members were watching for guidance and leadership.

It is about the Captain (who has no name) in Joseph Conrad’s short story The Secret Sharer who was faced with a dilemma to allow a stranger accused of murder on board or to let him drown. Empathy is natural to humans but will he jeopardise his other obligations as a leader of the ship?

Risk-taking is part of the requirement at all times for leaders. There are times one needs to be strict but many more times they have to come to terms with doubts and uncertainties.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, ” Shakespeare reminded leaders.

There was a little-known character in Tun Sri Lanang’s Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals), probably the best known kitab (old book) of the Malays. His name is Maulana Yusof, a religious teacher. Sultan Mahmud wanted to be his student.

Sultan Mahmud, lest we forget, is the most notorious of the rulers of the Melaka Sultanate. He was cruel and vindictive. The Sultan went to Maulana’s house in a procession replete with elephants on tow. As he arrived, the Maulana closed his gate.

“What is the Sultan doing coming to my house?’ he asked.

The Sultan later came quietly with one companion. Upon arrival he sent a message.

“Beritahu Maulana, Fakir Mahmud datang.” (Fakir literally means a wanderer or student).

The Maulana opened his gate. The moral of the story is, even a Sultan has to learn about humility.

What can we learn about leadership from the satirical novels

of Ishak Haji Muhammad’s (Pak Sako) Putera Gunung Tahan and Anak Mat Lela Gila? Or Kamaluddin Muhammad’s Saudagar Besar Dari Kuala Lumpur?

Or how little people ignored by their leaders are gasping to survive in A. Samad Said’s Salina or Air Mengalir Lesu? How about A. Samad Ismail’s Tembuk Tidak Tinggi and Hud? Or the struggles of poor peasants in Shahnon Ahmad’s Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan?

Didn’t Llyod Fernando’s taught us about how the state apparatuses were used to downplay the racial riots in Singapore and how it impacted upon the lives of four best friends of various races?

J.K. Asher’s The Inverted Banyan Tree and the Way Thither tells a story of a Serani (Eurasian) girl being loved by two Malay gentlemen, with a background of innocence and tolerance. It is a lesson in diversity and acceptance in multiracial Malaya of yesteryear.

You want to read about perspectives for leaders to manage society? Read M. Shanmughalingam’s Marriage and Mutton Curry. The anthology offers a strong dosage of realism and unvarnished accounts of human beings albeit in fiction.

Politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians, someone famously said.

We need responsible leaders with integrity and the right moral compass who accept responsibilities upon their own failings. Someone like Chief Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. But one thing is certain, since time immemorial, the dramas, intrigues, backstabbing and betrayal persisted in the world of politics.

Little wonder the phrase uttered by Julius Caesar when he realised his good friend Brutus was involved in his stabbing, “Et tu, Brute?” (You too, Brutus?) will be the standard marker for political inexactitude in whatever time we lived in. And beware the ides of March!

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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