Many years ago when I was a student, my principal, a staunch Methodist who fancied himself as some kind of Chinese scholar would preached to us poor suffering students his understanding of Chinese morals (mind you, in the English language).
Whenever (which means 'often') I was caught doing something naughty, he would stand in front of me, holding the school cane across his waist with both hands, flexing the scary rod while sermonizing Confucian instead of Christian ethics or etiquettes. It wouldn’t be so bad if he had been satisfied with those moral lessons but he believed in reinforcing his verbal advice. Ouch!
I recall his favourite story was about the four fastest horses in China being unable to catch up a word already spoken, in any vain hope of the regretful speaker to retrieve it as if those words were never spoken. What he was teaching me, while I was eyeing the cane and anticipating his reinforcing action, was that honourable men must be careful of what they say, because once words had been uttered, you can’t pretend those words weren’t said (or misinterpreted).
Whish, ouch! He then followed up with another of his favourite Confucian sayings, “A man’s word is his honour” meaning that according to Confucian ethics, you must be responsible for what you say or promise. Certainly his reinforcing methodology must have worked because I still remember them today (while subconsciously rubbing my bum).
Well, Stanley Koh, a Malaysiakini columnist, and a Buddhist monk(?) who works for a local think-tank, has the same homilies for his highness the whiter-than-white Prince, otherwise known as Hang Putih.
Koh wrote: “Politicians would be wise to remember that the spoken word is likened to a memorial tablet of their lips. It is like an arrow shot from the bow - it cannot be withdrawn. Or, to cite another saying, once toothpaste is out of the tube, it is hard to push it back in.”
Toothpaste? More modern than what my principal reminded me.
“Some political amateurs may think that the easiest way to popularity is to find fault and pitch one community against another.”
“… political amateurs?” Ouch! More painful than what I received from the 'reinforcer'.
“But Confucius said: 'A superior man puts rightness before courage. An inferior man who has courage but does not know rightness will become a trouble-maker.'”
“Perhaps it is also worthwhile to note Voltaire’s advice that, ‘To succeed in the world (probably in a political career) it is not enough to be stupid, you must be well-mannered.’”
Well, obviously Koh implied that someone has been both stupid and ill-mannered.
Koh continued: “To Confucius, ‘rightness’ means propriety or conduct and behaviour in accordance to the role played. He meant that “the prince should behave like a prince, the minister like a minister, the father…father and the son…son”.
What about son-in-law?
“Applied in the modern context, it simply means that if you are a political rookie, you should not behave like a de facto prime minister.”
Ouch and double ouch! My old principal would have been green with envy.
Koh said that among some aspiring politicians, the desperate quest to reach the top of the ladder darkens their sense of right and wrong. Koh is assuming that in the first place, some people even know what’s right!
Which then brings us to what Confucius said: “A superior man puts rightness before courage. An inferior man who has courage but does not know rightness will become a trouble-maker.”