Friday, April 23, 2010

The Ethical Flip-Flop

Act I - The Invitation
Susan Elliot was happy to receive an invitation to speak at an International Conference. She submitted her CV and was duly confirmed.

Yes, she is going to the conference.

Act II - The 'Miscommunication'
Then come a 'miscommunication.' Due to her hearing impairment, her invitation was rescinded. Her invitation to speak was taken back by the organizers.

No. She is not going to the conference.

She checked again a couple of times. The officials were said to wish her all the best in her future endeavours.

No. She is definitely not going to the conference.

Anthony Mullen found out about this, and wrote an article to highlight this. Many people soon become aghast and upset over the way Miss Elliot was treated.

Act III:  comes the 'misunderstanding.'
The organizers of the conference quickly assembled a message to rescind that rescission.

Miss Elliot accepted the apology. Yes, she is finally going to the conference. See the official MOE apology, that a friend of mine received from the ministry. The speed of that reply indicates that they have received lots of brickbats and made this ready-statement for quick response. That's the power of the Internet!

The reason why I attach reply below is to do justice to the MOE who have responded in a gracious manner. They have done well to apologize. The question is: "Is it enough?"

Alls well that ends well? Not until we address the underlying concerns.

Underlying Concerns
When news of the predicament of Susan Elliot was made known on the Internet, there was a lot of people upset about how the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Singapore, handled (or mishandled) the case of a deaf educator, highly regarded in the US. I pose the following questions with regard to this flip-flop behaviour of the Singapore MOE. Is it a case of mere 'miscommunication' and 'misunderstanding?' Is the public right to display displeasure and openly denounce the MOE?

Let me put this clear. I have no wish to cast anyone or any organization in a negative light. What I am concerned about is the extent of the 'miscommunication' and 'misunderstanding.' My concern is about the system that the MOE officers are working within.
  1. What if Susan Elliot is from a poor unknown country, and not the mighty US of America?
  2. What if her story remains un-noticed by anybody?
  3. What if there is no public outcry?
  4. If such a 'mistake' can happen to a prominent individual now, is there anything in the system to prevent that from happening next time?
  5. Will there be a 're-education' program for MOE and its hierarchy? 


    At the bottom of the official MOE reply are four short terse statements:
    "Integrity the Foundation • People our Focus • Learning our Passion • Excellence our Pursuit"

    It sounds impressive. With integrity, people-focus, willingness to learn and a pursuit to do all these well, we should be proud to have a ministry like this. Yet, this embarrassing incident itself leads me to question to what extent are these four values communicated and practiced within the MOE. Perhaps, there truly is a 'miscommunication.' Perhaps, there is a 'misunderstanding.' If it is so, isn't there a sufficient check-and-balance within a highly educated and qualified workforce within the ministry to catch that? I do not know if any of the staff on the organizing committee are Christians, but I do believe that it is only right for them to have settled this matter with their superiors before rescinding the invitation to Miss Elliot.

    Thinking of a Christian Response
    I think the ethical response of Christians can be summed up by the very 4 statements in the MOE letterhead.

    #1 - Integrity the Foundation
    We read in Psalms 26:2
    "Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; "
    Integrity comes from the LORD. It comes from the LORD testing our heart and our mind. We cannot simply blame external factors for not exercising the right ethical behaviour in the first place. If we are wrong, say we are wrong. If we are right, be humble about it. If we have failed, seek for forgiveness. For Christians, there is the Holy Spirit that works in us like an alarm bell. Yet, this is not enough. We have to be willing to act on our awareness of wrong. Seek justice where there is injustice. Seek to protect the weak from the strong. Integrity is that keen awareness that the time to do the right thing is always right now. Spencer Johnson puts it very well:
    "Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people."
     In this case, Christians should show solidarity with the public, with non-Christians as well, that we are against marginalizing the weak and the physically handicapped. Do it quickly. I have heard accusations that Christians tend to care more for Christian church and matters. What about public matters? What about common issues that affect society? I believe this latest MOE incident should provoke our response according to our levels of influence. No time to simply hush-hush and wait to see if MOE has 'other' reasons. Check with them first and be ready to voice our displeasure.

    #2 - People Our Focus
    Great statement. Christians are called to be the salt and light of the world, not only to the Church. Susan Elliot may be deaf, but she is still a person. People from neighbourhood schools may not get straight A's in their exams, but they are still people. We have a responsibility not only to climb up the ladder to meet the rich, but also to climb down the ladder to minister and understand the poor.

    In this case, we need to remember that while MOE has done wrong, we recognize that they too comprise of people with families, who genuinely desire to serve the public as well. Give them some space. They have apologized. Let us forgive them too, but make sure we all learn from the mistakes made. We could have committed the same errors like them. For we are human too. Remember, Christ died for people, not principles.

    #3 - Learning Our Passion
    I like this. We need to remember that learning is not restricted to within the four walls of a classroom.  A good teacher is also a good learner. The Greek word for 'disciple' can also be translated as 'learner.' This should be our Christian attitude toward all things. We learn to be good. We learn from our mistakes. We learn from other people's mistakes. Let this journey of learning continue on.

    In this case of MOE, let us all learn from the 'miscommunication' and the 'misunderstanding.' If there are more to be learned,. share it widely so that others can benefit. As much as we are willing to criticize, let us also be gracious to commend. This is the passion and fairness that the world need. May Christians lead the way to learn well, and to teach others to learn well. I like this Chinese proverb:
    "Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere."

    #4 -  Excellence our Pursuit
    In a nutshell, we must remember not to let excellence and productivity get into our head so much, that our hearts cannot keep up. In other words, let's have a head+heart approach with regards to excellence. It is one thing to excel and get A's. These things are measurable. However, in life there are many things that are simply not measurable. Things like character formation. Things like integrity. Things like honesty and fairness.

    In Singapore, many people look up to elite institutions like the Raffles group of schools. By taking in only the best players, nobody doubts they top the charts every year. It is like the football club, Chelsea in England, where the rich owner practically paid millions of dollars to revamp the entire squad. Will anybody be surprised when they won the Premier League then? No. This is why some sports commentators have lamented that the English Football Premier League has disintegrated into a rich-man-club league. Many footballers playing for top teams are millionaires now.

    Did the Bible say anything on excellence? Yes. Let Christians learn from the most excellent way. The way of love in 1 Corinthians 13. In summary, when it comes to Christian Ethics, let there be no flip-flops. Let there be the way, the truth and the life, manifested in the person of Jesus Christ. Let disciples of Christ live faithfully and ethically.

    Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
    (1 Cor 13:4-7)


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