Message to the PM: More Kowtow, Less Kimchi

Prime Minister Tony Abbott could learn a lot from the cultures of our free trade partners in East Asia.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott could learn a lot from the cultures of our free trade partners in East Asia.


By Jamie Morse

Koreans are sometimes thought of as hot-headed and quick to temper. Perhaps it’s the spicy kimchi, fire chicken or the ubiquitous soju. Yet, travel to Seoul as a tourist and it’s likely a market researcher will ask for your impressions of the country, its pros, cons and suggestions for improvement.

With this need to understand themselves through the opinions of outsiders, contrary to the hot-headed stereotype, Korean identity is actually defined by what non-Koreans say about Korea and its people.

Similarly, the Japanese people define themselves more by their contribution to a community or group, seeking harmony and cooperation in all personal interactions.

In both cultures, whenever negative feedback is received it is always addressed to ensure a more positive future experience.

Within these comparable cultural contexts, political and business leaders are linked to their constituents and stakeholders more indivisibly than we are used to in our individualist, Western culture.

Yet, despite these cultural contexts, recent examples of Korean and Japanese leaders who, like our own, faltered when the situation called for public contrition, illustrates the blind spot of leaders who live in ‘bubbles’ and fail to effectively communicate and connect with their base.

Former South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak (2008-2013) issued not one but two public apologies when his government endured weeks of public protests during a disastrous first year in office after a decision to reopen US beef imports was fuelled by wide-ranging public sentiment that the president, nick-named The Bulldozer, was non-consultative and authoritarian. Sound familiar?

Toyota slowly recovered from its near-death experience in February 2010 when its president Akio Toyoda gave a public bow calibrated to precise length and depth to convey contrition and remorse, after a range of manufacturing defects led to global product recalls.

Still, like President Lee, it took Toyoda two bows to get it right. Leaders in East Asia are not accustomed to doing the bowing themselves. They are usually the ones scrutinising the posture and endurance of bows afforded to them not by them.

Although it is difficult to put the theatre of East Asian apologies into an Australian cultural context, Prime Minister Tony Abbott could use a dose of Confucian culture and Zen wisdom to reboot his recent contrition before colleagues and the nation.

After 16 months in office we know that Tony Abbott’s identity is one of a man defined by his adversaries not the people he serves. The roots for this lie in an insecurity about his legitimacy as a leader.

Abbott’s salvation could lie in crafting and communicating his vision for the country – a vision which provides the context for the austerity measures his government has been advocating. Without any discernible vision the government’s programme has no balancing context. Instead, communications coming from Canberra continue to paint Abbott and the government as uncaring and authoritarian.

Replacing a period of entitlement with one of austerity might not be so hard if the government could communicate a vision which will be paid for by short-term fiscal austerity. The government’s 2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia, which will double our agricultural output and grow tourism and energy sectors in that region, could be part of that vision. This is a big picture narrative with big potential pay-offs for the country.

Unfortunately, having cemented his tough guy image, communicating an entrepreneurial vision of the future, paid for by short-term austerity, will not be easy. Can he do it?

The examples of Lee Myung-Bak and Akio Toyoda remind us that leaders are not always skilled in the artful apology or proactive listening. Abbott, a street fighter at his best when his back is against the wall, is likewise unaccustomed to apologising, and clearly needs to master the art of listening and communicating.

The wisdom of Confucius is apt for the time:

If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and justice will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion.

To borrow from the Greeks, Tony Abbott needs to ‘know thyself’ and, rather than seeking feedback from around his office he could do well to follow the Korean lead and ask a few strangers how they view his style and policies. Then, if he’s prepared to heed the advice he receives, he might have a fighting chance of survival.


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