Sunday, November 21, 2010

Redefining leadership

This is my contribution for the American Council for Young Political Leaders (ACYPL)’s blog.


Above: The delegates from the South-East Asia programme at the Legislative Fellows Congress at the US State Department, Washington DC on 8 & 9 November 2010.

When I was thirteen, I stood up in my classroom and told my teacher that I disagreed with his method of punishment, which consisted of drawing on the faces of misbehaving fellow students with a white chalk.

That day, I took several strokes of the cane on my open palm for being disobedient but I left the classroom with my face untouched and a new resolve to end my teacher’s abusive and degrading treatment.  Since then, nobody had their faces drawn on again and my teacher was suspended indefinitely.

That was the only time when I felt like a true leader.

Many years have passed and I often look back and wonder where that thirteen year-old girl has gone.

It is probably no surprise that as an adult, I have continuously chose to work for human rights and humanitarian organisations because of my lack of tolerance of those who disrespect the dignity and integrity of other human beings. However, none of my accomplishments as an adult has come close to what I did when I was thirteen.

Sure, I would often try my best to execute my duties and responsibilities to the best of my abilities and judgments, but I have always allowed others to lead while I stay happily behind the scenes. I would often shy away from social engagements, hide from the spotlight and prefer to live a life that is free from what I assume as cumbersome commitments.

My philosophy has always been this: do the right thing but leave the big things to those with big ambitions.

When I got into this programme, I figure that I’ll be able to learn more about leadership.  Thankfully, I’ve met many people with impressive portfolio; young politicians and corporate executives who have founded or co-founded organisations or other miscellaneous community projects. I learn that these individuals do not sit and wait for others to solve issues faced by their communities. They get out from their comfort zone and do something about it. Not only do these individuals want to see a change in their communities, they want to be a part of that change.

At the same time, I also discover that in order to be defined as a leader here, one often needs to be seen as a leader; the one who asserts him/herself forward, the one who gets him/herself noticed and the one who is competitive enough to want to be recognised as a leader. These are aspects of leadership which I have never felt comfortable with.

Throughout my stay in St. Louis, I’m forced to ask myself these questions:

“If I don’t want to appear on the television, does that mean I’m not a leader?”

“If I don’t care enough about meeting very important or influential people, does that mean I’m not a leader?”

“If I don’t care about being photographed with important people, does that mean I’m not a leader?”

“If I don’t want to give a speech in public, does that mean I’m not a leader?”

After much pondering, my answers to all the above questions are an affirmative no. I realise that in order to be a good leader, I need to stay true to myself. There comes a time when I need to be honest and courageous enough to make a stand on what are the things I will support or need to do and what not. Leadership is not just about “being out there” but also about making the right decisions, no matter how tough they are, and taking necessary actions to implement those decisions.

When my best friend asked me over Skype what I’ve learned from the programme, I told her that most of the people I’ve met here inspire me to get out from my own comfort zone and start thinking about what I want and can do for my community. I told her that I’ve always wanted to run a non-profit organisation which provides youths with a platform to have their voices heard and to become more socially responsible within their own communities and I would like to see this vision coming to fruition.

So, by being in this programme, I think I’m able to see the reincarnation of that thirteen year old girl again. Hopefully, I’ll be able to have the courage she had by standing up in the midst of a crowd to advocate for what is right without fea


  1. bravo, you are inspiring in very many ways!

  2. Nolah. Far from the person I would like to be and this is not false modesty.