“Separate the wheat from the chaff” is an ancient idiom.
The word chaff derives from the Middle English chaf and from the Old English ceaf, which means husk. It is the dry and indigestible casing around the seed of cereal grain. In times past, farmers would winnow the wheat by exposing it to wind to blow away the chaff, leaving only the grains, the core of food supply and nutrients.
The phrase is useful to illustrate our present situation in Malaysian society. We live in a world that revolves between good and evil – a vicious circle. Civilisations ebb and flow. Empires rise and collapse.
Our society faces many challenges: political upheavals, coupled with economic disruptions, racial discrimination, poverty, economic disparities and health crises such as Covid.
We also face social problems closer to our daily lives, eg abuse within families, mental disorders and bullying in schools. We constantly encounter hardship and search ceaselessly for alternative ways to remedy these wrongdoings.
We can learn more from the idiom above. The philosophy is not simply about differentiating between the good and the bad. Once we identify the good and the bad, the key lies in retaining the good and eliminating the bad, to prevent the depraved from spreading in the system.
We know that racism, gender indiscrimination and hate messages are disseminated widely and almost impossible to impede. We have paid way too much attention to the cause of the problems and proposed solutions without giving enough emphasis to the process. The emphasis on the processes should be on retaining goodness and building the foundation in a system so that we can contain bad practices from spreading.
To retain goodness and refrain from succumbing to negative influences, we must realise the essence of good leadership. Whether or not we like it, leadership is the essence to build a solid foundation in a society. Whether it is a nation-state, a multinational corporation, a university, a school or a household, the role of effective leaders is essential.
Effective leaders are those who can “separate the wheat from the chaff” and comprehend the essence of its philosophy. They should not be merely concerned about accumulating more capital and wealth and creating tangible material development. They must know how to maintain solid structures and retain people with merit and positive values.
Effective leaders must have the know-how to cultivate goodness in a system (or society) and in people. They will have the foresight and vision to develop long-term sustainability.
Quality leaders are those who can retain goodness and refrain from negative practices with wisdom. They have visionary plans for future generations.
Handling negative elements cannot be done by force or through a hegemonic way of imposing from the top. Refraining from negative practices effectively requires courage, rationality and compassion.
We need courage to accept fresh approaches, to welcome new adventures and to face the (new) challenges.
We are often afraid of rejecting poor practices even when we know they are not appropriate. Worse, we are often compelled to subscribe to wrongdoings or are seduced by them.
Effective leaders must have the courage to discard elements that are negative. This act of courage requires rationality.
Rational thinking sets the foundation for a non-partisanship perspective, especially towards race-based politics. It will liberate us from emotions such as fear, pity, hatred, greed.
But all these must be accompanied with compassion. Compassion goes beyond feeling pity towards others; it is also about monitoring someone who has done ‘wrong’ and providing opportunities to enable corrective action. We reject negative elements first to prevent it from spreading, while maintaining a leeway for corrective action.
This is wisdom: courage, rational thinking and compassionate action.
To sum up, to build a harmonious world, effective leaders are those who retain positive elements in the society, cultivate them and retain them. They also learn to steer clear of negative elements, even if it requires them to eliminate such elements – but with compassion. It is in the process that we can begin the journey to build a solid foundation for a harmonious society.
Soon Chuan Yean wrote this together with Lim Tin Mei, who studies entrepreneurship at a local university