Dare to be like this Pope?

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By Augustine Low

Life can throw up great surprises. Who would have thought that the world’s oldest bureaucracy – the Catholic Church – would come to show the way with radical reform and monumental change?

Change so sudden, so sweeping that there are lessons for established institutions and for societies like Singapore.

When Pope Francis was elected nine months ago, there was the usual hype but not a great deal of hope that he would bring profound change to the Catholic Church, lumbering, inflexible and bureaucratic. (I am speaking as a Catholic).

We should have seen signs from the outset that the 76-year-old was going to be different. He rejected the papal palace for a small apartment, carried his own luggage and paid his own hotel bill. He was the first Pope to use the word “gay” in relation to homosexuals, even asking “Who are we to judge?”

Pope Francis has since called on the Vatican to give up some of its power and control a move that is not without risk, but borne of courage and conviction. He has attacked free-market capitalism as “a new tyranny”.

His blueprint is specific and sweeping – less status, less centralised power, more compassionate, more people-centred, more daring in taking risks and making changes.

He pleads with politicians to fight poverty and income inequality, and urges the rich to share their wealth. . . “money must serve, not rule!”

Such radical renewal and monumental change will reverse a trend of centuries. These words underline the seriousness of the Pope’s intent: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security.” He wants to tear down structures which “give us a false sense of security, with rules which make us harsh judges, with habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving.”

Vatican observers applaud the Pope’s invigorating leadership but there are those like Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and respected author, who warn: “Not everyone will like it . . . for it poses a fierce challenge to the status quo.”

From the way a centuries-old bureaucracy is being shaken up, I see three lessons for established institutions and for societies like Singapore.

Change can come from the power of one. It seldom comes from consensus; it takes one man with courage and vision to set the wheel in motion. Risk-taking is part and parcel of change. There are always doubters, but you can’t move if you keep asking if society is ready, as our Singapore politicians are in the habit of doing. Did the Pope ask his flock of over one billion Catholics if they were ready for change and renewal? It would have taken him ages to move. He himself sets the agenda for change, he calls the shots and he leads his charges.

Change must not be in half measures. It needs to be in broad strokes, it requires getting out of the comfort zone and quite often, in dismantling systems and structures. If change is half-hearted, it stalls and stutters. The novelist Salman Rushdie, in his memoirs, writes about his own predicament, but somehow his words remind me of my own country: “Each step forward was cancelled by one going back. The illusion of change was undone by the discovery that nothing had changed. Hope was erased by disappointment, good news by bad.”

Change is inevitable. There comes a time when you change to stem decline and to renew and rejuvenate. If the world’s oldest bureaucracy can come to embrace such a reality, there is hope for institutions and societies mired in clinging on to status quo and security. Amidst the vitriol of GE 2011, George Yeo, a principled man (and a Catholic, by the way) said: “For Singapore to move forward, the People’s Action Party has to change.” I wonder if he spoke his heart out in vain.

Augustine Low is a communications strategist.