Prudence and Courage

Last week was one of great, irresolvable contrasts. I spent the week in Dhaka, Bangladesh, working with a client on how to use their knowledge about their customers to improve their customers’ journeys. The people I was working with were smart, switched on, keen and energetic. A delight to work with. A country of such people should be able to achieve great things.

The streets outside their office compound told a different story. 

Everywhere you see people – mostly men – either sitting and staring vacantly, or marching rapidly in different directions with an intense air of purpose. The sense of contained energy and the contrast between motion and stasis is intense in the traffic too – traffic does not flow, it is almost stationery at peak hours, but each vehicle, whether luxury Landcruiser, or three wheeled motorised tuk tuk, is in continuous abbreviated motion – continuously inching and edging into spare millimetres of space with aggressive intent. Between the vehicles, whether stationery or lurching violently forward into a few feet of space, weave marching men and straining bicycle rickshaws, taking everyone’s lives in their hands.

On Wednesday night I was in such a snarl, in a car being driven to a dinner. I became aware of an altercation about four feet to my left, and it took me a couple of seconds to realise that something nasty was happening. A tuk tuk (an open sided motorised tricycle which carries up to 3 passengers at a squeeze) had bumped into a car and shattered its front light. A bunch of men had surrounded the passenger doors, one passenger squeezed himself out and ran off. Two of the men left, leaving one, who seemed to be pummeling and turning over the passenger inside. As I watched, he finished his job, and walked off. My driver said, “It’s a hijack”.

I don’t know if they used knives on the man inside, apparently they often do. As the traffic cleared and we moved on, the driver of the car the tuk tuk had bumped into had approached and was speaking to the man inside, who didn’t seem to be injured, a 50-ish man. I noticed he still had his watch. My driver said, “Normally I will sound my horn and shout hijack, but with a foreigner in my car I don’t want to attract attention to you. They are very dangerous people.” 50 metres up the road, two traffic police supervised the chaos. “The hijackers don’t care, and nor do the police” my driver said.

Given that I had taken a while to figure out what was going on, I realised that even if I had known from the start that it was a robbery, I would probably have just watched, with the same curious detatchment that an expatriate colleague told me about, on seeing a man literally getting pancaked by a speeding truck on a road just outside Dhaka. “The terrible thing is, I slept well that night” he said. Except that in my case, an intervention might have meant something.

Prudence, of course, is supposed to rule over courage, and I can plead prudence as a foreigner in a somewhat volatile climate, where mobs frequently gather and beat up scapegoats for their terrible predicament. “If I got into an accident, I’d get the hell out of there right away, because the crowd would lynch me” my colleague told me.

But if everyone was prudent, and if nobody had the courage to resist such reckless and cynical lawlessness, then we would all end up with a society like the one I caught a fleeting glimpse of. And the good people who exist are damned to small islands of endeavour, against a tide of corruption and poverty and desperate struggle. But where does courage become foolhardiness, and how do we know?

My last contrast, of course, was returning to the sleek, secure and predictable environment of Singapore. And to the realisation that Singapore could very well have ended up like Bangladesh – it had its moments in the late 1950s and early 1960s when it could have tipped that way. But courage evidently triumphed. That’s a mystery that is worth investigating.

So it was a sad and disturbing week. On the trivial scale of the work we do, we also have to balance prudence and courage – sometimes we need to tell clients things that they don’t want to hear. We tell ourselves we’re being courageous, where perhaps they think we’re being arrogant. Behind everything, the voice of prudence says tell the truth, be honest, try your best, but know the limits. Don’t upset things too much, this is your bread and butter. Before last week I might have felt comfortable about how we keep that balance, but Dhaka upset me, and I’m not sure I know why. Courage is harder than I realised.

1 Comment so far

Paolina Martin

Patrick, I think not doing anything requires courage too. The fact that it did prick your conscience testifies to that. We are very much guided by our conscience, although I personally prefer to think of it as the spirit within. 

Someone said, and wisely too, that we are not human beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a human experience.

Posted on August 29, 2006 at 09:50 AM | Comment permalink

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