What rogue flyers can learn from S Korea

For rude behaviour on flight, the Korean Air chairman's daughter was fired from official positions and jailed.

The ‘chappal’ assault by Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad brings to mind an interesting parallel to an airline incident that embroiled South Korea two years ago. In the famous ‘nut rage’ case, Cho Hyun-ah, daughter of Korean Air chairman, became enraged when she was served macademia nuts in a bag instead of a plate and forced the taxiing flight to return to the gate.

The incident ignited outrage in South Korea. Fed up with the high-handed behaviour of chaebols and politicians, the ‘nut rage’ episode became a lightening rod for change in the country. Both Cho and her father were forced to issue a public apology; the duo were seen bowing deeply on live television around the country.

The chairman, lamenting his daughter’s ‘foolish behaviour,’ said: “it’s my fault, I ask for the public’s generous forgiveness.” He then fired her from all the positions she enjoyed at the conglomerate. Cho ended up behind bars, even though her sentence was eventually reduced.

Contrast this to our politician Gaikwad. Clearly, ‘losing face’ does not invoke the same degree of fear in Indian politicians. On the contrary, they seem to thrive on bellicosity. Soon after the Air India incident, the MP popped up on a poster in his Osmanabad constituency that lavished him with the epithet, ‘Gaikwadgiri’.

Not only is Gaikwad back to flying business class, he has refused to apologise to the airline staffer who he thrashed, in his own admission, 24 times with his slipper. Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena has gone on a limb to portray Gaikwad as the victim, railing in a Saamna editorial, ‘it has become a fashion to hold politicians responsible for everything.’

Having lived in South Korea for many years, the remorse displayed by the Korean Air chairman and his daughter in the nut rage case came as no surprise. After all, this is a society where the arc of Confucian ideology continues to have a profound influence on the moral, political and social compass of national identity.

In South Korea, the dishonour associated with ‘losing face’ is visceral, akin to death. The judge who reduced Cho Hyun-ah’s prison sentence declared her bigger punishment would be living with the guilt of remaining ‘a tainted woman’ in Korean society. This obsession with repute may explain why, in recent years, the country has seen a surge in high-profile suicides with leaders choosing to embrace death rather than live in the shadows of shame.

Former president Roh Moo-Hyun, gripped by despair over corruption charges, jumped off a cliff to his death. In 2014, a school vice principal hanged himself in the aftermath of the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry, in which hundreds of students from his school perished.

Experts believe deep-rooted Confucian principles instil a strong sense of collective nationalism among Koreans. Says Kyung-Gyun Chung, sociologist and former professor at Seoul National University: “Confucian values strongly affects the way of thinking among Koreans.”

Even though South Korea has been rocked by bribery and corruption scandals involving its most powerful companies, Samsung and Hyundai, there is an underlying faith that the Confucian code of conduct, with its strong emphasis on family piety and honour, will act as a reset button. And it does.

Politicians charged
Today, even those at the vortex of power are not spared. Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye is sitting in jail today after tens of thousands of angry protestors took to the streets calling for her ouster. Park is the third former president to be charged for corruption, after Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo.

India can surely draw some lessons from South Korea, not only from its economic miracle, but from the strength of its civil society and institutions. Both India and South Korea are robust democracies in which the ultimate authority vests in its citizenry and where public officials are held to the most rigorous ethical standards.

What is palpably lacking in the Indian political leadership today is good old-fashioned decency. A sincere apology by Gaikwad would have served him well and shored up some dignity. Instead, he beat up the steward, goonda-style, setting an ominous tone for the nation that violence is an acceptable recourse, especially for those in positions of power. Even while Twitter exploded in anger against Gaikwad, the outrage did not result in his case going to the judiciary as it did in South Korea.

In our age of aggression, humility and graciousness are fast becoming anachronistic virtues, drifting away like ice floes in the sea. That we have become, as a society, calcified to the absence of probity in our leaders is deeply troubling.

The Civil Aviation Ministry’s no-fly list for unruly passengers is a welcome step. While it does not absolve Gaikwad’s egregious misconduct, which in any civilised society would have got him the marching order, it is a palliative assurance, given that all the charges against Gaikwad are likely to be dropped as the incident slips off the public radar.

(The writer is a former BBC Asia reporter and author of Batik Rain)

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