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GE2020: What’s Height Got To Do With It? — Heng Swee Keat’s Achilles Heel

Nomination Day has ended many speculations and casts fluid facts into stones. Though it’s a nationwide election, for once, all eyes are glued on the outcome of one constituency—the East Coast GRC. Of course, we cannot wait to see the grand East Coast plans emphasised at lengths by DPM Heng Swee Keat during his nomination day blunder.

Credit – SGAG

Never undermine the amount of theatrical effect a somber issue like politics can bring.

As the fate of our potential succeeding 4G leader unfolds next week, let’s recall a remark made by our late MM Lee Kuan Yew on DPM Heng:

“Heng Swee Keat, now Education Minister, was the best Principal Private Secretary I ever had. The only pity is that he is not of a big bulk, which makes a difference in a mass rally.”

Height, build, and impression—does it make a difference in a leadership journey?

Interestingly, research has shown a correlation between height and leadership. A study by Lindqvist showed that in the corporate sector taller people do get greater opportunities and advantages at the workplace.

“An increase in height by 10 cm leads to a 2.2% point increase in the probability that the individual is in a managerial position.”

Alongside Lindqvist, other studies and research also prove the correlation between height and perceived leadership.

As someone who is vertically-challenged, I feel offended and discriminated against that a biologically-determined factor impinges on my progress in life.

The different schools of thought on the height bias

Starting from the subject matter itself, tall people tend to have greater self-esteem and social confidence based on the positioning of their heads—a study from the American Psychological Association explains.

Credit – SaveDelete

Imagine a conversation between the taller and shorter persons. Due to the height disparity, taller people tend to “look down on” while the shorter person needs to “look up to” to maintain that mutual eye contact. The act of “looking down” and having to “lookup” instinctively puts the taller person on a “pedestal” and instils more self-confidence.

In secondary school, I once witnessed a tall male student being reprimanded by a petite-framed female teacher for his tardiness. Though the context would have told you that the student was at fault and the teacher was being a responsible educator by correcting him, in the lecturing process, she had to crane her neck due to her dainty frame to convey her vexation.

Credit – HistoryExtra

In an evolution psychology study, also known as Caveman politics, the preference for height in leadership stems from ancient warring days. This may sound distant and very literal but there the height advantage of a taller warrior gives him a clearer birds-eye view and allows him to spot earlier signs of any impending danger on the battlefield.

Credit – Indian Catholic Matters

Height, in itself, is a physical stature. A research by the Group Processes and Intergroup Relations states that an elongated frame presents themselves as a more convincing leader and that entitles them an authority to lead. This is also driven by a primal instinct that gives people “security” and makes them feel more assured.

Besides, height is also related to physical dominance. For example, a taller person is perceived to be “physically stronger”, “more aggressive”, and show “better fighting spirit”. Though violence is not encouraged in our culture as a form of conflict resolution strategy, this height dependent perception carries through and taller people are seen to be more “confrontational”.

We are wired to want to follow people who are physically commanding and having a lanky frame puts you in an elevated position naturally.

The MM Lee remark

So back to MM Lee’s point of a mass rally—like an open public rally—with the mob of people averaging at a certain height, the eyes usually wander to the taller, protruding-head above the crowd. They are inevitably and undeniably more visible.

Bringing this perceived notion back to our homegrown politicians and some better-known country leaders, here are their names, positions, and height.

Credit – The Straits Times

– Lee Kuan Yew, 1st Prime Minister of Singapore 1959 to 1990 – 1.8 m
– Goh Chok Tong, 2nd Prime Minister of Singapore 1990 to 2004 – 1.9 m
– Lee Hsien Loong, 3rd Prime Minister of Singapore 2004 to 2020 – 1.83 m

Credit – ABC News

– Barack Obama, 44th President of USA 2009 to 2017 – 1.85 m
– Donald Trump, 45th President of USA 2017 to current – 1.9 m

On the flip side:

Credit – War On The Rocks

– Deng Xiao Ping, Chinese Leader 1959 to 1989 — 1.57 m
Also known as the “Architect of Modern China”, Deng’s political legacy lies in the multiple progressive reforms implemented—cultural, economic, market—while maintaining social stability.

Credit – Medium

– Winston Churchill, Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 1940 to 1945 and 1951 to 1955 — 1.67 m
Churchill fought the Nazis and led Britain through World War II—a very tough time in history.

– Mahatma Gandhi, Political Activist — 1.64 m

Credit – The Objective Standard

– James Madison, 4th President of USA 1809 to 1817 — 1.63 m
Better known as the “Father of Constitution”, he created the basic framework of the U.S. Constitution and wrote the first draft of the Bill of Rights.

Though it might be true that height clouts our impression, it ultimately has little or no correlation to one’s intelligence and no influence on the willingness to serve people. When all is said and done, the latter supersedes the vertical battle. It is neither a beauty pageant nor a competition for charisma, but an election of leaders—people who will lead the nation through hardships and to greater heights.

For short people like myself, not all hope is lost. As much as age is a number, the same applies to height too.


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