Published On: Thu, Jun 23rd, 2022

High power-distance

By Hilbert Haar

A recent article by Malcolm Gladwell about his experiences at a Mennonite wedding in Southern Ontario sheds a bright light on the way people interact with each other (or not). His thoughts about the difference between high power-distance cultures and low power-distance cultures ought to give politicians in St. Maarten reason to think about the way they deal with people.

What is the difference between the two culture-types Gladwell is writing about? France, Saudi Arabia and Colombia are examples of countries with high power-distance cultures. “Authority, in all its manifestations, matters a lot there.”

On the other side of the spectrum are countries with low power-distance cultures, like Australia and Israel. As an example, Gladwell mentions what a friend of his experienced in Israel where he was working as a Middle East correspondent for a major newspaper. “”He would sometimes call the Israeli prime minister at his residence and the prime minister would pick up. That is low power-distance. I guarantee you that the president of France does not pick up his own phone.”

How does this reflect on St. Maarten? I recently went through an experience that suggests that our country falls in the high power-distance category. Here is why.

In early June I was looking for one particular piece of information: what is the total wage bill of country St. Maarten? I plowed through the 2022 budget but the numbers I found did not make any sense, so I figured that there is something wrong with my math-skills or that I had missed something. Therefore, I decided to approach Finance Minister Ardwell Irion with the question.

Because I currently live in Bali, going to a Council of Ministers press briefing was not an option. Fortunately, Minister Irion is present on Facebook. Great!

On June 10, I sent the following message: “Honorable Minister Irion, can you please let me know what currently the wage bill (totale loonsom) of the government is?”

I got a reply almost immediately, but it was computer-generated: “Hi, thanks for contacting us. We’ve received your message and appreciate you reaching out.”

I am writing this column on June 23, so it is fair to say that thirteen days have passed since I reached out to the good minister. I am still waiting for an answer to my question.

I started thinking: how difficult can it be to find that answer? After all, he is the minister of finance. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that Ardwell is a nice guy, so this is not personal. Since I received no reply, I went looking for the answer elsewhere and received it from Jefka Martina, who handles press contacts for financial supervisor Cft.

I messaged Jefka on June 16 at 6.20 p.m. and two hours later I received my answer. For good measure, Jefka included her Whatsapp number.

I am still at a loss as to why I never received an answer from Minister Irion. Is it because he does not know the answer? Is it because he never looks at his Facebook messages? Or is it because he does not like to give journalists information if they ask for it?

I understand very well that ministers of finance do not spend all day on Facebook. God forbid. But if they are on Facebook and if they go to the trouble of creating an automated response, like Irion did, then why didn’t he answer the damn question?

My gut feeling tells me that there is a difference between the appearance of transparency (like, hi, you can contact me of Facebook) and practicing transparency (by answering simple questions within a reasonable timeframe).

The alternative is that Minister Irion has withdrawn inside his ivory tower, where his behavior is driven by a high power-distance philosophy. I have no problem believing that Emmanuel Macron behaves this way in France, but I am sure that our minister can do better.