Testing for Committee Positions
Testing for Chairperson
article was previously published in Subud
Voice in February, 1997.
In the mid-1970s elections for Chairpersons were
replaced by testing. The procedure is
now handled more competently by helpers than it used to be but, by my observation,
continues to be uncomfortable for them, the candidates and the members of the
meeting. This discomfort often shows itself in confusion, irreconcilable
testing results, stressful behavior by the spectators and upset among some
candidates. The fact that the process sometimes is smooth and easy should not
allow us to ignore the far too common and continuing symptoms of unease.
I believe our procedure is distorting the role of the
helpers and bringing them into disrepute. Whether or not it has ever been
stated as a goal, the helpers are put in the position of having to select,
through the process of testing, a single winner, the only one who should at
this time be the committee head. Any vote of approval after the fact is a
gesture only because the helpers have already appointed the new leader.
More importantly, in transferring responsibility for
appointment to the helpers, our procedure has removed a traditional
responsibility from two groups of people, the candidates and the members of the
meeting. This transfer has reduced the power to act by both groups and has led
to tensions in them. Whether, in terms of Subud cultural values, the outcome of
the selection process should be important or not, it does, in fact, matter to
the participants who their chairperson will be. Because it matters, any
reduction in their capacity to influence the outcome is bound to produce
For candidates, the decision to remain a candidate is,
historically, their own responsibility. Removing this responsibility produces a
curious side effect: passivity.
Although it is not necessary, many nominated people agree to stand only
after testing. In doing so these candidates ignore an important quality of
committee leaders, the unequivocal wish to do the job.
Even though, through their own repeated testing, more
than one candidate continues to stand, the procedure requires that only one
will be chosen. Having no acceptable alternative, the helpers eventually feel
obliged to test for the candidates to find the one right person. Everyone
tacitly agrees. Because they now become the interpreters of God’s Will, the
helpers cannot help but behave like priests. The helpers’ testing must not
fail. Their unanimity is important to the candidates, to the meeting and,
unfortunately, to the helpers themselves.
Inconsistency is inherent in testing and is nothing to be ashamed of,
but inconsistency implies that some helpers may be “wrong”. Helpers become
afraid to reveal publicly what they have received. When they consult privately
and return a unanimous decision the lack of openness is noticed by the
observers who then doubt the integrity of the process. The helpers, now
victims, are unfairly held to a standard of perfection as an unintended
consequence of removing candidate responsibility.
The second group of people shorn of responsibility are
the voters. The inability to use their vote in a major decision such as choosing
their chief officer, is
justified by a procedure which
promises “a better way”. It is probably impossible to demonstrate whether past
results have justified this promise. The uncertainty of the promise and the
loss of franchise produce tension. In our procedure only the perfunctory and
usually postponed vote of acclamation is permitted after personal
congratulations have been given to the new incumbent.
A change in the process is needed which will reduce
tension, retain the valuable Subud technique of testing and result in a more
comfortable experience for all.
If the decision to remain a candidate remains with the
candidates then, sometimes, more than one candidate will want to continue to
stand after considerable testing. The usual result in our society is to have a
vote. Voting itself is considered normal and will not produce any unusual
tensions. Testing, however, can enhance the voting process because the voters
will have witnessed it. In addition, the members can now receive for themselves
when they vote. Differences of opinion among voters are normal and not
indicative of failure. The members and the candidates on being given back their
responsibility, retrieve with it their self esteem. Helpers will not have to be seen to be perfect. Instead, they
will be seen as assisting in the process. Subud will have comfortably added the
valuable tool of testing to its elections without anyone being diminished by
I recently had a confirmation of my analysis. I was
paid a social visit by one of our Regional Helpers and I explained my ideas to
him. About two months later I was present when my visitor conducted the testing
for a Regional Chairperson. As I watched, I became aware that he had thought
about what I had said and was conducting the process in the spirit of my
suggestions. At the end of every stage of testing the helper respectfully asked
the candidates, one by one, if they wished to continue. The audience remained
calm and harmonious and the result was satisfying to everyone.
It is true in this case that when the usual three
questions were completed, all candidates except one had retired of their own
accord. However, given multiple remaining candidates I am sure that the meeting
would not have found an election to be out of place nor a sign of failure.
Furthermore, I believe it would be useful to limit the questions to the usual
three and not to invent any new questions just because a single winner has not
been picked. In this way the procedure could become simple and short.
This critique does not imply that our current method
has always produced poor results nor that helper assisted testing should be
abandoned as a useful addition to the normal election process.
Testing for Office
as a relatively new member I first witnessed a candidate being tested for group
Chair, I found it very exciting. For the first time I was seeing an election
that was responsive to spiritual considerations. Imagine if in the outside
world one could get a glimpse into the deepest recesses of a candidate’s
character before voting. It made me proud of my organization. I also found it
very moving to be able to witness someone in a state of receiving. It made the
latihan more real somehow to see the candidates in their sock feet moving and
vocalizing in that unique way before one’s very eyes in a fully lit room, even
if the experience felt a bit voyeuristic.
over the years the novelty wore off and I began to see some disadvantages. Like
other Subud practices, testing for a Chair is understood in the context of a
set of beliefs, a ‘mystique’ one might say. One of those beliefs is that
choosing a Chair is an important decision that God would want to be consulted
on, and that we can make that happen through testing. This is in itself a
rather questionable notion. In societies in the real world, political choice is
rarely influenced by priests, and where it is, we don’t generally consider this
to be a healthy state of affairs.
aspect of the mystique has been our assumption that of the available candidates
only one person is right for the job at any particular time. This involves us
in convoluted attempts to determine who is that One Right Person—when actually
it could be the case that several people could do the job well, or that no
suitable candidate is available, or that none of the available candidates would
be ideal but all would do the job adequately. (What are the odds that the ideal
person is at hand for any job, at any time? In real life we are always dealing
with compromises, and if we look at the history of our groups we see office-holders
who run the gamut from excellent to disastrous.) In any case, it is rather a
strange notion, that God has a particular person in mind and it’s our job to
find out who it is.
putting this emphasis on finding the right person, we ignore considerations
like policies, issues and goals. As far as the latter are concerned, we are
often getting a pig in a poke, especially at the wider levels of the
organization where candidates may not be known (or at least not well known) to
a majority of the members. In the ordinary world candidates run with platforms
and you vote with a sense of the candidate’s views and priorities. But when we
use testing alone, the platform is a hidden agenda; we give the chosen person a
mandate to make of the job whatever he or she likes. The members are deprived
of the power to choose a candidate on the basis of his or her stated goals or
priorities, something we take for granted in the real world.
a Chair this way can foster certain dysfunctional attitudes. There is a
tendency to believe that if the right person is in the job, then that person’s
decisions about how the job should be done must also be right. Having been
approved by God, new Chairs may feel that all they have to do is follow their
own instincts or inclinations. Consequently they may feel it unnecessary to
find out exactly what the job entails, or how it’s done in the “ordinary”
world, or to spend time acquiring skills, or to learn from their predecessors,
or to work hard at it. They may also feel it unnecessary to consult with the
members they are supposed to be serving.
person chosen has the ability to inspire support from the other members, it may
work out well. But sometimes the members, perhaps subliminally feeling
disempowered by the whole process, are happy to walk away from any feeling of
responsibility with the half-conscious rationalization: “God has spoken, and
I’m out of it now.” This is unfortunate from their own point of view, because
they then have less influence on the organization that serves them, but it is
also unfortunate from the point of view of the new office-holder, because he or
she needs the input and the support of the group in order to function well.
risk with testing is that members may be moved to stand for office because they
find the experience of being tested exciting or they hope for the honour of
being “chosen by God” but without having given much thought to whether they
have the time or the abilities or the interest to take on the actual work.
for the Will of God (or the gods) was something the Ancients did by examining
the entrails of sheep or observing the flight of birds. We now regard these
practices as outgrown superstitions inappropriate for our modern age. There are
good uses for testing in Subud, but I question whether trying to discover the
Deity’s intention is one of them. Even supposing that the person chosen by
testing represents God’s agenda for us, without the members’ support and
agreement, he or she will get nowhere with it. Better to vote in a candidate
whose views are known, whose abilities are established, and who has the
confidence and support of the members.
Believing Our Own Inventions
The practise of testing in the chairperson probably
originated with Bapak. Certainly Bapak did it for the “big appointments”:
“Bapak now wishes to choose the Chairman of the
International Subud Committee which will reside in Australia, in other words,
it is not the Chairman of a local committee but of the whole of Subud. So
the person chosen will have to be not only strong but intelligent, and Bapak
would like you now to receive. Oh yes, Bapak will choose one of you as Chairman
and another as Vice-chairman or assistant. Bapak would now like you to receive,
receive with complete sincerity, not wishing to become Chairman but leaving it
to Almighty God whatever He decides. Receive according to God's gift, surrender
everything that will happen to Almighty God, show your willingness and Bapak
will be witness to it. Bapak chooses as Chairman Ramdhan Simpson, and as
Vice-Chairman Salamah O’Brien. http://www.subudlibrary.net/library/Bapak_English/BAPAK541.HTM
Notice, however, in the above quote, the implication
is that, for the local committee at least, “strong and intelligent” are
sufficient qualities; testing should not be necessary.
The legacy of this practise promoted by Bapak, and adopted
by us for all appointments great and small is that we don’t have a truly
representative democracy in Subud, in the sense of people being elected on the
basis of their political platform. We have tested-in officials. Some of these
may widely consult to ascertain their members’ views before attending meetings.
Usually this does not happen. The person turns up for the national or zonal
meeting without any mandate. Subud has needed a way of justifying this
blatantly unbalanced and unrepresentative system of governance, and what has
accordingly slipped into our popular culture is the invention of various myths
surrounding the special status of the chair. Actual phrases one hears, often
spoken in an atmosphere of great reverence and seriousness, are: “The chairperson
is able to receive the direction that all of us should be following at the
present time,” or “The chairperson of a country is responsible for carrying the
‘feeling’ of that country with them to the zonal meeting.” In one case, an
ex-chair was actually heard to say that he had felt during his term of office
“as if Almighty God had been the chairman”.
If Subud is to become more democratic and
representative we need to drop the practise of testing our committee chairs.
This may be difficult as long as we continue to believe in the special kejiwaan-boosted status of the chairperson. We
must be willing to reverse out of our former mistake and replace invention with
Voting as a Human Right
The third of the Ten Aims of the Subud Association is
to ‘protect the good reputation of Subud’. Implicit in this aim is the need to
observe local laws and norms in the way that we behave and operate.
A few members I’ve met have the attitude that Subud is
above mere ‘heart and mind’ legislation. This I find a dangerous attitude. One
needs only to read the front pages of the newspaper to see stories of people
who consider themselves above the law, and believe themselves to be carrying
out divine instructions.
Once ordinary human laws and norms are disregarded,
there is the potential for all hell to break loose. Therefore whatever we do on
our individual journeys, we should be extremely suspicious of any ‘guidance’
which puts us outside the framework of what our fellow humans see as just, fair
or honourable behaviour.
As well as national laws, we have a growing framework
of international laws, which seek to govern the way that States treat each
other, and the way in which they treat their own citizens. One of the more
important documents is the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Article 18 of the Covenant guarantees religious
freedom. Those Subud members who advocate some kind of Subud theocracy should
consider that in real theocracies—such as Iran—Subud does not and cannot exist.
It’s only in the Enlightenment spirit of such international covenants on human
rights that freedom of religious practice and belief exist.
Article 25 speaks directly to democracy. It asserts
that people have a right to take part in public affairs either directly or
through ‘freely elected’ representatives.
Free election, to me, implies choice. Article 25 also specifically
mentions the requirement for ‘secret ballots’. There are very good reasons for
having choices, and for privacy in making choices.
The process in which helpers test candidates and then
present one of those candidates to the membership as the approved candidate is
almost identical to the process that used to occur in Communist states. In
those elections, an inner circle of party members (themselves appointed by the
party, for life) select suitable candidates for positions and then call
elections in which the people are asked to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’. These are not
generally considered free and fair elections.
It also takes an unusually brave and forward
individual to stand up in a room of people and—after a long and complex process
arriving at a result—say ‘I don’t agree.’ Where there is no secret ballot,
there is enormous psychological and social pressure to conform: to ‘not rock
We are responsible for the processes we use for
appointing our representatives. In doing so, we need also to take
responsibility for ensuring that our processes stand up to scrutiny against the
norms and standards of the communities in which we live. For most of the world
today, that means the principles embodied in international covenants and
declarations such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
What that boils down to is that no matter how we
arrange the election process, we need to give people (a) choices, and (b) the
right to express their choice in private. To do otherwise is to fall below
internationally accepted standards, and thus bring Subud into disrepute.