"Honesty is a question of right and wrong, not a matter of policy" (Aliran, 18 September 2020)

Ethical behaviour in society would be of high standard if that society has laws, policies, rules and procedures evolving out of noble values commonly accepted by members of that society – and not imposed on them, Mildred Lopez writes.

I found myself mulling over the article “Good policies pointless if not ethically implemented, says anti-graft activist”, written with the current political drama, water woes, the Covid-19 pandemic, and gloomy economic situation looming over us.

It is a situation that leaves many in a state of despair. What is the underlying cause of all that I contemplate?

The point of ethics in my mind is, if each person was honest, there would be no need for a national policy for good accountability. Honesty itself would be a good policy.

And there lies the truth; what we need are good men and women. The human being is the key actor, the world his stage and his actions cannot be separated from his body, soul and spirit; the creature cannot be separated from the creator. Love or caritas must prevail in him, willing the good of the other. The conscience, the still, quiet voice within him, that tells him that somebody is watching, must be given heed. Actions without conscience are the path to a soul’s perdition.

Let us now look at the meaning of the key words mentioned in the article. They are key because the words seem to be stated for rhetoric:

Fraud is derived from Latin meaning delusion.

Accountability is defined by the father of accounting, friar Luca Pacioli. He prescribed in his Summa that accountability is as if one is reporting to God who sees all, gives all and owns all.                          

Transparency is derived from the Latin transparentia, meaning shining through.

Corruption is derived from Latin corruptio meaning to destroy.

Ethics is from Greek ethikos meaning moral good – the philosophy involves determining right behaviour for the common good. The moral behaviour does not change relative to situations. It is consistent.

Accountability, transparency, and ethics are characteristics that can work in tandem for the common good with a right conscience and compassion, avoiding self-centred delusion and destruction. The following is a case in point that came before the court of a sitting judge:

Judge Tirupati Ram Shastri in a case for compensation for a motor accident 

Issue: The counsel for the insurance company is arguing that not more than 500,000 rupees can be justified under the law. The counsel for the claimant is arguing that compensation of at least 2.5m rupees compensation must be paid as justifiable damages. 

Facts: Two people have died in a motor accident and the father of one of the deceased is seeking compensation from the insurance company.

Deliberations: The claimant for compensation is an old man of over 70. Sitting next to him is a confused eight-year-old boy. After hearing the relentless and futile arguments, the judge asks both the lawyers to calm down. He tells them both their quantifying of claims should not be unrealistic. It should provide for the loss, but it should also be sustainable for the company paying the compensation. The case should not be prolonged for several years. Time and the value of money is of the essence, and a timely agreement will save on both.

Hence, he adjourned the case and gave directions to both parties to discuss between themselves and see if any compromise can emerge within the day. If the hearing is postponed, the next hearing would be several months on.

The judge remained in court whilst watching and listening as the parties deliberated between themselves.

The old man tells the insurance company’s lawyer that three years before, he lost his only child, his son and daughter in-law in the motorcycle accident. His eight-year-old grandson is now dependent on him. The child has lost his parents.  Nothing can compensate for that loss. The compensation sought from the insurance company was to help provide for the future of his grandson. He implores them to understand he does want anything more than what is truly justified. He is over 70; he does not have many more days to live. 

The insurance company’s manager listens intently and is moved.

The judge intervenes and asks the manager that since he is willing to pay 500,000 rupees in compensation, he must have the authority to provide at least 1.5m rupees. Obviously, he’s familiar with the games these companies play. The judge says he thinks that, in line with the formula given by the Supreme Court for such matters, the compensation comes to 1.3m rupees. However, the manager can decide to increase or reduce the amount according to what his conscience pulls him towards, what his inward voice thinks is justified in this case, considering the plight of the little boy, who is innocent and finds himself in a mire he was forcibly thrust into; his only close relative being his grandfather who pleads for him. Perhaps a compensation of 1.7m rupees could be made. 

If both parties agree to this, the judge would record their agreement and issue a compromise decree order. If they do not agree, then he would award 2.0m rupees for this distressful case: a father cruelly robbed of a child to provide for him and who now has a grandchild he has to provide for. However, in this case, even if it seems like more money is awarded to the bereaved pair, the judge is certain the insurance company will appeal, and the case will linger in the courts for a long, indeterminate period, causing further distress and incurring hefty costs, rendering the compensation near useless. 

With this, the manager calls his insurance company, and then informs the court that his company has agreed to accept the award of 1.7m rupees and requested the judge to issue a compromise decree if the claimant agrees. 

Decision: An award of 1.7m rupees is granted. A compromise decree is issued. The court rests.

The above case clearly depicts how policy, authority and just men shape and provide equitable solutions for the common good. Public policy must be based on a reasoned enquiry into finding solutions to practical problems, infused with compassion. It is not an end in itself. It requires ethical men and women who have a sense of solidarity with all other human beings.

Cowardice asks the question “Is it safe?”

Expediency asks the question “Is it politic?”

And Vanity comes along and asks “Is it popular?”

But Conscience asks “Is it right?”

– Martin Luther King Jr

So how does Malaysia move forward from the quagmire it is in? It is Malaysians, the honest Malaysians, who must take charge of what seems akin to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and restore human dignity and divine justice. Surely not through political ambition or national policy, but through authentic care and generosity for those around where we are planted, with prudence and fortitude. Change must come from within.

Malaysia is a nation so richly blessed in resources, its people, a marvellous matrix of races, music, cultures, skills, philosophy, craftmanship; many of them migrants brought by the winds and waters, highways of the enterprise of adventure and providence. These must be harnessed.

A sense of the common good develops only in a civilised society, for only in such a society would the individual members curtail their self-interest and desires so other members of the society are also able to fulfil theirs and thus achieve an some equality in achieving happiness or actualisation.

Thus, voluntary adoption and acceptance of these curtailments of self-interest as a part of social behaviour and norms are hallmarks of a civilised society which differentiates itself from the Animal Farm. Such a society also practises social acts of behaviour which inculcate these values deep in the psyche of the pneuma (breath) of their next generation and thus pass on a legacy of these values to the future.

Hence, ethical behaviour in society would be of high standards if that society has laws, policies, rules, regulations and procedures evolving out of standards and values commonly accepted by members of that society – and not imposed and grafted onto their lives where it cannot flourish, and so gets corrupted. 

The alignment of the moral compass of society would be correct if its ethos empathises with the righteousness that has evolved and has thus been ingrained in its values and is manifested through their habits and behaviour. Hearts are not won through political speeches or debates but through humility, love and mutual respect.

The Sufi Bayazid says this about himself:

“I was a revolutionary when I was young and alI my prayer to God was: ‘Lord give me the energy to change the world.’”

“As I approached middle age and realised that half my life was gone without my changing a single soul, I changed my prayer to ‘Lord, give me the grace to change all those who come in contact with me’ 

“Now that I am an old man and my days are numbered, my one prayer is, ‘Lord, give me the grace to change myself.’ If I had prayed for this right from the start, I should not have wasted my life.”

– Anthony De Mello

The title of this article is a quote by Michel de Montaigne, one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance.

Mildred Lopez, a council member of the Business Ethics Institute of Malaysia, lectures working executives on forensic accounting and financial criminology. She works tirelessly to ease social imbalances through innovative ideas that can level the socioeconomic playing field