Being Human: When integrity earns a high social standing

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IN recent times, issues concerning integrity have been in the spotlight with dreadful frequency. The situations in question involve not only people in public office, but a broad cross-section of sectors, both in Malaysia and elsewhere around the globe.

Individuals in various fields — from educators to business people to religious figures, to the young and old and people in different professions and industries — have been implicated in one scandal after another, creating an impression that integrity is becoming undermined in our times.

The constant round of food scares, consumer safety concerns, investment fraud, marketing scams, identity theft, profiteering rings and abuse of public trust ad infinitum is certainly enough to wear down the most stoic believers in good governance.

As a result, even institutions that were seen as bastions of rectitude have been greatly diminished in the public eye. The Libor scandal that rocked the international financial sector in 2012 is just one of many that have contributed to the erosion of trust in regulatory institutions as a whole.

So it is not surprising that a gaping trust deficit in institutions, processes and leaders has developed in our own backyard, where the compromise of accountability has blighted public affairs for the longest time. Like a disease that feeds on itself, the questionable actions of powerful individuals tend to cause a chain reaction down the ranks and spills over into the larger society. When the wrongdoings of the rich and powerful come to light, some people are no doubt encouraged to follow their example by the notion that if you can’t beat them, you could at least join them.

In this light, it is quite natural to take a dim view of the state of integrity in Malaysian society and subscribe to the opinion that we are sliding down the slope towards the breakdown of ethical values and are paving the way to a future fraught with bad governance, endemic corruption and social inequity.

It would be a mistake, however, to entertain such thinking if only because it tends to set in motion a chain of events that leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy playing out its course.

To improve the integrity quotient in our society, therefore, we should firstly recognise that we cannot allow ourselves to be fixated on the notion that the people’s values are becoming hopelessly corrupted and that we are fighting a losing battle against the dark forces that are undermining a healthy social environment. This is not to say, however, that we should blind ourselves to the ground realities in our ethically challenged society as well as the complexities involved in restoring integrity to it.

It is also important to recognise that integrity is a complex, multi-dimensional value that must be dealt with using a variety of approaches in order for it to become a potent element in our social identity. We need to better understand the relationship between integrity and values such as honesty, trust, reliability, selflessness, fiduciary duty, accountability, ethical conduct, public interest and similar qualities that give meaning to healthy social mores.

Another dimension of the issue that needs to be better understood is the value of punitive action as a disincentive for people to compromise on integrity. Whenever there is news of a scandal centred around the question of ethics and integrity, it is common to hear calls for enhancing the punishment for criminal offences that may have been committed as a deterrent against such crimes.

Although it is doubtful whether punishment is effective beyond a certain point in promoting abstract qualities like integrity, that does not stop people from reiterating such calls, often in ever stronger language. We must learn to wean ourselves from this bloodlust if we wish to truly evolve as a society.

Another favourite panacea for issues involving integrity is to prescribe a good dose of religious education, especially for the young. Yet, it is quite clear that religious knowledge in itself, although certainly very useful, provides no guarantee that a person will act with integrity in any given situation. There are enough people with religious credentials in jail for any details to be necessary to support this point.

Instead of calling for ever harsher punishments and increasing doses of religious education, it would be more effective if we paid attention to the psychology of motivation in fostering integrity.

Is it worth exploring factors like enhancing the value of integrity as an indicator of a person’s social standing, for example? We know that social acceptance is a powerful motivating factor that makes people conform to a group’s norms. If our society places a higher value on trustworthy conduct and integrity, and conversely ostracises the corrupt and greedy, we could possibly be much more successful in undoing the damage to its ethical foundations, perhaps within one generation.

While evolving a culture that places the highest value on integrity may appear to be a Sisyphean task in today’s environment, the work can only begin when we reach a point of collective disgust at the breakdown in ethical culture in our society.

The million-dollar question: What more do we need to see for this to happen?


R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 29 - July 5 , 2015.