Decline of integrity in public service; Can we stem the trend?
The revelations of the Bond Commission Report where Lanka’s political and financial elite have conspired in the greatest scam ever in Sri Lankas history, the consequent revelations on money laundering and luxury penthouse kickbacks and the evasive statements made in parliament by the Prime Minister and other responsible public figures prompts me to take up this topic for comment.
Forget public life for the moment. Let us get to basics first. What are the dimensions of the concept of integrity? Integrity encompasses many of the essentially ‘good’ qualities in being human. Honesty, incorruptibility, honour and reliability as fundamental qualities. But in its etymological derivation from ‘integer’ it also means ‘wholeness’ and consistency; internal consistency. Consistency in character, in one’s actions and behaviour and even in one’s principles and beliefs. Constancy and congruity in one’s words with one’s deeds. For example, if one ‘believes’ in good governance, one cannot be seen to condone corruption or even ignore it. Or turn a convenient blind-eye. One cannot be non-committal about it. That would be moral and intellectual dishonesty.
To systematically and consistently maintain one’s integrity, therefore, is a tough call for an average person. Too high an ideal to emulate. Since most, if not all, men/women in public life are mostly average persons, it becomes a tough call for them too. But, “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” goes the famous adage – in historical reference to Julius Caesar’s wife Pompeia. This is applied particularly to those in public life; those with political and administrative/bureaucratic power and authority. Those who have chosen to live in a ‘glass cage’ of constant public scrutiny.
Furthermore, “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done”. This is a judicial principle that emanated from the celebrated case – R v Sussex Justices, Ex parte McCarthy (; a leading English case on the impartiality and recusal of judges. It is famous for its precedence in establishing the principle that the mere appearance of bias is sufficient to overturn a judicial decision leading to the aforesaid famous aphorism. Perhaps, Julius Caesar instinctively knew about this principle. In the aforesaid quote about Pompeia, when the case against Clodius who had entered her chambers disguised as a woman was caught and tried, Caesar did not give evidence against Clodius at his trial, and he was acquitted. Caesar seems to have been aware of the principle of ‘conflict of interest’ as well.
Therein, we need to explore the concept of ‘conflict of interest’. I have extensively discussed this concept in the public domain on two occasions previously. First, a few months after the February 2015 ‘Bond Scam’ was revealed (“The Governor’s case and the conflict of interest concept”, Sunday Times, 10th May 2015). A few points therein, are worth reiterating. (i) The ‘conflict of interest’ when Arjuna Mahendran intervened to ensure that his son-in-law, Arjun Aloysius makes a multibillion-rupee ‘killing’; and (ii) the ‘conflict of interest’ when Prime Minister, without recourse to, or consultation with the President who was away overseas, arbitrarily and hurriedly appointed an inquiry committee of three UNP lawyers in an attempt to ‘whitewash’ Arjuna Mahendran. Add to that, as revealed by the President recently in the heat of the local government election campaign, the attempt to get Mahendran reappointed Governor for a full new term while he was under investigation for the bond scam in spite of the claimed vehement refusal by the President.
In another article (“Conflict of interest revisited”, The Island, 29th November 2016), I wrote on two instances that were then current. (i) Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayke’s proposal in the Budget to accept a SLR 500 million ‘donation’ from the Ceylon Tobacco Co. for an Anti-Smoking Campaign of the Presidential Task Force (PTF); and (ii) An MP being appointed to the Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on Education and Human Resource Development which submitted proposals for ‘private fee-levying medical education institutions’ when that MP’s wife is a student at SAITM.
These are but a few instances that were highlighted in the media, where the concept of conflict of interest was violated by those in public life in recent times. This fundamental concept is practiced more in the breach than not by both politicians and public officials. Some claim ignorance of the concept. Others care less. A recent debate on the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) in a Sunday newspaper highlighted the changing quality of those at the highest levels of public service. How, a ferociously independent CCS was transformed into the Ceylon Administrative Service (CAS) and later SLAS to become subservient to political power, authority and diktat as they have become today. This has added a new dimension to issues of integrity in public life; including public officials.
The serious allegations of nepotism and corruption against the Rajapaksa regime indicate that the issues of integrity and conflict of interest are not confined to one political party or the other. It pervades the whole ‘body politic’. The rumours which abound that Rajapaksas’ are being shielded from investigation and prosecution on the basis of ‘mutual understandings’ leaves much to be desired in the conduct of ’yahapalana’ governance.
Why did integrity in public life become a matter of less importance today than it used to be? While sustained probity is expected of them, and the media and concerned citizens write and protest about the lack of this quality, there is a disappointing and frustrating stream of tolerance to lack of integrity in public life. It is accepted as being more the norm than the exception. It is almost a fatalistic resignation to stark reality; to seemingly insurmountable odds. In consequence of this widespread public lethargy, it is not only the traffic policeman on the street, but also DIGs who are now arrested for being ‘on the take’; not only the ‘peon’ in a government office, but the Secretaries of Ministries and Ministers’ Secretaries who are now blatantly violating every norm of financial propriety. The public perception is that hardly any transaction between the public or the corporate sector and officialdom takes place without the greasing of palms. The low ebb of integrity and corruption in the corporate world needs another telling.
The scope and scale are expanding exponentially. What was a few rupees 30-40 years ago, have become, thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions and now being counted in the billions. What used to be the surreptitious acceptance of a complementary hamper at Christmas has now become open payments for luxury penthouses; what were complimentary prescription pads in the past have become all-expense paid holidays for family to exotic locations courtesy of pharmaceutical companies; what were small-scale secret bank accounts in Zurich have supposedly become billion-dollar accounts in Dubai banks and off-shore slush funds in tax havens in Panama and other secret hiding places that dot the banking networks in the ‘developed’ world.
Can the tide be stemmed in Sri Lanka? Is there an end in sight? Is the Presidential Commission on the Bond Scam a new beginning? Or is it another eye-wash as they have been in the past? Will all corrupt politicians and high-echelon public servants ever go to jail in Sri Lanka? If not all, at least some? Or will it at best be only show-piece trials of vengeful intent and political vendetta? Will the ’Augean Stables’ be ever cleaned? Will we ever have a modern ‘Hercules’ who will be willing to wade knee-deep in political excrement to do such a task? Will a ‘clean’ Hercules become sullied and dirty while on the job too? Will power corrupt as it has always done?
The citizens of this ‘resplendent isle’, this dhammadeepa’, await, in the words of Alexander Pope, with ‘hope that springs eternal in the human breast’ – waiting ‘to be blest’. They await in both despondency and hope.
Prof. Mendis was the Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ruhuna