21 June 2012

Good Governance IV: honesty and integrity

Ajjava: the discourse on honesty and integrity in governance 

Siddhartha Gauthama, the Enlightened One, in his discourse of the prerequisites for a system of governance that is sustainable, productive, wholesome and peaceful, i.e. the incomparable tract called the Dasa Raja Dharma, refers to something called Ajjava, meaning ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity’.  The ruler(s) are required, if good governance is stated objective honestly pursued, to ensure that the above qualities drive and inhabit all executions within and pertaining to matters of governance.

These are not the preferred terms in the present-day discourse on governance, however. Today we talk about ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’.  Today we talk about systems that ensure these things, checks and balances, safeguards.  We even have names for these systems such as the 17th Amendment.  We forget however that the one effective binder that holds together such systems is that which cannot be obtained through legislative enactment: ethics. 

The Veddah leader, Uruvarige Wanniyaletto, captured it all thus, about 8 years ago.   

“…in the 1940s something called ‘independence’ happened.  Then we also heard about a thing called ‘development’.  Our national leaders tried to civilize us and develop us.  As a result we lost our livelihoods as well as our culture.  Governments tried to bring us to heel using laws and regulations.  We never had laws.  We only had sirith or customs.  Laws are made by those who want to violate them. Sirith, on the other hand, cannot be broken.  They can only be maintained.  Both the natural world and our people were protected by these sirith.  What no one was successful in safeguarding through laws and regulations we protected through our sirith.  All we ever wanted was to protect our customs, our culture and livelihood.  All we ask is that we are left alone.”

This is not to say that rules are irrelevant and should be done away with it. Frameworks, I believe, are useful in that they operate as controlling mechanisms.  On the other hand, human beings, however meticulous they may be, are frail and cannot account for each and every eventuality.  A friend of mine told me a couple of months before the 9/11 attacks that technology, regardless of impregnability claim, is nevertheless full of holes.  ‘9/11’ proved his right.  I think Wanniyaletto was not dismissing out of hand the notion of ‘rules’ but merely pointing out their inadequacy. 

Sirith’ or customs are born and exist not on account of formal agreement but as product of less tangible but nevertheless not less binding process of social interaction, wrapped, naturally, in a cloth made of multiple cultural threads. They do not resonate with things like transparency and accountability but are made relevant by concepts such as honesty and integrity.  ‘Sirith’ is to custodian what Constitution is to President, I might add. 

In the 21st Century there is ‘formalization’ in ways that did not exist and perhaps were not required because word was word and agreement-ratification in black-white terms was therefore unnecessary.  The formalization has not produced the kind of streamlining and compliance that one might expect act and article to yield, and yet it is not possible to say that this makes such efforts superfluous. All it implies is that while formal structures and mechanisms are useful they are not sufficient. 

To the extent that they are useful and necessary we need to talk about transparency and accountability in the context of the ‘Ajjiva’ element of the Dasa Raja Dharma.  Ajjiva in today’s democratic world requires ruler/government to ensure a continuous assessment of governance structures to make sure that there is transparency and accountability.   ‘Holes’ as such there may be or may develop as time moves, technologies develop and people and values are transformed, need to be plugged. Laws need to be amended to correct for new situations. 

In Sri Lanka, the 1978 constitution, looking back, regardless of the knowledge/ignorance of its architects, was anti-transparency and anti-accountability.  It was an anything-the-president-says-goes kind of document and 18 amendments later this has not changed.  It is not the worst constitution in the world but it is certainly a far cry from being the best.  The 17th Amendment, in spirit and objective, came the closest to rectifying the errors with respect to accountability and transparency requirements, but was flawed in ways that necessitated amendment or abrogation. It was abrogated recently but not replaced by a more effective piece of legislation that could deliver what the 17th promise.  It was, put simple, done away with not on account of it being flawed in terms of delivering promise but because the movers in the abrogation felt both law and objective were impediments. 

The ‘formal’ situation thus doesn’t make for bubbly comment.  On the other hand, it is theoretically possible for there to be a sunshine story regardless of what the formal transcript reads like.  This is possible only if the informal structures of control, self-discipline and being are robust and if those who are powerful are given to abiding by them. 

What is honesty?  Telling the truth.  Being the truth. Saying the whole truth. Not hiding things, not being vague. It is about avoiding white lies.  It is about not giving wrong signals deliberately. It is about making sure you don’t say one thing to Perimpanayagam, something else to Muhamadullah and something totally different to Karalliyadda after having made a pact with Fitzgerald or Bhattacharya that no one gets to know about.  It is about being clear about what one plans to do and reporting what one does without embellishment or subtraction. 

Honesty is not just about telling the truth. It is something that is pregnant (in absence) in all crimes, all wrong-doing, all trespasses, all transgressions, legal and otherwise, ‘loopholed’ and not.  It is about cuts, graft, commissions, under-the-tabling, nepotism, favouring friend and family, mutual back-scratching, looking the other way, applying rule and regulation selectively, abusing authority etc. 

Yesterday someone told me about a procurement officer in a state institution. Apparently he’s being harassed with the objective of making him resign or opt for a transfer. The reason is clear.  Someone wants to get some dirty hands on a money-making opportunity.  The person who told me made this observation: ‘he is honest to the point that he doesn’t even take the so-called legitimate cuts that companies give as gifts to those in charge of procurement’.  Are our leaders like that? Have we had leaders who embodied such qualities?  How many of our elected politicians and politicians seeking elections would do what M.D. Banda did when his election was challenged in a petition, stating that which he need not have stated and thereby losing his seat? 

Uprightness, consistency, humility, clarity and dignity in all things is absolutely non-negotiable for good governance in terms of the Buddha’s recommendations embedded in the Dasa Raja Dharma. If one person is punished and another allowed to remain free after committing the same or a worse kind of transgression the ruler immediately compromises the 4th condition of the Dasa Raja Dharma, that of ‘Ajjava’.  If the ruler thieves or encourages theft, directly, indirectly, through ignorance or neglect, he/she is guilty of compromising this article.  In the 21st Century, if the ruler pooh poohs the formalizing of these rules, then too he is guilty of being negligent in this regard. 

The notion Ajjava is naturally nourished by other aspects of the dhamma and in its basic articulation in the very least the 5 precepts.  Constant referencing of these can help leader/government correct error and stick to a path that has a better chance of producing overall benefit. 

We are nation that does not lack in sirith relevant to the notion of Ajjava.  Wanniyaletto was correct when he observed that things which laws and regulations cannot protect or find difficult to protect are better safeguarded by sirith.  He was referring to both the natural and social spheres of life.  We have compromised the integrity and sustainability of both entities by making laws meant to be broken and indeed facilitating of subversion and by a marked ignorance and/or disavowal of sirith. 

We are, thus, a nation that has impoverished ourselves by choice.  Happily, we can still work ‘choice’ in our favour.  Our leaders can do this. Or else we can as a citizenry informed and empowered by sirith make them do this. Or just go ahead and do it ourselves. This too is possible.

[First published in the Daily Mirror, October 2, 2012, under the column heading 'Subterranean Transcripts'] 

The following is the complete set of articles on the Dasa Raja Dharma

Dana: the virtue of giving

Sila: the moral component of the Dasa Raja Dharma]

Pariccaga: the third element of the Dasa Raja Dharma

Ajjava: the discourse on honesty and integrity in governance 

Majjava: the kinder, gentler elements of governance

Tapa: the virtues of austerity and restraint 

Akkodha: the need to eschew enmity

Avihimsa: incorporating non-violence into good governance

Khanti: the virtue of patience and tolerance

Avirodha: a must-cultivate for the effective and benevolent ruler



Ranil J said...

In the west people often talk about "allowed to" and "not allowed" to even on things that not even occur to our minds. "Are nt allowed to drink alcohol by your religion?" "No, it is not prohibitten for me to drink alcohol."

In the developed world, many things function than it usually does in our country: Discipline on the road, less corruption. My observation is that it is not because that they are more disciplined than we are as individuals. Certainly not. They are afraid of the law.

In a village, a Gama-Pansala society, simple adherence to sirith may be enough keep a healthy society. The society that we live in is getting complicated day by day; and it would be idiotic to imagine its possible to ensure coexistence of diverse beings simply by adhering to sirith. If that were possible Budun wouldnt have enforced "Vinaya" rules on his disciples. What we may need is not strong laws, strong law enforcement. And, I doubt by nature we will ever achieve the levels seen in the developed world. We all have friends, relatives we want to entertain, to save from trouble. Wait. What did u say? Taking cut in procurments is legitimate? The west that we often blame, manage it better than we do. In their businesses they define what is what level of gifts are acceptable. So it is "transparent".

Sirith doesnt necessarily define things. I feel it is something like the 3rd precept in Pansil. The student asked, "does it mean monogomy?", the professor said "No", "polygomy then?", "no, thats not either".