A meditation on the concept of integrity in its application to award ceremonies.
Sometime in April 2010, Edmund was awarded the Young Professional Integrity Award at an event jointly organised by The Malaysian Professional Centre or Balai Ikhtisas Malaysia (BIM), Rotary International District 3300 and Integrity International Malaysia (IIM). He was kind enough to invite a starving struggling lawyer like me to feast for free at his table so I went.
At the beginning of his acceptance speech, everybody must have been taken aback because he did not spent 2 1/2 minutes addressing all the VIPs in the room but dove straight into the issues he wanted to talk about, i.e. the worrying trend of giving awards at the expense of greater, more pressing issues that need to be addressed.
The visible discomfort in the hall started when Edmund launched into how there were many human beings who still slept on streets, went without food and had no access to health and educational facilities in our country. How others were victims of corruption, abuse of power, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment.
The hushed whispers started when he called on BIM to do something meaningful like “build a school for refugees, or develop a hospital for a marginalised community, or construct a bridge for an Orang Asli settlement” instead of using that money to host dinners to give awards out. Some uncomfortable and confused faces and body gestures in the crowd were evident when he said those things.
After the speech, some remarked that it was improper it was for Edmund to say such things and to criticise the body that was giving him the award for not doing enough. I was puzzled by this. Wasn’t the award about integrity?
The attitude implicit in the remark is that if you are awarded with something and accept it, you cannot criticise the award giver? But what if the award giver had serious failings that needed to be pointed out – is it integrity to shut up about it simply because they gave you an award?
Obviously not. Integrity demands that you act in accordance with your own principles and stand by them. Integrity demands that you speak your mind honestly about the issues that confront you. And integrity is a demand, not an option. There is no such thing as choosing to act with integrity in one moment and then not doing so in the next.
But clearly, we had a different notion than the organisers and some of those that attended that night. To some of them it was plainly obvious that integrity was just a word like any other. It served merely as occasion to wear nice clothes, sit in a nice room with dinner, indulge in polite meaningless conversation and restrained claps. Integrity is like a the Royal Doulton cutlery that you bring out once a year to show off and then keep in the cupboard until the next grand occasion. And to some, integrity means you do not criticise those who have given you the award.
Penguin Dictionary defines one facet of “integrity” as an “uncompromising adherence to a code of moral values.”
The key word is “uncompromising.”
That was the problem with some of those that felt uncomfortable, took umbrage and quietly complained about Edmund’s speech – their definition of integrity lacked that key word, which is often substituted with “an appearance of.”