Friday, April 26

That elusive trait


THESE days it is difficult to avoid the word ‘integrity’. It is referred to either explicitly or implicitly in the printed media, in cyberspace and on most people’s lips. Though I must say that it is usually about the lack of rather than the surfeit of. Thus, it was a relief when I read the eulogy of one man whose life exemplified it – Brother Columba, the last of the De La Salle teaching brothers. Anyway more about him later, for now let us look at the word itself.

I had a look at the dictionary and its definition is given as, “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness” and this is followed by a long string of virtues as synonyms.

Then I came across a website (Integrity Action) that posts the definition of integrity in the form of a formula, namely, I = a (A+C+E) – C. I was taken aback when I read that. Integrity is a concept that when we check any dictionary is defined as an amalgam of over a dozen virtues. How can something so abstract and sublimely good be captured in a cold mathematical equation?

However, upon reading further I appreciate what the site (Integrity Action) is getting at. The formula spelled out in full reads Integrity equals Accountability plus Competence plus Ethics minus Corruption. Now that is uncannily relevant to our current situation and I am sure I am not the only who is particularly intrigued by the last inclusion.

Still, trying to define such an abstract concept as integrity is as difficult as trying to capture the wind. So perhaps let’s just look at the life of one man who I believe epitomised that sublime noble trait, Brother Columba (1935 to 2016).

As a member of the Christian teaching order of the De La Salle brothers, he gave his whole life to the education of the boys in Sarawak. Those of us who went to the Catholic schools in Sibu and Kuching between the years of the 1950 and through the 1980s are beneficiaries of this dedication. That numbers in the thousands and include three chief ministers of Sarawak and a number of top civil servants.

Let me now share an excerpt from the famous Chinese Classic ‘The Water Margin’. The story, also known as Outlaws of the Marsh or All Men Are Brothers, is one of the Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. It details the trials and tribulations of 108 outlaws during the mid Song Dynasty of 12th century. Led by the honourable Song Jiang, this band of rebels fought against the corrupt and unjust officials that plagued the country. While they took up arms against these dishonourable men, they never lost their love for their country and their loyalty to the emperor whom they accepted at that time as the representation of the country.

After many years, the war reached an impasse and the country suffered. So when the emperor offered them amnesty, Song Jiang gladly led his generals and army out of the safe haven of the marshes and accepted positions in the emperor’s service. Thus, peace reigned again in the land.

However, the jealous and corrupt ministers plotted his downfall. They managed to fool the emperor and persuaded his majesty to send some poisoned wine to Song Jiang. It was written that though Song Jiang suspected the foul deed, he never believed that the emperor would wilfully harm him. He was aware that he had great power at his disposal. He could regroup his band of former outlaws and muster up a great army. But he was aware that a return to warfare would ruin the country. He believed that his continued existence would be a detriment to his country.

For the greater good, he willingly took the poisoned wine. Not only did he sacrifice himself, he also made sure that his comrades would not take up arms against the emperor in revenge. He commanded his generals to drink the poisoned wine with him. When they suggested that they return again to the life of outlaws, he said: “I will never besmirch the name of my family by such treacherous deed.” Yes, Song Jiang was concerned about the good name of his family and didn’t want to be remembered in history as one who prolonged the strife of his nation.

Dag Hammarskjold, the great United Nations Secretary General of the 1950s, was quoted to have said, “I don’t know Who, or What, put the question, I don’t know when it was put, I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment, I did answer Yes, to Someone or Something, and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life in self-surrender had a goal.” This could easily have been said by the late Brother Columba, who surrendered himself for the greater good.   Song Jiang’s selfless action was guided by his acceptance of integrity. Brother Columba I believed was guided by his religious faith. We in Malaysia are blessed because for the blueprint to righteousness, we have the guidance of all the major religious teachings. So, really, ignorance can definitely not be pleaded as a defence.