Vice as virtue in the new code of thieves?
Posted on September 5th, 2017

By Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe Courtesy The Island

The recent public airing of political corruption by way of evidence emerging before the Presidential Commission points to a much bigger problem than individual acts of political corruption per se. These excuses shed a new light in to a proverbial ‘code of thieves’ that seems to govern the world the political thieves inhabit.

Minister Ravi Karunanayake’s stubborn refusal to show remorse even after the surfacing of damning evidence against him and his pathetic attempts to seek some sort of moral high ground as a ‘victim’ of a monstrous betrayal by a band of equally corrupt colleagues provided glimpses of this new disgraceful ‘code’ that appears to have been developed among politicians in Sri Lanka.


Karunanayake’s loss of memory during the cross examination and the other more ridiculous excuse of lack of knowledge about the most basic of his domestic affairs were predictable in view of the weight of evidence the law enforcement officials had in their possession. The ‘corpus delicti’ of the alleged offence, relating to the receipt of a luxury accommodation paid-for by a crony lay before the Commission, of inquiry for the country to see; common decency would have dictated a prompt resignation from all political posts, pending proper legal proceedings.

Karunanayake’s alternative response of attempts to continue denial of events and to air ‘grievances’ that he was the victim — on the grounds that there are many others who steal, is deplorable. His playing the victim also included attempts to moralise ‘friendship’ by complaining that he had trouble accepting ‘betrayal by friends’. He alluded to alleged corruption by some of his Cabinet colleagues and even accused the current Central Bank Governor of being a former employee of the corporate crook, Raj Rajaratnam, who is serving an 11-year jail sentence in the US on securities fraud. Karunanayake also cast aspersions on the character of the woman-owner of the apartment as a ‘scorned woman’ seeking revenge from a former lover by victimising his innocent self.

Karunanayake’s behaviour, following the appearance before the Commission, including his stubborn refusal to resign, further showed that he clearly believed in a perceived ‘unfairness’ of singling him out for punishment. His resignation speech sounded like that of a national hero to be exonerated by history and time, rather than that of a politician exposed before a commission of inquiry. To add insult to injury, the speech was delivered attired in a ‘Blue and Gold’ tie showing that he had no qualms about dragging the sacred symbol of his alma mater through the mud with the forlorn hope of garnering support.

But, Karunanayake was not alone in this moral quagmire. The regime’s failure to sack him promptly, based on the incontrovertible evidence that came up before the Commission, was the death-blow to any continuing claims of it being interested in so-called yahapalanaya (good governance) principles; the failure to sack Karunanayake on the face of such damning evidence pointed to the lack of fortitude on the part of the regime and its leaders.

The moral integrity of the current regime is obviously compromised by the presence of thieves among its inner core, including the worst who were associated with the previous regime. This is the more worrying aspect of the current hell of political corruption that seems to afflict Sri Lanka and its so-called democracy. A review of the performance of individual politicians and governments of Sri Lanka, over the last three decades or so, shows that, in effect, the country has been turned in to a kleptocracy of a series of regimes ‘ruled by thieves’ who have been making themselves rich by systematically stealing from the public on a vast scale, amassing unimaginable wealth for themselves.

A proper evaluation of the phenomenon of political corruption and its driving forces is necessary before committing Sri Lanka to an anti-political corruption strategy. Corruption, defined as‘illegal payments to public agents with the goal of obtaining a benefit or avoiding a cost’, has been ubiquitous in all societies throughout human history.

Looking to the West — as President Sirisena did by attending the former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s almost comical ‘global anti-corruption summit’ of 2016 as one of the select invitees —is unlikely to be fruitful. Corrupt practices are woven into the fabric of the so-called Western democracies through the activities of lobbyists, moneyed groups with vested interests and rent-seeking corporations.

The more ‘sophisticated’ forms of political corruption prevalent in the West, Britain and the US in particular, typically take the form of top government officials huddling in secret with executives of multinationals and foreign governments with vested interests to work out the details of such key policy areas as defence, energy and land development. These policies are later imposed on the taxpayer, dressed as ‘national policies’, costing them more tax dollars and higher consumer prices. As the 2003 Iraqi invasion scandal demonstrated, sending the military to god forsaken lands—in the name of enhancing national security — has been a fundamentally corrupt operation in these countries since the 1950s. Corrupt politicians later steer billions of dollars of government money to various companies formed by them upon retirement.

Politicians in America engage in corruption with impunity, routinely trading government contracts and other favours for millions of dollars laundered as campaign funds and other ‘donations’. Recent revelations of such corruption have made citizens view their governments with cynicism and contempt. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 75 per cent of Americans believed corruption to be widespread in their government. Donald Trump capitalised on this sentiment with his promises to ‘drain the swamp’.

In addition to not taking any meaningful measures to curb corruption domestically, the US helps nurture a culture of corruption in countries of the developing world. Facilitating corruption by political leaders of these countries is the primary means through which they gain entry into these countries and influence everything including domestic politics.

The puppet government of Hamid Karzai, in Afghanistan, established by the US following the bombing of that country in 2011 was a prime example of the corrupting influence of the US on other countries. The extended family of Karzai including three of his brothers extracted the blood of the Afghani people for nearly 13 years through US government contracts, cement manufacturing and private banks, and by facilitating opium traffic in the region.

The US Ambassador in Colombo meeting Ravi Karunanayake (in The Island), just the day before he was due to appear before the Commission of Inquiry in to the Bond Scam came as no surprise.

Despite inaction to effectively curb corruption, the West has seen an anti-corruption zeitgeist in the past two decades with the establishment of anti-corruption commissions or ‘watch dogs’. This sudden upsurge of focus on corruption was, in fact, part of the globalisation push that saw corruption (primarily bribes to local politicians) as an additional cost that inflated the cost of business to global multinationals. As usual, the UN carried the US agenda by announcing a Governance and Anti-Corruption strategy in 2007, announcing anti-corruption and good governance as requirements for economic development. But, the scourge continues unabated.

As with many phenomena, useful discussion on corruption is often limited by language. The particular connotations of the word ‘corruption’ in modern English, though still stigmatises individual cases of such behaviour as beyond the moral pale, fails to convey the meaning as signifying a state of moral decay and degeneration, on the part of corrupt politicians at least. Also, it fails to recognise that corruption essentially involves pursuit of selfishness without concern for the common good, or to emphasise any need for governments (or citizens) to be completely dedicated to the common interest; it almost appear to accede to living with a balance between the pursuit of public and private interests, failing to provide a clear definition of corrupt and non-corrupt politics.

This deficiency becomes clearer when the historical considerations of corruption are considered: historically corruption has been seen as much more than individual cases involving abuse of public office definable by statute; it has been viewed as an evil signifying decay and spiritual degeneration of the moral and political character of individuals, corporations, governments or states.

Probably, the first to shed light on the human propensity for corruption was the minister in the court of Chandra Gupta Maurya, Kautilya also known as Chanakya (371-283 BC), the author of ‘Arthashastra’. To begin with, from a utilitarian point of view, Kautilya identified corruption — a manifestation of unethical behaviour where private gains are made at the expense of the public— as a serious impediment to the successful running of an administration.

Kautilya’s brilliance helped identify the craftily disguised unethical behaviour by the corrupt: he likened swindlers to fish moving under water, drinking unmeasurable volumes of water.

Kautilya provides a list of 40 kinds of possible embezzlement by government functionaries such as the treasurer, the chief officer, the prescriber, the receiver, the payer, and the ministerial servants, requiring the state to create mechanisms capable of reducing the opportunities for graft and corruption. He advocated strict vigilance over ‘capricious’ superintendents of the government through a holistic system of checks and balances that included spies and whistle blowers, appointments on the basis of educational qualifications, a system of tenure with frequent transfers and a system of rewards and recognitions.

A similar trend to see corruption as a result of frailty of human nature has also existed in Greek culture, to the extent that Socrates rejected the life of the politician as riddled with the unavoidable risk of corruption, making it incompatible with the pursuit of knowledge. Socrates’ views on political corruption inspired subsequent philosophies such as Cynicism, Epicureanism and Stoicism that advocated total rejection of all government as irredeemably flawed.

Aristotle, probably a contemporary of Kautilya, chose the middle path of not altogether renouncing the world of politics, but relegated it to the inferior realm of the senses in a dualistic universe where the superior, eternal unchanging realm was accessible only to pure reason. Plato, in The Republic, uses the word ‘pthora’ (546a) — Latinised as corruption — to describe the process of decay of an ideal state to the nadir of tyranny through the descending stages of timocracy (a form of government in which possession of property is required in order to hold office), oligarchy and democracy. The gradual degeneration was typified by increasing assertion of individual self-interest by rulers at the expense of the common good.

The view of corruption (corruzione) as the nemesis of virtue (virtu) was later adopted, ironically, by Nicollo Machiavelli (1469-1529), a man not renowned for moral integrity himself! Machiavelli identified corruption as a threat to the pursuit of the general good and the health of the republic by the noble active citizens collectively, insisting that the ‘inevitability of corruption’ was ‘the one great observable fact in human affairs’ apart from death.

The culture of political corruption in Sri Lanka has become so pervasive that the derelicts who engage in it appear to have developed its own sub culture in which offences termed ‘vice’ in mainstream culture have become ‘virtue’ in their corrupt purview. The current endemic levels of corrupt behaviour among politicians in Sri Lanka make the use of the term ‘corruption’ inadequate to describe such individual acts.

Corruption involving the individual politician or official violating important ethical standards for personal gain most certainly needs to be tackled at the individual level through exposure and punishment of the guilty. At individual level, refraining from corruption should not necessarily involve committing to heroic ideals, but to basic standards of honesty. Breaching such standards for personal gain constitutes an abhorrent betrayal of public trust and the legal and other processes need to reflect the gravity of such breaches. Corrupt behaviour however is as much to do with institutional structures and social as individual moral weakness, as Aristotle recognised. Though collective assessments of corruption can be made in terms of the amount of individual corruption that occur, systemic corruption that incorporate cultural factors would be the harder part of the scourge to deal with.

One only needs to scan the list of more than hundred names in the list of so-called cabinet members to see the almost eternal presence of some politicians who seem to be popping up like bad one-rupee coins, changing sides after every election. Looking at their performance over the last two to three decades in terms of the country’s worsening plight, it can safely be presumed that they are ‘in it’ for corrupt financial gain rather than any notion of ‘public service’. This situation makes dealing with corruption at the level of whole-of-government — the imposer of standards and rules for judging individual cases — far more challenging.

One needs to go back to the first principles of governance and periods of relatively corruption-free times looking for possible answers. Historically, successful Sri Lankan regimes of great ancient kings, as well as non-corrupt governments elsewhere appear to be characterised by one common feature: rulers who rule in the common interest rather than in the interest of themselves. Political corruption has always involved the rulers’ pursuit of their own private interests against the common interest.

Aristotle, like Plato before him, set virtuous rulers wholly focused on the common interest and would never consider pursuing their own interests at the expense of the good of the community as the vital requirement for ideal, non-corrupt states. This is not to say that Aristotle’s ruling aristocrats did not have their personal interests, but insofar as they acted politically they would be wholly devoted to the good of the polis.

The risk of corruption among the wider polity, as recognised by Aristotle led him to reduce the three types of correct constitution—kingship (rule of one), aristocracy (rule of few) and polity (rule by a virtuous majority)— unified by the common feature of rule in the common interest to just absolute kingship and aristocracy where power lies with a citizen body consisting of virtuous men of property.

The problem of the current regime effectively dealing with ingrained corruption goes back to the illegitimacy of is formation back in 2014, through an amalgamation of disaffected individuals with political axes to grind, failed former and current politicians envious of the immense popularity of the leader of the previous regime (by no means a lilly himself) and the support of some of the most corrupt who served in the previous dispensation.

The need to maintain the ‘unity’ of what passes for government at the moment clearly overrides the imperative to rid the scourge of corruption. In the meantime, the Sri Lankan ‘polity’ goes about looking for their next meal, having no inkling that their blood is being drained without their knowledge.

Sri Lanka provides a blueprint for how a kleptocracy should operate without fear of recrimination. It’s shameful!

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