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Can we be conveniently honest?

Manipulation of principles such as honesty to feed personal greed will hurt those around us and society as a whole

DR WONG SOAK KOON/ALIRAN

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Trishna Banerjee Nair, a young vivacious Malaysian, was an exemplary young lady who achieved much in her life.

She was a school athlete and head girl, both in her primary and secondary schools.

She secured A’s in all her subjects in her UPSR (year six), PMR (year nine) and SPM (year 11) exams, resulting in an A-level scholarship. Scoring all A’s again in the A-level exams, she applied to study in the US.

She was offered a place at the prestigious University of Chicago. She then secured a Maybank international scholarship, which enabled her to complete an economics degree with a first-class honours and a mention in the Dean’s list.

Returning to Malaysia in 2015, she worked at Maybank and then joined the Boston Consulting Group as an associate consultant.

Soon after, she was diagnosed with brain cancer, and after a four-year struggle, she passed away in August.

I am reproducing an article she wrote for the University of Chicago as a celebration of her life. This was written as part of the university’s entry requirements; its contents bear some relevance to issues here in Malaysia, even today.

Trishna Banerjee Nair

“Honesty is the best policy, but honesty won’t get your friend free birthday cake at the dinner.” – overheard in the city of Chicago.

Does society require constant honesty? Why is it (or why is it not) problematic to shift the truth in one’s favour, even if the lie is seemingly harmless to others? If we can be ‘conveniently honest’, what other virtues might we take lightly? Inspired by Eleanor Easton, a second year in Chicago.

I still remember the first time I stole.

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I remember the aquamarine blue purse in which my mother used to keep her small change, lying invitingly on the coffee table.

I remember stealthily grabbing it and running off to sit on a secluded couch. I remember reaching inside and grasping a handful of change.

Lastly, I remember my first conscious interaction with my infamous foe, Mr Rationalisation.

See, I knew stealing was wrong, but instead of placing much weight on this understanding, I made the choice to listen to the deductions of Mr Rationalisation, which went like: “It is just 90 cents, ma won’t realise, you get a ton of candy in school and no one gets hurt.”

I may have only been nine years old, but I was definitely able to make a conscious decision regarding my actions, albeit the wrong one.

From this memory, I discern three check gates which I passed through before entering my personal Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole: the principle, the motivation and the rationalisation.

My trepidation to steal revealed the existence of the principle of honesty; my greed for candy revealed my motivation and its conflict with the principle; and Mr Rationalisation made his choice, wholeheartedly supporting my motivation instead of my principle.

I was a textbook case of St Augustine’s famous dictum: the look, the thought, the fascination and the fall. My rationalisation successfully managed to shift my dishonest act into a more favourable light. Sure, the candy tasted real good, until of course I got busted by my older sister.  

The straightening up I got from my mother after the incident is something I will always be grateful for. See, the thing is, a lie is never harmless. It is a precursor to a chain reaction of rationalisation that continuously blurs the principle of honesty.

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Much like a malignant cancer, such erosion will attach its tentacles to other virtues of justice, fairness, dignity and equality, effectively destabilising them in the process.

Had my sister not told on me, Mr Rationalisation and I would have become the best of pals over time, and honesty would have become purely relative to my circumstances.

However, this incident taught me to be sensitive to the tensions which might torment my principles in relation to my motives.

As I grew older, and started to take up numerous positions of responsibility, I realised the importance of consciously aligning myself to the principles which ground me. Had I not learnt this lesson as a child, it would have been the beginnings of some very serious mistakes later in life.

The fabric of any society is interwoven with the principles and values that its people bring to the table. Manipulation of such principles to feed personal greed will adversely affect those around us and society as a whole.

Society requires constant honesty, and the conscious decision to strive for it is a necessary struggle.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Wong Soak koon
25 Sep 2022 6.00pm

The late Ms Trishna Bannerjee Nair wrote very well. Excellent use of language to convey honest, deep insights. Her passing is a grear loss.

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