Ever since Independence this country has been plagued with bribery and corruption. It was not surprising, therefore, that provisions have been made in our Republican Constitution for an Integrity Commission in clear recognition and acknowledgement of the fact that we are no longer living in the age when men were born gentlemen but rather in the age when efforts are being made to make gentlemen by laws and regulations.
The dictum that a man’s word is his bond has clearly lost all its intrinsic value and significance, hence the promulgation of the Integrity in Public Life Act. This Act was passed, no doubt with the expectation of halting the escalation of corruption and dishonesty on the part of those in public life and those exercising public functions, but it has, it would seem, proven to be neither a palliative nor a panacea to reducing or eradicating corruption except perhaps to adorn our statute books with yet another law.
It is significant to note, however, that while the Act is one which primarily constitutes an invasion of one’s right to privacy, the enactment of the law has been justified on the ground of public interest as opposed to the right of the individual.
The word integrity clearly connotes persons of unblemished character and strong moral principles and persons who are held in high esteem as exemplars and worthy of becoming persons in public life such as Members of Parliament and those holding public office.
However, empirical evidence has established that persons of such calibre are clearly scarce commodities in our society and this conclusion may receive some support in a statement made sometime ago by one of our presidents when he said that “selection of members of the Commission is not a matter to be rushed as these persons must be of the highest calibre and integrity”.
Integrity is therefore not a commodity that can be taken off a shelf. The value and concept of the importance of integrity has to be nurtured and developed during a person’s formative years failing which the word becomes meaningless to those who are strangers to it.
As human beings we are basically and fundamentally the product of our environment, so that a person born, nurtured and developed in an environment destitute of those intrinsic values would clearly be devoid of them.
While Members of Parliament (Persons in Public Life) are addressed as “Honourable” (righteous and incorruptible), the personal honour to which the word owes its genesis or origin would seem to have lost much, if not all of its value and significance since it has become imperative to enact laws and regulations, the purport and intent of which are to subject such persons to the submission of their incomes, assets and liabilities to the Integrity Commission on an annual basis for scrutiny and for the purposes of declaring them to be persons of integrity.
This constitutional mechanism has been predicated on the fact that parliamentarians in many jurisdictions have so misused and abused their powers and authority for personal gain and aggrandisement that they were found guilty of criminal offences. As a consequence the question that has arisen from time to time is whether parliamentarians should continue to be addressed as “honourable” or whether they should be addressed simply as “representative A or B”.
One of the mind-boggling questions is therefore, whether legislation per se will stem the tide of the growing escalation of bribery and corruption on the part of those in public life or whether there should be put in place a comprehensive and intensive educational programme designed to create an environment in which our children who would be the adults of tomorrow could be nurtured, develop and sensitised of the intrinsic value and significance of the principles of honesty and integrity.
Since bribery and corruption would appear to be irrebuttably endemic and pervasive in our society, non-governmental organisations such as the Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute, Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce, the Law Association, the Rotary Clubs, the Inter-religious Organisation, the Parent Teachers Association and the Ministry of Education ought to collectively consider embarking on a programme designed to sensitise the society of the growing escalation of the disease and of the importance of establishing institutional mechanisms to eradicate them at all levels. And there is no better place to begin than with the schools.
• Kenneth R Lalla SC is former chairman of the Police