On December 9th, the late Sujith Prasanna Perera was given the National Integrity Award by Transparency International. It is perhaps telling that our bearer of integrity is dead.
Sujith Perera died for fighting fraud within the Customs Department. His murderers were convicted, but he could not be replaced. More tellingly, his attitude of taking risks to do the right thing has not been replaced. He was killed for the testimony he was giving in fraud cases against his killers. More broadly, Sujith Perera had also drawn the ire of powerful people who profited from corruption. By standing up to the corruption within his own department and coming from high society, Sujith Perera took a risk. For him, that was a matter of integrity.
The sad fact is, however, that most of us take risks in the hope of some reward. We do the right thing partly because it is the right thing, but also because there’s a policeman on the corner. When the policeman himself is complicit in crime, doing the right thing becomes that much harder. When the people doing the wrong things seem to get rewards, it becomes that much harder still. At some point, doing the right thing just seems dumb.
Integrity is doing the right thing because that’s who you are. It is an intuitive sense of honesty and truthfulness. Sujith Perera didn’t laboriously go through Customs documents because someone told him to. Indeed, people often told him not to. He did his job because that’s who he was. “I remember in one instance he told an anonymous telephone caller, in front of me to go ahead and kill me if you can,” a senior Customs officer said.
For most people, the choice between living and dying for a belief is an easy one. They can separate their beliefs from their material self, often to their material benefit. For a man of integrity, however, this belief is an essential part of who they are. Giving it up would be like asking a man to die or lose his head. It wouldn’t make sense.
This is not that Sujith Perera is a superman. As Abraham Lincoln said in regards to alcoholism, “In my judgment, such of us as have never fallen victims have been spared more by the absence of appetite, than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have”. He was a man with integrity, something within him which many people may not have.
This is precisely why honoring him is important, and why it is particularly sad that our country makes such passing memorial of such men. We have shown that the reward for integrity is often death and a few international accolades. These are not prophets that we honour in our own land. Indeed, they are often pariahs.
The people getting rewards today seem to be those that espouse beliefs they don’t actually have. This flows from a President that calls ruthless war a humanitarian operation to an internally dictatorial Opposition Leader that calls for democracy. From there it trickles down to cops that ask for bribes and elite Colombo drivers that pay them.
All of these beliefs require sacrifice, and so people will sell them out. The President will lie that no civilian blood was shed because he’s afraid to sacrifice his image. The Opposition Leader won’t practise party democracy because it would mean giving up his power. The police won’t serve the people if they can’t serve themselves and the elites won’t respect rule of law if it means actually sitting in jail.
These are the examples we see and this is the lifestyle we support, and it seems to be working out well. It is a conspiracy of hypocrisy, and everyone is in on it. As Catch 22’s Milo Minderbinder said, it’s a syndicate, and everyone gets a share.
The first share started years ago when we pretended like the JVP insurrection didn’t kill thousands of innocent people on both sides, and that this was how things had to be done. That bought us a share of prosperity in the south. Then we bought the lie that our war didn’t involve war crimes — as even American wars do — and received ‘peace’ and prosperity in return.
The returns of hypocrisy are indeed good. You get to look good and get good as well, all without the trouble of actually doing good. In the face of this, what hope does integrity have?
The only hope, really, is that men like Sujith Perera have not perished from this earth. Perera faced opposition from his superiors, disgust from his co-workers and, doubtless, pressure from his family to back off. As forces acting on one man, the pressure from our current societal malaise would add only a feather to his troubles. And yet, through this pressure, Perera still did the right thing. Not out of concern for reward or even recognition, but simply because that’s the way he was. Because he had that integrity.
Whether its genetic or religious or taught, there remains the hope that this integrity remains within us. That means doing the right thing not because it’s easy or rewarded or respected, but simply because that’s all we know.
At some point, especially within the pages of this paper, it becomes hard to try to argue rationally for doing right. What’s rational is risk/reward, is appealing to the human desire to reach a goal in the optimal way. For most of us that goal is a better life for ourselves and our family, and doing the right thing often gets in the way. In a society that doesn’t punish cutting corners, cutting corners can help. Appealing to pure reason will not lead us to a reasonable solution.
Instead, we must try to remember people like Sujith Perera who did the right thing and died for it because that’s the way we were. There has to be some core belief within us that killing is bad, that right action is important, that right speech matters, that right vocation and general human compassion is not something we’d question any more than detaching our own heads. That core belief needs to be inalienable, it needs to be immune to societal whims, economic fancies and even familial concern. That is integrity, and that is a life bound to the right path rather than an ever turning wheel of illusion.
To mark this National Integrity Award to Sujith Perera, let us try to remember and rekindle the personal integrity within all of us. Not because it makes us wealthy or popular or even happy at home, but because it is simply who we are. In the face of people profiting from pain and corruption, that is all there is. Integrity. Doing the right thing because that’s who we are, even if our nation will barely remember.