What Does Integrity Really Mean?

Published January 15, 2018

By Mak Yuen Teen

Note: There is a “spoiler” about the movie Molly’s Game in this article, so you may want to avoid reading if you plan to watch it.

Last week, following a rather eventful few weeks in Singapore with news of the bribery scandal and the US$422 million fine paid by Keppel Offshore & Marine (KOM), I dragged my wife along to watch “Molly’s Game”. This is a movie starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba and Kevin Costner. I say “dragged” because it is not the type of movie we usually watch in the cinema – more the type we would watch on Bluray at home or I would do on my long-distance flights. But we both ended up enjoying it a lot.

The movie, based on a true story, is about a former professional skier, Molly Bloom, who ended up running an underground poker empire for Hollywood celebrities, business tycoons, sports stars and, unknown to her, the Russian mob. At the end of the movie, I turned to my wife and said “Actually, the movie is about integrity.” Whatever one might think about poker or gambling, we can see that Molly was trying to do the right thing.

Molly’s poker empire got started after her boss asked her to help out on his underground high-stakes poker game with these rich folks. Soon, the boss changed the rules. He felt that she was making enough from tips and did not want to pay her wages for her day job. Then he tried to cap her tips. And then he cut her off. So she started her own high-stakes poker game.

In running her poker empire, she tried hard to stick to the rules. She sought legal advice about whether what she was doing was in accordance with the law. Yes, she made mistakes. She started taking drugs to deal with the stress and lack of sleep. She took a cut of the pot to operate as the bank, which broke the law. She probably should have engaged a better lawyer to advise her as to whether she was breaking the law. But, at the end, she was prepared to do the right thing and face the consequences when she could have cut a deal which would have cost her much less personally. She took responsibility. [As a digression, the judge’s questions at the start of her plea hearing near the end of the movie reminds me of the public transcript of Jeffrey Chow’s plea hearing for KOM].

Fundamentally, integrity is about doing the right thing when nobody is watching and even if it costs you personally. Some people can do the right thing even under the most adverse circumstances while others find convenient excuses without even trying to do the right thing. Many people will do the right thing because they are afraid of being caught. That’s not integrity. That’s just kiasi (literal meaning – “afraid of death”).

The KOM bribery scandal was like fixing the poker game to make sure you win or to improve your odds of winning. It’s much, much more than paying a “facilitation fee” to make sure that your permit application is not stuck in some government bureaucracy or your goods are not held up in a port somewhere. Bribing to win contracts is downright dangerous. Imagine if someone pays a bribe to get a contract to build an oil rig and then cut corners. Or a bridge. Or an apartment complex. Once it is discovered that a contract was won by unfair means, questions about whether the job was done to appropriate standards would inevitably arise.

If you read Animah Kosai’s article “Keppel, The Story of a Bribe” published by The Anti-Corruption Digest on January 10 about the bribery in the US$1 billion P-61 project, KOM executives allegedly worked to conceal the bribe from KOM’s U.S. joint venture partner McDermott International, which they knew may have a problem with paying bribes because of their familiarity with FCPA. Further, part of the bribes went to a Petrobras employee responsible for the bidding process. It was not just a simple act of bribery, but an elaborate scheme designed to gain an advantage for KOM and a betrayal of trust of the JV partner. And this is just for one project. One can only hope that this saga does not scare away reputable KOM partners especially since it did not involve just some “rogue employee”.

The word “integrity” has been so cheapened today that it has lost its meaning. Business and political leaders often use the word even when they clearly don’t have it. Companies, universities and organisations claim it as a core value. A common refrain from those in business is that in some countries and in some sectors, one has to pay bribes. There is no choice, they say.

There is always a choice –  one can always walk away. One cannot say that he has integrity if he just pays when it’s necessary to get deals. Or when it’s the common business practice.

If a company or someone chooses to pay bribes, it is their choice and they should face the consequences if they are caught. But they should not brazenly proclaim that they have integrity if they do so. That’s just hypocrisy.

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