The Moral Compass

 Published in: The Daily Star on May 25, 2016

Our workers are now taking loans for a refrigerator, a television, kitchen appliances and other luxury products, which are somewhat within their reach. Every time I approve such a loan I giggle in joy. At the same time, while I have been sitting at my desk for the last three days and trying to figure out the massive theft going on in one of our factories, I realise that I have been blinded by the people I trusted so far and have been taken for a ride. If I look at the scale of corruption, quite ironically, I am amused. If a worker or a colleague earning a modest salary fails to repay a loan, we take it seriously, warn them and occasionally penalise them. But when the top management tier steals, we are often at a loss, and grope around for ways to find the truth, just because there is a difference between plain and simple defaulters and the routine chors. Similarly, in our country while only the rich own everything, including their own banks, and occasionally rob them, the rest of the real people shudder in utter helplessness, while they face the most stringent prerequisites from the financial institutions, when they require funds.

Quite in line with this, Bangladesh Bank has been noticing that the chunaputi loans are on the rise, meaning people are buying beds, kitchen appliances, etc with bank money. Apparently, consumer loans have increased from 12.7 percent in August 2015 to 16.2 percent this year. The fear is that these loans will add to inflation and that bad debt will increase. I wonder at this point if the “real” contributors to the bad debts are ever questioned or quizzed without bias. Apparently, these “real raghob boals” are beyond anyone’s reach. The fact that the country’s actual default loan amount – including that of written-off loans – in the country’s banking sector has exceeded Taka 1 trillion mark for the first time, qualifies us to be one of the leaders of the corporate shame club. Default loan stands at Tk. 594.11 billion and the amount written off is Tk. 412.37 billion, making the aggregate of Tk. 1 trillion. The loans, which are ‘written off’ are never out in the open, while they exceed the five years. According to a Prothom Alo report, actual default loans have increased by 164 percent in the last eight years and equal an amount of Tk. 625 billion, as of March 2016.

Now, who are the super rich? While The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released the full list of companies and individuals in the Panama Papers on May 10, 2016, I eagerly looked for Bangladeshis in the list. Apart from one being featured in the Wikipedia page, I spotted others in another report, including only one name from the readymade garments sector. I was relieved thinking that maybe this time, the alleged corruption by the readymade garment manufacturers will be downplayed by the organisations that file routine reports from time to time. Maybe from now on, they will have other sectors to look into. At a recent workshop relating to RMG in Geneva, there was a discussion on how brands could be assured that better price would ultimately relate to better pay for workers and would not be used to purchase a Mercedes Benz for the “owner’s wife”. I sharply retorted by saying that while it was a gender insensitive comment, the fact that “Sir” Philip Green buys a yacht for his wife, gives her 400 million pounds and bankrupts BHS, leaving 571 million pounds of pension money to uncertainty, proves that the conscience and morality of the West differ from that of ours.

As for our morality, let me cite an instance from this morning. I was merely congratulating a young friend for a good business venture that he is leading. In response, he looked at me in dismay and said, “But there’s no money in any of the “good” businesses that I take up.” While I soothed him and boosted his confidence, I also realised in shame that there was truth in what he was saying. If you don’t have loans crossing Tk. 1000 crores with the bank, you don’t count, and your years of service, sincerity, innovation and experience are all in vain if you have not become a defaulter. While I write all of this in absolute pain, I also reconcile with the fact that the concept of phantom liquidity must come to an end at some point. Having endless land and property, and having endless overdraft facilities from banks do not bring ultimate glory. But how do I convince the young man today?

I started reading Nietzsche when I was in Class 8. I read him just because I wanted to look at perspectives that questioned conventional morality and drew a sharp distinction between our original or “master” morality and the weaker “slave” morality. The philosopher claimed that the original morality, which included the biological morality, the morality of strength, exuberance and dominance, was the earliest and most natural morality, and that it was “weak” to be kind and compassionate. He wrote that the weak were trampled by the strong and had no place while they served the masters who dominated them. According to Nietzsche, as millennia passed, things began to change and the weak began to teach peers that kindness and compassion were better than winning and dominance. He argued that this is how master values were “defeated” by re-valuing all values, by a “transvaluation of values.” Since the contemporary scene is quite the opposite today, and since the powerful rob the weak off their material and moral strength, Nietzsche may be all set on his original course once again.

A recent report covered by The Washington Post indicates that drugs and therapies can be given to correct moral deficiencies and enhance empathy and moral reasoning. Maybe, the core threads of our national fabric are broken, and just maybe, we need to correct ourselves through emerging neuroscience fixing our broken moral compass and our internal morality in an innovative manner. After all, Nietzsche can’t win today, can he?

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