On doing one’s duty

If we want to lift the country out of its current depths of despair, what is needed is that kind of professionalism imbued with honesty and integrity to spread at all levels, from the politician to the common man

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Reading about renowned author and management guru Shiv Khera’s experience with a taxi driver in Singapore in last Friday’s issue of this paper (p 14, ‘Life’s lessons: Professionalism’) made me recall a couple of things. The first was having the opportunity and privilege to be hosted by him to dinner about three years ago at his residence in New Delhi, at the same time partaking of some of the wisdom he shared with the three of us, one of whom was known to him personally.

“If we want to lift the country out of its current depths of despair, what is needed is that kind of professionalism imbued with honesty and integrity to spread at all levels, from the politician to the common man, code or no code. Is it too much to expect leading by example from the top? Of this we are not fortunate enough to witness these days, but unless this transformation takes place, I worry about what will happen to the present and coming generations…”


We were on a Government of India sponsored media visit, and that was our last night in Delhi as we were flying out to Mumbai the next day for the second part of the trip. It was a thoroughly pleasant and enriching evening, not least because there’s nothing like ghar ka khana (home-cooked meal), although I must concede that the food at the Shangri La hotel where we were staying was excellent. I cannot say the same for the ‘exotic’ food meant for tourists in Mauritian hotels which, thankfully, I have had to consume only on the rare occasions when I had to do so – but that’s another story.

The other thing that comes to mind is a similar experience I had In Geneva, also with a taxi-driver. Shiv Khera’s account is about the taxi driver who charged him 10$ instead of 11$ according to the meter reading because, in the words of the taxi driver: ‘Sir, I am a taxi driver, I am supposed to be bringing you straight to the destination. Since I did not know the last spot, I had to circle around the building. Had I brought you straight here, the meter would have read 10$. Why should you be paying for my ignorance?’ He said, ‘Sir, legally, I can claim 11$ but honestly and ethically I am entitled to only 10$’ (italics added). He further added that Singapore is a tourist destination and the first experience is always with the taxi driver. And thus, ‘though I am a taxi driver, I am the Ambassador of Singapore without a diplomatic passport’.

Shiv Khera comments: ‘In my opinion he probably did not go to school beyond the 8th grade, but to me he was a professional. To me his behaviour reflected pride in performance and character. That day I learnt that one needs more than professional qualification to be a professional. In one line, be a “Professional with a Human Touch and Values” – that makes all the more difference. Knowledge, skill, money, education, all comes later. First comes Human Values, Honesty and Integrity’.

In my case I had taken a taxi from the UN building after the afternoon session of the World Health Assembly, which I was officially attending, to go back to my hotel, which was situated less than 100 metres away from Gare Cornavin. As we were approaching it, the driver told me (in French of course), ‘Sir, I can either stop you here and you walk the short distance straight ahead to your hotel. Or, since the road is ‘no entry’ from this side, I will have to go round the bloc to drop you at the hotel’s door. I would suggest that you get down here, and thus save the extra four francs to enjoy one more glass of wine with your dinner tonight.’ My choice was obvious…

And so this brings us to the issue of doing one’s duty with a sense of professionalism, which means not only possessing the necessary competencies to perform the duty, but also doing it with ‘Honesty and Integrity’, which ought to be the defining human values for a professional worth his salt.

During my high school student days I learnt that traditionally the noble professions pertained to law, medicine and the priesthood. As regards the priesthood the least said the better, what with the string of cases of sexual scandals that have rocked the global priesthood over the past decade or so. But law and medicine have not been spared either. Besides the anecdotal accounts that one has heard of victims of the legal profession, the fact of, for example, lawyers having to face the fire of a drug commission was assuredly not an honour for the profession.

When it comes to medicine, the current pandemic has come to float its reputation back to the expected levels that it once enjoyed, which in many countries had sunken because of what could be called the ‘commercialisation’ of medicine. Doctors trapped in such systems went along with the tide, dropping ethical norms to the detriment of their patients.

This was despite the fact that probably the medical profession was among the first in modern times to come up with a code of medical ethics. The higher one’s calling, the more rigorous the standard of practice and behaviour that is expected of the practitioner. It is precisely because of deficiencies in this regard that codes of ethics have had to be devised, but come to think of it, even without any formal code it is possible to perform one’s duty with Honesty and Integrity – in other words to be a thorough professional, as the examples of the taxi drivers amply illustrate.

If we want to lift the country out of its current depths of despair, what is needed is that kind of professionalism imbued with Honesty and Integrity to spread at all levels, from the politician to the common man, code or no code. The taxi drivers have led by example from the bottom. Is it too much to expect leading by example from the top?

Of this we are not fortunate enough to witness these days, but unless this transformation takes place, I worry about what will happen to the present and coming generations – about the future of the country, tout court.


* Published in print edition on 14 July 2020

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published.