The social responsibility of a professional – The Island

How would a professional well respected at home feel in such a hostile environment? Material benefits alone without job satisfaction cannot make a professional happy and content. I know many of my medical colleagues working abroad are eagerly waiting to return home at the earliest opportunity, if the situation here is conducive.

By Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva

(Motivational Speech Delivered at the Convocation of the Law Graduates of the University of Colombo on 19th December, 2021 at the BMICH.)

I wholeheartedly congratulate the new graduates for completing your tertiary education and entering society as productive citizens. Notwithstanding your superior academic capabilities, it is indeed an achievement to have completed your tertiary education at troubled times like these, when education in general had come to a virtual standstill for the majority of the younger generation. I have no doubt that your graduation is long overdue due to no fault of your own. The very problems and delays in the system has led to the waste of much of your childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. The frustration of such delays, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, must weigh heavily on your outlook on life. Most of you will become practising lawyers in courts of law, while others may continue in allied fields. Some of you may enter politics, a field in which many past luminaries of your profession have left an indelible mark.

You are now on the verge of being admitted to a very old, much respected profession, one of three learned professions recognized from mediaeval and early modern times, the other two being divinity and medicine. While we in the medical profession are expected to ensure good physical and mental health in the individual and the community, you in the legal field are supposed to promote good societal health by ensuring that justice is done without discrimination, thereby helping to create a law abiding society where all are deemed equal.

It is important at this stage to differentiate between a job and a profession.

A job is a role of a person in a society, for which a definite payment is made for a particular number of hours worked. Even without any training beforehand, one can learn on the job and can also be terminated by the employer at any time.

A profession, on the other hand, is defined as an occupation, at times life-long, founded upon specialised educational training, the purpose of which is to provide disinterested objective counsel and service to others, for direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other personal gain. A professional is expected to work towards maintaining and uplifting the standards of the profession as well. There are well established codes of conduct and ethics to guide a professional, the breach of which can be punished by a statutory body which may even compel the professional to cease practice altogether.

By now you should be aware that many things are going wrong in our beloved motherland. You may have suffered already, due to various irregularities which have been blamed on the political leadership and the subservient populace. From the moment you entered Grade 1 in school until you completed your university education, you must have faced many undesirable influences, compelling you, at times, to act against your own conscience. Our system of free education has had little adaptation, over the years, to meet present day and future needs. Being mainly focused on passing examinations, there is hardly any emphasis on character building, developing good attitudes or learning to interact with others, leading to a society with peaceful co-existence. The younger generation is ill-prepared by such education to be useful, law-abiding members of the society. I believe undesirable attitudes developed in formative years are unlikely to be corrected easily in adult life. Accumulating knowledge without developing the wisdom to use it is of little value. The new normal of virtual or on-line education can only make matters worse, producing self-centred individuals growing up in isolation.

Most of you have been beneficiaries of free education throughout. However it should be kept

in mind that a significant proportion of the younger generation today studying in private, so-called international schools, have not benefited from free education until and unless they enter a state university. This could be a matter of personal choice or more likely due to the lack of access to a good state school.

You have been fortunate enough to reap the full benefit of free university education as well, overcoming many restrictions and other obstacles that could have prevented you from securing it. It should be borne in mind that many deserving students have been denied this opportunity due to merit determining only 40 percent of university admissions. I consider you as having made the best use of free education while a significant section of the society appears not to have made full use of that opportunity.

We are products of this society. If you have imbibed everything that is bad, then you will continue to indulge in and propagate bad behaviour. When you see how less educated people make a fortune, often through antisocial activity, and live in luxury, you too would get disheartened and be tempted to become dishonest. This would not happen if you have a good upbringing. One has to make a genuine effort not to fall into that precipice while trying one’s best to address those issues and rectify them wherever possible. With rampant lawlessness at all levels in the society it is not surprising that these shortcomings remain uncorrected. How those who openly break laws escape without punishment and remain free to continue as they like, is an insult to law abiding citizens.

My own medical profession is at the receiving end of much blame for not meeting the high expectations of the people. An outsider like me need not deal with shortcomings in your profession that should be obvious to any honest observer with common sense. Your purpose in life should be to assist in delivering justice to the common man, without leaving him financially bankrupt after unnecessarily prolonged litigation. Please do keep in mind that justice delayed is justice denied. A few errant members can tarnish the reputation of an entire profession.

Many of you may consider leaving the country at the earliest opportunity, to escape the evils of the motherland. Such a move could ensure an economically secure future with good education for your children. But think of the different set of problems one is likely to face abroad. With the social upheaval taking place everywhere, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant unemployment, there is increasing animosity towards the immigrant community, in the developed world. Physical harm in public places and racial slurs at the workplace are all too common. Whether a professional or otherwise, immigrants remain second class citizens. How would a professional, well respected at home, feel in such a hostile environment? Material benefits alone, without job satisfaction, cannot make a professional happy and content. I know that many of my medical colleagues working abroad are eagerly waiting to return home at the earliest opportunity, provided the situation here becomes conducive.

It is your bounden duty to give back to the motherland what its citizens have given you, for it was they who provided the tax money to pay for your free education. I agree that for you to serve the nation properly, the state should maintain a system of fair play and justice as well as opportunities for progress for yourself and your progeny.

It may appear to be the easier option to leave the country with a defeatist attitude, but your obligation, individually or as a group, is to strive and rectify the many maladies affecting our society. Being in the legal profession you are best equipped and better positioned to do so.

It is sad to say that many professionals taking to politics, including many from your own field, have performed no better than the average less educated politician. Why should a qualified lawyer, or for that matter any professional, sacrifice all his learning, integrity and dignity to please his political masters by agreeing to and actively promoting policies which obviously go against the basic principles of justice and democracy? It is really depressing to see how legal luminaries with political power have allowed or actively promoted many legislations which any person with common sense can see are detrimental to the functioning of a democracy. It is unfortunate that they have placed safeguarding of their own future in politics ahead of the welfare of the nation.

It is common knowledge in the medical community that some of our own colleagues, perhaps at the behest of interfering authorities, are disseminating misinformation among the public on various health related matters. That could cause more harm as the public is more likely to believe even falsehoods coming from reputed professionals while ignoring similar information conveyed by an ignorant politician.

While appreciating their dilemma in being obliged to obey the commands of higher authorities, it must be acknowledged that in doing so they abrogate their primary responsibility to provide disinterested, objective counsel and service, which amounts to professional misconduct. As such, ideally professionals should refrain from holding positions where their opinion is not solicited or respected and are expected to slavishly obey irregular or even unlawful orders of their political masters.

Many ills in the society may be minimised if those practising law and the judiciary take an upright position and are not swayed by various outside influences. That will provide a solid rock on which a healthy society with justice and fair play could stand. Any suspicion, in the minds of the people, of a breach in that noble concept could be a catalyst for much unrest and instability.

It has been said that there are three categories of people; those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who suddenly wake up wondering what has happened. I sincerely hope that you belong to the first category, making things happen for the betterment of all. Let me conclude by wishing you every success in your chosen career, with the hope that you will be exemplary citizens your countrymen could depend on and be proud of.

Thank you

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