Confucius knew a bribe when he saw one

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Wednesday, October 17, 2012 at 2:08AM

Semantics have a way of blurring the line between right and wrong, black and white, and leaving a murky area for confusion to reign.

To illustrate my point, bribery is an offense. Bribes are secret gifts (usually of money) offered to someone in a position of trust, such as a public servant, to persuade them to turn their power to the advantage of the gift giver. Through the deceptive use of semantics, bribes come under many guises -- for instance, in the form of gifts, incentives, tips, rewards, bonuses and even excessive salary.

Unlike a bribe, an incentive is a stimulus, given with the intent to motivate or encourage. For example, a mother may promise her child a gift or a holiday as an incentive to perform well in examinations. An incentive directly benefits the receiver and not the giver. A tip to a waiter in a restaurant, for example, is a reward given for good service. But if it were offered to displace someone with a confirmed table reservation, is it still considered a tip or is it really a bribe?

Confucius cautions against trusting in words alone. Later in life, he admitted that "while he once merely listened attentively to what people said and trusted they would carry out their words; he had changed in that he would not only listen to what they said but would also observe what they did before trusting them."

But he also said that "without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know men." By this he meant that if we cannot get beneath the superficial meaning to understand what the words really imply, one cannot distinguish right from wrong from words alone.

Before one wittingly or unwittingly breaks the law, one has to be aware. Is payment offered to the recipient meant as a reward or bonus for a job well done, or is it a fee to buy a dishonest favor?

It's still a mark of wisdom to do as Confucius did -- to keep in mind that words can deceive, and in all cases to match words with an appraisal of conduct to determine intent.

In the next post, I'll look at how to measure conduct.