Asian students confront the moral maze

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Asia is bursting with entrepreneurial energy – and bribery, backdoor deals and corporate skulduggery, if the news headlines are to be believed.

For example, China’s food safety chief was recently executed for taking payoffs, while the Communist party leader in Shanghai has been jailed for stealing pension funds. The idea that powerful people can cut legal corners is widespread.

“Reciprocity is a source of great cultural strength in many Asian societies. It binds us together and is a great comfort,” said Piman Limpaphayom, who runs the MBA programme at Sasin Business School in Bangkok.

“But where do you draw the line between brotherhood and corruption, between respect and fealty? We tend to make this line very fuzzy, turning a strength into a weakness.”

So how is ethical behaviour to be taught in Asian business schools? Alejo Sison, professor of business ethics in the philosophy department of the University of Navarra, Spain, has written widely on corruption in Asia, especially in his native Philippines. He argues that there are culturally appropriate ways of driving tricky ethical lessons home.

For example, professors might ask students if they would want their own family to suffer like other families might as a result of immoral or illegal actions. “As educators we simply try to provide [students] with tools or a moral compass to navigate through life’s moral mazes,” he says.

Yet Howard Harries, who teaches corporate ethics in Adelaide, Singapore and Hong Kong, says research shows that, when taught, people can become better at ethical decisions. “Narrative is important. Ethics is learnt through stories,” he says.

Case studies are clearly useful in showing how dishonest tycoons can come undone, or revealing how tricky dilemmas – whether, say, to fire loyal but inefficient employees – can be finessed.

Yet, if a lecturer is honest, the students will have to be told that in a messy, unfair world they will have to look within themselves to make difficult ethical decisions, says Lee Kaun-han, the former dean of business at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“You can teach them how to approach difficult situations until you are blue in the face, but in the end they will need the strength of character to do what is right.”

Business education, he says, is not all about money and efficiency. “You might be surprised to hear the students respond very well to the idea of personal integrity for its own sake. This ultimately is what being a good businessman is really about,” says Prof Lee.

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