"Truth is inconsistent with business"

April Fool's Day is a good time to talk about truth and lies.

This piece is a following up on my blog on 17 March in which I talked about how Gandhi's view on truth may be incompatible with the business world today. In Gandhi's autobiography he wrote the following about the first public speech in his life, one that he gave during a meeting of all Indians in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1893:

"I went fairly prepared with my subject, which was about observing truthfulness in business. I had always heard the merchants say that truth was not possible in business. I did not think so then, nor do I now. Even today there are merchant friends who contend that truth is inconsistent with business. Business, they say, is a very practical affair, and truth a matter of religion; and they argue that practical affairs are one thing, while religion is quite another. Pure truth, they hold, is out of the question in business, one can speak it only so far as is suitable. I strongly contested the position in my speech and awakened the merchants to a sense of their duty, which was twofold. Their responsibility to be truthful was all the greater in a foreign land, because the conduct of a few Indians was the measure of that of the millions of their fellow-countrymen."

Gandhi's insistence on and courage for speaking the truth was certainly admirable, but I cannot help wondering how many of the Indian businessmen in the audience would agree with him. Chances were that they thought the same as his merchant friends that "truth is inconsistent with business". Advertisements are a perfect example. I remember that in an issue of the MAD comics magazine years ago contained a parody of how advertisements would be like if they were stripped of the sales pitch or gimmicks and only allowed to tell the plain truth and they looked rather ridiculous. Today, with such powerful technology and creative talents at their disposal, businesses are so good at producing mesmerising advertisements containing illusions that border on being blatant lies. Advertisements about property developments are classic examples. They not only stretch imaginations but also the limits tolerated by rules and regulations.

It would be interesting to see how Hong Kong's business tycoons would react if Gandhi were to deliver the speech to them today.

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