By Siri Gamage –
Recent events in Sri Lanka show us several fundamental facts. 1) that there is a disconnect between the youthful generation and the one holding power and privilege in the government and the private sector 2) that there is no credible and trusted way to empower the youths who are university educated and otherwise through gainful employment and participation in the electoral and governance process 3) that there are colonial like rules and practices continuing to burden the general population in the process of implementing them by police and the courts 4) socio-economic mobility is possible by those who are close to the politicians in power rather than on merit 5) frustrations of the youths compel them to either leave the country or protest on the streets 6) the government has chosen mardanaya (suppression) instead of liaising with the youths who come to the streets and participate in aragalaya (struggle or popular uprising) to find common ground and develop steps for a formal system change.
The message coming out of all this is that the present government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe does not care for the aspirations and demands of protesting youths for a system change. Instead it prefers to reinforce and maintain the existing system of governance and the neoliberal economic system seeking mileage – political, economic or personal. Though it is absolutely necessary to put a flash light on 74 years of governance and economic practices that brought the country to its knees, the government has chosen to follow the same old political and economic policies to find solutions to the crisis facing the country. Many who can critically think about this approach do not hold much confidence in the measures adopted so far primarily because of the lack of popular support to implement the policy and program enunciated by the current President and his government. Trust of the citizens in the system is necessary for change-radical or otherwise. Trust deficit is the main problem facing the present government.
Political Conundrum about the System/s and their change
Much has been said about this aspect already in the digital, print and social media. It is already known that the present government seems to be interested in maintaining the current system with reforms necessary mainly to garner more tax income from the population above the age of 18. Increase in the Vat from 12 tom 15 percent, requirement for those aged 18 and over to open a tax file, increased electricity charges, restructuring of state institutionssuch as the petroleum corporation, Insurance corporation highlight this intention. Reforms in the system in the minds of the government seems to be limited to economic reforms aimed at creating efficiencies in the system on one hand and bringing much needed revenue to government coffers on the other. In the political front, as the new President consolidates his power by appointing a series of individuals to various roles in his secretariat including a large swathe of media operatives, the idea of all-party government seems to have lost steam. This was mooted a few months back by those advocating for a better interim governance arrangement until the next elections are held. Now the wisdom within government circles seems to be to run a government mainly with those from the Podu Jana Peramuna and a few from other parties while continuing mardanaya (suppression of those involved in aragalaya) for the time being. The government must be expecting further protests from disaffected people facing significant increases in cost of living, daily necessities and increase in taxes. It seems to be getting ready for a hardline approach to future protests in the name of maintaining law and order. Whether it will succeed is yet to be seen.
The key point about the system is that people ought to be able to trust the system in place to meet their needs and aspirations – short and long term. It should be responsive to people’s needs and aspirations in an efficient way. It should be there when people need assistance to solve their daily problems. Unless this fundamental need is fulfilled maintaining law and order for the sake of maintaining the system does not make sense. In this sense, there is not only one system. There are many systems or systems within systems. For example, when people face health issues, the system in place should be able to meet their health needs. This includes not only the hospitals, doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, and psychologists. It includes the whole treatment process, its people friendly nature or otherwise, availability of drugs and instruments. There are problems in the health system associated with the private practice permitted for doctors and their capacity to see a patient for 5-10 minutes and charge a high fee after waiting for hours. Doctors who see patients privately do not keep patient records. They jump from one appointment to the next relying on the patient’s words about what happened in the previous appointment. They engage in private practice in non-working hours in hospitals where they keep a permanent job. This is a highly inefficient system. What reforms in the health system are required ought to be high on the government’s agenda but it seems to be continuing with the same old procedures, system and its maintenance? This is only one example.
When it comes to the education system or higher education system, the same applies. Once the system is created, there is no appetite for change or improvement. System and institutions associated with it are considered as feather’s in someone’s cap to provide glory and repute rather than agencies that serve the interests of those who receive a service. Transmission of knowledge rather than creation of it dominate the education system. Education and higher education system should be training the next generations for a competitive society and world by equipping with necessary knowledge, qualifications and skills including critical thinking, problem solving, intercultural communication/understanding. There has not been a serious review of our education and higher education systems since the 1960s or even earlier. Country continues with the same old system that we inherited from the British colonial rulers with amendments. Who prepares the school curriculum? Do we produce text books in the country? One day I visited a bookshop in Kandy to find texts associated with subjects like science come from United Kingdom. British Council plays a key role to play in what our students learn not only in English subject but others as well? The knowledge we impart in our universities through various disciplines come from Europe and America supplemented by Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Pursuit of new knowledge, especially those linked to our own intellectual and cultural traditions or those from the Asian region, is not the priority. Our academics repeat what they learned from their teachers decades ago in lectures and tutorials within and outside the country. The teaching process is not problem-oriented. It is teacher and exam oriented for testing acquired knowledge from teachers and text books. Critical thinking ability along with comparative knowledge is lacking. Practical element is minor especially in social sciences. What I mean here is the application of knowledge and skills to solve a problem in the localities. This reflects our habit of dependence on other countries to solve our problems. With such a system how can we expect innovation and creativity so that students are able to compete in a brave new world?
When it comes to the system of work also a similar pathology exists. There is a disconnect between what one learns in the schools and universities etc and the working world, especially the private sector. Ideally one system has to feed into the other. Our students have very little exposure to the working world during their learning years. In other countries as part of their university degrees, there are projects or work assignments that students have to do by being an intern in a government or private organisation to secure work experience. Part time work while studying is an acceptable way for students to obtain an income and necessary life skills and working habits. Employers look at such part time workers or interns kindly with compassion as they know these students are the future of society. Even government departments offer graduate positions for a few years depending on the program. Students in such programs gain valuable communication, intercultural/cross cultural, organisational, legal and modern knowledge and understanding through such activities.
In countries like Australia, an arts degree is still highly valued as it provides a broad basis for the undergraduates to enter the next phase of their life. One can supplement such degrees with graduate diplomas or higher degrees later depending on the need. Thus, the system in place to cater to work opportunities in the country, region and world needs to be flexible, up to date, informative, grounded (not text book and exam oriented). It needs to be focused on building capacity of the individual not only to cope in the new world but succeed while problem solving instead of repetition of old knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Individuals who master the knowledge and develop skills ought to be able to rise in the various hierarchies in place rather than those who are close to the politicians and bureaucrats in power. This means various hierarchies in place also need reforms e.g. the security sector, public service, academia, health sector, legal profession, courts, civil and criminal procedures, and police. When I was teaching at the University of New England, Australia one course I taught was for those from the army, police and fire brigade called Bachelor of Professional Studies (there was a master’s course also). Students came from the services mentioned. Their employers subsidised the course fees and permitted free time for study. They learned while working. The teaching experience was rewarding for me also as I interacted with a range of professionals from the real world. I used to get calls from students from the army who were driving armed cars in remote parts of northern Australia or those deployed overseas under various missions. Students learned from me and I learned from them. The same applied when I taught courses for teachers employed in international schools overseas. In addition to the subject matter we exchanged ideas, experiences, and challenges pertaining to living and working in a different country for mutual benefit. Such interactions were very educative for both parties.
System at the local level
People who rely on the systems in place at the local level are frustrated as even a simple task cannot be accomplished without delays, going after local officials or paying bribes This applies to Pradesheeya Sabhas and Pradesheeya Lekam Karyalayas. Whether it is obtaining permission to remove a tree, rates issue, a land dispute, or a compensation claim for the land and property lost when expanding roads, the same situation exists. These offices function according to their own laws and dictates. If a citizen is unhappy, where can he/she go to seek redress? Not clear. One avenue may be to go to the MP of the area but many are reluctant to do so. Control mentality exists in this and other government offices. Citizens are treated like animals. Reasons are given for not doing something rather than helping the person to get through regulatory requirements. However, if one has right political or personal connections things are not that difficult. Wheels move smoothly. This is not a system that belongs in the 21st century.
Neoliberal economic model under globalisation is operational in many countries including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, UK, USA, India and Sri Lanka. After the collapse of Cold war, it expanded into countries in Europe that were formerly aligned with the Soviet Union. E.g. Romania, Poland, Ukraine. At the core of this model is several features: 1) removal of government barriers for trade and economic activities by the private sector and facilitation of the same, 2) movement of capital and labour between countries, 3) casualisation of the workforce and removal of employee benefits associated with permanent jobs e.g. annual leave, medical leave, long service leave 4) looking at human beings as consumers of products and services rather than social animals.In other words, reduction of social relations to economic relations, 5) turning assets like land, property to commodities that can be bought and sold in the market, and privatising services like education and health, 6) reducing government welfare and making services available on a user-pay basis, 7) opening space for various businesses within developing countries to foreign companies and capital and as a consequence facilitating locals to work for such businesses e.g. tourism ventures, IT, medical, legal and accounting 8) ability of foreign entities to export profits made within countries of the global south with minimal taxes.
At the core of this model is the fact that locals with capital, political connections, culture capital e.g. English language knowledge, knowledge of the rules and regulations etc are able to join hands with external forces and agencies like brokers or partners to implement such enterprises to generate profits. These can be lawyers, doctors, accountants, surveyors, investors, real estate agents and others who are instrumental in facilitating foreign enterprises in specific fields e.g. agriculture, health, education. There are many recruiting agents of students for foreign universities and migration agents who help applicants to lodge migration applications. Secondly, at the core is the fact that there is a transfer of capital and labour from the developing country to foreign countries at individual and family level as well as enterprise level. Thirdly, import of foreign products and services including consultancies is at the core. The core process at play is the extraction of profit process. Thus, the net outcome over the long term is to make the country dependent on foreign entities, loans and even become bankrupt. The so-called success stories in the Asian region have ended up with more and more foreign domination not only economically but also militarily e.g. South Korea, Japan. Other cases like Vietnam belong in a different category. With its history of fighting the US forces that occupied it. Countries like Myanmar that keeps a tab on popular protests against the government by the use of force also have links with foreign countries and private sector entities to maintain an economic system where the military has a key role both in governance and economy. A cost associated with such a regime is the cost on rights and freedoms that people can enjoy. It is not a model that Sri Lanka should adopt under any circumstance. Balancing the rights and freedoms that citizens can enjoy vs the need to maintain law and order is a task that requires wise leaders – not partisan ones who are able to think beyond the short term to long term needs.
Liberal Democracy vs Autocracy
This is the elephant in the room. To begin with we do not have a liberal democracy in practice. Combined with the executive President system we have a semi-autocratic system of governance. Powers of the President and the resources commanded by him/her have been under criticism from many quarters over decades and from aragalaya movement. Combined with the one party or alliance domination in the parliament, a President can command enormous power not subjected to the laws of the land even. His/her position and role is in fact above the parliamentary process. It is a separate centre of power. Compared to a cabinet system like the Westminster system of governance where collective responsibility prevails, under the Presidential system one person’s decisions take precedence. They cannot be questioned through the judicial system unless they contravene fundamental rights or other laws. We are seeing the results of such a system today.
Liberal democracies all over the world have been facing challenges from fundamentalist ideologies, parties and leaders including in the US. Disconnection between the people’s needs and aspirations and those of the ruling parties have generated populist parties that appeal to popular sentiments. In the US, demise of jobs in various states due to the relocation of industries to countries of Asia and elsewhere was a key factor. In the UK, Brexit reflected the unhappiness of British citizens over the perceived privileges and rights lost as a result of being part of the European union. Brexit was the result. In India, Hindu nationalism has swept the political landscape under Prime Minister Modi. In Pakistan, emergence and demise of Imran Khan reflected the economic difficulties faced by the people and the failure of previous governments in tackling day to day problems including corruption. In Sri Lanka, the attempt to continue with neoliberal economic paradigm or model without necessary political reforms and the resulting economic disaster reflect the failure of not only the political system but also the economic management.
Therefore, I do not hold much confidence as Kumar David does in his following remarks in Colombo Telegraph:
Though there is all-round acceptance that some degree of belt-tightening is unavoidable, everyone, even aragalaya grants that revolution is not around the corner and agrees that the risk of anarchy is real. Trade unions, liberals and urban and rural folk agree that Ranil must, and can, be kept on a tight leash re democracy. Hence, I am moderately confident that bourgeois-democracy, albeit dowsed with economic hardship will come off the life-support system in say a year and that the IMF, India, Western capitalism, and China will wink and give us a hand to climb out of the mire.
Space needs to be created for the emerging leaders from the youthful generations. The system in place seems to curb leadership aspirants from backgrounds that are not related to existing political families. Instead of this system, a change needs to occur so that anyone with energy, talent and dedication can enter the governance fields and succeed with the support of mentors from the state and private sector.
Freedom of Expression including Dissent, Assembly and Association
These are fundamental human rights. Government needs to ensure that these rights are protected when exercising powers given to it from the constitution, regulations, and conventions. It is necessary to ensure that law and order remains in society but if the law is exercised discriminately depending on who the subject person is then it creates social injustice and unhappiness among aggrieved parties. This is an aspect that requires national and international attention especially from those who are knowledgeable about the legal system and how it operates? Arresting those involved in aragalaya at a time when there was a popular, peaceful protest action due to the economic and political systemic failures and bringing in charges before courts reflects a concealed attempt by the government to suppress aragalaya rather than maintain law and order. This action will have far reaching consequences in terms of the trust people in general will have on the probity of governance.
Country Cannot afford to lose the Young talent to other countries and to State Violence
If we have learned any lesson from the past from previous episodes of violent uprisings after independence, it is not to fight with the young generation as enemies. Leaders need to formulate an inclusive society and governance system so that the ideas and plans in the heads of young people can be absorbed with a view to strengthening the system rather than adopting a negative approach. It is true that they challenge the authority system but the leaders have to realise that they do so for a reason. Understanding these reasons is more important than simply rejecting their challenge as simply politically motivated or destructionist. In a context where we lose generations of young people to other countries through temporary and permanent migration, if the government adopts a hostile attitude to the remaining youths -particularly those who want to express their critical views, then the country will lose on multiple grounds. Adopt a mechanism to draw on the young talent, energy and enthusiasm rather than fight the youths as enemies of state.
In terms of the aragalaya activists and leaders, rather than looking at them as threats the government leaders need to look at them as resources that need to be tapped into. Some of these leaders and activists possess critical thinking abilities and a vision for the future. Some are bi and multilingual. Some have overseas work and education experience. Many have a grounded knowledge about what is wrong with the existing system/s and what changes are necessary to not only overcome the current problems but to set the country for a better future. The disconnect between generations of those with power and those without needs to be turned into a positive relationship in the name of country’s future -a non-violent and productive one. These aragalaya leaders and activists can be entrusted with some responsibilities in various fields so that their energies can be positively employed for the betterment of country. It can reduce any tendency for aggressive and even violent tendencies among some youths. Creating a semi-official youth parliament can be one option available to tap into such talent. Primary aim can be ideas generation.
Emphasise values, norms, matters that bind people than divide, Common identity
What we need at this juncture is to focus on traditions, norms and values that bind us rather than divide. When the country is facing a crisis, everyone needs to get together to address it. However, the leadership has to be provided by those in authority. Various ideas presented by civic leaders, clergy and political parties seems to have been ignored and the same old system of governance reinforced in the name of maintaining law and order and addressing the crisis e.g. the formation of an all-party government or an interim government until the next elections are held. Unity among people cannot be expected when the population is divided along core ideas about how to govern the country in the crisis period? Bringing divided people together can be accomplished only when these differing ideas are taken into consideration and a system change is effected to satisfy various interests. One individual or party does not have the answers to multiple crisis facing Sri Lanka. A collaborative effort is required. Further it is delayed, the crisis will continue much longer.
The system changes that aragalaya activists and leaders talked about is necessary to bring the country at least on par with other developing countries. It needs to be broken into sub system changes required and perhaps working parties or reviews established to examine what is needed and how to achieve reforms? Others can give examples of other systems such as agriculture, industry, commerce, finance and investment, police and security, prisons, international relations. When contemplating system change there are several other factors to consider. For example, how to change top down decision-making model with little community consultation by the politicians, technocrats or so-called experts? How to bring in new blood to augment the system? Learn from other countries that have implemented better systems. For example, countries like China, Australia have measures to attract best talent from the world through highly competitive programs. How to attract talent from the diaspora to strengthen systems is another avenue to explore.
Governing Philosophy for the Future
This should be based on humanism, compassion and equanimity that is reflective of our spiritual and religious field rather than the competitive and adversarial approach characteristic of the economic and political fields. If we want to formulate and develop a truly home-grown philosophy for governance there are useful ideas and concepts from our own cultural and intellectual traditions that can be harnessed instead of relying on foreign concepts of governance in singular or complex forms. Core principles need to be identified and ways and means to translate them into the legal, professional, educational and administrative fields conceptualised. After all, such an effort will be in line with the much-needed decolonisation of our institutions in a true fashion. Imitative behaviour that led us to a catastrophic dependence on others can be replaced with a truly genuine and indigenous philosophy and system of governance. A working party or commission can be established to examine this topic further. Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe is well suited to lead this process.