By W.A. Wijewardena –
Constitutional Reforms Are Meaningless Unless Opposing Views Are Tolerated
Bank of Ceylon’s retired General Manager Sarath de Silva, addressing the Sri Jayewardenepura University’s Public Administration Alumni Association last week, left an important piece of advice with his audience. He said that public servants should wear the same V-cut tie as their boss but should learn not to blindly agree to everything which the boss says if they have reasons to disagree on ethical or legal grounds.
He did not stop at that. He said that public servants cannot do this if there is no protection for them when they disagree with their bosses, especially when those bosses happen to be their political masters.
It is the duty of all professional associations, according to Sarath de Silva, to canvass for the introduction of safety clauses to the Constitution to protect the rights of public servants to say ‘no’ in the event they receive unlawful orders from their bosses.
Without protection, public servants cannot disagree
This is fair enough advice from a seasoned administrator. Many public servants confide in private that they had to carry out unlawful or unethical orders of their bosses against their conscience because they have no protection under the present administrative arrangements. If they do so, they run the risk of losing their job, pensions and all hopes of career advancement.
No sensible public servant will dare to take this risk. There have been some who had dared to do so. But they all had ended up in disaster: frustration, early retirement and in some cases, facing falsely framed charges against them.
This is a self-perpetuating system that gives wrong signals to everyone. When one bold public servant is victimised on account of answering to his conscience, all others take the cue from the lesson: Be a good boy and don’t try to be smart.
Delivery of justice to society
But public servants are supposed to deliver justice to a people, the goal of any society. Laws, rules and regulations are framed by society to ensure that society attains that goal. It is the public service that implements those laws, rules and regulations. Hence, it is necessary to establish an administrative system that facilitates public servants to work within the legal framework designed by society without the fear of being intimated or persecuted or losing jobs.
Culture should be conducive for free dialogue
The establishment of such a system is an essential condition for a progressive society. But it depends on the culture of the boss as well as the culture of the subordinate. If the boss is arrogant, unwilling to listen and thinks that his word is the last and subordinate’s independent view is a threat, then there is no free dialogue between the boss and the subordinate.
The chances in such a situation are that the subordinate who knows the best survival strategy will kill his free mind, allow to be directed by the boss and become an intellectually disabled person. The creation of such an intellectually slavish generation is detrimental to the boss, subordinate and society. It is detrimental to the boss because he will blindly walk into a pitfall and perish. It is detrimental to the subordinate because he, without using his faculties for thinking, is killing himself as a person. It is detrimental to society because societies prosper only when people think freely and create new things. A society which does not create new things will move backward and become extinct due to lack of inventions and innovations. Thus, it is in the interest of everyone to allow people to think freely and express their thinking freely. But for that to happen, bosses should be cultured enough to listen to others and subordinates should be cultured enough to express their mind freely. Both should do so with utmost respect for each other as proclaimed by Emperor Asoka in his rock edicts that “one should duly honour one’s opponents in every way on all occasions.”
Constitutional reforms are meaningless if public servants cannot disagree
Sri Lanka is getting ready to elect a new President roughly in five weeks. An important policy issue being placed before voters has been the introduction of constitutional reforms and the establishment of good governance in the country. But such constitutional reforms will become incomplete if democratic forms of government and good governance are not supported by a public service which can deliver justice to people by saying ‘no’ to unlawful or unethical orders given to them by their bosses. They must have an environment to do so without being victimised or persecuted.
Authoritarianism does not bring prosperity to a society in the long run
Democracy, good governance and the rule of law have been upheld as essential ground conditions for creating a prosperous society. Constitutional reforms with proper checks and balances will establish democracy and rule out authoritarianism.
As this writer has argued in a previous article in this series entitled ‘An authoritarian regime for economic prosperity? Not even a little bit will work in the long run’, democracy has been the best to develop human intellect while authoritarianism kills the same.
The following point was made specifically in this article: “A democracy is the best system for people to develop their human capital because new knowledge requires freedom of speech and freedom of expression. The authoritarian rulers could suppress these freedoms having considered them as a nuisance. But it hinders human knowledge development which is necessary for continuous economic growth. The Ukrainian emigrant novelist Marina Lewycka has explained in her novel, ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’ how the suppression of free thought and free expression during the Soviet regime killed the innovativeness of scientists in Ukraine and why many of them became alcoholics and others migrated to Europe and North America to escape the oppressive regime”
The rule of law always matters
Good governance and rule of law will deliver justice to society’s members. This writer has consistently argued in this series that good governance and the rule of law are the main pillars on which a just and prosperous society stands. In an article titled ‘The rule of law to the fore again: But who are its sworn enemies?’, this was what this writer remarked: “Of course, the State could be the biggest enemy of the Rule of Law since the politicians who rule a country on behalf of the State and the public officers who manage a country on their behalf could violate all these essential aspects that constitute the Rule of Law.
“In democracies, when politicians assume power, they declare in public that they are simply the custodians of the wealth of the society and not the owners. Similarly, public officers are simply servants and not masters of the society. What society expects from both groups is to function as fair, impartial, just and equitable protectors of the rights of the members of society. If they do not do so, they dishonour the sacred oath they have taken at the time of assuming their respective duties”
Weakened institutional framework is a recipe for disaster
There must be proper and strong institutions for public servants to act independently and according to their conscience. Institutions in economics mean not just formal organisations or bodies. Institutions mean the collective value system of a people, what they believe as right and how they respond to unethical and illegal orders coming from the top. The weakening of the institutional framework of a society leads to disaster and when it happens in a public organisation, it causes irreparable damage to the wellbeing of a society.
This writer drew attention to this factor in another article in this series titled ‘Rule of Law or Rule of Men: What will usher prosperity and development?’ taking the case of the Bank of Thailand as an example. This is what he said: “The weak economic governance had been fuelled by the disregard for the rule of law, downgrading the democratic institutions that would have checked the abuse of power and a colluding judiciary that had endorsed sheepishly every wrong action of the political authorities. Hence, if the economic governance and the rule of law are in a mess, they reasoned out that any tinkering of macroeconomic policy will not allow a country to escape the greater evil of impending economic disaster. So, the combination of all these features was the ideal recipe for sudden and unexpected economic collapse”.
‘Yes-men’ in Bank of Thailand triggered 1997-98 Asian financial crisis
In this article, how the weakened institutional framework within the Bank of Thailand led to the Thai Baht crisis that triggered the East Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98 was explained as follows: “The importance of rule of law and economic governance and the ensuing protection of both private and public property rights for preventing economic calamities and ensuring sustainable growth became prominent in the behaviour of the Bank of Thailand prior to its triggering the East Asian crisis in mid-1997.
“Despite growing public criticism that the Bank of Thailand should not protect the Thai baht rate at the expense of the country’s foreign reserves, the bank, led by Governor Rerngchai Marakanond, continued to go on spending reserves unabated. As reported in a subsequent paper published in 2001 under the title “Rerngchai: A Sinner or Scapegoat?” (available here ), the bank blew away some $ 30 billion out of its reserves before it had to allow baht to depreciate in the market from baht 25 a dollar to baht 48 a dollar.
“The subsequent inquiries revealed that internal governance in the Bank of Thailand was so weak that its senior officers had simply endorsed the action by the governor without providing sound counsel. Why did they do so? They had wanted to protect their jobs, ensure their career advancement by supporting the views of the governor and continue to enjoy the perks that had been offered to them by the bank’s management. But later after all the disasters had hit not only Thailand but also the entire region, Governor Rerngchai was charged for criminal negligence of losing the country’s valuable foreign reserves and in 2005 fined some $ 4 billion plus interest as fine by Bangkok High Court. In an appeal against this judgment, in 2011, he was cleared by the Court of Appeal but not before he had to suffer, according to his own words, “with a complete shattering of his emotional and mental wellbeing”
Constitutional reforms should lead to building open societies
The prosperity of any society depends on how freely its members think and express their views. Democracy can bring in prosperity to people only if it can guarantee these two fundamental rights. To do so, constitutional reforms that aim at establishing democracy should create an ‘open society’ rather than a ‘closed society’.
American Financier George Soros has described how this happens in an open society in his 2000 book under the same title as follows: “The concept of open society is based on the recognition that our understanding of the world is inherently imperfect. Those who claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth are making a false claim, and they can enforce it only by enforcing their views on those who differ. The result of such intimidation is a closed society in which freedom of thought and expression is suppressed.
“By contrast, if we recognise our fallibility, we can gain a better understanding of reality without ever attaining perfect knowledge. Acting on that understanding, we can create a society that is open to never ending improvement. Open society falls short of perfection, but it has the great merit of assuring freedom of thought and speech and giving ample scope to experimentation and creativity” (p 3).
Bosses should set example of listening to opposing views
What Soros has proposed for society at large has to be practised in every unit of society from household to government departments and ministries to large corporate bodies. It is the freedom of thought and freedom of expression that lead to creativity, the fundamental requirement for a progressive and prosperous society.
While this can be guaranteed by constitutional provisions, the real test of having it in society depends on building a culture conducive for each other to respect the opposing views. The best starting point to have this culture in society is to start it with bosses themselves as an example to those who are below them.
*W.A Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at email@example.com