By Ravi Perera –
“Honesty is a very expensive gift. Do not expect it from cheap people” Warren Buffett
The story doing the rounds in the Colombo circles about a large bribe solicited from a foreign Real Estate developer is a sobering reminder that the “miraculous country”, the much used unction for our self-image notwithstanding, those reputed evils of the third world , bureaucratic buffoonery and corruption are still very much part and parcel of our system. We may speed on Sri Lanka’s one and only (southern) highway in our European made Lamborghinis (with their V12 engines!) but that does not mean that everything else on the way is top of the pops.
If the story is true, a high-up public servant has solicited a large bribe from the prospective developer as an inducement to fast-track the approval processes for the project. Large commercial/condominium developments require several standard approvals which most of us are familiar with now. And as we all know the government of Sri Lanka is eager to have such foreign investors in the country and are in fact offering several concessions to lure them. In the circumstances it is ironical that so called servants of the government are asking for bribes to expedite a process which in principle the government is committed to expediting!
It is in the nature of such things in this country that the actual culpability of persons concerned and the amounts involved are hazy. Invariably the tale is spiced up or toned down according to the political sympathies or animosities of the teller. The amount currently being mentioned in this transaction is an astounding 400 million rupees, a figure which perhaps suggests a much larger margin of profit than other similar projects. On the other hand the largeness of the bribe raises a suspicion of huge regulatory issues which otherwise would fail to win the approval of the regulators.
If we were to be guided by the folksy wisdom of Warren Buffett, in normal circumstances even a hundredth of this figure, i.e. Rs. 4 million would have ensued results with a “cheap “person. The largeness of the bribe may, while creating a grandiose image of the scope of our economic activity, would also be unintentionally honouring the bribe taker’s threshold level. Many moons ago they used to say that a former minister in charge of the Mahaweli Development project was among the three richest men in Asia! Of course, his exact rank and the facts and figures of his estate were sketchy ,to say the least. Most times the unlucky victims of raids by the so called Bribery Department are guilty of seeking inducements in the range of Rs.10, 000-100000!
Be that as it may, for sake of argument let us assume that our bad boys are big players when it comes to bribery and that 3 million US $ is kind of standard today. The offer of the bribe apparently came from an Indian company. Although in this era of political correctness generalizations may be frowned upon, it is perhaps not too off the mark to say that the business culture in the Sub-Continent leaves much to be desired. Maybe a culture inclined towards an obtuse bureaucracy invites corruption. So many hands reaching out for a small pie could create an attitude of wanting to win by fair means or foul. Whatever the cultural reason for the strong inclination towards unethical business practices, the fact is that not many eye brows will be raised in surprise on account of the ethnicity of the so called culprits in the present case.
On the other hand, if it is true that senior figures in the Sri Lankan administration are soliciting or accepting bribes and kickbacks it is a very serious matter. For decades we took pride in the “relative” honesty, save for a few departments like the Customs and the Police, of our public sector. Even where the named departments are concerned, there were undoubtedly a large number of proud officers in these departments who worked in a spirit of service. But since of late it is evident that there is a massive deterioration in the level of integrity in almost all public institutions in this country.
Sometime back it was reported in a newspaper that a political appointee who was tasked with developing business contacts in a neighbouring country was praised by his boss for taking the initiative by way of gifting gold coins to his counterparts in that country. The assumption was that Indian bureaucrats will accept the gold coins and do the needful. We apparently had no ethical qualms about that approach. On the contrary the boss apparently was exultant about the “original approach” of his bribe giving underling.
Increasingly, we are troubled by a gnawing sense that the country is slowly but surely drifting towards a moral precipice. A sure sign of the social decay is the manner in which we now trivialize evils like corruption, abuse of power, nepotism and deceit. These are no longer seen as threats to a civilized way of life but only provide a subject for inane jokes among the rich and powerful. The rot is not confined to the powers that be. Even the so called opposition is obviously bankrupt politically as well as morally.
A fundamental question that we face as a nation is whether the mere fact of election gives a blanket license to our politicians to do all that they presume to do. Obviously in any society for the idea of democracy to work meaningfully, a certain culture must prevail. In the absences of that culture the idea rings hollow and the machinery of democracy can easily become a mere tool in the hands of unscrupulous politicians. A few politicians who get themselves elected to leadership positions can use a flawed democratic system to act with impunity and then easily cover their sins. Numbers do not always sanctify. A large crowd cannot simply veto the truth of a scientist for example. A mob cannot decide to hang a person likewise. There are ideas and principles which transcend political manipulations.
Recently there was a picture in a newspaper which is a fitting metaphor for what passes for politics in our country. The main character in the picture was the provincial politician who forced a female teacher to kneel before him as a punishment for daring to discipline the politician’s daughter. That incident is only a few weeks old now. In the newspaper picture the man is all but kneeling before his party’s nomination committee. He obviously wants re-nomination and has ambitions of continuing his political career. And the way to ensure re-nomination is by toadying. Unlike the unfortunate teacher, his obsequious conduct before that nomination committee was all voluntary.
What happens when the wielders of power are “cheap” characters as defined by Warren Buffett? As we can see around us many things can happen when power ends up in such hands. One thing for sure, we cannot expect honesty from cheap people!