By Ravi Perera –
Since 1948, we have enacted a black comedy in this country, a senseless drama by over-blown mediocrities. By inclination, the show is melodramatic; ‘B’ grade actors in a gaudy play. The drama lacks merit, receiving poor ratings in every aspect.
There are several elements providing the tragedy; poverty, corruption, dilapidation, debt, a large and ineffective public sector, overall low productivity; it seems every negativity of the third world is present in this small crisis-ridden island. Many have lost hope, our middle-class families, with a greater awareness of the opportunities available in the world, are desperate for greener pastures, while the poorer classes are clamouring for overseas jobs, even as domestics or low skill labour. For the comedy aspect, we need only to sit before our television sets; observe the ‘authorities’ going about their work, mimics playing roles they have only misconstrued; minds, crude and clumsy.
In the seven decades since the Second World War, every country has advanced in one form or the other. These seventy years have compacted and remade the world as never before. Societies that had lain dormant for centuries have transformed unrecognizably. In 1945, Singapore was a barren island, the Arab countries were a poverty- stricken desert land, China was engulfed in civil war, Britain was an imperial power and in America coloured men stood unequal. Today, Singapore is a dazzling star, the Arab countries are a swash in oil money, China is an economic mega-power, Britain although very wealthy is without an empire, while in the USA, we have seen a black President in the White House.
In this transformed reality, apart from the air we breathe, practically everything else we use or consume has a foreign element, if not strictly material, in concept, in idea or in model. Our factories make shirts; with cotton grown in Pakistan, cloth made in India, synthetic mixers from Japan, dye coming from Bangladesh, factory methods developed in America, German machinery, Capital investment obtained from a British Bank operating in Singapore; a multi-cultural work force in Colombo produce the final product-the shirt, with a made in Sri Lanka label.
Even the quality of the air we breathe, is affected by happenings thousands of miles away.
Countries, big and small, compete in this compressed world; selling their products, leveraging whatever skills they may possess, resources, geography and even goodwill to gain comparative advantage. High quality products and professional services are much in demand, we see several countries cashing in on their high reputation; their systems, their professionalism, banking, educational facilities and other services.
As individual consumers we look for quality, the best that our rupee can buy. In our collective consciousness are product assessments formed through a life time of buying experiences; you cannot go wrong buying a Japanese car, a German machine, a Swiss watch, an Indian saree or Basmati rice from Pakistan says our common wisdom. Not that others do not produce these things, but the countries mentioned in particular have won our confidence in the products, year after year giving the consumer something he values. We understand that consumer preference could change from person to person, country to country, one economic class to another, but overall, there is general agreement about the quality and efficacy of products/services.
Living in Colombo, the wretched mosquito is a constant threat to guard against. In my arsenal of anti-mosquito weapons is a battery operated badminton racket like gadget which emits an electric charge when used. Upon contact with the netting of the racket the mosquito is incinerated, with an astringent finality, music to my ears. I used to buy these mosquito rackets from street vendors, a substandard looking product which would last three months at most. For some reason, nearly all the mosquito racket sellers I encountered were youngish men from hill country estates. The distributor had worked out that his product needed a certain formality in order to sell, these young men swinging their rackets on the pavement, were kitted up in full length trouser, long sleeved shirt and a tie. It must be hot and uncomfortable for the salesmen pantomiming in the streets; in that torment, the big commercial world of Colombo revealed itself to these hopeful young salesmen.
Then I discovered Miniso, a smart department store selling household bits and pieces, items both elegant and handy. Allegedly, a Japanese concept rebranded with products made in China, but generally of a higher quality than what we have come to associate with Chinese products. At Miniso, I came across another mosquito racket of a very different standard; much better in appearance, easier handing and longer lasting. The racket empowered me, I was stronger than the invading mosquitoes!
When one menace recedes another emerges, early 2020 Covid-19 broke upon the world, numbing us all with fear. Everybody rushed to medical centres for the jabs and boosters. These alone will not do went the common wisdom: steam inhalations, breathing exercises, vitamin supplements, even meditation were recommended as deterrents. Among the vitamins suggested were vitamin D supplements and Zinc. Deciding that my routine affords sufficient time in the sun, I decided to concentrate on the Zinc supplement. The street corner pharmacist referred me to an Indian made Zinc tablet incorporated with other essential minerals and vitamins. It was relatively inexpensive; I think a card of 10 tablets was less than Rs. 400. The marked expiry date was end 2022. I bought a few cards.
A few weeks later, I noticed a stain on the table top where I keep my medicine. On examining the stain, I realized that a syrupy substance had oozed out from the card, out of the cellophane/aluminium packing. Most of my zinc supplement was on the table! India has made a name for producing generic medicine, cheaper and readily available. Clearly, the production standards of these medicines vary, some reminding us of the snake oils hawked by old travelling salesmen.
The scientists out there will eventually find an answer to Covid-19. However, the mosquito is unlikely to disappear from this country in the foreseeable future, for decades the authorities have failed in their attempts to eradicate this deadly menace. With every rain, the mosquitos renew their assault. I have often wondered why we do not produce a mosquito racket, and if we attempted it, how the racket will turn out.
We have a mature ceramic industry. Yet every apartment promotion boasts foreign toilet fittings. Our shoe industry also goes back many years; examine what the discerning upper middle class is wearing; for comfort, style and durability, it is the foreign brands which are preferred. When the consumer has a choice, this is the theme in nearly every product category.
Having only a small industrial base, Sri Lanka is not a country known for its processed products. We are better known for our commodities, tea, rubber, coconut, cinnamon and so on. Not for want of trying that we lag behind, there have been so many attempts to industrialize; industrial parks, export zones, GCEC, BOI, investment gurus, captains of industry, whiz kids of business, everybody has had a chance to bat. Yet the score is low, relative to comparable neighbours like Malaysia, Thailand and even Bangladesh, we lag far behind.
Both China and India are mega countries, their size and scale provide them with a singular advantage when it comes to manufacturing. Today their products, particularly Chinese products, dominate world markets, although not every product comes up to the standards of the old industrial countries.
This is the world we are now in. How the national ship of Sri Lanka will navigate in the future, is anybody’s guess. If our past performance is an indicator, we may just float around, tossed about by every storm. Clearly, the ship needs a completer overhaul: in equipment, crew and captain. Whether we have the wisdom, the national will and the inner resources for such a transformation, only time will tell.