Colombo Telegraph

Disasters & Democracy: Facing Up To Realities In Following New Year Tragedy

By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Asanga Abeygoonasekera

The ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society to establish conditions which improve the standard of living for the majority of its people.” ~ Lee Kuan Yew

Last year, an article title New Year Kokis To Luxury Permits was written for the Colombo Telegraph highlighting that the Kokis treats eaten on our traditional New Year didn’t have the time to digest among us before luxury permits was issued to Parliament members. The very public who suffered last year from the burden of permits now has to face a colossal disaster. This disaster has cost lives as the entire nation mourns rather than celebrates the New Year. The son who distributed kokis as a New year tradition returned to see his parents buried by the garbage landslide which was stacked up owing to a systemic failures of standards and systems. This mountain of garbage stacked at Meethotamulla in Colombo District crashed, killing 30 and destroying more than 90 houses. The last incident of a similar nature occurred in the East African nation of Ethiopia killing 113 in March of this year.

Several reports by experts and public intellectuals reports were ignored by policy makers in the past. It is a hope that from now onward policy makers will have more respect for policy inputs from academia. What I wish to highlight is why we have become a reactive society than proactive. The reason is clearly procrastination, rejection of solutions and blaming each other. A systematic method to streamline and implement top priority projects that improve quality of life and secure human security should be implemented by the Government without delay. The security of individual and the security of the State should be top priority. If the State takes the Hobbesian choice of of keeping chaos at bay, it would be fulfilling its duties toward its individuals.

It is either best practices or tragedy that shapes policy. The former remains the ideal to avoid the loss of human lives. Unfortunately, many proposed projects for waste management including waste to energy plants was rejected by policy makers for various reasons. In 2003, in Vijayawada India, I witnessed how generated waste was converted to usable energy and supplied to the national grid. Let us hope we could start some similar project of this nature in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of our New Year’s tragedy..

As reported by the World Economic Forum, Sri Lanka is a third world country transiting to a second world, moving from being factor driven to efficiency driven.. Although certain segments of our society live a first world life, the majority o still on the third world state with 27% poverty. Those who belong to the first world segment of predominantly urban society, educate their children majority overseas with even health care obtained internationally. The country is at a $3600 per capita while our target according to Central Bank is to achieve $7000 by year 2020. With the present economic climate this will be clearly unachievable. A nation like Singapore which most of our politicians quote as their example is at per capita above $50000 ,to achieve this state how long does Sri lanka take? How much of best practices we need to import and adapt?These remain among the larger questions we should be asking.

On the day of the disaster at Meethotamulla this author was in Singapore talking to one of the young geopoliticians Dr. Parag Kannan of Lee Kuan Yew School who has authored the recent book Technocracy in America. During the discussion we spoke about how important to have technical experts at policy level and how nations like Singapore has achieved as a technocracy and sometimes Democracy is not the best model. Technocracy may be understood as a philosophy to which similarities could be drawn with the teachings of Plato. The concept is about technical experts running the core institutions of a nation. Technocracy is evident in Singapore, South Korea, China and even Rwanda.

The health of a political system is determined by the quality of its institutions. For more than a generation, citizens of Western societies have been voicing steadily their increasing dissatisfaction with their system of government, even directly challenging whether or not democracy is right for them. 49% of Americans now believe that experts should decide what is best. Thus, the “end of history” is being turned on its head according to Parag Kanna. The case of Switzerland and Singapore are both verifiably democratic and rigorously technocratic at the same time. They both have a high percentage of foreign-born populations, national military and civil service, strong linkages between education and industry, diversified economies, and massive state investment in R&D and innovation. They are both relentless in seeking self-improvement. Their only ideology is pragmatism. With the world’s top-ranked civil service (as measured by merit and autonomy), detailed scenarios and forecasts are used to strategize the countries domestic priorities and international positioning. Crucially, both countries are also at the cutting edge of leveraging big data. Switzerland has pioneering finance and technology companies, while Singapore has become a living lab for those innovations.

Sri Lanka could adopt technocracy. First, to change our political culture we should bring in technocrats in order to have a dramatic change over a short period of time. What we have currently are technical problems and policy makers have failed to give solutions because they basically have no clue. So technocrats should take up this work for the betterment of our country. The question hinges on the ability of a technocrat to get elected in a democratic system. Society cannot afford to get carried away during the election, especially on massive political spending. The public needs to be vigilant and evaluate the election purely on meritocracy. The spending capacity of a candidate is not a qualification for their post and this must realized by the general public. The national list should be used only for technocrats and not to satisfy loosing candidates.

Given the current trajectory of our economy, with very small incremental changes year on year, it will take us a very long time to become a $22,000 per capita developed economy. My estimate is that at the present rate, it will take us till the year 2040.

Technocracy is one solution we can introduce to fix the present underperforming governmental institutions and the relevant policy making areas specially to improve quality of life. To give you an example of the role of Government to improve quality of life one could look at how Singapore government will soon introduce a 5 Singapore Dollar health check to most citizens above 40. The health check will include even cancer screening. The idea is to detect early health issues and treat to improve public health. When looking at quality of life in Sri Lanka including unmanaged recent dengue outbreak, its important to think not just the living conditions but also about the dead since there was inferior coffins used for burial.

A sustainable political system should support society and improve peoples living standard. If it does not- it has failed. If a democracy fails to bring discipline nor development to the society then it is worth exploring the realities of moving towards a technocracy. In the words of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, “The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development.”

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