19 September, 2019

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Educated Youth Leaving The Shores Of Sri Lanka: Is It Brain Drain Or Brain Gain?

By W.A. Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

Many have expressed their concern about the rising incidence of educated youth leaving the country for employment in developed countries. This is specifically a relevant issue in a background of Sri Lanka’s labour force falling as observed by the World Bank in its recently released Sri Lanka Development Update 2019. On top of this, labour force participation in Sri Lanka has historically been low with only about a half of the eligible people between the ages of 15 and above offering their services to the market. While the male participation has been around 72%, the female participation has been low at about 35%. Of them, the youth consisting of those between the ages of 25 and 40 have been the largest segment in the labour force, making up of almost the entirety of the people in that age group. Hence, if they leave the country, it is considered a severe loss to the economy. However, the Central Bank in its Annual Report for 2018 has stressed the need for changing the structure of foreign employment from unskilled and semi-skilled categories to skilled categories to enable the country to maximise the earnings from foreign remittances. At present, of the annual migrant workers, about 55% constitutes unskilled and semi-skilled categories, while about 32% belongs to the skilled categories. Hence, the debate continues and some times, some even suggest that Sri Lanka should ban the foreign employment of its workers altogether.  

The protest against the practice, commonly known as ‘brain drain’, is based on both economic and non-economic reasons.

Economic Reasons

The economic reasons adduced against the brain drain take the following form.

The educated youth are the pillars of the country’s wealth creation. When they leave the country’s shores for work in other countries, the home country loses their talents stunting its ability to create further wealth. Hence, instead of the country that took trouble to breed and nourish them, other countries that did nothing about it become beneficiaries. Economists call this phenomenon getting free benefits or ‘free riding’. The poor countries are poor because, they have not been able to get the benefit out of the talents they have created by spending money on educating the youth. As a result, firms that could have produced an exportable output by using their talents are unable to export. The government which could have raised its efficiency by hiring the educated youth will not be able to serve the people properly. Hospitals, both public and private, are unable to treat the patients because of the shortage of qualified physicians. Engineering firms are unable to build new structures because of the shortage of engineers. Schools are unable to teach students, specifically subjects like mathematics, science and English, because of the shortage of qualified teachers. In this manner, the brain drain has adversely affected the whole economic life hindering the economy’s ability to grow. 

Non Economic Arguments

The non-economic arguments against the brain drain have been made on patriotic and social grounds.

The youth have been educated by the nation at great costs under its free education policy. They are, therefore, expected to pay back their debt to the nation by serving the home country. Hence, if they leave for foreign countries, they do not repay their debt to the society. It is, therefore, an unpatriotic act on their part to serve some other country that has done nothing for their uplift. Further, the developed countries, having used their talented labour relatively at lower wages, will produce exportable products and export the same to poor countries at artificially fixed high prices. Hence, poor countries are exploited by developed countries twice: first, by robbing the poor countries of the talented labour; second, by selling the goods produced by hiring such talented labour at artificially high prices.

On social grounds, the educated youth who leave their shores for foreign countries are not treated well by their host countries. Many of them have to settle for jobs totally unrelated to their skills and talents. Instances of neurosurgeons working as taxi drivers in the initial phases of their life build-up in the host country are often mentioned. This is a type of discrimination which these educated people would not be subject to in their home country. They have, therefore, become the victims of the ‘double standards’ which the rich countries are practising on the migrant workers from poor countries.

Many have, therefore, suggested that the government should prohibit the educated youth leaving the country for jobs elsewhere.

Is the ‘Unpatriotic’ Argument Valid?

The unpatriotic argument is based on two facets of reasoning related to each other.  In one way, it says that one could serve his country only by residing within the territory of his country. It also reasons out that one could serve his country only by serving his government or a firm belonging to a fellow citizen. Any other way of earning livelihood is an unpatriotic act.

This argument is valid only if all the different production processes involved in a product are completed in a single country. But today, production takes place in what is known as ‘global factories’. These factories simply assemble different inputs from different countries into a final product. Hence, a product today does not belong to a single nation. No country today can take pride in calling a product ‘made in that country’ alone, since it is the outcome of contributions made by many. 

For instance, a shirt labelled as being ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ does not belong to Sri Lanka alone. Its fabric would have come from China; buttons from India; thread from Malaysia; design from France; sewing machines from Japan; electricity out of oil imported from Iran and so forth. It is only what the economists call the final value addition – that is, salaries paid to workers, remuneration to owners, interest paid to banks and rent paid to land owners – that truly belongs to Sri Lanka. 

Does rice produced by Sri Lankan farmers belong to Sri Lanka in its entirety? The popular view suggests ‘yes’, but the truth is in the negative. What belongs to Sri Lanka is only the labour of the farmers, the value of seed paddy, water and land used and the services such as milling, wholesale and retail trading provided by other participants. In addition, a lot of other inputs used in rice production come from other countries: fertiliser from Iran, tractors, trucks and paddy mills from Japan and China, fuel from Malaysia and pesticide from Germany. Hence, every grain of rice produced in Sri Lanka is a global product of which only the final form is turned out on Sri Lanka’s soil.

Hence, today’s products are not national, but global products. 

It, therefore, does not matter whether a person works in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. As long as he works in the production chain, irrespective of the country and irrespective of the employer, he serves Sri Lanka. 

Is allowing the educated Sri Lankan youth to work abroad a sin?

Sri Lankan educated youth working abroad bring many benefits to the country.

First, Sri Lanka, through its well established higher education machinery, turns out a large number of professionals such as accountants, doctors, engineers and managers. The country’s economy does not expand sufficiently to absorb all these people into productive employment. Hence, the unemployment among the educated youth of the country is the highest among all sub-categories. Unless they are provided with job opportunities, it is inevitable that they become socially hostile and economically burdensome. It could lead to social tensions that could tear the otherwise coherent social fabric into pieces. Hence, foreign employment for the educated youth is a ‘safety valve’ to release the social tensions.

Second, foreign employment also serves as a ‘shock absorber’, when the economies are subject to periodical economic downturns. When an economy improves year after year, it provides increased and lucrative job opportunities to people. However, when it is in the reverse, jobs become scarce and less remunerative. In such a temporary shock, some facility should be made available to keep the redundant workers occupied. The opportunities afforded to local labour to work in foreign countries help the economy to absorb the shock.

Third, labour is human capital and like any other capital unit, it is also subject to fast obsolescence. The knowledge base of the world changes rapidly, making the old workers unfit to fulfil modern jobs, unless they have re-educated themselves. Workers in developed countries automatically get exposure to new technology, better work practices and modern management techniques. This, therefore, serves as a university of learning for the educated youth who seek employment in developed countries. Many such workers from India and China have now returned to their home countries, bringing back with them, the new skills they have mastered whilst they were employed abroad. It actually adds value to the home economy by raising the quality of its work force. 

Fourth, like the ‘return of the prodigal son’, workers who had held high-tech and high-skilled jobs in developed countries have started to return to their home countries with their savings and a skills base to commence world class businesses in those countries. The experience and exposure they have got have helped them to integrate the local businesses with the global economy, thus reaping the benefits of the rising global trade in goods and services.

Fifth, when the educated youth leave a job market, it reduces the excess supply and raises the salaries of those left behind. It also provides incentives for others to acquire skills and enter the job market. Hence, the exodus of existing workers from one market to another always raises the welfare of those remaining behind. 

Brain Gain

People who leave their home country to settle in a foreign land are referred to as the ‘Diaspora’ of that home country. In times to come, they become a formidable force representing the home country in the foreign land ready and willing to support the home country whenever that country needs external support. This was amply demonstrated when India issued India Resurgent Bonds in 1990s to build its foreign reserves after the reserve level fell to a very low critical level. The bond issue was oversubscribed by the Diaspora.

In addition, those who work abroad send regular remittances to maintain their family members at home. Those remittances in hard currency form a significant flow of foreign exchange in the home country to finance its balance of payments deficits, specifically at a time when the country has been hit by an unexpected increase in the prices of essential import goods or a fall in the prices of its export goods. Sri Lanka was one of the beneficiaries on this count in the last two decades. The annual flow of such remittances in 2008 was closer to 3 billion US Dollars. These remittances financed about a three fourth of the high oil bill in that year. 

Remittances by migrant workers have been an important source of foreign exchange for many poor countries. The notable examples are Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Sri Lanka’s history has recorded a plenty of instances where the country had used the foreign skilled workers to construct giant reservoirs, huge pagodas, sophisticated irrigation channels, marvellous monumental buildings and artistically sculptured statues. These skilled engineers and artistes were paid at that time in gold which was an outflow of resources from the country. Yet the payments were made because their services were needed by the country due to a shortage of such skills compared to the requirements. In today’s parlance, it was a reverse brain drain for Sri Lanka and a brain gain for the home countries of those skilled workers and artistes.

Sri Lanka should therefore encourage those Sri Lankans working abroad to return with experience, capital and better management techniques. These are woefully lacking in the country at the present state of economic development. Though the country had the goal of elevating its growth rate to above 8% in the medium, as the World Bank has predicted in its Development Update 2019, the expected growth in the next three year period will at best be around 3.5%. This cannot be raised unless the country gains from those who had left its shores previously. If they remit their earnings to Sri Lanka, that should not be subject to taxation. If they return with capital, they should be afforded all incentives to do so, including the tax break presently available to foreigners. This is a matter which the Finance Minister should take into account when prepares his Budget for 2019.

Thus, it is time for Sri Lanka to convert its brain drain into brain gain.

*W A Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com 

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Latest comments

  • 4
    2

    Dr. W.A Wijewardena “….Sri Lanka should therefore encourage those Sri Lankans working abroad to return with experience…..”

    they are returning to brain wash …the innocent Muslims with ISIS ideology and Turning them in to suicide bombers…..and in the process destroying the tourist industry and the economy of the country…

    Great timing by Dr. W.A Wijewardena for this blog

    • 3
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      Arjuna Mahendran is a good example of brain gain?! Rohan Gunaratne, another fake expert on IS spreading CIA stories too,? ICTA’s M. Canagey of google loony toons etc!

      Fact is that Exporting skilled labor should never be a preferred option for developing countries that are trying to acquire technology and research and policy capacity.. It is very short sighted and in the long term de-develops R & D capacity in a country.
      All this global value chain hoopla is just hype. People are not goods in a value chain. Most people who leave overseas and return later, work for their host countries and not for Sri Lanka.
      Also, Diasporas are being increasingly weaponized and used to benefit their host countries so caution is warranted. Arjuna Mahendran the looter of CBSl is a good example of a diaspora mercenary.
      Fact is that brain drain is being promoted and Research and development is being systematically destroyed in Sri lanka, for short term gain given the Debt trap but this only makes things worse in the long run.
      The education and higher education sectors have been destroyed by lots of fake experts and foreign aid such as free outdated TABs for schools that are being dumped in Sri Lanka at huge cost, while skilled people leave and the population will be generally stupider than ever before – in the long run.
      Exporting skilled labor should never be a preferred option for developing countries that are trying to acquire technology and research capacity..

      • 4
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        Dodo

        “Arjuna Mahendran is a good example of brain gain?! Rohan Gunaratne, another fake expert on IS spreading CIA stories too,? “

        You forgot Gota the finest National Hangman.
        He now poses for photos in front of bookshelf.

  • 9
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    The answer seems to be to hand over Government to Educated People!
    The Present lot of Politicians, having the Highest Incomes, are the most Uneducated and Corrupted, of the Country’s People! It is no wonder that Well Educated People are leaving Sri Lanka to go to Countries where their Children’s Abilities and Education would be recognised Appropriately!

  • 8
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    Dr. W.A Wijewardena,

    How you can you choose to ignore the root cause of this brain drain?

    As long as everything is upside down in the country, with scumbags in all the higher positions, bleeding the wealth of the country dry while they line their pockets, slowly corrupting and polluting the value system of the country like a spreading cancer, breeding more and more scoundrels,do you expect those who have a choice to hang around and get nowhere?
    Can you blame them if they leave?
    Do you think they would come back to be treated like 2nd class citizens, as helpless inferiors to a dastardly political class that trample their human rights with disdain?

    If anyone with principles could live with dignity in this country which is otherwise blessed, they would not be leaving it will they? They would happily live a modest life in their motherland.

    Until and unless we are rid of the vultures like the present President/Prime Minister, the previous President and his brothers , and the whole horde of scoundrels in the present parliament, things will go only one way; down the drain.

    • 4
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      “Do you think they would come back to be treated like 2nd class citizens, as helpless inferiors to a dastardly political class that trample their human rights with disdain?”
      Absolutely true.
      I know someone who has been contributing to the economy for the last 35 years with FX remittance (legally), but been unable to obtain a duty free permit for a vehicle for his family members and for his own use, while 225 members of the parliament get one to be sold the next day. So, Mr. Wijewardana, who could blame the and what did you do when you were in office?

  • 7
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    Definitely …..
    If everyone one can leave this country, all will leave excepts 225 crooks.
    Most crooks have no academic qualification such as Weerawansa, Ranaweera from Kelaniya, Rohitha Abeygunawardane (Raththarana Hora) will stay with 70 years old crooks.

    Now youth has no any hope.

    • 4
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      Saman
      The 225 Crooks will stay because they have no Skills that will be Accepted by a Developed Country

  • 3
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    Educated young people want to live in a country that values their skills, and reward their efforts. Most of all they want to feel secure. Can you expect them to rely on any of our present lot of incompetent, useless, bickering, self-serving politicians to keep our people safe?

    • 3
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      Spring Koha

      Further the young and the old being made to feel they do not belong here.
      Nepotism, corruption, …. are being rewarded while the honest, hard working, smart …young and wise old people are being punished for their honesty, hard work, ……….

      What is the point of glorifying/gloating thrice blessed 2500 years old civilisation, 100% literate population, the country which appointed the first women prime minister, winning a war against the most ruthless terrorist organisation single handedly, ……………….. ?

  • 0
    1

    The only people who send money back are the menial workers, as they won’t be residing permanently in their country of employment. All the marvelous building and infrastructure have so far, been built by the sweat of the masses in places like the ME, and on the prospects of their future contributions (such that gives collateral to loans from major countries and banks).
    _
    And I can promise you that the brainy workers in the West do not send too much money back home. No, they are busy paying for mortgages for their house, car and education for their children. This is after being educated on hardworking masses tax-payer money of their country of origin. Indeed, if it was known they were going to abscond to the West, the country need not have spent so much money on their courses.

    One can’t have tentative or provisional education, with fingers crossed in the hopes that e.g. engineering and medicine will become a prevalent industry in the country. Indeed, the best way to get the money’s worth for a country in terms of employment, is to spend the money on outside educators and entrepreneurs who will jump-start industries, rather than educating a great many who will go out, and then banking on them to hopefully return one day to help in development of the Motherland.
    _
    But that is only if we want to develop like some major Westernized country which has had all kinds of historical means to gain money off others. Rather, we must develop courses that are most appropriate to our history, traditional outlook, and monetary situation, although we must also have some futuristic aspiration. However, our futuristic outlook is delusional, and has involved money from ISIS, so elite can be satiated in their egotism, over the struggle of the Masses.

  • 2
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    Dr. Wijewardena: Your “ESSAY” is good enough to secure another “PHD”. You know what “PHD” is. Did you see the “Root Cause” of why the educated are leaving the country.? Take, for example, what the”Highest” “CEO” of the Governing affairs of the country did to the “Central Bank” in “Collusion” with the so called “Educated” bunch of cohorts, both stationed at the Bank and the Ministry of Finance. What did even a “Presidential Commission” do to correct that loss to the country. Have we moved any further than “Washing” dirty linen in public and the “Culprits” are living with “Plenty” and “Pleasures”. I gave this example, because, it is very easy to understand subject for you. Just go to look at the situation of the country from 2015 to date. With an HONEST analysis, if you were not of retired life, would you ever make up your mind to live and work in the country without any hope for you and your family? Ask this same question from the educated “YOUTH” and most certainly you could get the most considered opinion to write a different essay on this topic of “Brain Drain”

  • 1
    0

    In every developed country Sinhalese migrants are much more than Tamils. Why? Even before these guys have been running away for better lives after receiving free educations. At least tamils can justify because they were obviously discriminated in education and employment and deserving positions beside repeated violence and lack of security. But then why the Sinhalas? Even our lowest scums politicians have PR from abroad and their children are all abroad. Gotta got back after the president temptation. If he fails I dont know where he will run again? Now we have reached a stage where there is absolutely no hope for anyone except political crooks, buddhist clergy and undesirables. But where can all these guys go? In many developed countries there are severe unemployment even among the qualified. So they have to go as labourers and cleaners or find a job in 7/11. We had a wonderful education, first class universities, well enlightened teachers but today oh god all gone thanks to Sinhala Raj and their RACISM. This is all they achieved since DS took over having cheated the Tamils by his promise. So what hope there is? May be some can join Hisbullah’s Islamic Sharia University at the Islamic republic of Kathankudy. Sure Gotta can be a visiting professor being a patron of that University. Others can pick dates.

  • 1
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    DR Wijewardana’s grandnephew Dr. W.A Wijewardena has written a masterpiece. What a piece what English, what thinking (our days’ Einstein?)

  • 1
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    If some idiots who this country more and more people will the country and what will be left.. some crooks, drug dealers..and some others

    • 1
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      Mr. I: I think you can make a lot of money by giving English Tuition to students and others!

  • 1
    2

    ” In times to come, they become a formidable force representing the home country in the foreign land ready and willing to support the home country whenever that country needs external support.”

    There are still some in the Tamil diaspora who believe in a so-called “Tamil Eelam.” Of course, while the war was going on, they did everything they could to tarnish Sri Lanka’s image in Western eyes. They have certainly done a formidable job in indoctrinating the second and third-generation of Tamil youth living in the West to despise Sri Lanka. So we can safely say that having a large diaspora does not always benefit the domestic country.

    • 4
      0

      Lester

      “There are still some in the Tamil diaspora who believe in a so-called “Tamil Eelam.” Of course, while the war was going on, they did everything they could to tarnish Sri Lanka’s image in Western eyes. “

      When smartass patriots like you still live, gloat, …and spew bigotry in this island you will have smartass Tamil diaspora campaigning against you, not against the island which has to remain a country where “Unity in Diversity” is preserved in heritage, politics, and state/people relation, ………..

      “Tamil Eelam.” is not your problem, leave it to the Hindians who are best placed, best equipped, best resourced, ………… wide experience of dealing with separatists and defeating them in this island.
      Leave the worrying to them.

  • 0
    0

    semi skilled workers will send remitances back. skilled will get a different nationality after some time.

  • 1
    0

    those who go abroad are not unpatriotic. both should not be connected. more than 3 million indians are in the USA working and remitting billions of Rs. are they unpatriotic?. look at our salaries. i was told well qualified chairmen of govt. institutions are paid rs.75000. less than an asst lecturer of our university. all graduates in govt, service are paid about 40000. are we to compel them to stay here.?
    -dayal

  • 4
    0

    This writer should understand the Brain drain commenced with the Socialist policies of Banda and wife, with the introduction of Swabasha. Had Sri Lanka retained English Education and sent the Skilled workers like Carpenters, Painters, Masons, Mechanics, Electricians, Nurses, Plumbers and the lot with an English knowledge, without boasting of earnings of the house maids to the Arabs in the Middle East, the country would have gained a lot and we would not have been subservient to the Arabs. So much for a History of a Nation with 2500 years?

  • 3
    0

    There is no brain in the political class….
    The brain have been drained from the political class …and filled with greed and racism

  • 2
    0

    Gamini you seem to have a fairly good knowledge, in understanding the depth of our Lankan issues. The brain drain started as early as in 70,s and after 80, s the momentum just picked up and now you see people are willing to risk lives to get the hell out of Lanka. Initially it was the educated,skilled and professionals which now has progressed to global. I was told in 70,s doctors were interviewed based on their credentials , in the US high commission and if eligible were provided money and travel tickets, to settle in US. Even then we saw physicians who received post graduation abroad , returning to Lanka with their foreign earned titles and taking up jobs. But after 80,s thanks to country and politicians, people left in droves , bag and baggage leaving their possession to save their lives.Most of the well established senior doctors of Tamil community (in Colombo) , left Lanka to rebuilt their lives from scratches.(because the mob including patients who benefited from their care were specifically targeting and looking for them in GH). This progressed to doctors ( of all community )who immediately after passing out taking the first available flight out of Lanka.They were followed by Nurses, Technicians and even paramedical staff. In my opinion it is definitely a “Brain Gain” for that individual because staying back would have been “brain DEAD” (as well may drain the individual , not the country).

  • 3
    0

    Dr W A Wijewardena plaintively asks {“Is allowing the educated Sri Lankan youth to work abroad a sin?”}
    Remember Srimavo tried to curb ‘educated Ceylonese’ from working abroad, through Prof H A de S Gunasekera plan. But she sent her three children overseas for education!
    .
    In this toxic ‘Culture’ of corruption/nepotism/impunity is it meaningful to discuss “Brain Drain or Gain”?

    • 2
      0

      The first world class intellectual to severe his attachment to his mother country was
      Prof. of Mathematics CJ Eliezer, He took his decision in the immediate aftermath of the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1958. It was just 2 years following the anti-Tamil riots of 1956. Forebodings were clear. Now 61 years after the Professor’s exit, 1 million Tamils are living out of their country of birth. The mismanaged country has itself to blame,

  • 1
    0

    My dear Mano,

    I fully agree it is a masterpiece by the country’s top most economist. But, realistically is he (Dr. W.A Wijewardena) DR Wijewardana’s grandnephew? Only Dr WA, Ranil Wick or Ruwan Wijewardane could clarify this.

  • 0
    0

    Dulani, I can confirm he is DR Wijewardana’s grandnephew (Phillip Wijewardana’s (of Thudugala) grandchild) is he.

  • 0
    0

    When he was acting governor at Central Bank I worked under Dr Wijewardana as a clerk. He was a man of humility and consincience worker who treated his minor staff with much kindness. He has brought me cups of tea.

    Dr Wijewaradana has built a reputation that he is the best economist Sri Lanka has ever produced, 2nd is HA De S Gunasekera and 3rd is Gamini Corea. I am glad he is a columnist in this esteemed website.

    I am a freelance journalist.

    I recommend him to be the next Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Canberra.

  • 0
    0

    Dear Dr. Wijewardana,

    I fully support your arguments. Sri Lanka is an island nation and does not have much natural resources like mineral resources. But we have and we can produce to the world markets skilled employees. For an example, Accounting, Finance, Engineering and Medicine professionals work all over the world. We need to encourage this practice. They contribute to Sri Lanka in various aspects. The Sri Lankan government should develop the necessary policy framework and invest in the education and research to continue developing the skilled professionals and workers.

  • 2
    0

    Dr.W

    Some good points. As someone who went to a government school, matriculated to the University of Colombo, but chose to leave for a foreign university, I too am “unpatriotic”.

    However, despite my potential to contribute to the SL economy and society, I cannot see how my experience (as a STEM professor) can be harnessed with mutual benefits to the country and to me.

    The main reason for that is the endemic corruption, nepotism, and lack of professionalism in many Sri Lankan industries. Promotions are reserved for friends and relatives and co-ethnics. Merit is NOT what gets you to the top in Sri Lanka – look at our politicians.

    Also as much as I love the country, I do not want to live in a close-minded, racist and xenophobic society; yes as a sinhalese and buddhist, I am in the “majority”, but classism and xenophobia affects me negatively as well.

    So taking into account all those factors, I chose not to return. I am sure there are many in my situation.

  • 1
    1

    Sinhalese Buddhist, You should thank your fortunes instead of feeling guilt or grief. . Just look at today,s news . Right now what you see in Lanka is a reminder, why you should not be returning to hell again. Patriotism does not mean ” suicidal ideations or gestures.” Also you may have to consider your family and children. You convincing them to return, will turn out to be homicidal ideations or plans. Let them be happy and at peace, where ever they are.

  • 0
    0

    What a donkey comment!, no wonder Sri Lanka produces more donkeys and morons through her education system than human beings with rational thinking..

  • 0
    0

    Patriotism dosent mean stupidity. Heroism dosent mean sucidality. When Lankans talk they substitute these terms freely, as needed, because but they never “walk the talk”. The younger generation living abroad are intelligent enough to understand the difference. Think from your BRAIN and not from your heart , worse if it is coming from one, s back side. Right now we can see what our “brain DEAD people are up to.

  • 0
    0

    Is this article a joke or what? Why does CT publish such rubbish? And I see some comments saying the author is Sri Lanka’s greatest economist?! Maybe now we understand what really ails Lanka. The lack of an educated intelligentsia

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