Rehabilitation and Prisons Reforms Minister Chandrasiri Gajadeera just stated that corruption is rampant “at the highest levels of government.” It is something we all know but cannot rigorously prove. But this is from the inner circle. Whom did he mean?
News reports speak of Rs 200 mn in lost duty over the so called temporary import of cars by a sports club owned by the president’s son Namal. It is galling how Sri Lanka has deteriorated. I think of when we had a sound civil service. J.R. Jayewardene was Minister of Finance and his daughter-in-law imported a sports car under this same temporary scheme and continued to use it beyond the time limit as might happen to the recent imports.
When Murugeysen Rajendra (Senator M. Tiruchelvam’s brother), as permanent secretary for Finance impounded the car, he was queried by an angry JR as to what Rajendra thought he was doing. Back came the curt reply: “Upholding the law.” The matter ended there. Today the story might end in a white van.
Impartial Public Service
Rajendra’s were the standards of an impartial public service in democracies. When at the National University of Singapore, I had to report any gift, even diaries. Occasionally on industry visits, we would be given a sample product as a gift. A report had to be filed and the gift handed over to the department. At the end of the year all such gifts would be raffled at the Christmas party.
At Harvey Mudd College in California, the exchange of gifts at Christmas was prohibited as were Christmas cards between colleagues because they would make non-Christians feel left out. In contrast, I have seen Sinhalese friends greeting us after May 2009 with “jayaweva,” expecting us to respond “jayaweva.”
At most US universities, when we bring outside research money and charge meals to grants when entertaining official visitors or at a conference, no liquor is allowed. Reimbursement receipts need to be itemised so that it is clear that liquor is not part of our fare.
Reverse Ethics Hierarchy
Working in Sri Lanka on the other hand, I have seen only a hierarchy of ethics obligations falling mainly on the small fry. Anyway, lecturers lower in the hierarchy have no entertainment allowance. Research grants do not have an entertainment component. The only time they get a free meal is when the conference they are attending offers meals or they are on field trips with budget limits. At meetings, if they are lucky, they get tea with vadai.
At a higher level at Board meetings such as of the UGC and NSF, tea is sumptuous: high quality butter cake, rolls, vadai, etc., with tea. Additional connoisseur goodies also can be called out from secret storage when occasion demanded. We eat while secretaries and the serving peon watch.
When the head of the organisation makes a request, the accountants will approve liquor and sumptuous meals at outside restaurants for the Board. We know that even if the auditor general queries, nothing happens.
These excesses may be occasional but more appalling is when ministers and some government MPs call for meetings at five star hotels where a cup of tea alone could be Rs. 300.
The most egregious violations happen at President Rajapaksa’s. He called vice chancellors for a sumptuous meal to endorse his re-election. Liquor flowed. VCs looking for reappointment had no choice; so they simply enjoyed the liquor while VCs trying to impress the president became waiters pressing others to enjoy. It is common knowledge that routine visits to Temple Trees often end up in feasts.
I am pretty sure that they are not paying out of their monthly government salary. How is it that the president and government MPs live at a standard that is out of line with their salaries?
The late Bernard Soysa
TNA and left MPs are the exception. They live within their means and generally reflect high ethical standards.
When we returned to Sri Lanka, and my wife did not find a job for a while, she approached Bernard Soysa who was the minister for Science and Technology. Just as she found a job by another route, a job interview came about at Soysa’s instance. It was Christmas 1996, so she went to thank him with a small piece of the Christmas cake she had baked for visitors’ as part of our festivities. She soon received an apologetic thank-you letter from Soysa, saying he gives all gifts to charity and the cake had gone to an elders’ home. The cost of the cake to us would have been under Rs 50 at the time. While I do not advocate such punctilious adherence to Soysa’s standards, it is a positive side of us that seems dead.
I have heard reliable stories from friends about two of our cabinet members. One wanted a diamond necklace for his wife from a jeweller. The wife went to the jewellery store and specified what it should be like. When it was ready, the minister’s driver picked it up. No trail.
The second wanted a sports car from London; its number plate was suggestive of his son’s name. A businessman was told to buy the car and ship it, and it was cleared through customs. The businessman was given no choice but he knew he would get his money back in other ways.
Recall several newspapers describing around 2007 an Aston Martin (priced at Rs 20 mn plus the 240% duty, totalling to Rs 75 mn) that was imported and given, it was alleged at the time, to Namal Rajapaksa for his use (and duly denied by the government spokesman).
A customs officer who had obtained asylum in the UK, using a letter from his director general certifying to the dangers he faced because of his commitment to work, was back on a short visit. He spoke at CIMOGG with documents on how things are cleared without any duty. Even recently, news reports described a customs official being transferred because he went to charge duty owed to the state.
Presidential sanction for corruption by the loyal
Last Tuesday, the President at the inauguration of a building for Chartered Accountants shamelessly commented thus on the alleged corruption of Pradeep Kariyawasam: “We quietly hushed it up. That’s how it must be done. After all, he is our man. So we shaped it up.”
It would seem that any friend or relation can be corrupt and it would be shaped-up and hushed-up by the president of our land. Here lies the problem.
No shaping up for Tamils?
The president, however, has not shaped up the bloody records of LTTE men who changed sides and began hunting the LTTE for him with the army and EPDP paramilitaries. Reports from Jaffna state that 37 such men who were knifing their former LTTE comrades in the back have now been knifed by the army – that is, after the recent disturbances at the Jaffna University they have been arrested as the government fears resurgent Tamil militancy. Eight of them were working with the EPDP and one or two in the office of the SLFP Jaffna organiser Angajan Ramanathan.
It is clear whom Minister Chandrasiri Gajadeera was thinking of when he commented on corruption “at the highest levels of government.” Even within this gang of thieves, government communalism shows through, because LTTE men who change coats and do dirty work for the regime, do not become the president’s “our men” to deserve shaping up.
The solution is to not put up with any violation of the rule of law; not even by “our men;” not even against people we do not like. We need a president who understands this.