By Austin I Pullé –
The recent overseas trips of the President and his entourage bring into focus the issue of public funds spent on overseas trips by presidents and ministers. The larger context is the abusive and reckless way public funds are squandered and the damage done to the country. Decisions driven by stratospheric hubris, such as the turfing out of Emirates management because of the refusal of the CEO then running Sri Lankan to offload a cabin full of paying passengers to accommodate a larger group of freeloaders, are all too common. The result of this instance of hubris was an airline that was in the black plunging into the deep red territory with the tens of billions of rupees of public money going down the sinkhole. Perhaps, this cavalier waste of public moneys could be alleviated if an organization like the Auditor General’s office sets up a specialized unit to monitor and publish online the cost of all these trips and decisions. This will not be a “name and shame” exercise because the latter emotion is conspicuously absent in the political class (Exhibit I – the acceptance by a candidate, defeated in his electorate, of a position envisaged by the constitution to be held by a person who obtains more than 50% of the total electoral vote) but a information conduit to the people whose money is being squandered. It could serve the same deterrent function as CCTV cameras in a bank. If aware of such information, the general public still gawks at the Lotus Tower knowing what it costs the country, then so be it because there will no longer be a white elephant human-conflict but victim consent to robbery. “A fool and his money is easily separated”, it is said. By this standard is the majority of the entire country fools?
In a unique event in the history of the Commonwealth, an unelected monarch met an unelected executive president. The occasion was the funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth II. Certain ironies provoke questions.
The pomp and ceremony that accompanied many funeral events naturally made republicans both within the UK and elsewhere wonder how a modern nation like the UK could accord such veneration to a family whose members, had they not arrived into this world through a particular birth canal, would be hard pressed to find a job as sales assistants in the local Marks & Spencer. Confusion is increased when one member, the supposed favourite son of the late monarch, is shown to have been a close associate and friend of a convicted paedophile and his procuress who is in prison for engaging in child sex trafficking, and came to a settlement with an accuser without admitting any liability. Another, the Kardashian of the Windsor family, who has moved to Oprah’s neck of the woods uses his branding to get one Netflix deal after another. Despite the UK being one of the oldest democracies and home to the mother of parliaments, the monarchy sits atop a class ridden society with aristocrats, courtiers, and fee levying “public” schools that train the governing elite. While the grand ceremonies are performed, record inflation and a sinking pound provide a reality check about the irrelevance of such massively expensive pomp and circumstance to the beleaguered British kingdom that no longer is united and appears to be coming apart at the seams.
Meanwhile, the President of this benighted land, flies to London with an entourage for the funeral ceremonies, declares, ahead of the UK, a national holiday as a day of mourning, and remains in London after the funeral to encourage foreign investment. Because the contenders for the Oscar for the “Best Funeral”, if there were to be such an award, would by the Vatican and the UK no one can reproach the President for accepting a once in a lifetime opportunity. Critics have unfairly scolded the President for making the trip to London. His trip was in line with international best practices. The late Queen was the head of the Commonwealth, of which Sri Lanka was a early member, was the head of state when the country was a dominion, and had been viewed with affection and respect by many Sri Lankans. Among those on offer, the President can be relied to behave with dignity whether in the Abbey or in the White House instead of abasing himself and the country by grovelling before the late monarch like a predecessor and his spouse. Besides, it was important that the networking opportunities with other world leaders not be missed, even though these world leaders would have been aware that the president and his party crashed to a defeat in the general election and that he is shaky occupant of the presidential office with no moral mandate but is supported by the military and a powerful organ grinder.
What is troubling though is the President’s declaration of a national holiday and the larger than necessary entourage. It will be recalled that the first executive president declared a national holiday when Sri Lankan won its first test match. Like the recent holiday to mourn the late Queen, these declarations show the hubris of such leaders. They do not seem to care that for a poor economy like Sri Lanka, productivity is important and that private businesses which are the perhaps the only engines of growth have their investments harmed by having to pay overtime to their employees. Much admired Singapore would never have performed such a puerile, arrogant, and uncaring act that for a day in effect expropriated the investment of thousands of large, medium and small businesses. Foreign investors justly complain that there are far too many public holidays in Sri Lanka. In his pitch to potential investors after the funeral, the President should have boasted about the number of public holidays in Sri Lanka. Ironically, just as the lavish trip of the tourism minister to promote the country to British tourists was followed by a travel advisory, the reward for the over the top display of public mourning for the Queen was the aggressive pushing by the UK of the most critical UNHRC resolution that followed a few weeks later. No brownie points for attending the funeral and declaring a day of mourning!
For decades, those who inhabit the pinnacles of power have treated the boundaries that separate personal wealth from public funds and property as so porous as to be non-existent. Laws exist to prevent this but the fawning invertebrates who are supposed to patrol the boundaries between these asset categories have done little to keep them separate. Reliance on laws will prove to be foolhardy. As the great American jurist Louis D. Brandeis once stated, “If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.” No one will claim that Sri Lankan law is respectable when a law like the “Prevention of Terrorism Act” permits the abduction and incarceration of a dynamic student leader in clear violation of most of the fundamental rights clauses in the Constitution. A proposed “rehabilitation law, thought up by the local Xi Jingping Mini-Me, appears to have been borrowed from the Chinese play-book and the Sri Lankan Uighurs will be those who challenge the multiple wrongdoings of the government. Sadly, the arms of the state whether it be the police, armed forces, the prosecutors, and some courts have not proved fidelity to the hoary rule of law principles and the rights of the sovereign People enshrined in the Constitution but to the whims of self-important political carrion that wield power in the country.
Instead of relying on laws that are selectively enforced, ignored or violated by those charged with enforcement, transparency may be the most effective way of keeping abuses in check. Sunshine, it is said, is the best disinfectant and sunshine may send the hundreds of roaches scurrying for cover. In November, California voters will be asked to vote on Proposition 29. The basis of this proposition is that dialysis clinics are owned by doctors who steer patients to these clinics. The proposition would require, among other things, disclosure of ownership. Millions of dollars are being spent to defeat the proposition. This is an example of how people in the shadows are terrified of transparency. The public in Sri Lanka must be awakened to the reality of the amount of waste, fraud and corruption that leeches funds that should be devoted to medical supplies, education, and food security.
The cardinal has set the benchmark by rejecting ostentatious Christmas decorations using public money. His reasoning that it is criminal to waste public money thus when schoolchildren are fainting from hunger does not find an echo in other sections of some clergy who want the government to subsidize electricity traffics. While the Leader of the Opposition would want to give free electricity to all temples, the President to his credit has promised solar power to the temples. An auditor general department that is tasked with meticulously publishing online the costs associated with financial profligacy of the political class detailing revenue lost from duty free permits, sugar and garlic scams and bond scams will give a true accounting of expenditures to the owners of these funds. It will be like an audit report to the shareholders of a listed company. If after being aware of the horrific haemorrhaging of public resources, the general public cling to the widespread belief that the moon is covered with verdant rice-fields and our leaders can access such rice, then so be it. A child eating a piece of coconut for lunch, rampant malnutrition, poverty affecting 9.6 million people as reported by Peradeniya University’s Department of Economics and Statistics, and widespread hunger will be a known trade-off for the bread and circus governance that has prevailed since independence.
In his ninety-ninth year, Kissinger has published another book, “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy,” not surprisingly one of the six persons discussed is the late Lee Quan Yew. An admirer of Chinese culture, Kissinger once asked the silkily elegant Chou En Lai whether he thought that the French Revolution was a success only to be told that it was too early to say. Kissinger hails Lee Quan Yew as the miracle worker who transformed a mosquito ridden fishing village to a first world county. Kissinger, who knew Lee for forty years, saw the phenomenal transformation of a small island state with a complicated ethnic composition, a declining economy and no real allies into the commercial powerhouse of South-east Asia. The practice of “democracy” was limited, though here too Kissinger withholds judgment, perhaps because to him leadership means making choices that are not always conventionally moral. But even with the Internal Security Act in Singapore, there was no abuse of the Act and no legalized abduction and kidnapping as in Sri Lanka under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Kissinger praises the subjects of his book for the moral courage to rescue their country from a complex crisis and set it on a new course. Kissinger emphasizes the need an effective entourage of top quality advisers. Their leadership can be magnified or diminished “by the qualities of those around them”. Unlikely, that court astrologers, thugs, hagiographers and ape minhiyo who counsel an immediate change to organic fertilizer will fit the bill. For this task, Kissinger argues, leaders require courage and character to navigate successfully between the burden of the past to the challenge of the future. Sri Lankan leaders have driven the vehicle of state with their eyes on the rear view mirror. In a New Yorker article, Lee claimed that he never read anything without situating his reading in what it meant for Singapore. In Sri Lanka, many leaders who claim to read often do not understand. The rest cannot access the cornucopia of knowledge and wisdom because of their lack of certain language skills.
Kissinger’s principal conclusions are that the world needs leaders with strategic skills and a moral vision. The latest example of strategic skills is to advocate an university devoted to climate change. Apart from being the neighbour of one of the worst global polluters, a local but world renowned expert like Professor Mohan Munasinge is shunned in preference for the Norwegian troll who colluded in pushing through a Ceasefire Agreement bypassing the Executive President. The Singaporeans would have chosen instead a state of the art school of information studies with an emphasis on Artificial Intelligence studies. The graduates will be employable and not have to study Korean to work in menial jobs.
The Harvard Business School has known this for decades and the course “The Moral Leader” revolves around the concept of accountability, character, and pragmatism. Of these three, in Sri Lanka one only observes pragmatism but the wrong type of pragmatism, the pragmatism of winning elections by sowing ethnic and religions hatred while collecting huge kickbacks from unfeasible mega projects.
When the young Lee Kwan Yew passed through Colombo, he thought to himself that Ceylon was what he would like Singapore to someday be. Subsequently, in national day addresses, he would public mock the foolishness of Sri Lanka’s many leaders for misrule and say that Singapore had reached first world status while Sri Lanka was an impoverished country. Ironically, the tables turned and Sri Lanka’s leaders pledged to make the country another Singapore but their corruption and immorality have made Sri Lanka more like Hun Sen’s Cambodia. Kissinger observed that Bangladesh was a “basket case”. The basket case is not Bangladesh any more but Sri Lanka and the country can hope, admittedly a wild hope, that a generation from now, Sri Lanka would have played catch-up with Bangladesh.