By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
One of the cornerstones of Yahapalanaya, President Sirisena’s battle cry during his Presidential election campaign, was Good Governance. Improvements have been observed in some areas in comparison to the pre January 09, 2015 era namely freedom of press and freedom of expression. However, matters in many areas such as Good Governance, Rule of Law, Transparency and Accountability remain unsatisfactory.
It has come to light, President Sirisena, prior to his departure to attend the G-7 summit in Japan had instructed Financial Crimes Investigative Division (FCID) Chief to refrain from arresting some state officials until his return. FCID had reportedly completed investigations against six former officials of the Tourism Promotion Authority who served under the Rajapaksa administration on a charge of misappropriation of state funds for electioneering purposes. Those to be arrested were former Chairman and five Directors of the authority. Two of the said Directors are currently holding positions of Additional Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office and a Director General in the Treasury. They are obviously senior members of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS). Charges involve several cases of fraud amounting to over Rs 100 million.
Upon his return from Japan, President Sirisena has reportedly confirmed his instructions to FCID Chief. The six individuals were not to be arrested despite instructions from the Attorney General’s office.
The President has supposedly decided not to arrest and prosecute these officials due to a growing concern especially among senior state officials particularly from the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. In view of the several investigations and a few arrests, officials have begun to exhibit a certain degree of reluctance to carry out instructions deemed irregular from superiors, especially from Ministers and politicians in the absence of written instructions. They contend they may be hauled up before FCID or similar investigative bodies and held accountable for carrying out irregular instructions issued verbally by ministers and politicians, by a future government at a future date.
In the past, business in the state sector was carried out based on Administrative Regulations (AR) and Financial Regulations (FR). The entire structure was hierarchical and officials functioned within the ambit of the authority vested in them. It was customary for approval to be obtained from superiors when authority had to be exceeded. Such authority was always issued in writing. This practice began to gradually fade away from 1975 when the government of the day, in its infinite wisdom, made all state officials answerable to their respective ministers, a function hitherto performed by the Public Service Commission.
On the other hand, the private sector does function with much less written instructions. Whereas level of authority for each decision maker is clearly defined, a certain degree of latitude or discretionary authority is provided, so long as exceeding of authority is backed by sound commercial justifications. It is easier to instil such discipline and ethics in those with a higher level of education than those having barely passed GCE Ordinary and Advanced level examinations. The irony is, such are those who pass instructions to state officials who often are graduates with years of work experience.
It may be argued by some especially those with vested interests, to revert to the old system of written approvals would be moving back in time which is a fallacy. Despite no written approval being required, state business moves at a snail’s pace or slower. Only issues involving personal interests of Ministers, MPs and hangers on are disposed of with lightning speed. Therefore it is indeed time to get back to basics. If some aspects of regulations formulated during colonial times are not outdated, they need to be updated to suit modern times. But checks and balances are an absolute necessity.
President Sirisena is indeed missing a golden opportunity. This writer opines he should embrace this opportunity with both hands an make it mandatory for all instructions to be issued in writing. It will lead to those issuing instructions being held accountable for their actions. It will not entirely eliminate but drastically reduce such practices as abuse of state funds, improper instructions to law enforcement authorities, nepotism, to name a few.
Misdeeds of the Rajapaksa era are well known and need no elaboration. We recently heard of a case of a young female MP taking the law into her own hands and having a young man abducted over a matrimonial / extra marital issue of one of her minions. Her personal vehicle was used for the abduction. Yet more recently, we heard of a case of a traffic accident in Rajagiriya late at night involving the vehicle of a cabinet minister. Whereas the minister claimed the vehicle was driven by his driver, those involved in the accident and gave chase to the ministerial vehicle insisted the vehicle was driven by the minister himself. The core issue is, after the initial media furore, the public has heard no more on both incidents. No court cases seem to be forthcoming. The obvious conclusion is, the individuals involved in both instances being members of the Yahapalanaya administration, Police have been instructed to go slow or else bury the investigations altogether. Had the culture of the need for written instructions been in practice, the concerned Police officers could have demanded written instructions to go slow or bury the investigations. Mandatory written instructions may not be a total solution but will certainly be a deterrent.
President Sirisena’s inability or reluctance in making written instructions mandatory is obvious. It is in this context, this writer urges President Sirisena to rethink his decision and prosecute the six concerned former officials of the Tourism Development Authority. The resulting back lash from state officials demanding written instructions from Ministers and politicians could be the justification for the implementation of such a requirement. By its implementation, he would be killing two birds with one stone; firstly making good one of his election promises and secondly, taking steps to at least partially cure the malaise of political interference and abuse.
President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, another champion of Good Governance prior to elections, could implement the need for written instructions in their own ministries as an example for others to emulate.
That is provided both still believe in their election pledge of Good Governance.