By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –
Sri Lankans have become sceptics and possibly harbor an irrational feeling of hopelessness. This is understandable, because hope has quickly changed to despair. We have long been betrayed by electoral promises, only to be shamelessly abandoned. This is one reason why we have changed our political choices regularly – and has little to do with claimed high levels of electoral maturity, but much to do with opportunism and selfish indulgence. We have been duped. For starters, we have spent colossal sums of public money in what is patently a virtually useless exercise. We must convince ourselves that an election (which is said to cost some 600/= million or thereabouts) is really worth it? I do not believe that in most circumstances, such exercises can be considered wise investment. Cut out the waffle about “enthroning democracy” and “peoples’ choice” and such like non quantifiable intangibles, and what do we get? The products generally do not justify the investment. Cost/benefit analyses should help, but “benefits” would defy quantification. If a generalization is permitted, I believe that none of our political parties have ever “won” an election – only that the preceding incumbents have “lost”, but more seriously, the successors have inherited bad habits from their predecessors. Politics is one field in which experience has negative value. Several instances can be cited where “novices” have performed much better than the “veterans” who have no experience other than in politics. It is a fair assessment that those who have proven success in other sectors, are likely to do well as “politicians” too.
Does the new President reflect a welcome change? Perhaps he does. Some early signs are positive, although seemingly trivial. The image that he has projected of a representative of a small and non- affluent country is laudable. No pomp and pageantry and displays of pretended piety, a reduction of security entourages and other symbols of vanity, a minimum of foreign travel, and when absolutely necessary, being accompanied by modest teams of relevant experts, rather than extravagant bands of free-loaders and relatives, and in general setting good standards for emulation by those below him. In particular, modesty combined with smartness in his garb (no two million Rupee jackets and the trade mark Satakaya) but the affordable bush shirt and slacks. It is amusing to see those surrounding him meanwhile sweating away in suit and tie! Decorum may require some departure, as when he was soldiering in uniform, but this was for more reasons than mere style.
A healthy emphasis on discipline. We could certainly do with some simple and no-cost measures – punctuality, courtesy, observance of road regulations, respect for queues, truthfulness, a readiness to greet, smile rather than scowl and a lavish use of “Thank you, Please and Excuse me” Elders are not “Uncle or Aunt” but “Sir or Madam”. It is said that in Singapore, chewing gum was banned because some thought that Metro Seats were provided for disposal of “spent” chewed gum! In our context, perhaps betel chewing would qualify.
Many procedures could be modified for public convenience. The unannounced visits of The President to the Department of Motor Traffic and the Airport should be a gentle hint to officialdom that negligence of duty is dangerous! The President cannot personally visit all offices, nor will it be necessary, because the general drift of his actions is clear. So we may hope for an end to the garbage problem for example. Already one senses some awakening and frantic activation, of many sleeping giants.
Many political leaders have had to pay the penalty for surrounding themselves with undesirable stooges. Some have had their sons and daughters do the needful. It takes two generations to breed a gentleman – and there are no short-cuts.
Sri Lankans are capable of great achievements, as was evident in the way Colombo has been restored to its past grandeur and the way in which the “Invincible” LTTE bit the dust. But sadly, this seems to require a person with a whip in hand. We remember the way the great “Madu walge” and scaffold talk which turned out to be aborted pretty easily. Is GR the required “Whip” man?
To be candid, there were two fears – the White Van syndrome and dangers of a militarized State. This needs to be negated. The White Vans, rather like Mermaids, Lochness Monsters, Greased Yakkas and Unicorns are sure to exist but awaiting discovery. Two events need to be robustly addressed. One is the sordid flare up of temper in the Phone calls to Ms Fredrica Jansz, and the disastrous showing on the “Hard Talk” programme of the BBC. Perhaps a mere expression of regret and open apology, at least to the nation, may suffice. All of us humans do err sometimes, but genuinely expressing regret is important.
GR should immediately sever all contacts with political parties, as he represents the whole nation and not a particular segment – be it political, racial, religious, class or caste. He is like the oarsman who required a boat to reach the other shore but would be foolish to hang on to it after getting to the end of his journey. This is not ingratitude but pragmatism at its best. Therefore, no “Viyathmaga”, BBS or other. As a newcomer to the political scene, he has the great advantage of not being obliged to favour cronies. He has a Herculean task to clear the “Right Royal Mess” that others have created for him.
Let us all try to help him in his important task, while assuring him that our goodwill will be conditional on righteous, decent, proper, lawful and compassionate behavior. If not, society will become the “Whip Holders “.
Good Luck, Sir!