By Lacille de Silva –
Sri Lankans, since the 1970s, have not been fortunate to have visionary leaders. They were misfits. Their laws are unjust and unacceptable. Their measures are always cruel and inhumane. They do not respect the Constitution and other laws. History proves that if the leaders desire comforts, love power and prestige they are unable to deliver lasting happiness to the nation.
After ending the brutal war, we were reborn. Why did Lankan rulers fail to achieve economic progress there onwards? They too lacked integrity, vision and accountability. They were narrow-minded and acquisitive. The ensuing culture they created is a toxic process. Power has become addictive to them. Why should probity, ethics and good governance apply for both elected and appointed personnel engaged in the service to the citizens?
I have never seen or heard anywhere in the world where Senior Cabinet Ministers are dozing off in Parliament in the Government benches in the front row. It was particularly important, since it happened, when the Head of State was delivering the policy statement as well, in Parliament at its first meeting, after a parliamentary election. It is true that the President runs the government with the support of the Cabinet Ministers. Such ministers therefore do not challenge the poor behaviour of others. This reflects the actual status of affairs of the government.
They have misused legitimate authority given to them to their advantage. Such sordid rulers have collectively subverted laws and the key state institutions such as Parliament, the judiciary etc., for decades. They cannot comprehend that good administration in every area of the government is vital to keep the people happy and their good name.
Our Constitution (Article 12 (1) stipulates that “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law”. The famous proverb tells “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked bear the rule, the people mourn”. We should be happy the Constitution takes great pains to ensure justice for all. And to protect everybody from misrule by double-dealer type big-time operators.
They have destroyed the opposition in Parliament. A strong opposition is vital for running a healthy democracy. Such destructive leaders craftily extended beyond their self-interests to biasedly build a motivated and inspired team of acolytes. They are also equally bellicose and self-centred.
At the time we became independent, we had the second-highest per capita income in Asia, excellent literacy rates, improved healthcare, strong economy etc. Sri Lanka now ranks almost at the bottom in global comparisons.
The most venerable Ajahn Brahm, who is the Chief Monk of the Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery in Perth Australia had said that “the oldest multinational corporation in the world is the Buddhist Sangha”. According to him, Buddhism has been a positive inspiration for many world leaders. He had said that British Statesman and wartime Prime Minister was one of them. He had also quoted Buddha and said: “Good virtuous leaders lead by example”.
Ajahn Brahm had said in a keynote address to the United Nations in 2007 – “The ideal form of governance is that leaders should embrace self-sacrifice and not self-interest. Leaders should lead without any concern for material reward. Their only reward would be in the happiness of service”. He had also quoted what President John F. Kennedy had said to inspire children and adults and to show the importance of civic action and public service – “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for the country”. Sadly, Lankan politicians think differently.
It is the assertion that rulers are constituted by the people for the common good. Our leaders should pledge to commit themselves to refrain from abusing their public positions at the expense of the people, to honestly address the vice of corruption. They should, thereafter, concentrate on how to create a better country for future generations. If they are determined to fulfil their constitutional obligations responsibly and strive hard to win and sustain public trust, it is nothing impossible. They should have the strength of character to correct their wrong-doing.
Government is a trust and the officers of the government, both elected and appointed are trustees. They are entrusted with the powers to make decisions for the benefit of the people. The question of representative roles was conceived by Edmund Burke, who argued that representatives should serve as trustees of the interests of those elected them – “virtual representatives”- rather than serving as delegates. If so, how did corruption swallow up the whole country to the detriment of the countrymen? It is the main obstacle to achieve good governance and sustainable development.
They have collectively inflicted misery on every citizen. They are only keen in the pursuit of their prosperity. They are subject to manipulations from superpowers as well. And by crooked godfathers behind ostensible governments. It is a flawed system. The extravagant leaders have only favoured immediate gratifications. It had motivated public officials and even the citizens. Everybody now goes for easy money instead of productive activities.
Entitlements such as infrastructure, education, health care, etc have been curtailed to the citizens. Water, electricity etc are overcharged. The citizens pay bribes to get their legitimate services. Corruption undermines good governance, democracy, and the country’s competitiveness and revenue base.
They use various strategies to gain power. Idi Amin in Uganda won the hearts of the people by expelling British and attacking Western Imperialism. In the 1970s, Sri Lankan leaders criticised the Soulbury Constitution. They had campaigned that the plantations owned by the British should be nationalised. A home-grown Constitution was the only remedy to develop the country according to them.
JRJ did the same thing in 1977. It is a serious flaw in their characters. Nobody wants to correct the shortcomings. This, therefore, is an imbecile system. It does not take you forward. Corruption has become the modus operandi of kleptocrats. It benefits only a handful. It lowers and destroys the quality of lives of millions of others. Nevertheless, we cannot expect every leader to possess the wisdom of Lincoln or Mandela’s large-heartedness. But the need of the hour is true statesmanship.
We need leaders who will chase behind to achieve common goals. We have to ensure a ‘fair go for all’ without any further delay. This could only be done by achieving the SDGs that cut across and integrate economic, social, and environmental dimensions of development, which incorporate the 5Ps (People, Prosperity, Planet, Peace, and Partnerships).
This requires a collaborative and effective response at an unprecedented scale from all traditional and non-traditional actors. If so, we have to change the way we operate at present. We must be more systematic and catalytic.
Forty-two per cent of our population live on less than two dollars a day. Poverty is a punishment for those penniless people. They are paying for others’ sins. Numerous businesses, including professionals too practising privately, tend to hide and not to disclose their actual income, to avoid taxation.
As a result, the income generated by many businesses, professionals etc exists outside the official economy. This has paved the way for the existence of a rapidly growing parallel black money economy. It has grave and disastrous consequences.
The watchdog institutions that should scrutinize government performance need to be further strengthened. The Auditor-General must be given surcharge powers. The Yahapalana government withdrew ‘surcharge power provision’ at the final hour. Special Anti Corruption bodies such as CIABOC should also be permitted to go after powerful politicians. We expect the President to strengthen ethical values to re-create a well-performing bureaucracy.
Why is corruption cancerous? It has the ability rapidly and insidiously to infiltrate and destroy the organs of the state. It had strengthened – bad leadership, politics of the belly, greed and selfishness, clientelism, patronage, nepotism, weak institutions, lack of accountability and transparency, weak ethical values, weak judicial system etc. etc
The destruction caused is inexcusable. They have sold our valuable assets under numerous pretexts. The exploitation is deep-rooted in the bureaucratic and political institutions. The theft of government financial resources too is another serious form of corruption. The government has failed to prioritize its commitment to improving Public Financial Management, which involves a set of responsibilities. The Auditor-General has reported serious shortcomings in revenue management, accounting, monitoring, evaluation areas etc.
Politicians at the national, provincial and local level have become filthy rich overnight. We have heard of instances where customs, inland revenue officers, and many others, pocketing out government revenue with the collision of the payer. We have also heard of ‘ghost workers’ being paid.
Corruption, therefore, thrives in our country. Without ‘political will’ at the highest level nothing can be done to reduce corruption. It fuels injustice, inequality, and deprivation. It also has a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable. It increases costs and reduces trust in government. It has led to violent extremism and conflict. With its negative effects upon political and economic development, it has serious repercussions on national institutions. Constitutionally, the elected representatives are accountable to people through the Parliament. In reality, it does not happen. It is like a spider web. Only the weak get caught.
The World Bank in a report had highlighted “Corruption and corrupt leaders both deepen poverty and make it difficult for ordinary people to get ahead as a result of their efforts”. It has been proved that it is the biggest obstacle for development. Its consequences are always borne by the most vulnerable sections and particularly the poor.
All that we need is a passionate leader. He should foster the trust and confidence of the people. He should be capable of curbing corruption by promoting ethics and integrity among both elected and appointed officials. He should also be an ardent supporter of good governance. However, on the political side, politicians who have enriched themselves through corrupt practices will not surrender their positions of advantage willingly. We know of donations from foreign sources for election campaigns. which have become a controversial issue as well. Similar donations have been banned in several developed countries. Shouldn’t the government think of such reforms as well?
Why did we forget debt is a double-edged sword? When it has been imprudently used, the results we face currently are disastrous. Excessive debt has impaired the government’s ability to deliver its essential services to its citizens. It is amidst the onset of the Corona pandemic and the deepest economic debacle globally. The Government should not any longer procrastinate the necessary reforms.
In Korea, by 1960, they had borrowed 25 billion dollars internationally for industrialisation. The rulers there had invested all those borrowings prudently. Dollars had worked wonders in Korea. China and other sources granted loans for our leaders. We have recklessly borrowed twice the amount and more, at much higher commercial rates as well. Subsequently, the last government handed over the port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease together with 15,000 acres of lands.
President should initiate reforms, restructuring, and rebuilding to improve the quality of lives of our distressed people. Another important issue at hand is the need to expedite matters concerning the large number of corruption cases that had been pushed under the carpet. There have been no significant convictions for graft despite widespread evidence of pervasive corruption.
President should direct the relevant authorities to initiate expeditious legal action regarding the 2015 Central Bank fraud allegedly committed by venal politicians including Ranil Wickremesinghe. Steps should be thereafter taken to recover stolen assets. All these evidence had been amply revealed at the investigations in the Presidential Commission how RW implanted Arjuna Mahendran, allegedly who has recently changed his name to Harjan Alexander. We need the culture of impunity to end and a culture of accountability introduced.
President should manage the ongoing superpower tensions to the best advantage of the countrymen. And secure our birthright freedoms for all our people. The shocking truth is that the country has been devastated by the two governments that ran governance after ending the war. They have pushed GOSL to go bankrupt. Our external debt is staggering. Yet, we continue to borrow furthermore externally to repay debts. This is unbelievable. The debt service burden for 2020 exceeds $ 4.8 billion.
This requires that the President engages diplomacy – be highly strategic and tactical, based on pragmatic choices without sacrificing the future of our children any further. Sri Lanka is a textbook case of bad governance. People live in poverty having destroyed everything by incompetent leaders. How do we know whether illicit syndicates too are also linked to a wide range of problems such as law-enforcements, including international criminal interests? Everything possible should be done to give a better deal to the oppressed ASAP.