27 May, 2022


Merit, Governance & The Vacant Economy

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Present Realities and Precarious Options – VIII

The governance of this country has long been set on a course where merit receives its due place mainly by accident. A good example is our higher education. The chairman of the University Grants Commission is a political appointee and plays a major role in picking fellow commissioners. He advises the president on the appointment of the vice-chancellor of a university out of three names sent by the university council – there is bound to be one who can be trusted to be politically safe. About half the members of the council are outsiders recommended to the UGC chairman by the vice chancellor. This would in turn ensure that persons recommended by them are politically safe. An appointee who rocks the boat is out when his three-year term ends. It is not hard to see how merit is undermined down the line by a system of patronage intended to make the system safe for the rulers.

The system reveals the mindset of those in power and of those appointed to positions. This marks the progressive breakdown of a system that has dispensed with rules. Building a robust economy in Sri Lanka would mean fostering a healthy engineering sector where local initiative and inventiveness are given their due place.chandrika-kumaratunga  However, the pattern is that a number of local politicians and bureaucrats have succumbed to, or become willing parties to, manipulation by big foreign firms and have established comfortable relations with them. Consequently, they prefer to deal with them rather than with local firms. What goes on is easy to guess, but difficult to prove. By comparison, local firms have the ability to do the work and to do it much cheaper, but are not so attractive to deal with. Local firms in the construction sector need often to rely on subcontracts from foreign firms.
The mechanical engineering sector, where the big plant is mostly state-owned, has been virtually run down. Where local engineers have devised innovative means to improve or re-use plant and machinery that would save the public considerable expense – such as in the transport sector – these have tended to be disregarded or discouraged. The tendency is to go for a package from a foreign company that is supported by a foreign loan. This would normally result in substantial replacement of plant. The decision often rests with a minister and senior bureaucrats without any overall policy framework or reckoning of benefits to the country.

Parallel to this phenomenon is the demand for the multiplication of cabinet portfolios. President Kumaratunga in her second term, like Premadasa and Jayewardene before her, has found it expedient to grant ministries or state ministries to more than 70% of the MPs supporting her in Parliament. What most of these eighty odd ministers, including forty odd cabinet ministers, want and do needs no guessing.

This is a framework for undisciplined government. The country piles up foreign debt that is passed on to the poor through inflation and devaluation of the rupee. There can be no credible national plan of any shape. Concerned professionals have described this as a ‘Vacant Economy’ rather than an ‘Open Economy’ as it is mistakenly called. It is an economy where local sectors and skills are vacating. Violence and lawlessness are endemic to the arrangement, which goes back to 1977. Apart from ministers themselves, the right to contravene the law with impunity appears to be regarded as their patrimony by their offspring and cronies too. A conscientious law enforcement officer may suddenly find himself dropped by the system and his life imperilled. The system lacks the ability to accomplish basic tasks of urgent national interest.

*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here
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Latest comments

  • 0

    When the people who a

  • 2

    Despite free education, when people are kept ill informed with the help a managed media, and the rulers appointees to institutions like universities are based on their political loyalties, the products graduating with degrees in the swabasha medium are bound to be half baked and of inferior quality.
    So is it any wonder when such graduates are put in charge, that they are unable to make sound planning decisions in the field of industrial development and economic progress the country?
    The consequence of that is perpetual inflation and dwindling quality of life for the people.
    In order to escape from the drudgery they rely on unscrupulous employment agents to send their wives, sisters, mothers to the Middle East without consideration of the fact that the children would face neglect. This is the unhappy situation for the ordinary man on the street in this country.
    But the canny politicians use that as an excuse to blame minorities and divert the attention of people by resorting to place emphasis on racial and religious differences between people and tighten their hold on power to ensure a comfortable life style for themselves and their dependants.
    This is what is happening in the country.

    • 1

      Dear Uthungan,

      Yours is a valid response by people like us who despair whether things will ever come right; well, I think that many things have improved during the past year – and we just take all that alleviation of past cruelties for granted.

      However, while I see your point in blaming the devalued education that young people receive today, for many ills, it is unfortunate that you blame it all on “Swabasha”. Yes, acquiring a broader world view is helped by multilingualism, but language can only be a vehicle for knowledge, and it doesn’t help when the implication of what you say is that all should acquire a knowledge of the language of our ex-masters, without our ever having succeeded in teaching that language to all our fellow citizens.

      • 1

        Sinhala Man,

        “……..the implication of what you say is that all should acquire a knowledge of the language of our ex-masters, without our ever having succeeded in teaching that language to all our fellow citizens.”

        To be fair by Uthungan, he never mentioned the language of the masters, or for that matter English.

        What he like many others seems rightly concerned about is the lack of access to wider knowledge and particularly the ability to be aware of different points of view. It could be English (which you seem unable to disassociate from ‘our ex masters’), German or French (or even Tamil if the enormous market in T.Nadu results in a vibrant publishing industry as is not unlikely in the long term. That will be interesting, Sinhala Man. What will you then have against learning Tamil – that it is the language of ex slaves?)

        But right now, particularly in the humanities, it is a disaster leading to students wasting some of the best years of their lives in trying to enter and after entry in campuses which have become knowledge deserts. I think you and I should be as concerned about it as Uthungan seems to be.

        Surely this has obvious adverse consequences for the quality of public life in this country.

        2. Your second point is right – that the provision of enabling conditions for the learning of such an access-giving language – I dare not say English to you – has been neglected and opportunities wasted: the resources to teach it were available when we did the switch over but extreme myopia was then a very dominant affliction.

        We must get over that and instead of sloganising, find some ways of enabling intellectually the people of this country, instead of a minute class of kaduwa bearing elitists monopolising discussions everywhere.

  • 2

    Dear Susruta,

    I’m sure that we’re in perfect agreement with each other. We’ve got to teach all Sri Lankans all three languages, although I know absolutely no Tamil. Engineered my daughter in to learning it: she still bears the mental scars resulting from being locked up as a Tamil suicide bomber. It is THAT strange that an English first language kid should also know Tamil.

    Neither the good “Uthungan” nor I used the word “English”, but linking “Swabasha” with being “half-baked” had obvious implications. Yes, we need a world language, and that language has to be English. To suggest otherwise would be mischievous.

    Learning a language is NOT easy, unless it is acquired as a child. Some have an aptitude for languages, I don’t. I have had a neighbour, in my VILLAGE, for twelve YEARS, who claims that such aptitudes are NOT necessary, only hard work is. I think that BOTH have to be there.

    I can now get the drift of things said in French as a result of thousands (sic) of days when I have sat with him from 6.00 p.m. to 6.30 p.m., watching the French news which he obtains for free from a home-made satellite dish which cost less than fifty thousand rupees – and no subscriptions. That French channel doesn’t have a single advertisement; 24 X 365 hours per year. Funded by the governments of France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada. No political slant to the news either. However, this man says that there is little point in learning French in Sri Lanka. Much more sensible to learn Chinese, or Japanese, or Korean (languages which he doesn’t know! – like Greek!)

    What does he know? French (Mother Tongue); Dutch (as a result of the family moving to a Flemish majority area of Belgium for some time – and his father being a bit of a martinet, he had to study in the Dutch Medium); Latin (excellent, but he wishes now it had been Greek), and German – all as a school boy. After a four-year spell as a sailor, he entered a University in Belgium to read Finance. Allowed to do extra languages, he’d ended up reading Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” in Russian, and Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” in Spanish (and has the nasty habit of referring to me as “Quixote-like”). Portuguese has come naturally to him (with the Spanish language, which he thinks would have made a “better World Language”), but he says that the Portuguese of Brazil is a bit difficult for him. Had worked in the Czech Republic; left my village on occasion for the Czech Republic, and made speeches in Czech, after doing a lot of correspondence in Czech, while in Uva.

    One semester spent in Tunis University (built on the ruins of Hannibal’s Carthage) means he’d acquired Arabic, apart from Yiddish and Hebrew. He’s worked some years in Delhi, and studied Hindi. He got himself some books to learn Sinhala – but never applied himself: the blame goes to the horrible depths that Sinhala “Tele-dramas” have plumbed. Some understanding of Dhivehi (after I sent him to the Maldives for a year). Now, he’s just preparing to got to the Congo – the border with Burundi and Uganda, where the language is the purest form of Swahili, with lots of lovely vowels. As you get closer to the East Coast (Zanzibar) Swahili gets mixed with Arabic.

    Unfortunately, he’s not learnt much Swahili in his earlier period in the Congo – it was Ki-Congo and Lingala in those areas. Yes, he knows more Lingala than Sinhala – something I throw at him when he compares me to “Don Quijote de la Mancha”!

    And , oh, I exchange such insults with him in English, which may by now have progressed to being his third of fourth language. At HIS level you can’t really list languages in terms of numbers! There may be factors like “register” and the skills which are involved. “Lingala” is essentially a spoken language only:


    Most of the educated natives (“blacks”) speak excellent French with perfect accents. Our Sri Lankan problem may be the fact that we’ve had two highly developed languages in Sinhala and Tamil.

    This guy and I did succeed in “rescuing” a school in the hills, but one of his observations is that our finding standards still unsatisfactory is not merely the “tuition syndrome” for which teachers are to blame, but also, the fact that Sinhalese students just don’t apply themselves to their work. Tamil students work much harder.

    It’s so much easier to learn today than when when we were students. YouTube and Vimeo are fantastic. I learnt such a lot of English from Alistair Cooke (no, not the current England cricket captain, whose surname doesn’t end with the letter”e”):


    According to my friend, those African kids were so keen to learn. He’s now re-visiting the Congo (for two years) after almost forty years, and one of the things foremost in his mind is to check whether intellectual lethargy and and dullness are universal traits bred by the very technology which ought to help those who thirst for knowledge.

    I really think that my friend must qualify as one of the most versatile linguists, world-wide. We have made so little use of him. He had made sure that messages reached the Rajapaksas that he was available for consultation on Finance (he’d been a World Bank Consultant).

    Anyway, his prescription for Sri Lankan students: Sinhala, Tamil, and English.

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