By Mohamed Harees –
‘There are enough resources to meet human needs, but not enough to meet human greed’ ~ Mahatma Gandhi
The sudden announcement of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that she will step down soon created ripples and sent a jolt around the world. In an emotional and tearful address, she said that her term would end by February 7, when she expects a new Labour prime minister will be sworn in – though “depending on the process that could be earlier.” She added“But I am not leaving because it was hard. Had that been the case I probably would have departed two months into the job! I am leaving because with such a privileged role comes responsibility – the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead, and also, when you are not. I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice; plus a bit in reserve for those unplanned and unexpected challenges…”.
In fact, Ardern, was a world-renowned champion of niceness, empathy, compassion and climate change. In 2021 she topped Fortune’s list of the world’s greatest leaders; in 2022 Harvard gave her an honorary doctorate and she addressed the United Nations. “Be kind” served her well in the wake of the Christchurch shootings and in keeping the country free of Covid for a year, but people need more than empathy when their mortgage payments have doubled and they are in danger of losing their house. However, the world’s most empathetic leader, found that niceness is not enough. Also, in personal terms, Ardern has projected her departure from the helm as an opportunity for more family life. With an election looming, this year is going to be all about inflation and recession, giving little scope for being kind, which is Jacinda’s trademark and the basis of her popular appeal. Her resignation comes amid growing political headwinds, with her approval ratings falling as New Zealanders’ concerns rise over living costs and crime rates. In this context, may be a surprise – a pleasant one to many – the decision she took was politically and personally made sense.
Ardern also said, “we need a fresh set of shoulders for that challenge. It is that simple”. It is however not that simple for greedy ‘leaders’ in our Paradise Isle. For them, politics is lifelong employment and a career even beyond! From what we know, her statement: “The only interesting angle you will find is that after going on six years of some big challenges, that I am human. Politicians are human. We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time. And for me, it’s time” will not resonate with our local equivalents. Who will after all give up a career which throws much potential and opportunities to earn for generations; even at the cost of bankrupting the nation? There was a story about President DB Wijetunga shared (though unverified); when asked why he was not staying on in office at a certain point of time, he replied ‘better leave when people ask why you are leaving rather than wait for a time when they begin to ask when? With Sri Lanka in fact having an array of greedy politicians including two ex-Presidents and a President well past their ‘best before’ dates, who will in their wildest dreams do an ‘Arden’!
The crises in Lebanon and Sri Lanka are rooted in decades of greed, corruption and conflict. Both countries suffered a long civil war followed by a tenuous and rocky recovery, all the while dominated by corrupt warlords and family cliques that amassed enormous foreign debt and stubbornly held on to power. Sri Lanka has been reduced to financial ruin and political chaos by the Rajapaksa clan, whose members ran the country like their own family business for years. The Rajapaksas, who rose to prominence after the end of the 26-year civil war in 2009, had run the beautiful island nation into the ground through a combination of mind-boggling incompetence and venality. The present crisis in Sri Lanka is a major one, which will leave its imprints for a long time to come. It has very little to do with the social strife and/or majority-minority issues as a section of analysts are trying to project, although it was a contributory factor. The crisis is the result of profligacy, corruption and greed of political leaders, predominantly the Rajapaksa family. Overall, corruption, the preferential treatment of connections, dependence on debt finance, and explosive borrowing from China have combined to push Sri Lanka into economic collapse.
When people rose up and expelled this corrupt greedy family in July 2022, another ‘Rajapaksa’ in Western suit- Ranil was made the President by mere 134 Parliamentary votes, and thus has no public mandate. Nobody said this better than Che Guevara, “Cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders turn cruel.” He took all steps to save the Rajapaksas from prosecution. The blame for this economic Armageddon was due to the gluttony of corruption and greed, instigated and enabled by the Rajapaksa family, its acolytes and sycophants, and indeed stolen national wealth moved overseas through various illegal networks by the Rajapaksa clan and their accomplices. Many billions were also squandered on gargantuan white elephant vanity projects in order to glorify the Rajapaksa legacy. If however the same corrupt incompetent rotten thieves who still occupy positions of huge powers are allowed to maintain the status quo, the failed state that is Sri Lanka will descent into complete anarchy and bloodshed.
Why are politicians so greedy? This is a great question because it is both illustrative of our times and anyway, yet also a tale as old as representative democracy itself. One can imagine the ancient Roman plebeians lamenting the greed of their senators, who had supposedly been appointed to represent the interests of all Romans rather than to gorge themselves on the empire’s riches. But historical parallels aside, what we find so fascinating about this issue is the inherent paradox of well-intentioned people finding themselves corrupted by political systems. On the guise of wanting to do good, most political candidates (if not all) enter politics quickly fall victim to corrupting pressures. Unfortunately, the system operates in such a fashion that even the best-intentioned politicians ‘rob’ wherever possible when opportunities present themselves. Whatever form of greed is in play, it fosters and protects selfish interests no matter what principles and laws are bent or broken, and no matter what negligence and harm are inflicted on others.
Regarding political leaders, the pursuit of power is not only something that one finds in authoritarian regimes. Sure, ambition drives people in politics all over the world. It is now becoming the norm even in mature democracies, though, to focus on getting the votes needed to get the leadership position by any means available, legitimate or not. Once you have it you then try to extract as many benefits as possible, undermining institutions and balancing mechanisms, eroding civic and other rights
Globally too, in their quest for money, political leaders have wrecked up the financial system, destroyed the value of money, which is the foundation of a capitalist society, and created innumerable conflicts which have displaced millions and generated hatred. Democracy gives power-hungry politicians far worse incentives than the market gives greedy businesspeople. Above all, voters – unlike consumers – have no incentive to be rational, spurring power-hungry politicians to preach and practice endless demagoguery. It’s gotten worse lately, but it’s always been terrible. Democracy after all, hasn’t turned politicians into decent human beings; it’s only gilded their age-old power lust with altruistic hypocrisy.
Those well known for their robbery and pilfering the peoples’ money and every form of stupid, unjust, unreasonable, lawless conduct and arbitrary use of power cannot be again put in charge of freeing the country of larceny and corruption and establishing a regime of good governance. Nor does this permit the present power-holders to justify every means to stay in power irrespective of their integrity. It is a great tragedy that people of Sri Lanka cannot find under 200 men and women of integrity to take leadership and infuse a new synergy to her political culture.
It is sad that corruption has become normalised because the people have also accepted that, even though it is wrong, that this is the feasible approach for them on a personal level, further justifying that there are larger corruptions taking place and one’s own corruption would not make a difference. People fail to realise that they are losing out on so many things because of corruption. It is unfortunate that a large number of the global population too fail to realise the far reaching consequences of this corruption as well as the domino effect it causes on every aspect of their lives.
Sri Lanka close to the 75th anniversary of Independence today has nothing to boast of. Aging politicians are still planning to stay on and groom their family members to take over. Ranil is planning to transform Sri Lanka into a developed country by 2048. Top politicians including Mahinda and Gota still to be held to account for their omissions and commissions in taking Sri Lanka on the path of bankruptcy. They are just enjoying political immunity and perks. There is Maithri, another former President with a begging bowl asking for help to pay off the amount specified by the Supreme Courts for his negligence to prevent the Easter disaster in 2019. Ruling party is all out to prevent a rout at the elections. People has lost confidence in politics and its leaders who stick to power like leeches to milk the system..
Ardern resigned when she knew she no longer had enough in the tank to do it justice. She quit when it’s time. This is predominantly due to the political culture in which she has been operating and the people who vote political leaders to power. Sri Lanka is thus crying out for a change and a decisive change indeed to produce the likes of Arden. Aragalaya waged to change Sri Lanka’s political culture did not stop when Gota was ousted in July 9th. The spirit will and should live on, despite the vain attempts of the State to dilute it, if Sri Lanka want to end the greed that seems de rigueur for politicians. The system needs reform. Sri Lanka needs leaders that remain connected to the real needs of people and stay close enough to pull everybody up with them, rather than robbing the poor folk and heading for the stars all by themselves.
A system that is so focused on money naturally corrupts. There are two simple things that are necessary to make a change: end massive campaign spending; and, institute term limits so that no single representative is around long enough to be fully corrupted. There is room for leaders of all kinds, and more than room there is a need for people with vision and organising skills. What there is no need and neither should there be room for is people moved only or primarily by money, power and instant gratification.
Singapore’s example has been much illuminating. Meritocracy was the key to Singapore’s success because the “practice of meritocracy in the civil service, in politics, in business and in schools” enabled Singaporeans “to achieve excellence and to compete against others”. As Lee Kuan Yew once said, ‘My experience of developments in Asia has led me to conclude that we need good men to have good government. However good the system of government, bad leaders will bring harm to their people. […] The single decisive factor that made for Singapore’s development was the ability of its ministers and the high quality of the civil servants who supported them’
After assuming office in June 1959, Lee Kuan Yew explained in his memoirs why he and his colleagues were determined to keep Singapore free from corruption:We were sickened by the greed, corruption and decadence of many Asian leaders. […] We had a deep sense of mission to establish a clean and effective government. When we took the oath of office […] in June 1959, we all wore white shirts and white slacks to symbolise purity and honesty in our personal behaviour and our public life. […] We made sure from the day we took office in June 1959 that every dollar in revenue would be properly accounted for and would reach the beneficiaries at the grass roots as one dollar, without being siphoned off along the way. So from the very beginning we gave special attention to the areas where discretionary powers had been exploited for personal gain and sharpened the instruments that could prevent, detect or deter such practices.
As stated, […] while it is difficult if not impossible to transfer public administration Singapore-style or Ardern style political culture in toto to other Asian countries, it is nevertheless possible for Sri Lanka to emulate and adapt some features of public administration to suit its own needs, provided that its political leaders, civil servants, and population are prepared to make the necessary changes. To make it happen, Public activism is the key, to force the hand of policy makers to have the political will and be prepared to pay the high political and economic price for implementing Singapore-style reforms with appropriate modifications to solve their problems.
‘If we elect the same corrupt politicians every time, that’s a very clear message that we don’t want a change’.~Sukant Ratnakar