By Tony Perera –
We live in a nation where actual political choice, which lies between the SJB and SLPP, have at least from a media image perspective pivoted themselves to the lower ranks along our socio-economic spectrum. The two major parties in rhetoric pander to the poor.
This takes the form of large public gatherings, rhetoric lacking economic feasibility, and a lack of discourse on public policy. There is such a lack of differentiation in the rhetoric that people have started calling the SJB, SLPP Lite. I, and I assume the people willing to read my pieces, am not a champion of poor people’s rights over that of the majority.
My take is that pro-poor policies like changing the curriculum towards the vernacular, the take‐over of private estates under land reform, and the vast spread nationalization of major industries is actually bad for the broader society. The impact though perceived as being favourable to the poorest may only be slightly beneficial or in most instances actively against their own long-term interests.
This piece is being written partly in response to the very well written piece in Economy Next titled ‘Classist, (an) aristocratic cabal in Sri Lanka conspiring to prevent Premadasa presidency: MP’[ by Imesh Ranasinghe. This is the sort of rhetoric that helped bring about the first Premadasa presidency and I am concerned given Sri Lanka’s cultural biases it will lead to a second Premadasa presidency.
Historically I come from a mix of people but there is a notable few that I would consider in the elite. On both sides of my family, there were members of the Senate and also other notable subsequent descendants. As people tended to marry within wealthy circles it is very likely that a large proportion of my ancestry including all my grandparents spoke English and had land.
Wealth is not a strong predictor of policy acumen. A lot of my relatives are idiots. My grandparents land holdings of which I have none should not disqualify me from the capacity to impact public policy.
Here I feel I must also tell female readers that I currently am more towards the poorer end of the spectrum and have done things that I deeply regret.
The Pro-Poor policy
SWRD Bandaranaike’s children famously were not educated in the vernacular for their tertiary education. Changing the medium of instruction in most major schools to the vernacular in effect reduced the cost of education (and thereby subsidy to the poor) on the treasury. The students in vernacular education are less gainfully employable by their peers in private institutions.
Large tracts of estate land now lie with no clear ownership and have not been tended to properly. The banking sector is in effect the real owner of most major plantation companies who are now so riddled with debt that they can barely make operational payments.
Large nationalized industries like the CEB, CPC, and SriLankan Airlines are marred by corruption and do not offer low-cost services to the general public.
Historic wealth (land) not a predictor of current wealth
As land has become less important as a factor of production in the modern economy and credit creation has become more meritocratic there is far less of a feudal structure in Sri Lanka. After all many of the estate companies listed on the stock exchange run at a loss.
Think of the concurrent downfall of the Kotelawala empire and the rise of Dhammika Perera. Though there are some families that have notably remained wealthy throughout our independent history they do not make up the current majority of political spending.
The land reform policies of Sirimavo Bandaranaike combined with the subsequent state-sponsored unrest caused by JR Jayewardene caused a huge outflow of talented minds. People who have the capacity to make something out of nothing for many decades now have chosen to emigrate.
Our country is now in such a position of poverty that even marriage proposals advertised in the paper now tend to weigh more heavily on foreign employment opportunities than on the gift of land.
Historically landed people were able to influence electoral outcomes as land was the major asset class and they were able to outspend their opponents. Money is a necessary but not sufficient factor for electoral victory. The SJB outspent both the SLPP and UNP in the last two elections and did surprisingly poorly.
The SJB is backed mainly by the Apparel sector whose major players owe their fortunes to UNP policy in the 1980s that transferred huge amounts of wealth and opportunity to a very small group of people. The notable names within this mix are notably from historically poor and uneducated backgrounds. People of the time would have thought of those people as being Indian (in a derogatory minority sense) and being the sorts that would have to marry within their own very small and highly interrelated communities. This however has not impeded their meteoric rise to power.
The SLPP is backed mainly by the construction and protectionist industries. They owe their wealth to state contracts and large choice and cost taxes they put on the general public through protectionism. The people from this group even in spite of considerable wealth position themselves with the masses. Many go so far as to conflate being Sinhalese to being Sri Lankan. They remain an active threat to an indivisible and pluralistic Sri Lanka.
Aristocratic spending on elections
Assuming the aristocratic cabal in the Economy Next piece refers to Ranil Wickremesinghe supporters one must question whether the UNP will be the major spender in the next general election. Though the sale of the leader’s residence might help it is not like the UNP is going to be able to outspend either the SLPP or the SJB.
Large corporations rely heavily on credit to function. The SLPP will be in a handsome position to allocate credit through the large state-owned banking system to their supporters who will, in turn, spend lavishly on the election. Our own money will be used against us electorally.
The SJB will lean on the vast export wealth whose interests it seeks to protect if elected to power. They will benefit in the long run through a lower than the optimal rate of taxation on export sector profits again in effect robbing from the treasury.
Foreign control of policy
A large portion of the political goodwill of the Yahapalanaya government was wasted on inquiries into the armed forces. Though from a moral perspective there can be no doubt that there should be an inquiry it would be politically prudent to begin from the establishment of the Executive Presidency. It is a political reality that you will have to put Sinhalese victims before Tamil ones.
This loss of political goodwill was not out of some moral obligation as UNP crimes in the South are probably worse than those committed recently but rather for the reestablishment of GSP Plus. More ethnic reconciliation could be achieved if Wickremesinghe makes further acknowledgements of state support for the anti-Tamil riots in 1983. The Tamil diaspora was able to effectively lobby the EU to cripple our export sector.
In spite of any tangible achievement (RW fooled the West and the TNA) of the Sri Lankan government towards reconciliation, the prospect of GSP Plus remains and is stronger than ever as both major parties the SJB and SLPP are willing to act in foreign interests. This is most apparent in the passing of the Port City Law wherein Western and Chinese financiers see themselves setting up shop with the intention of controlling the growth of the broader South Asian region.
The Chinese now have a huge vested interest in our next Presidential election as it would impact appointments to the Port City commission. It was truly shameless that during the recent economic downturn the government prioritized the payment for construction work which is largely Chinese owned rather than looking to provide economic stimulus to the real economy.
Beating up the poor
It is only a partial truth that the geo-location of global services to Sri Lanka will benefit us. Take how oil spills will be treated. Will the cost of cleaning up the spill and the damage caused by the recent incident be recovered from the shipowner or borne by the state and people?
As with all things it is a balance of representing the interests of Sri Lankans while keeping the industry competitive in terms of export pricing. We can go the Chinese route of development wherein to quote the book Trade Wars are Class Wars; Chinese workers are underpaid relative to the value of what they produce. We could also go the route of the Netherlands or Switzerland wherein our value comes by acting as a haven (the word tax implied) for investors looking to capture value from the broader region.
Going down China’s route will mean that we beat up the poor while the poor in the Netherlands or Switzerland do quite well.
War on poor
From the war on drugs to the policing of prostitution, to the banning of abortion we see that the state is quite focused on actually hurting the poor. The war on drugs rarely captures the highest rungs of the ladder in the industry. The arrests are trivial and used as a media distraction when the government is unpopular.
If it is that you want to reduce the scourge of drug usage on society why don’t you treat it as a health problem which is what it is. Methadone clinics and the treatment of drug addicts would go a long way to reducing the harm caused to society. Portugal has had amazing policy outcomes through a non-criminalizing approach.
On prostitution to paraphrase the sentiment in the popular song ‘I Don’t Know Why’ it is difficult to see why the legal structure which thereby necessitates a system of pimping who bribe the police is allowed to continue. Selling sex isn’t the worst thing in the world.
On abortion young girls who have the misfortune of getting pregnant would be far better off if they were allowed to safely abort the unwanted fetus but are unallowed to do so by a state who would much rather see them become destitute.
The above section contains values that are held by most college graduates. This is because they are exposed both to international thinking and modern thought on public policy. If Ranil Wickremesinghe the aristocrat was given absolute power some of these things might get implemented.
Wickremesinghe unlike his challengers in both Sajith Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa is a college graduate. Being a college graduate helps Wickremesinghe be better at making decisions on public policy. Going to university which was within the financial means of both Sajith Premadasa and Namal Rajapaksa is an important part of one’s mental and intellectual development.
What Imesh Ranasinghe in his piece is trying to do is to bring about the politics of affinity. He is appealing to the majority of Sri Lankans who don’t have university degrees to cast aside, given the incredibly weak state of our current education system, is the last truly educated (locally) leader of a major political party.
Policy under the Aristocrat Ranil Wickremesinghe
Ranil Wickremesinghe doesn’t pretend to be poor. He is power-hungry. He doesn’t pretend to like people. These are by my count attractive qualities for a policymaker. He is also incredibly adept at foreign relations and outperforming expectations electorally. He will be the next Prime Minister.
If we take the recent discourse on both the Port City and Port terminals in the Colombo harbour we find that the major achievements touted by the government are attributable to Wickremesinghe.
The fact that the land under Port City is owned by the state is attributable to Wickremesinghe. If it wasn’t for his intervention the agreement would have reflected the Shang Ri La investment with freehold status to a foreign entity.
The fact that we even have a deepwater terminal that we can get foreign investors as opposed to our own to develop is due to the fact that Wickremesinghe had the foresight to obtain concessionary financing from the ADB.
Under Wickremesinghe, the Port City commission will be comprised of people who can actively attract investment into the country while keeping our foreign relations in balance.
Policy under Sajith Premadasa
It is a real treat to visit Sajith Premadasa’s YouTube page. His political clinics are emblematic of everything that is wrong with the Sri Lankan provision of public services. The need for a politician to make phone calls to influence the provision of public services as with the need for a politician to make decisions on the hiring of workers may be highly politically effective but it is not good public policy. It is unlikely that Premadasa as a leader will have time to deal with all our problems personally. In this Premadasa goes beyond poor (read small-minded) in his approach to politics and enters the realm of being cheap (of little worth because achieved in a discreditable way requiring little effort).