By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
The SriLankan Airline story is now out. Those who still sing the praises of the ten year rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa and cry for his return need not look elsewhere to pause and check their urge and rage.
The episode is part of the narrative of a style of governance that had been disastrously dysfunctional, thereby creating the potential for a nation’s ruin. It adds to the numerous historical instances where authoritarian regimes can go wrong,haywire and sore. It behoves us, therefore, to extricate ourselves of any personal bitterness and examine the episode even clinically as a case study or pointer for the future. In this way, alone, we can convert a major failure into a learning experience.
It is on record that since 1998, under the previous arrangement of partnership with the Emirates, SriLankan Airline showed significant profits. The name wasn’t glamorous but we had a national airline to be proud of and to boost our tourism and international say; yet it was never a burden on our economy. Our staff was gainfully employed and the engine was well in motion. There was no burden on the national exchequer.
Can you remember how the rot set in? Reportedly it was a purely personal incident that pricked the pride of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Mahinda had to get back quickly from London to Colombo and his staff demanded special seats in the airline for that purpose. Being a professionally run affair the Airline management refused to make that accomodation because that would have caused inconvenience to heaps of passengers and tarnished the business image of the airline. To the Rajapaksa team it was like seeking accomodation and diverting a CTB bus. But that’s not how it all works when it comes to international airline behaviour.
According to reports the President was annoyed. A few days after, government withdrew the travel visa given to the director Peter Hill and in the unholy year of 2007 the partnership with Emirates was abrogated. Reported profits to Sri Lanka at that point in time was about 7 billion rupees.
Since that tragic action the story of SriLankan Airline was of a business entity going rapidly downhill to the point that, in the Prime Minister’s graphic expression it had become an economic landmine that could explode the whole national economy.
Typically, any ruler endowed with such enormous unchecked power will tend to regard the country under his charge as his personal property. This is precisely what happened. The national airline was Rajapaksa property. Particularly under Third World conditions rulers, Ministers and their cohorts treat the jurisdictions under their charge as their personal property. They cannot separate the personal space from the public space. The two are mixed. One can see such trends even today under Yahapalanaya. It is a political behaviour hard to eradicate under South Asian political cultures. Watch the behaviour across the seas, of the flamboyant Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister of Tamilnadu. The Sri Lankan electorate is a little more literate and advanced than the generality of the Tamilnadu electorate. We can avoid such grubby behaviour. President Sirisena and Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe must resolve to nip this trend in the bud.
This kind of personal ownership style of behaviour was,according to investigation reports ( was it the Weliamuna report?), reflected in the behaviour of the Chairman after take over-Mahinda’s brother-in-law Wickramasinghe. The reports showed how Wickramasinghe had the attitude of a private owner of a corner boutique or suruttu kade.
In the first place, the act of appointing this gentleman to the onerous position was another private property act by Mahinda Rajapaksa. A tree starts decaying from the top and so does any organisation. Wickramasinghe’s only ‘qualification’ was that he was Mahinda’s wife’s brother. Nothing noteworthy as far as education, skills and experience were concerned. And from reports of the investigation he did engage in jocularly amorous forms of behaviour. The financial management of the airline was of trivial concern to the chairman. On occasion the plane was reportedly forced to divert its route in order to accomodate the Chairman. SriLankan Airline was his playground. “No man is a failure who is enjoying life,” said William Feather. Chairman Wickramasinghe was not a failure; but his organisation was. And the national economy was looking aghast.
The boss and his girls ran round the bushes like Hindi film stars. On a lighter side, this is good narrative for a movie. While the chairman dances the audience can applaud with “ammata siri’!
The previous regime’s management of the national carrier exemplified the regime’s same supreme defining attitude of “my car, my petrol” that brought into being the monstrous flops- Mattala International Airport, The Hambantota Mahinda Rajapaksa International Stadium,The Hambantota International Mahinda Rajapaksa Conference hall and so on and so forth. Don’t forget the harbour.
It is all plainly there for us to see:The narrative of Sri Lankan Air will go down in management history as a case study of how not to govern.