Colombo Telegraph

Suck-Up Society: Where Collective Decisions Are Worse Than One-Man Shows

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

When an Executive takes decisions (on hiring, tenders etc.) he can abuse his powers. A Committee therefore decides collectively. All are responsible. It works well in western society (in general) because the boss “guiding” his committee towards a particular decision will be resisted by persons of integrity.

In our suck-up society where we do not contradict the boss, however, the very collective mechanism to make a strong, collective decision strengthens the hand of the Executive to make his own decisions and justify them as collective decisions. The situation is worse because in a one-man show, he needs to justify his decisions.

Enjoying Powers We Do Not Have

At board meetings, we routinely get letters from employees turning 60 asking for permission to retire. We give that permission feeling good about ourselves. However, if we pause and ask, “What if we said no?” the vanity of that exercise of our power will be apparent. Most employees want to work beyond age 60. Even if we said no, that employee would still have to retire. So what is going on? It is the establishment forcing employees to suck up to their bosses in one last goodbye, as they had been doing since they joined.

Welcome to Sri Lanka where we survive by being obsequious. I have seen a boss coming by car and riding the elevator to his office and then his peon running down to the car (still waiting with the driver in the portico) to fetch his brief case. Where I work, peons take my bag and will not have me carrying it. Along the way other peons will open the door for me, even as policemen stand up. Worse, as I enter my foyer where several staff members are busy working, they stop, stand up, greet me, and sit down only after I have entered my office. I have told them so many times not to do it, but to no avail. Bosses are so spoilt that the value of rapid reply inherent to email is lost when email is printed by a secretary (just once a day), put in a new file with a name for the file, and given to the boss to draft a reply by hand, which then is typed by the secretary and sent. It is all about spoilt bosses.

Suck-ups at the Supreme Court

Even Supreme Court justices are known to be sycophantic before the Chief Justice, being merely an appendage endorsing horrible one-man decisions to make them sound like decisions by a bench.

Consider CJ Sarath Silva and the Helping Hambantota case. “Mr. Silva confessed to BBC Sinhala Service that he had delivered a judgment favorable to then PM Mahinda Rajapaksa” (ColomboPage, 18.10.2014), who was accused of misappropriating tsunami funds. What were Justices Shirani Tilakawardena and N.E. Dissanayake doing in signing “I agree” at the end of the judgment? Did they also help Rajapakse? Were they stooging or too scared to cross their Chief Justice? In essence, they gave respectability to a decision by one man to favor a politician who went on to become president.

In that case, Kabir Hashim filed a complaint that Rajapakse had siphoned off Rs. 83 million from the Tsunami fund into a private account. DIG Goonatillake after approval by the Attorney General Kamalasabesan issued a B-Report. Rajapakse immediately transferred the money back, indicating that the complaint probably had merit. Yet, in his judgment quashing the police investigation, Silva imposed huge fines on Hashim, the state, the IGP, and the DIG – as if to say “Don’t you dare look into corruption again!” Welcome to Sri Lanka.

Meeting Minutes

At a simple level, meeting minutes are taken by the Scribe, a Registrar/Secretary to the Board, who records proceedings while the Executive conducts the meeting. In theory the record is by an independent person giving a truthful record, read over by the Board and approved. In Sri Lankan reality, the Scribe gives the record to the Executive who edits it to give his own slant, which then goes in the name of the suck-up Scribe who will not question the Executive. The Board usually does not even read the minutes before approval. Their role gives respectability to the Executive’s version of decisions, including those never taken.

University Level

Recently the University of Jaffna Council minutes, officially by the Registrar, stated that the Council decided to exclude from the ballot an applicant for the post of VC, Sam Thiagalingam, because his application posted early in the US, was allegedly late. It was something the VC wanted but no such decision had been taken.

Being such an important matter, however, the fraud was caught and a debate ensued but the decision to exclude was taken, this time in reality. There is a 5-judge decision from our Supreme Court that the date of dispatch is effectively the date of receipt (Adams V Lindsell from 1818, and University of Ceylon v Fernando [1957] 59 NLR 8). However, because the VC feared that an outsider might look into all the corruption at the university, she wanted Thiagalingam excluded. The UGC, always ready to support corrupt VCs, did. Council members said, “The UGC appointed us. If we go against the UGC we will be removed.” Such is the integrity of those appointed to our university councils.

While our UGC is meant to regulate the administration and standards of our universities, it has on board a person who ordered Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, then a tender board chairman under him, to give him a signed but otherwise blank recommendation to enable buying typewriters from his family business; besides a person who uses a UGC letter asking him to cover duties in the VC’s absence at Jaffna, to list himself on the UGC and Jaffna Websites as Acting VC for that period. Naturally this corrupt UGC abdicates its responsibility to regulate. When corrupt VCs are challenged in court, instead of advising court on whether rules were violated or not, the Chairman files affidavits claiming, despite the universities Act, that the UGC has no power to force universities to abide by the law. Why even have a UGC then?

At each level there is mutual sucking up. Only the country suffers. The only rule among high administrators? You scratch my back and I will scratch yours.

Cabinet Level

Cabinet Collective responsibility is the highest form of collective decision-making. Each minister, in theory, accepts a fellow minister’s recommendations after debate, as his own. Once decided, every minister takes ownership.

However, according to Darisha Bastians, our political system is “riddled with corruption, nepotism and shadowy wheeler-dealing.” Even the PM endorsed this when he said the country had no use for a Parliament that only sought to protect thieves and crooks and that “[t]he people did not vote for a Parliament that protects the corrupt.”

Yet, there are credible allegations against many if not most of our ministers. In reality, with many ministers, the cabinet rule is “You do your stealing. I will do mine. And we will all back each other.” That is their take on collective responsibility. Many members of the former government with serious charges of corruption have now been elevated to cabinet office by the PM and President, eroding any credibility they have over their pledges of good governance. What remained went out of the window when President Sirisena forced the head of the bribery commission to resign, saying he publicly condemned her for prosecuting three retired admirals and the former defence secretary with “disgust,” and that “military commanders who led the successful campaign to crush separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009 should not be humiliated by bringing them to court” (EconomyNext, 17.10.2016). If you killed Tamils, even the President will suck up to you to get votes. Welcome to Sri Lanka.

Need to Stop Sucking Up

If we are to ever recover, we need to stop sucking up as expected and rebel against bosses who demand our ingratiating, sycophantic unctuousness. We need to appoint people with integrity to our Boards; not those who seek appointments because they are the very people who will suck up and fail the institutions they serve.

As I told the new SLAS Cadets in their induction lecture I gave, they need to follow Murugeysan Rajendra (who retired as Treasury Secretary and Head of Service). The daughter-in-law of the Minister who first advocated Sinhalese-only in the State Council, had imported a sports car duty-free claiming it was temporary, using a special exemption for tourists. At six months’ end, Rajendra impounded the car. The furious minister asked him “What do you think you are doing?” Rajendra answered, “Upholding the law.” We must emulate Rajendra and of Nesiah who refused to sign the blank tender recommendation demanded by his Secretary. Until we do that, we too contribute to corruption.

Can we uphold the law and take our country back? Re-establish collective integrity and rescue our future from our corrupt leaders?


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