27 October, 2020

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Suresh Shah’s Wisdom: An Eye-Opener For All Sri Lankans

By W.A Wijewardena

Dr. W.A. Wijewardena

Suresh Shah: Sri Lanka’s vast gap between the promise and the score

Mr. Suresh Shah, newly elected Chairman of the 174 year-old Ceylon Chamber of Commerce or CCC, has spoken his mind boldly and openly at the time he was installed in office for the forthcoming year at CCC’s Annual General Meeting held in Colombo last week (available here). In his brief but well-articulated installation oration, he has reiterated his deep conviction that Sri Lanka’s future prosperity is based on private sector-led growth and noted that there is a vast gap between the ‘promise of the country’ and its ‘actual score’. Hence, a lot more has to be done by the country to make it a prosperous nation. Then he had identified the four most pressing challenges which Sri Lanka is facing as a nation today. He has concluded his oration with three messages not necessarily for his colleagues at CCC but for all Sri Lankans – the need for working as ‘Team Sri Lanka’ on all issues, becoming a collaborative development partner with constructive suggestions and speaking out and not remaining silent on all national issues which if one believes will bring enormous adverse consequences to the nation. In my view, all what he has said in his oration should serve as the philosophical foundation of the programme of action to be implemented by CCC in the forthcoming year.

The four most pressing challenges of the country today

The four challenges which Shah has identified as pressing for Sri Lanka merit careful evaluation. They are the strategy to be adopted for sustainable development, how to ensure peaceful co-existence in a pluralistic society, the challenge of having good governance backed by strong institutions and not relying on individual personalities and finally the task of introducing an education system that builds persons rather than mere certificate collectors. If Sri Lanka is to meet these four challenges successfully, in my view, it needs to make a complete reversal of the policy which it is pursuing today since all that is happening in the country are contrary to what Shah has expounded.

Small economies should look outward

With respect to the economy, Shah has very correctly identified that Sri Lanka is a small economy in terms of both the population and the market size. This identification is important for Sri Lanka to make its economic choices correctly. A small economy cannot think of having large industries and at the same time continue to grow unless it opens itself to the rest of the world. Given the low income and the small size of its middle class, it cannot create wealth by selling to only itself. A case in point is Sri Lanka’s tea and garment industries. The country produces about 330 million kg of tea every year, but it drinks only about 30 million kg. The rest has to be sold to foreigners. Similarly, Sri Lanka sells to foreigners nearly everything it produces in the garment industry. Even with respect to rice of which the country is now about 85-90 per cent self sufficient, any further increase in rice production will require Sri Lanka to find foreign markets to sell the excess to avoid falls in prices making farmers bankrupt. This simple truth – that small nations have to build a viable export sector to sustain their prosperity – had been very correctly identified by Sri Lanka’s ancient kings, notably King Parakramabahu the Great who ruled the country during 1153 to 1186. When he became the ruler of Dhakshina Desha, he in fact set up the first ever recorded export processing zone called Antharanga Dhura to process export products such as elephants, ivory, gems, pearls and spices. Hence, the wisdom shown by Shah that Sri Lanka should aspire to become “an export centric nation” to make its development sustainable is not without precedence in the country’s history.

But export markets are also not without risks 

But can a country ignore its domestic market altogether? Given the uncertainties faced by export markets in the world today, what kind of a risk will Sri Lanka face if it concentrates wholly on the export markets? There are a plenty of risks. Export markets are fiercely competitive and early winners have been threatened not only by new products that have been introduced but also by new entrants who have grabbed a sizeable portion of previous safe markets. Then, there is the risk of the export industries going through difficult periods due to prolonged economic recessions in major importing countries. When, exports do not perform well as is the case in Sri Lanka today, it has a direct bearing on the sustainability of the development. Sri Lanka has had this bad experience throughout its history.

IMF: Sri Lanka’s export sector is faltering

Hence, the promotion of exports should be done not to the exclusion of the domestic market. Domestic market should serve as a buffer when the export markets do not perform well. However, ignoring exports and using all energies on domestic market promotion are not the appropriate policy strategy which Sri Lanka should follow today. As this writer has argued in previous My Views, the overemphasis placed by Sri Lanka on import substitution which authorities call import replacement and attaining economic growth based on the domestic market has resulted in the country’s failure to maintain its high growth momentum unabated for long. The issue faced by the country in this respect has been succinctly presented by IMF in its 2013 May Article IV Consultation Report on Sri Lanka. Says IMF that, “After peaking in 2000, exports have declined significantly as a share of GDP and of world exports, returning to the lows of the 1980s. Effective rates of protection have increased and the government has generally emphasized import substitution. Remittances have approximately doubled over the last five years, reflecting high growth of overseas workers, but this has been unable to compensate fully for the poor trade performance. At the same time, FDI inflows have been relatively subdued, and low by regional comparison, and consequently the current account deficit has been financed mainly through debt-creating flows” (p 18). Thus, Sri Lanka has not only lost its steam in its high growth venture but also acquired new problems like ever increasing indebtedness to foreigners.

True Buddhists should not entertain fear

Shah has in fact hit the nail on its head when he emphasised on the need for early national reconciliation policies to ensure the co-existence of all in a pluralistic society. He has very correctly identified that Sri Lanka has been blessed by the teachings of the four great religions of the world today – Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Any effective and meaningful reconciliation requires the adherents to each of these religions to recognise and appreciate the rights of others and accept them all as a part of Sri Lanka’s national fabric which is strong and nation-serving when they are together but weak and fragile when they are apart. It is not a difficult task for the followers of Sri Lanka’s main religion – the Buddhists – because that is a religion which upholds even the rights of animals. The four tenets of Buddhism, Maître or Loving Kindness, Karuna or Sympathy where one is aggrieved in the sorrows of others, Muditha or Empathy making one feels happy when one sees the happiness of others and Upeksha or Equanimity requiring one to be neutral amidst all ills and wells of the world are well-guiding principles that help all Buddhists in extending a friendly and protective hand to all minority religion followers.  Shah has said that the country’s existing diversity is something to be celebrated and not something to be feared.  But this is what has happened in the past and what is happening today. Many Sri Lanka watchers feel that the end of the war in 2009 has driven the country toward a dangerous polarisation instead of true reconciliation. The fear psychosis, evident especially in the majority group about the minority groups, is a matter which needs further elaboration so that one could find ways of ridding oneself of the same.

The Buddha: Fear comes from Greed, Hatred and Delusion

The Buddha himself has identified the source of fear in one of the discourses he delivered to Buddhist Monks who had been afflicted by fear when they went to secluded forests for meditation. In this discourse, titled Dhajagga Sutra or Discourse on the Ends of Flags, the Buddha has proclaimed that seeking refuge from God Shakra, the Lord of Heavens, when the monks are afflicted by fear is in vain because God Shakra himself is afflicted by fear. This is because he is not free from the three defilements, Lobha (Greed), Dosha (Hatred) and Moha (Delusion) which contribute to fear. Instead, the Buddha advised them that they should seek the refuge of the Buddha who has rid himself of these defilements and entered the path of Alobha (Non-greed), Adosha (Non-hatred) and Amoha (Non-Delusion). So, any Buddhist who is fearful of minority religions or minority ethnic groups should instantly look upon the Buddha’s way, namely, Alobha, Adosha and Amoha to rid himself of the fear which is an impediment for him to seek the life’s final goal. By the same token, those who express fear are those who carry those defilements in them and it is the duty of Buddha’s disciples to help them to get rid of such defilements.

Fear-afflicted societies are insane

How does such wide-spread fear affect the wellbeing of a nation? It does in a number of ways. Men in fear are unable to think clearly, focus clearly and concentrate clearly. They are irrational, fearful and emotional. That is because they live eternally in the belief that they are constantly being harmed by seen or unseen enemies. As a result, they become ideal fodder for crafty people who seek to manipulate them for their insincere goals. All they have to do is to create an enemy before their eyes. Thus, when one enemy loses his vogue, a new enemy is instantly created and supplied. There are a large number of such crafty people looking for victims around us such as politicians, religious leaders, marketers and what is known as simple do-gooders. A fear inflicted nation is driven to insanity as a whole and the manipulators love when a nation becomes insane because they can manipulate them easily. It is not necessary to emphasise that a nation driven to fear as a whole has no future. It is therefore the task of all leaders – both in politics and in business – to help the nation to rid itself of this unwarranted fear to facilitate an effective and meaningful reconciliation.

Governance is a moral and ethical code

The wellbeing of any society depends on its moral and ethical ideology that guides the system of governance which it has put in place to protect itself from abusers and violators. Shah has emphasised that Sri Lanka should have a proper governance code not based on any particular leader as we have it today but on strong institutions. This is because when governance is based on leaders it is likely to collapse when such leaders are absent. Further, if the leader abuses the governance code, then there is no protection to society. But if it is based on institutions which are permanent and have no vested interests, then, they serve to maintain proper governance codes in a society. The essential features of such governance codes are the observance of the Rule of Law and maintenance of law and order, not just to the letter but in spirit as well. To have these two prime-most requirements in place, a society should have an impartial and independent law enforcement agencies and an independent judiciary. Sri Lanka watchers allege that the country has to go a long way to fulfill these requirements.

Institutions are just collective belief systems

What are those institutions which Shah has advocated as necessary for Sri Lanka today? It appears that he has taken formal institutions – both governmental and non-governmental – to mean the institutions needed by the country. For instance, they could be an impartial police force, judiciary or bribery and corruption fighting outfits on the government side and private formal organisations like CCC, on the private sector side. This is the conventional wisdom relating to institutions. However, 1993 Nobel Laureate in Economics Douglas North has presented a different view on institutions. According to him, institutions differ from organisations. They cover the rules of the game which people in a society observe when they have interactions with other members in society. Thus, institutions consist of both the formal legal rules and informal norms that govern individual behaviour. Hence, institutions can be broadly defined as the ‘collective beliefs, values and norms’ held by people as serving the wellbeing of the society to which they belong.

Sri Lanka is strangely tolerant of crime, lying and stealing

Sri Lanka’s present institutional structure is disastrous to its future wellbeing. It tolerates lying, endorses money making through illegal means and worships the power-wielding culture that has been established. One has to drive a vehicle on any Sri Lanka’s roads to make a proper judgement of its institutional structure. In the undisciplined road usage, motorists ignoring the good road usage practices, violate traffic laws intentionally to gain undue advantage over others, while the law enforcement officers are looking the other way. That is the collective belief in the institutional structure of Sri Lanka’s roads.

Suresh Shah: Education should build a perfect man

One might feel that Shah’s ideology on education is a dream that cannot be realised. He has advocated for the reform of the educational system to make a perfect man and not just a collector of certificates. It is an education that takes Sri Lanka to a mature society which according to him should strive to build a “society that cherishes democratic ideals, meritocracy, hard work and responsibility amongst others”. If education can attain this, it invariably helps establish the strong institutions which are needed for maintaining a system of responsible governance in the country.

It is everyone’s responsibility to build perfect men

This is the ideal world which one can aspire to have. But should it be the sole responsibility of the country’s educational system? It should not be. All have to contribute to attain it, from the Head of the State to the lowest level householder. The reward and punishment systems of the country should be geared to upholding those ideals which Shah has emphasised as necessary for building a nation. Sri Lanka had this in the past and hence it should not be difficult for the country to go back to it again if it makes an honest attempt. The stories of politicians acting responsibly and in an exemplary manner are abundant in the good old days: a Prime Minister and Ministers travelling in trains with common people, a Finance Minister taking an institution under him to the task for accommodating an unlawful request by one of his children, a Prime Minister praising a school teacher for slapping her son and an instance of a leading Marxist politician apologisng to a doctor when pointed out that the said politician has just intruded into his ward outside visiting hours are some of them. These people did so not for publicity but as a part of the hard discipline they had and society too gave a high value to such discipline. These yesteryear men and women, disciplined by a strong institutional system, had been inculcated in the type of education which Shah is dreaming of nostalgically today. Regaining this lost glory is the foremost challenge facing Sri Lanka today.

Shah has a good vision. Let all Sri Lankans work together to realise that vision.

*W.A Wijewardena can be reached at  waw1949@gmail.com 

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Latest comments

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    Respect Suresh Shah, this country certainly needs a CEO, like yourself. Unlike some political lackeys who get the top post without any prior experience in the industry. We have a health minister who probably would not know his anus from his elbow to a PR minister who probably thinks beating someone is sure way of getting all the adulation. We need concrete plans that need to be put in place with short, medium and long term vision in mind. Executed to the T whichever government comes to power.

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      Thanks for this article, Dr. Wije! Great to know that Mr. Shah, a member of a threatened minority in Lanka is speaking out. The Sinhala Business community has been silent about government corruption and has quietly benefited from the Rajapassa’s Balu Sena attacks on minority business houses for too long in an UNETHICAL manner.
      The Lanka Business community has been a national DISGRACE and has not provided any LEADERSHIP in a country characterised by institutional failure due to CORRUPTION and lack of ETHICS.
      CCC has been SILENT for TOO LONG about the rotten governance in Lanka rather than educating people on doing the right thing. Its members run behind corrupt politicians for sweet deals and are as corrupt as politicians. The insider trading issues and stock market corruption is is joke! Time for the Business community to draft a CODE OF ETHICS AND CONDUCT FOR ITSELF AND FOR POLITICIANS and GOOD GOVERNANCE.

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        Shah is not a member of a “threatened minority” his father is Indian and his mother Sinhalese.

        Please check your facts before bringing the Tamil cause into everything !

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    CCC represents a representative cross section of the private sector in the country. It includes the Blue Chips and major conglomerates. Yet the impact of the these captains of industry on the policies governing the country is minimal. It would seem that they are more interested in market share and being in the good books of the govt. Some of the major companies and banks have come under the govt ambit of control using EPF and ETF funds.

    There are a handfull of go-getters who are working in collusion with the regime. These people occupy high positions in govt as well as their private sector positions. They wear two hats at the same time. Look at the Carlton Sevens list of sponsors and you can see some of these govt supporters. Helping the regime to get rich and investing regime funds seems to be a part of their portfolio. No doubt there are multiple benefits and returns from such policies. Customs regulations are not a problem for such blue eyed captains.

    There is no one to talk or expose these corrupt activities which are ruining this country. I wish good luck to Suresh Shah in fulfilling his vision. I hope the independent captains of industry will raise their voices on behalf of the country.

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      Safa, you are dead right. A friend of mine working at the Ministry of Finance once told me that his greatest amusement was to see the private sector magnates lined up to meet the Minister of Finance every time a government is changed or the Minister is changed. They have been flocking to see the Powers of the country to win favours from the government and to do so, they show the utmost loyalty to the Minister first and the regime next. They do not have, according to his observation, loyalty to the institution they represent.
      In such a situ, one can only wish good luck to Shah as you have correctly done.

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      The political economy of the RIOT is an important discussion at this time. Jealousy of minority businesses are usually the real reason for so called Ethnic Riots – as happened in 1983 against Tamils and is happening today against Muslims.

      Greedy Sinhala Buddhist traders fund the priests to preach racism and hate speech against traders of other communities – as is happening with the Boduy bala Sena or Balu Sena who are also doing Gotabaya Rajapassa’s dirty work in consoldiating the Rajapassa Military dictatorship by DIVIDING and DISTRACTING the people of Lanka from the real threat to the country which is the ENEMY WITHIN – the corrupt and criminal Rajapassa brother’s and sons who are looting the public purse..

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    The Chamber of Commerce is a dead and moribund institution, run by brain dead “leaders” of the mercantile sector. A Mercantile Sector that has done NOTHING to stand up for honesty or good governance.

    I wish Mr. Shah the best of luck in trying to perform a miracle !

    I fear another innocuous term of office with just a star on a CV, the result.

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    One of Wijewardena’s best. Suresh Shah’s speech has touched a chord with all the people who desire a change in the present manner of governance in Sri Lanka. The message is not so much to the members of the Chamber as it is to the people of this country.

    How we bring about this change is difficult to contemplate. Firstly we need to remove this government since it is not amenable to change. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s team is inefficient and corrupt, does not respect law and order or public opinion, and condones lying, cheating, and even murder from it’s members. Justice and human rights are not in their book of governance but revenge is. Despite giving leadership to winning the terrorist war, and the good effort at developing infrastructure, his lack of vision to promote an egalatarian society, and instead promoting himself with dictatorial powers disqualifies him as a true leader.

    Secondly, the people must be made aware of the wrongs of this government. In a corporate body the CEO and the Board will be sacked for inefficiency and corruption. A government can be changed only at an election and even though the people are ‘shareholders’ in the truest sense, their ability to influence a change depends on their understanding of governance and the change required, their ability to be impartial, and their political will. These are easily manipulated by wily politicians. Therefore the people need to be educated.

    Thirdly 17A must be restored and the independent commissions established. If not, elections will be rigged and the people will be denied justice.

    Fourthly, the parliamentary system need to be reviewed to ensure that the sovereignty of the people, which is supposedly exercised by parliament is not abused by the people’s representatives. The representatives need to be made responsible, accountable, and punishable for their actions and the immunity available to the Executive and the Legislature must be removed.

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