By Ravindra Galhena –
Last year on January 8th, people of this country did take an important decision at the Presidential Election. This decision was reaffirmed by the subsequently held General Election. It was an ardent loud and clear call against corruption, bribery, waste, nepotism and other social evils. The collective message was that the country’s political landscape should be changed for better!
I was one of the people who supported and voted for the change. In my personal capacity, I also did canvass and convince people to cast their vote against the then incumbent regime and the corrupt politicians. Definitely, this was not out of malice, but it was a must at the time, for the best interest of my country!
After the change, I wrote my very first article on politics (I have written many articles but those were based on my professional expertise) to the ‘Sunday Observer’ of February 15, 2015 and it was entitled: ‘Wiping out terrorism, feather in Rajapaksa’s cap’. In my view, this title did not go with its content (you too might agree with me if you read it), but it was an executive decision, made by the editor at the time, to serve his defeated political master further!
Through this article, I constructively (my hope at least) criticised President Mahinda Rajapaksa for his undemocratic moves, short-sighted vision and decisions, personal agenda which were simply unbecoming of his position that put the country in the doldrums.
That being said, we the Sri Lankans have now given a clear mandate to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to bring the country back on the right track sooner rather than later. This entails conceptualising a long-lasting vision that will take Sri Lanka through the 21st century in a sustainable way.
However, President Sirisena, Premier Wickremesinghe and their government have been bequeathed an uphill task of setting their house in order. As they are now about 17 months into the task, it would be interesting to examine the progress or the lack of it, the country so far has seen, and the new direction the government is practically taking.
In the said context, it is my intention to ponder on the following in this article; (not listed in any particular order)
People’s right to accurate information
Let me make my premise to the discussion with a personal observation. As a citizen of this country, what I have been experiencing last several months is only the noise and clutter. In my view, this gives confusing messages and the government has not paid enough attention to keep its citizens reasonably informed! In other words, the people are not quite sure of the direction or progress the country has been really making to which they have a fundamental right. This shortcoming is becoming increasingly noticeable as the days go by as expectations of masses from the ‘Yahapalanaya’ (good governance) government are quite high!
Wild media freedom
I believe the media freedom that the country is now bestowed upon is one of the reasons for the said issue. Some media organisations report irresponsibly and play havoc. This is quite apparent if one reads the same news through different channels – some media personnel tend to twist matters, either to serve their masters or due to some other agenda. I begin to think that Sri Lanka’s media is not yet mature to enjoy the level of freedom and autonomy that has now been given them. Hence, it is the responsibility of the government to form some interim mechanism to bring a balance between people, who have a right to know the correct news, and the freedom of media (until we really learn the media freedom!). The media houses must be made aware that freedom of expression is not a licence for wilful misconduct!
The Central Bank bond Issue and the connected confused state of affairs
This controversy began more than a year ago. Some quarters alleged that the Governor of the Central Bank was directly responsible for some irregularities that are said to have taken place with a bond issue and the governor should be removed from office. However, I myself am not aware of what has really taken place, so are many of the public. I believe that the majority would agree with me if I said that people have a right to know what had really happened in the bond issue. But, the general public is kept in the dark, to be honest, and I am not sure whether the authorities are hiding the truth here. Why didn’t they hold a proper inquiry? The government should take this sort of issues seriously if they really want to win the hearts of the general public!
The current state of nepotism and the inner circle
One of the principal criticisms the United National Front (UNF) and President Sirisena had against the Rajapaksa administration was the fact, that the Rajapaksa administration even brought the pets of their households to hold responsible positions in the country! They never checked the suitability of those appointees, loyalty to the Rajapaksas being the only criterion required. I can recollect Dr. Gladys Jayewardene (sister-in-law of President Jayewardene) becoming the chairperson of the Pharmaceutical Corporation during the Jayewardene administration, but that appointment could be fully justified, in my opinion, given her professional suitability to hold that position.
Unfortunately these people who openly criticized the Rajapaksa Administration for nepotism and the operation of inner circle, seem to have now resorted to the same practice when they brought their unsuitable friends and family to the system. This is a gross dereliction on their word, and the country is now beginning to see their true colours! In my view, this is a black patch on the Sirisena administration!
Bringing wrongdoers to justice
One of the big election promises was to bring the wrongdoers, who robbed the country in a big way by various means, to justice. I quite agree that the ‘Yahapalanaya’ cannot operate a kangaroo court to punish people and we witnessed cruelty in this area a few years ago. However, there should be some mechanism in place to expedite the delivery of this promise! If need be, the government should establish a new judicial process (a proper one) to hear these cases. The process seems to be too slow at present. However, certain cases may take some time and the time-bar could be a concern. Also, there should be a solid permanent system to bring the suspects of the incumbent government too to justice, if any. The notion of ‘no one is above the law’ must be upheld at all costs!
As promised during the elections by the current rulers, the suspects should be taken to task irrespective of their positions or the connections they have with the hierarchy – no favourites allowed!
Winning the international – Approbation
No doubt, this is an area the present government is doing well with. Before January last year, as a country, we were doomed on the international front. Our real international relations was just limited to a few nations and most of them were in an isolated corner in the big picture! Throwing President Rajapaksa out of power in itself was a blessing and opened a window for Sri Lanka to get into the good books with the entire world. The recent G7 invitation extended to President Sirisena and the reception he received from those political leaders showed the extent of goodwill Sri Lanka has now earned. The severe pressure that mounted due to the action of the United Nations and other global bodies has eased (but could be at a cost) and Sri Lanka has already sorted out some of the adverse international issues. In economic terms, Sri Lanka has now successfully renegotiated the European Union fish ban that was imposed on the country (personally, I am a vegetarian and against killing!). The GSP-Plus (Generalised System of Preferences) facility also is being renegotiated with the European Union. In general, the world is ready to help us in our forward march and this is a positive sign.
Environment, deforestation and sustainability
This is a complex issue in my view; the protection of the environment is not a choice but a must. Our lives should be led in a sustainable way to protect the environment. Some argue that the developed world should be held more responsible for the environmental damage. That could well be the case, but we cannot just shake off our bit of the responsibility, and we should do our utmost for the environment genuinely. I have observed a lot of criticism against the government for deforestation (Wilpattu), but I have no personal knowledge. Is the government doing enough to take control of the alleged situation or be honest with the public about the exact situation? My answer is it does not.
Plants breathe IN the poisonous carbon dioxide we puff out, and they breathe OUT the precious oxygen that we need for our very life. People are part of nature and they are supposed to be kind to other elements of the environment for their own good!
The above account covers only some of the main challenges. There are so many other issues that should be addressed and taken control of. However, the challenges will never go away, the system should be made stronger to face them.
The way forward
The Sirisena administration must deliver the goods and win the hearts of the people. As mentioned before, it is a difficult journey. We now hear, the actual debt of the country running to the tune of several US$ billions. Irrespective of what has happened in the past, we must service the debt. This involves getting the government revenue increased, but the inflation levels should not go up. At the same time the country should progress with its numerous welfare and development projects.
Country’s affairs should be professionally managed. As a country, we can afford no mistakes anymore. Unfortunately, we do have many limitations with our elected politicians and do not seem to have any alternative to this in the short to medium term. This is the downside of democracy!
But, the authorities could bring professionalism to the system through the officials they select. The first steps of this process is to appoint professionally qualified personnel, who could think outside-of-the-box (creative and rational thinking), with proven track records to hold strategic government positions. This is not sufficient; they must be empowered to make decisions with transparency and accountability. At the moment, there is a lot of room for improvement in this area! It would be prudent to revisit our administrative service (SLAS) & the like and see the revival they would need. Are SLAS and other similar services still good enough for the 21st century or out-dated? We must be a vibrant nation to win the world and this involves avoiding complacencies and inefficiencies of all types. Also, we should grow both as individuals and society (as a collective)
Appointment of various commissions was a forward step to make our institutions more democratic, strong and professional. We should mature with these institutions; they would perhaps require adjustments to make their intended purposes more effective.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka does not have proper national policies in place. Usually they change according to the whims and fancies of the party in power. Among many pieces of legislature we must enact, Sri Lanka would need a well-thought out, solid, modern and long-lasting national policy for education, health, social welfare, transportation (all modes) and other key areas.
The government sector jobs should be designed only with a proper need analysis. They should not be dumping-grounds just to keep people on a payroll for political mileage. The creation of unwarranted government sector jobs has been a contributory factor for the colossal national debt which gets in our way badly. These positions should have win/win outcomes for the benefit of all stakeholders!
It is my opinion that one term of parliament (five years) is not sufficient to see tangible results from the Sirisena & Wickremasinghe led government. This team would at least require another parliament. Hence, the delivery of election promises is a must to get re-elected for another term. The biggest asset of a country is its people, so they should be well looked after, groomed, given proper education, disseminated with proper and correct information for the forward march of the nation.
Once Lee Kuan Yew observed; “The ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society to establish conditions which improve the standard of living for the majority of its people”. We must uphold this notion.
I have watched quite a few TV interviews President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have given in the last one year or so. They seem to have many good plans to improve the quality of people’s lives. If they can be implemented, well and good, but I am not so sure of the capability of the machinery and other resources in place for the implementation at present. To be honest, I still believe the system is yet to attract capable people from a wider circle – it is still the friends and family more or less, unfortunately. The government must understand the fact that there are so many capable, visionary, upright Sri Lankan professionals who do not loaf their time in politicians’ corridors! No doubt, most of them are willing to help rebuild the nation and there should be a genuine effort to rope them in. The government would certainly need a breath of fresh air for furtherance!
Hope and pray, the situation will improve sooner rather than later. With regard to the development work, most of us would like quality more than just quantity – doing one thing well would be much better than carrying out two things badly!
Also, I do not believe a country could be made super clean – let us be realistic – human weaknesses and mistakes would be there forever. Can things be ever measured in absolute terms in life? We should weigh and value results on a relative basis. However, our people now certainly want to see a better Sri Lanka on all fronts and this is the challenge presented to the authorities.
Hope, at least, senior politicians are aware of their task. The mandate they have been given is very clear. Let us observe how well they would perform to bring prosperity to the country in the coming months.
*Writer is a Maritime Consultant who has lived, worked, studied and researched in the UK for 12 year