21 May, 2024


Teflon Tiran & Visa Outsourcing   

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Everything seemed quiet on the government front, bar the colours and noises of May Day politics. Then all hell broke loose one day, at the airport of all places. The old ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation) system, which everyone requiring a visa on arrival had gotten used to, was gone, and a new VFS system that no one has heard of was in place. The change apparently had been implemented following cabinet approval of a proposal by Public Security Minister Tiran Alles based on an unsolicited offer by a consortium of three foreign companies.

The unsolicited proposal that would seem to have landed in the Minister’s inbox without prior notice, in fact emanated from a consortium of three visa business enterprises: GBS Technology Services, a global visa outsourcing company, with Head Office in Singapore; IVS Global-FZCO, which is a government-authorized Indian private company that collects Personal, Educational and Commercial documents for attestation; and VFS VF Worldwide Holdings Ltd., is also an outsourcing and technology service specialist, Head-Quartered in Zurich and Dubai. Their declared enterprise is to support governments and their far-flung diplomatic missions. Outsourcing is their speciality.

The outsourcing of visa and other diplomatic services hitherto handled by government officials, began in the twilight years of the Reagan-Thatcher era when outsourcing and downsizing were political credos. Western governments tentatively began to outsource some of their diplomatic functions, especially visa processing of permanent-resident immigrants and not so much temporary tourists. The outsourcing practice took flight and in the name of cost savings different countries contracted with the same company for visa services.

Five Billion Dollar Question

Consortiums were formed to facilitate platforms that would serve multiple countries as clients. Once operational platforms are in place it becomes natural to bring in more countries as clients at marginal costs but significant profits. Soliciting new clients with unsolicited proposals is a time-tested method of business expansion. Add to that the information technology area becoming the latest terrain for making inordinate profits out of government contracting in many western countries. How, and why, Sri Lanka got caught in this IT web at this moment in its economic crisis juncture is the five-billion- dollar tourist visa question.

Minister Tiran Alles has justified the visa processing change as the government’s response to “feedback from tourists and the need for an improved visa issuance system.” And he has validated the decision-making process because it was based on “a thorough review conducted by a Cabinet-appointed committee, which sought recommendations from the Attorney General and obtained unanimous approval from the House without debate.”

Justifying a procurement decision on cabinet approval should be dismissed as a joke, given the steady erosion, over 46 years, of the administrative and financial regulations (ARs & FRs) that had guided public procurements until 1978. And what does the Attorney General have to do with this? Proffer recommendations on technology for choosing between alternative online visa processing systems? There were no competing alternative systems anyway to evaluate. Not even two. Only the unsolicited proposal. Did the Attorney General opine that it would be legal to accept the only offer? But was it the best or the most suitable to choose? We will never know.

In fairness, Minister Alles has described the process that led to obtaining cabinet approval. On 8 September 2023, the Minister submitted a Cabinet paper on the unsolicited proposal from VFS, and on his recommendation the Cabinet appointed a Committee to review the matter. The Committee included representatives from the Treasury and other officials who were in discussions with VFS officials. The Committee completed its report in December, and on 4 December, the Minister presented another proposal to the Cabinet, incorporating the committee’s report. Cabinet approval was granted on 11 December and the MoU with VFS was signed on 21 December 2023.

The Minister’s two proposals and the Committee Report that were presented to the Cabinet in September and in December are not known to the public. They should be made public along with VFS’s unsolicited proposal. Parliament has a right to ask for them for review and debate, and the Speaker has the obligation to get them tabled in parliament by the Minister. Parliament and the public also need to know who were on the Cabinet-appointed Committee, who provided input on IT matters, and who first undertook the review of the VFS offer. In a normal and well-run procurement system these are routine matters, and there is no need for such public prying. But when the process is opaque and weighted, maximum probity is needed to clean up the mess.   

There is another matter that needs to be placed in the public domain, and that is about the understanding the Minister and his co-decision-makers had on the operation of the old ETA system and its alleged shortcomings. We do not know if either of the two proposals by the Minister or the Committee Report that was sandwiched between them dealt with the operation of the ETA systems and its merits as well as shortcomings. All that we know so far are the Minister’s off-the-cuff remarks about the ETA, and the long but insubstantial supporting statement issued by the Controller General of the Immigration and Emigration Department, Mr. I.S.H.J. Ilukpitiya.   

Minister Alles has contended that the change from ETA to VFS processing was “prompted by complaints from tourists” about the ETA, and the need for “addressing long-standing issues” with it. According to the Minister, such complaints were even “directed to President Ranil Wickremesinghe during his engagements with the tourists themselves.” But this is not the assessment of anyone in the in the tourism business, nor has this been the experience of travelers in general including this writer.

The Minister of Tourism, Harin Fernando, has distanced himself from the outsourcing decision while accepting collective responsibility for it as a cabinet member. The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority has expressed relief at the revocation of the new system as its officials were concerned about it being an impediment to the industry registering two historical highs in 2024: 2.3 million tourists and USD 5 billion revenue. Quite a number of people owning private tourism businesses have also spoken out in favour of the old system.

The ETA Saga

By all accounts, the ETA system was developed by state-owned SLT-Mobitel, and Mobitel has been the IT service provider to the ETA from the time it was launched in 2012 until it was outsourced to VFS. The system began receiving text inputs only and over time it was upgraded to allow uploading of supporting e-documents by visa applicants. That is my understanding and even my experience of using ETA.

However, what both the Minister and the Controller General (CG) have identified as ETA’s main technical problem is its alleged “inability to obtain applicant’s photographs, photocopies of passports, other certificates and documents to the system online (these documents are essential for security verification).” Even if this were so, such a problem could have been fixed using expertise available in Sri Lanka. It did not require outsourcing the whole operation, like wielding an axe to crack an egg.

The Controller General has listed other drawbacks in his long statement but gives no indication whether these matters were ever taken up with Mobitel and what attempts were made to address them. According to media reports, however, “following a cabinet decision in July 2021, Mobitel was given a contract to revamp and upgrade the ETA system.” It is further reported that Mobitel did invest time and resources to upgrade the system and was waiting to roll out the new system after COVID-19. Finally, the reports say that all of a sudden Mobitel was instructed to stop work and the new VFS consortium was hired in December and began rolling out its version on April 17.

Mobitel could still help the public understanding of the matter by providing its version of the sequence of events. Hopefully, it would do so, and sooner than later. Independent of what Mobitel may or may not do, we could still pose some questions to the Minister, the Controller General, and collectively to the Cabinet of Ministers. Given the long involvement of Mobitel, as a state-owned enterprise, in providing technical support to ETA, did the Minister or his staff discuss with Mobitel VFS’s unsolicited offer and invite Mobitel to submit an alternative proposal?

Alternatively, as a state-owned enterprise with its past ETA experience, Mobitel could and should have been asked to provide an assessment of the VFS offer. At least, on the technical aspects of the offer.  On the other hand, if the VFS offer was so manifestly superior, the Minister and the government should have negotiated with VFS to agree to an arrangement, or contract, which could have included a local technology partner – most suitably Mobitel. Unlike in a tender situation, in dealing with an unsolicited proposal the government has all the flexibility and the power to ask for and get whatever it wants – but only in the public interest, not for private graft. I don’t think any of this was done.

Nor was the simple practice of vetting the unsolicited proposal (USP) was done. That would have meant the government, or the Ministry, reviewing the proposal and preparing its own Terms of Reference that would include a brief assessment of the USP and the government’s specific requirements that VFS should commit to deliver if the project or contract were to ahead. Again, none of this was done. Otherwise, the Minister would have said so and more. The rigorous level at which the USP was reviewed and accepted, likely without any change, can be gleaned from the statement of the Controller General that includes quite a laundry list of the merits of the USP. One of them really stands out. And that is about tourism promotion.   

Indeed, the obvious inability of Mobitel to promote Sri Lankan tourism abroad has been cited as one of its shortcomings and a reason for its sacking. On the other hand, VFS Global was touted for its “ability to promote the tourism industry of Sri Lanka in such countries (ability to get increased the number of tourist visits) because it has “an experienced base in obtaining services in 151 countries.” Why should a visa processing agency be tasked with promoting tourism? Did the Minister or the Controller ask for references from any of the 151 countries to confirm the tourism promoting credentials of VFS Global? And since when did promoting tourism become a mandate for the Controller General of Immigration?

What is the deal?

At the centre of the visa controversy is Tiran Alles, the Public Security Minister. The Daily Financial Times devoted a day’s editorial to him on Wednesday, May 8, entitled, “Tiran Alles – the quintessential deal maker.” It recounts much of what is known about the man and his many deals. His first known deal making success in the 2005 Presidential Election is the single most political act to cost a presidential candidate an otherwise sure victory. The loser was Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the winner of course was Mahinda Rajapaksa, the sole beneficiary of Tiran Alless’s alleged deal with the LTTE.

Yet here we are almost twenty years later, after the Rajapaksa era had come and gone, and Tiran Alles is a key minister in the caretaker administration of President Ranil Wickremesinghe. It would be no exaggeration to say that Mr. Alles is the most powerful minister in the Wickremesinghe cabinet, next to the President of course. Not infrequently, despite the President. Minister Alles got his man to be the IGP against all protests by everyone and despite loud demurring by the President. He recently signalled police to use their weapons to get rid of criminals. Shades of former Filipino President Rodrigo Roa Duterte. The Bar Association protested, but nothing happened. It made news but only in English and not the Sinhalese press, according to Daily FT.

It would not be unreasonable to say that no other Minister in the current cabinet has the power and the persistence to change the visa system the way Minister Alles did. But Minister Alles’s influence would seem to extend beyond the cabinet and even the government. Amidst all the opposition protests in parliament, the NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake would seem to have remained quiet. Maybe he was not in parliament and was in one of overseas travels. But I have not heard him weigh in on the visa matter. I would not have noticed the omission but for the allusion in the Daily FT editorial to the NPP’s silence on the matter, and its loaded question: What is the deal between the NPP and Tiran Alles? The NPP could simply answer this question by asking Minister Alles all the other questions that everyone else is asking.

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Latest comments

  • 11

    Will Ranil have the mettle to sack Tiran Alles …… after all, he is the one who made him lose to Mahinda in 2005?

    Or is Ranil one of DTG’s good Buddhist Christians …….. who forgives sinners/enemies?

    What would Lanka be, if there was no Ranil?

    Better or worse?

    There are times when all the world’s asleep
    The questions run too deep
    For such a simple man
    Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned?
    I know it sounds absurd
    Please tell me what Ranil has done for the country?

    • 10

      I know what he has done for himself …… that’s easy-peasy
      But for the country? ….. People?

    • 6

      nimal fernando

      “Will Ranil have the mettle to sack Tiran Alles …… after all, he is the one who made him lose to Mahinda in 2005?”

      Tiran along with others including Mahinda, Basil, Gota, …… should be serving sentences for aiding abetting and financing terrorists.

      Excerpt from:

      Tiran Alles And Emil Kanthan Faces Charges For Financing LTTE

      “Former Parliamentarian Tiran Alles and ex-LTTEer Emil Kanthan are to be indicted over the massive financial fraud at the Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA).”

      Do you believe self confessed (a video was hosted on youtube under the title – Mahinda Rajapaksa gave money to LTTE-Tiran 25 Jan 2010, now been removed) Tiran could have the cake and eat it?
      Do you believe the files relating to Tiran/Emil are intact and safe somewhere in the police archive?

      Why didn’t Sirisena, Mahinda, Gota, Basil, Ranil, …… and the honest functionaries (most of them are career b***s carriers of the crooks do anything about it and protectors of the state the Mahasangha are unusually keeping silent on this immoral, illegal, ….. transaction?

      Did you out of affection for Velupillai help Tiran to initially cover it up or let Ranil do it for you?

      • 5

        “Did you out of affection for Velupillai”

        I’ve no affection for anyone, Native ……. not even for myself!

        In my rare brief lucid moments ……. I’ve a little affection for the truth: noting more.

        You’re still a prepubescent young child …….. you’ve a lot to learn about the world!! :)))

      • 0

        NV: Thanks for that video link. I have commented on that.

        Give it a little time. This case will be opened up as soon as the NPP Government is established.

        We have very strong evidence produced by Thiran himself through a “Media” briefing stating how he (Thiran) made all arrangements for Emil Kanthan and Basil R to meet in his office to hand over that money.

        Be certain we will not leave this “Vagabond” (Rasthiyadu Karaya) to escape that easily. It is a promise to open up that case.

    • 5

      “Or is Ranil one of DTG’s good Buddhist Christians?”
      I don’t know about that, but Tiran definitely is. His father was Ralph Ignatius Thomas Alles. Such a devoutly Christian name.

    • 1

      A history of shady deals has no bearing on appointments to positions of great national importance – not in Sri Lanka anyway .

    • 2

      “Will Ranil have the mettle to sack Tiran Alles “
      You underestimate Ranil’s maneuvering capacity. This is a guy who won’t engage in open confrontation.
      He did nothing while Keheliya took commissions. Keheheliya got caught and RW still does nothing.
      RW neither worshipped or condemned Gnanasara. But the man is in jail.
      Maithripala, anyone?

  • 5

    “Given the long involvement of Mobitel, as a state-owned enterprise, in providing technical support to ETA,”
    Neither Mobitel or its parent SLT are “state‐owned”.
    The two main shareholders of SLT are the Government of Sri Lanka which hold 49.5 per cent stake in SLT through the Secretary to the Treasury and Malaysia’s Global Telecommunication Holdings (GTH N.V.) which owns a stake of 44.98 per cent. The balance shares are publicly traded on the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE).
    There is only one locally-owned telco, Lanka Bell.
    VFS has, for many years, been handling visa applications from Sri Lankans wishing to travel to Australia, Europe, Canada, etc. It does charge big money, but the service is better than when the embassies themselves handled it. The unruly visa queues outside embassies are gone now.
    However, what is still not clear is why VFS needs to operate immigration counters at the airport. As far as I am aware, this doesn’t happen in any other country, and is totally unnecessary.

    • 5

      old codger

      “….what is still not clear is why VFS needs to operate immigration counters at the airport. “

      I am sorry to say it is precisely because of parochial nationalists such as the one (Kumar……..) who created the incident at Katunayake airport.
      When you have 6.9 million like him, foreigners have 6.9 million reasons to grope the women folks and nothing could be done about it. Is that fellow going to contest the next parliamentary elections?

      By the way he works in Thailand while he objects to foreigners working or running businesses in Sri Lanka. Hypocrisy knows no bound.

      We should consider him as leadership material.

    • 0

      Are not US visas still handled at the embassy? Very polite and efficient service, I understand. My only visit was 15 years ago.
      The advantage with the VFS is that people do not jump queues and try to influence
      they stopped handling UK visas here and got it done in Chennai and now Delhi.
      the staff are polite and helpful, except the man at the gate, occasionally.
      VFS does little more than to check if the necessary paperwork is there and provide some formal services. Computerising appointments is a good thing, although one can jump the queue for processing by paying a big extra sum to the embassy concerned.

      • 1

        Yes, the US embassy here still handles visas. VFS is a glorified version of the guys who set up shop outside the Passport Office, with cameras and photocopiers, to fill your documents for you. Even VFS offers “luxury service” for a higher fee.

  • 6

    “Will Ranil have the mettle to sack Tiran Alles …… after all, he is the one who made him lose to Mahinda in 2005?””

    “After a protracted investigation, the Attorney General indicted Pillayan (who was 3rd accused) in October 2017 with six other persons in the High Court of Batticaloa for offences committed under Sections 32, 102, 113[b], 140 and 146 of the Penal Code read with Section 2[1][a] , 2[i] and 3[b] of the Prevention of Terrorism [Temporary Provisions] Act No. 48 of 1979 as amended by Act No. 10 of 1982 and Act No. 22 of 1988 in connection with the killing of former Member of Parliament for Batticaloa District Joseph Pararajasingham. “

    Who is the Prime Minister: Ranil Wickremasingha?

    “On January 11, 2021 Deputy Solicitor -General Madhawa Tennakoon informed the Batticaloa High Court that the Attorney-General would not be proceeding with the case. It was a foregone conclusion after the invalidation of the “confessions”.Following this Batticaloa High Court Judge D.S. Soosaithasan acquitted all the accused including Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan on January 13, 2021.”
    Who is the President: Gotabaya Rajapaksa

    Pilliyan is now a Minister under President Ranil.
    Tiran Alles is now a minister under President Ranil.

    Does anyone see any difference between Ranil and Gota?

    • 3

      “Does anyone see any difference between Ranil and Gota?”
      People only see what they choose to see.

  • 8

    Why does not the JVP attack Alles the police Minister ?

    Are they really different to other Sri Lankans ?

    Are they capable ? Are they truly honest ?

    Only time will tell

  • 2

    I remember trying to use the ETA system and failing due to some issues with their website . So I can understand the need to do something better. but giving it to a different company is understandable. but to take the already high 50$ visa fee to 110 ? is crazy. I suppose they are not aware that countries are competing to get as many tourists as possible . Such as Thailand and Vietnam and many other places. in fact I just read a story that Vietnam is seeing a loss of tourists due Thailand making visas free for some countries. and Sri Lanka lets a company charge a 100% Fee on top of their Visa fee which goes to a Dubai based company ?

    I read somewhere the carrot was that this company will invest 200 million dollars ? That sounds like a fairly tale.

    I agree with the need to fix these government company websites. any one had a look at Bank of Ceylon website. it seems like it was designed in the last century . but seriously this ?

  • 6

    It’s Ranil’s fault for making Tiran a minister. Ranil knows well that Tiran was the agent who took Mahinda’s bribes to Prabaharan to block the Tamils from voting. Appointing such a “traitor” as a minister is a major error. Ranil has to take the full blame for

  • 4

    It’s Ranil’s fault for making Tiran a minister. Ranil knows well that Tiran was the agent who took Mahinda’s bribes to Prabaharan to block the Tamils from voting. Appointing such a “traitor” as a minister is a major error. Ranil has to take the full blame. At least now Ranil must remove Tiran from his post.

  • 10

    Were it not for that young person who staged a protest at the airport, no one in the country, including the Media would have noticed this “Shady Deal” instituted by the rouge MP – Thiran Alles.

    That HERO was one Sandaru Kumarasinghe, a graduate in Legal Studies from the Colombo University. He has his own business in the hospitality industry and dates a girl from a foreign country. He is a National Hero who staged a protest against these types of shady deals by the Ministers and all other higher bureaucracy. But to our Minister of Public Security, that young hero is a “VAGABOND” a “RASTHIYADU KARAYA” – that is how Minister Thiran Alles described him at a Media briefing.

    Let me ask this Minister: Are you, not equal or worse “Vagabond” who got involved (recommended to the President) to appoint a Police Officer to the post of IGP who was found guilty of Human Rights violations and was ordered to pay compensation with his own money. The Supreme Court found him to have ordered to apply “Siddalape” (an ayurvedic medication) in the private parts of a person held in police custody and thrashed him with a wire belt. Are you a “Minister” of a Cabinet? Shame on you, and so unfortunate to have your type to be in charge of our security.

  • 1

    Thiran Alles: Thank you for reading my comment and giving me a “Thumbs Down”. At the time of writing this only “ONE” thumbs down and that is how I suspected you to be the one who read my comment.

    OR could he/she be of the same type as you? Cap is for anyone of that type to wear it.

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