By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
The customary 21-gun salute associated with the ceremonial inauguration of Parliament was done away on January 3, 2020, on the instructions of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He also arrived sans the customary ceremonial horse-mounted cavalry escorts.
The country’s first non-political Head of State elected six weeks ago is taking simplicity to a new level. The Presidential decision to cancel the gun salute seems to have upset some, including Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. This writer believes several of his decisions since assuming office has struck a positive chord with many in this country. The bloated Presidential Secretariat has been reduced. The use of a smaller armed escort when traveling and banning the free use of the VIP lounge at the Airport by politicians and senior bureaucrats including himself, are some of them.
President Rajapaksa has also set another commendable trend in discarding the tie and jacket work attire seen in abundance during the last several years to a simpler and more comfortable short-sleeved bush-shirt. I state this not for misguided nationalistic reasons but for practical purposes. A tie and jacket work attire in temperatures exceeding 90 degrees F, and over 85% humidity is absolute lunacy. That said, I wish to state, a bush-shirt is not the desired attire for an official welcome ceremony during state visits, which includes the inspection of a guard of honor. Lack of decorum and etiquette when necessary reflects poorly on the whole country.
One hopes, the President’s simplicity will be emulated by new appointees to the various vacant positions. It is time to do away with long drawn ridiculous ceremonies, including religious chanting’s followed by milk rice. The new appointee’s spouse and children besides battalions of staff being present for the occasion should be done away. Other Ministers and politicians too should not waste time attending such events but engage in more productive work. In the developed and civilized west, a new Minister arrives without his kith and kin and is received by the Principal Private Secretary and Permanent Secretary. The former will acclimatize the new appointee with his office and its equipment. The latter will provide an initial briefing to be followed by a meeting with Departmental Heads of the establishment. Routine work begins immediately after that. There is no coffee and cakes to go around. Besides, the public is not inconvenienced by officials missing from their workplace attending welcome ceremonies.
Let there be a total ban in the state sector of ceremonies of assuming duties. Let it apply to cabinet ministers, state and deputy minister, Secretaries, and Chairmen of Corporations.
The Head of State has made surprise visits to the RMV’s office in Werehara and the National Hospital recently. It no doubt must be sending shivers down the spines of many. Notwithstanding his busy schedule, it would be desirable if he was to make one or two surprise visits to state institutions each month. It is bound to improve productivity and discourage staff from reporting late for work or going about their private business after marking attendance.
It is necessary to bring back the work culture and ethics once in practice in Ministries under Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa in the 1977/89 period. Upon entering his ministries, visitors would be politely received by uniformed Public Relations staff. Upon ascertaining the purpose of the visit, visitors would be directed to the relevant section. KKSs were attired in uniforms worn as they should. Front line staff, too, were smartly attired and discharged their duties speedily and efficiently. Necessary files appeared when required without bribes.
This writer visited the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) on December 6, 2019, to pay Rates for 2020. Having another appointment at 9.45 am, I arrived early at 8.45 am. I stood in the queue in one of the many Payment Counters. The cashiers due at 9 am did not arrive till 9.40 am and told the angry Ratepayers, they had been “at a meeting.” I missed my 9.45 appointment. Having settled Rates for 2020 by cheque, I was informed a formal receipt would be sent by mail within two weeks once the cheque was realized. After waiting for a month, I visited the CMC on January 7, 2020, around 9.15 am. The third person I enquired directed me to a female staff seated behind the Payment Counters. She said she had no computer and directed me to the Central Finance Dept. They would verify cheque realization and endorse the temporary acknowledgment, after which she would check if the Receipt had been issued.
Having located the relevant department with some difficulty, I found the entire section with over a dozen work stations empty. I was asked to wait as they were “at a meeting.” I returned to the original location and marched into an office occupied by an elderly lady. I explained my predicament. Before she could tell me she “had no computer,” I fired a broadside. I stated, “Janadhipathtuma RMV giya wage methentath enne one mewa hadenna.” (the President must visit this location similar to his visit to RMV to put this place right). She then escorted me to another officer with a computer seated directly opposite the first staffer. She ascertained if my cheque had been realized and directed the original staffer to issue my Receipt. She was requested to give a written directive. The Receipt was found in an old filing cabinet, which the staffer could not open and needed a male staffer to pull open. I walked out with my Receipt shortly after 10 am, wondering how long a person not gifted with a sharp tongue would have spent that day.
There are thousands of members of the public inconvenienced in this manner. This ‘meeting’ culture during public business hours must stop. Such meetings must be held between 3 pm and 4.30 pm after the end of public hours. Over to you, Mr. President.
The country is currently up in arms over contents in several voice clips. They contain recorded telephone conversations between Actor / Politician Ranjan Ramanayake and former CID chief, several judges, and a female MP once involved in a kidnapping case. Corruption in this country is endemic. A corruption-free Presidency, Legislature, and Judiciary are but a myth.
There is much hope and expectations, the President, newly minted on November 18, 2019, would be different. Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, an interesting notice from the Parliament High Posts Committee appeared in the media a couple of days ago. A retired lady Supreme Court Judge once overlooked for the post of Chief Justice during the Yahapalana regime, has been nominated as the next Ambassador to France. Some time ago, she had granted Gotabhaya Rajapaksa an interim order preventing his arrest in connection with several high-profile cases. She had subsequently recused herself from hearing his petition.
It sets a bad precedent. To the best of this writer’s knowledge, only two Supreme Court Judges have been appointed as envoys in the past. They are retired Justice Dr. HW Thambiah (a Sirimavo Bandaranaike appointee) in 1975 to Canada and Justice Nihal Jayasinghe (a Rohitha Bogallagama appointee) in 2008 to the UK.
Retiring Chief Justices and Supreme Court judges must permanently be left alone once they retire at 65 years of age.
Initially, the unhealthy practice of appointing retiring public servants after holding sensitive positions commenced with Election Commissioners. Felix Dias Abeysinghe was appointed High Commissioner to Australia in 1984. One or two other Election Commissioners followed.
It was followed by the appointment of retiring Forces Commanders and Inspector Generals of Police.
Such trends will invariably encourage officials, including judges, to execute their duties in a manner biased to the powers that be, in anticipation of post-retirement ambassadorial appointments.
That is when the rot sets in.
Another name in the High Posts Committee list of proposed envoys is that of a Los Angeles County Inspector (Linkedin) as Ambassador to the UAE. He was a former Quantity Surveyor in Oman of Shanfari fame and a Pre-School Manager in Los Angeles.
Has meritocracy begun to lose its shine?