By Sharmila Gamlath –
First I would like to congratulate HE President Maithripala Sirisena and Hon Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on their new appointments. Writing the above sentence was a surreal experience as, just like millions of fellow Sri Lankans, I am still trying to absorb the limitless euphoria associated with the triumph of democracy over autocracy, nepotism and corruption. Mr Maithripala Sirisena’s victory over Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa clearly demonstrates that no single individual, even if he is the executive president of Sri Lanka, should undermine the power of the common citizen. Finally, the people of Sri Lanka have set aside their attitude of servitude and little differences to join hands to explore what lies beyond the myths, lies and deceit they were forced to live with for years.
Now it is time for all Sri Lankans to work together to make the idyllic compassionate society which Mr Sirisena and the New Democratic Front promised a reality. As a citizen of Sri Lanka, I wholeheartedly laud the honest efforts of the New Democratic Front to make Sri Lanka a better place for us to live and bring up our children in. Nevertheless, this endeavour requires those at the forefront of this mission, mainly Mr Sirisena and Mr Wickremesinghe, to contend many dark shadows.
Primarily, there is a need to bring back decency into society as a whole. Perhaps, a good starting point would be to introduce a code of practice and ethics for those men and women we have elected to represent us at the national, provincial and local levels. I am not privy to whether such a code exists for politicians at all, but even if one does, it is probably just another buried piece of paper which is universally ignored. The need for such a code stems from the marked erosion of decency which we can evidently see among politicians in general. The inappropriate language, the blatant lies and accusations, the vilification of political opponents using personal information relating to their families, relationships and past occupations and the unruly behaviour displayed during political meetings and debates raises serious questions in the minds of intelligent citizens about whether these persons are worthy of representing us. Such behaviour on the part of politicians is a sharp reflection of a country’s pathetic state of moral development. It should be noted that politicians belonging to both camps are guilty of such behaviour, although I admit that this display of indecency by some of the opposition politicians arose due to the compelling need to adapt to the rough, uneven conditions of the playing field they had to confront during elections for quite a long time. However, a dangerous ramification is that the common people consider such behaviour to be trendy and engage in imitating these popular characters, which leads to the erosion of decency within society as a whole.
I am not trying to appropriate all the blame for this state of affairs on politicians. Such problems are intrinsically related to the education system of the country too. The quality of a country’s education system cannot be judged solely on the basis of literacy rates, mean and expected years of schooling, pass rates at national exams, performance of students in international aptitude tests or any other “hard” measures. Soft factors such as the values and beliefs the education system inculcates in children from an early age are also instrumental in generating outcomes which flow far beyond tangible development. There is clearly a lacuna in the present education system in terms of developing respect, both towards oneself as well as others, which needs to be addressed promptly, if we are to see the results, at minimum, within a decade. It is concerning that this lack of mutual respect persists in spite of the presence of religious and civic studies in the school curriculum. Hence, there is a need to embed mutual respect into the education system at all levels and in all types of interactions. At the school level this comes in the form of students respecting teachers, and teachers respecting the emotional needs of students and their parents. It also requires students at the tertiary level to respect their educators, juniors and the wider community and a reciprocity of this respect. Going further, it requires the new Minister of Higher Education to respect the self-esteem of students rather than blowing it into smithereens by having them clubbed by elderly police officers or ordering them to be chased home in humiliation in their underwear like his predecessor did. With such depraved men at the helm of the education sector, the erosion of decency within our society should not have come as a surprise really. Hence, there is a need for moral reform in education through training educators, improving students’ awareness and positive attitudinal change.
While vengeance may be taboo under a compassionate regime, justice is not. It is imperative that justice should be meted out on those who freely broke the law under the Rajapaksa regime, which was nothing but a safe haven for criminals. This includes the murderers, drug dealers, rapists and bribe-takers as well as the top brass in the state sector who misappropriated state funds, distorted values of socio-economic indicators to project the self-proclaimed king and his cronies in a positive light, manoeuvred state media in order to defame public figures and blatantly manipulated the legal system to accommodate criminal practices and strengthen the power of a tyrant. Instead of a mere commitment to good governance, anti-corruption and democracy, the government needs to send out a strong message through its actions to establish its credibility and provide answers to the questions lingering in the minds of the people who stood united to bring them to power.
Never again in history should crossing over be a means to escape justice. As voters, we have been duped by insincere politicians for far too long. Interfering with the justice system to protect corrupt politicians may strengthen the ruling party’s majority in the short run, but it will only arouse the wrath of the voter, who has the ultimate power to wield his mandate to punish such actions later on, as demonstrated by the result of the Presidential election.
Another urgent requirement is establishing respect towards women in society. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the steady loss of respect towards women over the years is a very disturbing trend indeed. The state of anarchy prevailing in the country emboldened rapists, murderers and paedophiles to engage in their atrocities freely as they had the assurance that they would be able to escape justice on the basis of political connections. Thus, it is necessary to take steps to prosecute individuals responsible for crimes against women and children without delay, and there is also a need to strengthen existing laws to ensure the protection of women and children.
The lack of respect towards women undoubtedly has an economic dimension too. Within a free market system, each individual’s economic value is determined by the marginal value of the output he or she contributes. An individual’s social status, self-esteem and decision-making power within the family unit, workplace or wider community is proportional to this economic value. Hence, as long as the opportunities for education and employment available to women are limited, they will be regarded as inferior human beings who can be freely exploited. Empowering females is thus a vital means of minimizing gender inequalities and reducing violence against women in the long run. Women belonging to low socio-economic strata in both urban and rural areas, and especially those widowed in the civil conflict, are primarily susceptible to these inequalities and their consequences. Unfortunately, The Ministry of Economic Development, headed by Mr Basil Rajapaksa, was just a convenient front to engage in state sponsored robbery in broad daylight, and did very little to uplift the lives of poor women in this country. Thankfully, these dark days are now behind us.
An efficient means of empowering women is the development of community initiatives for enterprise development, childcare and vocational training. Extant programmes are often rather ad hoc, and lack government backing. For instance, if a group of women wish to follow a course in, say weaving or horticulture, they could request other women in their community to help them with childcare and support these carers to obtain skills of their own. Upon equipping themselves with these skills, these women could embark on co-operative type enterprise which would benefit the entire village. There is also a need to extend and expand state-funded credit/microcredit schemes at low or zero interest to provide the financial backing for such initiatives instead of engaging in usury by taking advantage of their ignorance to charge them massive rates of interest. Rather than burdening NGOs and INGOs with the responsibility of enriching the lives of these women, the onus is on the government to get directly involved in spearheading such initiatives in association with local communities.
With respect to health and education, successive governments have hidden behind the mantle of free provision for long enough. Providing a poor quality service free of charge does not necessarily improve living standards of the people. As I have mentioned in a previous article in the Colombo Telegraph, (see https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/human-capital-inequality-in-sri-lanka-a-reflection/), the Rajapaksa regime’s obsession with physical capital development came at the expense of human capital development. However, human and physical capital are complementary to rather than substitutable for one another, implying that both are needed for development. Hence, there is a need to adopt a balanced approach to development, with physical and human capital development occurring hand in hand. So, as promised in President Maithripala Sirisena’s election manifesto, increased public spending on health and education and a serious review of existing infrastructure projects would be necessary to resurrect the economy’s long term growth and development potential.
Today, millions of Sri Lankans take comfort in the belief that the country is in the capable hands of a President and Prime Minister who have proven themselves, time and again, to be iconic exemplars of the ever so rare gentleman politician. Yet, deep in our hearts, we also face a sense of foreboding, due to a grim past, which is rampant with instances where politicians who we idolized and placed our trust in became corrupt and despotic. Therefore, our sincere hope is that President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will fulfil, and hopefully exceed, the expectations of the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher and all other citizens of this country who entrusted them with their future.