By Harendra de Silva –
Everyone is talking about a ‘system change’! What is it? Do most people know what it means? How can it be achieved? Sri Lankans have not been happy with whatever system of governance they have been through for least almost 70 years! We have been deceived with utopias and fear-mongering by most of our leaders. Why are we so naïve to expect an automatic change from often selfish, self-serving, uneducated or unprofessional leaders whose only objective is power?
Throughout history, almost all leaders from Capitalists to Nationalists, Trotskyites to Communists, promised a ‘system change’. However, most used “populist strategies” to deceive us. What is Populism?, let us learn a new term that many do not understand: “POPULISM is a political approach that strives to appeal to MAJORITY ordinary people, who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established ELITE groups” (Wiki). Populists create insecurity by illusions of deception by envisaging invasions by the West or by neighbours (e.g., American Imperialism, Indian expansionism, or Islamist (ISIS) take over etc.). They can also create a real insecure situation to confirm insecurity (e.g., Easter bomb attack). Populists then offer security. (For financial insecurity promises of jobs, salary increases, car permits, and the ‘peopolisation’ of private institutions were/are assured) We love these promises including car permits or free internet, Google, Note pads or bracelets. Contrary to the Wikipedia definition of populism; in 2019, a new target group was added by offering an exemption from tax that attracted the middle class and upper class which complemented the votes of the masses who were already converted by the ISIS phobia! The Rich, Professionals and the middle class then become potential personal beneficiaries in this populist strategy, without realizing the burden on the development and governance of the country! The majority population was thus made into blind followers of a magic pipe-wielding pied piper, paradoxical to the real pied piper story where those who survived were the blind and the deaf!
The first lesson in a system change is to educate the common man about what ‘populist strategies’ are! This education will make us recognize populism the moment a politician; capitalist or Marxist promises the future. (https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/spending-infrastructure-must-benefit-all-khaw)
In history initially, we expected the Sinhala-only/racism and a closed economy / anti-elite and Western, peopolisation/ Marxism etc. to work! In the next phase in the late 70s, we expected a change with an open economy. Although we improved economically, unfortunately, it had an agenda of establishing an executive, dictatorial Presidency, which precipitated the insurgencies in the North and South that continued through different governments but covertly justified consolidation of executive and fiscal power together with militarization for their own safety.
In 2015 We had a glimpse of hope with the emergence of the slogan “good governance”. Unfortunately, most members of parliament in government did not want to do away with impunity, or be transparent or accountable (the primary essences of Good Governance!) For some, it was a romantic notion, not knowing its meaning. The biggest issue was the President who was made paranoid by a PM who wanted to dictate terms by proxy! Finally, today, rule by proxy rather than by mandate has become a reality!
Good Governance in a ‘nutshell’ (excerpted from: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/good-governance-the-dirty-word-dissected-out-from-the-micro-to-the-macro-level/ )
Without going into all the details let us consider the main concepts of Transparency, Rule of the Law (lack of Impunity), Accountability and Monitoring without which governance cannot function. Governance is not complicated; most would acknowledge the familiarity and say “this is obvious stuff, what is he trying to tell us?” Unfortunately, although we all know it, we don’t practice it! We always want others to follow good governance either at the top or at the bottom, but not us! Without prolonging the discussion, I will try to illustrate the process in practice from the pinnacle to the roots with a single and simple example that is most relevant today.
Petroleum purchases by the Ministry has to have its own good governance protocol such as the ‘rule of the law’ in calling tenders. (According to the ‘book’), have open tenders and not closed tenders; In other words, ensure transparency. Opening the tenders is supposed to be according to the rule of law (Procedure) again ensuring transparency. It should be evaluated for price, quality (example the constituents of gas, purity and adulteration etc.). by a panel of independent experts who have no conflicts of interests! Does it happen that way or to the whims and fancies of the Minister and authorities? Therefore, although the system change, we seek, good governance is already in place in the AR (Administrative Regulations and the FR (Financial Regulations) to a great extent. However, the implementation has been eroded over so many decades of poor governance.
A few weeks ago, we were exasperated to listen to COPE inquiries! What was exposed was the corruption by the top and the next level of authorities such as Chairmen, Boards and other executives. Would these officials allow good governance to take root? Wouldn’t their conflicts of interest be uprooted with a system change? The existing regulations of proper transparent tender procedures, external audits (like COPE), and making people accountable are adequate. Unfortunately, although COPE did an excellent job of exposing irregularities, it is a fact-finding exercise, rather than an accountable process, whereby it paralyses the accountability process of culprits in governance!
The recent exposure of exorbitant and fraudulent overtime payments has opened another can of worms, unpleasant to many! It would not have been possible if principles of governance were used. It benefitted most people at all levels. What has been exposed is only the tip of the iceberg, since it involves most government workers, including medical personnel and SOE employees. Although the principles of monitoring, rule of the law, and transparency are already existent to prevent corruption, it is the non-implementation of these principles that has caused corruption by both the claimants and approving hierarchy. (i.e., you and me). Do we need a paradigm shift in changing systems or simply implement rules that are already existent?
Going back to our topic, adulteration of fuels including domestic gas occurs at all levels including browser truck drivers and shed owners, leading to substandard fuels detrimental to vehicles that open another dilemma of cost to individuals as well as the country! If there was proper monitoring, implementation of the rule of the law and people made accountable at all levels, none of this would happen. Shed owners meanwhile may manipulate meters or attendants give wrong change and or expect bribes. The absence of rule of the law (impunity) at this lower level enables police the custodians of rule of the law, and three-wheeler drivers to stock fuel in order to sell in the black market often at 4 times the actual price. Don’t we justify or even contribute to this corruption when it happens at a lower level or when it benefits us? If you buy fuel at a black-market rate; you also become a partner in crime! You would justify it as an essential thing for your survival and also justify the poor hoarder’s plight to survive! After all, aren’t we justifying corruption but ironically still insist on a system change!
In the meantime, the overall impact of blatant impunity and poor governance of transparency and accountability of fossil fuel purchase and distribution is much wider than we think! It has also brought in a new National preoccupation of overcoming and queues becoming a matter of fact! The man hours lost, reduction in production, impunity and justification of not turning up for work will not get us the dollars we seek but get further sucked into the blackhole.
The new ‘queue culture’ of drinking, gambling, and violence including murder are aspects that affect governance at another level of society and family. This is the next level of governance!
The “Aragalaya” started with the cry to do away with corruption! Unfortunately, it was confined to a ‘go home’ concept without plans A or B!. It was a credible and a commendable initiative, which was soured by persons with conflict of interest including pro government infiltration! Should the non-violent initiative withdraw now? Probably not! Plan B has to happen. Not necessarily in the same venue but using other strategies. However, non-violence should be the bottom-line.
We are now faced with the issue of accountability to the violence, arson and theft during the “Occupation” by some youth! The two sides offer opposite justifications for action on one hand and non-accountability on the other! The pro-government elements equal it to the occupation of the Capitol Building in the US, while gesticulating the US Ambassador’s Tweet on non-violence against protestors! On the other hand, the pro Aragalaya lobby is questioning the non-prosecution of corrupt ministers and administrators as well as the inaction on the accountability of the Easter bomb investigation as opposed to minor offences of the youth! We all know the fundamental principle of impartiality before the law and its applicability. Therefore, accountability to whatever offence by whoever, should be applicable equally. Unfortunately, during the 70 years of regressive governance and the introduction of executive presidency has led to a dictatorial governance in which the president and their cronies and/or relatives have become relatively unaccountable. Dictatorial regimes often make everyone else accountable other than themselves! To which I once coined the phrase “Unaccountable accountability”, in my public lectures. Executive powers together with the erosion of independence in the appointment of police officers and judiciary, complements the effects of each other! One of the important components of good governance is non existence of conflict of interests. If an officers’ promotion is dependent on the executive, then influencing prosecutions/ judgements are theoretically possible because of conflict of interest. Conflict of interest leads to nepotism, cronyism, ignorance of meritocracy, and obviously immunity to corruption. Therefore, in the system change towards good governance, one of the most critical demands should be to eliminate the executive powers in appointment of “implementors of justice”.
The main objectives of professionals and responsible citizens including sincere lawmakers would be first to understand these concepts and educate the common man on these two questions: We all should understand that accountability applies not only to the top but also us!
* What are populist policies? Be able to recognize it especially when coming from politicians wanting to grab power.
* What is Good Governance? Including all its’ components and to be mindful in its implementation from top to bottom of the population.
*Prof. Harendra de Silva – Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics, Founder Chairman NCPA, Senior Ashoka Fellow