By Niranjan Rambukwella –
“Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine.”
This was Lee Kuan Yew breaking up a Singapore Airlines strike in 1980. His tactics were unconventional. But they were effective. He threatened to shut the airline down and in 65 minutes the pilots relented.
Ranil Wickremesinghe needs to show that he has that iron in him. What does that look like? Let’s start with SriLankan Airlines. First, convict. Thanks to the Weliamuna Report we know the corrupt officials. But enough with inquiries. Start criminal proceedings. If criminal proceedings aren’t possible, start civil ones. If the police and AGs department are too busy, hire ex-policemen, private investigators and lawyers. If there aren’t enough in Sri Lanka, bring them down. If the police can’t secure evidence, offer plea bargains and rewards to find it, If the courts are taking too long set-up trials-at-bar. No excuses, just get the job done.
Second, deliver. Solve the problem. Sell the airline or fix it. If neither are possible, close it. People don’t really give a damn as long as its done decisively. And in any case they won’t remember – unless the problem persists. Presidents, ministers and board members pointing fingers at each other needs to end. No more left hand thwarting what the right does. Collective responsibility needs to prevail for policy. But a single individual must be responsible for operations. The buck must stop with one person. And that person must have authority to act. But remember, problems can’t be solved by cronies. Create a culture of performance. Find the best man for the job, and give her what she needs to take it and get it done. If that means bring in ministry secretaries from outside, then do it.
Third, communicate. Less lectures and more talking. Get on Rupavahini and speak to us. A few minutes a day is enough. Explain your decisions, tell us what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Speak with one voice. When the whole government speaks in union, the people listen. And they believe. If the whole government tells people they can have Sri Lankan Airlines or 5000 rupees in their bank account next year what do you think they will choose?
This is how Lee Kuan Yew governed Singapore. He started by convicting the corrupt in his own party. He brought the right people in. There were promoted if they delivered, punished if they failed. As long as it was within the law, he did whatever it took to get the job done. No orthodoxy or tradition stood in the way of results. This is well known. But what is often forgotten is that he communicated day and night. He vigorously defended his policy in simple idiom using the people’s own tongue – in the process learning Mandarin, Malay, Hokkien and Hakka.
Sri Lanka and Ranil share a common fate. We grab defeat from the jaws of victory. We do too little, too late. As a result, some say that Sri Lanka is at a crossroads and always will be. I can’t believe them. There are yet enough who have iron in them. And don’t forget that in 2002, and December 2014, Ranil too counted in that number. Even at this late hour, we can build on the solid legislative reforms and new political culture of the last three years. Ranil, bring back that iron. A few convictions, a competent cabinet bound by collective responsibility, a meritocratic culture of performance imposed from the top and ceaseless communication might just turn the tide.