By Lacille De Silva (Ceylon Today)
Theme cartoons added by TW from Ceylon Today itself
At the time that we received our independence, the founding fathers, who were engaged in politics, had been mostly respected, wealthy, educated people par excellence. Among them were politicians of the calibre of C.W.W. Kannangara, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, and Sir Razeek Fareed. It’s hence unfortunate that after the 1970s the flood-gates were opened to everyone to run for political office. Was it because there was no minimum standard of educational qualification set as a qualifying benchmark for one to seek political office? Minister Rajitha Senaratne, responding to a journalist at a media briefing said that there was no need to have an academic record to prove one’s competence to choose politics as a career.
It is our duty to bring to the knowledge of Sri Lankans at home and abroad that there once was a decidedly better Sri Lanka decades ago. Shouldn’t we commit ourselves then to restore our motherland to the status quo of old ? We should also change the modus operandi by electing people who have the passion to serve the country with integrity and intellectual honesty as our representatives, who are skilled in the art and science of government and who could minimize bribery, corruption, white collar thievery, brazen impunity and abuse of officialdom.
It is the common belief that our politicians of today are a self-serving, dishonest, incompetent and unscrupulous breed. Political leaders too don’t look elsewhere for more suitable persons to be nominated by their parties for election to political office. We now need elected representatives who could respect their political opponents and their constituents better, and with the ability to see beyond the next election, to lay the foundation for the country’s future success – even if it means taking unpopular decisions. There’s the truism that “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice”.
There is no gainsaying the fact that in a society corrupt to the core, only few – the conniving and the powerful – continue to enrich themselves. The poor become poorer. To the contrary, in law-abiding western countries, all who work hard and are disciplined can always make it to the top. It is unfortunate that in Sri Lanka, the youth are distraught, insecure and disgruntled.
They are unable to realistically plan for their future. They blame our politicians defining them as a bunch of unpatriotic, morally bankrupt sycophants who continue to enrich themselves at the country’s expense, having dragged the once prosperous nation to her knees, ridicule and humiliation.
The present politicians and public servants also think it is fashionable to lie, make false declarations, present false statistics, pass the buck, when it comes to their legitimate functions including public policy and public debate. The high levels of dishonesty in politics and lying are most worrying because this is all done under protection of parliamentary privilege. Politicians lie when it comes to taxation. They impose all the sorts of taxes including VAT and spend that tax revenue on luxury vehicles etc. They are not as careful with tax-payers’ money as they are with their own money. All this puts the country years backward in development.
The enormous wastage and pilferage of State revenue harnessed from inflated costs, organized kick-backs, and transfer of public funds and resources goes on by diverting them into their own pockets, political party accounts etc. All of this is being continued under the present government too.People therefore continue to complain about the lack of ethics, transparency, integrity and unprofessional behaviour in both elected political leaders and career public servants.
It is important we elect representatives who work long hours, with the passion to make the changes which are essential to take the country forward. We need representatives who can consider addressing issues to do with social justice, health, education, welfare, air and water pollution, traffic congestion, industrial development, employment generation, transport etc all of which have been created by flawed planning.
We need an army of politicians and a slew of administrators with a commitment deep enough to make them seriously shoulder their responsibilities to take the country forward, addressing problems such as malnourishment , education, health etc. Senior politicians must not seek the spotlight at the expense of junior politicians without justification. Professor C. Wright Mills contends that it is the political elite that influences, the thoughts, the feelings and the actions of virtually every citizen. Winston Churchill observed that “there has never been so many manipulated so much by so few”.
Over the past many decades there has been a steady increase in the problems faced by the common man. The civil war which lasted several decades caused severe social and economic dislocation, damage to private and State property besides other negatives. We have experienced two insurgencies by youth demanding social justice, economic reforms, employment etc. The country also suffered immense losses through the tsunami, floods, earth-slips etc which left huge swaths of populations destitute and a badly tattered economy.
Despite all of this, our elected representatives are still oblivious to the fact that they have a herculean task before them to turn the country around. The Prime Minister himself has said that 43 per cent of the population earn less than two US dollars a day, which underscores the extent of extreme poverty that continues to grow at an alarming rate.
A senior diplomat told me that he was unable to believe the evidence of the extent of the crises caused by politicians who drive about in Mercedes Benz, Jaguar, Volvo, Prado, Montero and similar super luxury vehicles. This was especially evident at the Independence Day celebrations. He added that the huge amounts of money wasted on importing such vehicles could have been put to more productive purposes, such as education. He also pointed out that wasting our already scarce resources to satisfy the hedonistic desires of our politicians at the expense of the neglected poor was reprehensible. Such wastage only tends to send out the wrong signals to the people that it does not pay to be honest, hard-working and law-abiding. He added that people in other countries would come out very strongly against their politicians should they too fritter away tax payers’ money in that fashion. Dr. Abdul Kalam, former Indian President, was a shining example to politicians the world over. Dr. Kalam had said that “Government money is the people’s money. Don’t waste. It is destructive” and “The country doesn’t deserve anything less than successes from us, let us aim for success”.
In Australia, last month, the media, a proactive civil society and other activists brought intense pressure on Malcolm Turnbull’s government urging action against the former Minister of Health, Susanne LeySusanne Ley, who had purchased a luxury property in May 2015, for Australian Dollars 800,000 with beach frontage, having travelled to Queensland on ministerial business, accompanied by her partner. The trip alone had cost $3,125 -paid for by taxpayers’ money.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) too took up the position that “she has got to explain how, purchasing a luxury property was done while on an official tour with her partner and if she cannot come up with a plausible explanation, she should resign”. The Opposition too supported the claim that Ley had been among the highest claimants for reimbursement of travelling costs to the Gold Coast ostensibly on official business during that period and had spent more than $105,000 for air travel and $11,800 for land travel.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a government owned entity, supported by civil society activists and other print and electronic media institutions, launched scathing attacks on the issue which eventually forced Susanne Ley to relinquish her portfolio. Could this happen in Sri Lanka? Would the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) OR Independent Television Network (ITN) adopt such an independent stance on a similar issue against a corrupt minister in Sri Lanka ? Why shouldn’t we agitate for a total media freedom for SLRC and ITN as in Australia? It is also pertinent to mention that hundreds of thousands of Romanians took to the streets last week to prevent attempts by the government to introduce new laws to decriminalize offences in cases where financial losses involved sums less than $48,000 so that the problem of overcrowding of prisons could be eased.
Romania’s people who carried out these vociferous protests for five continuous days won their struggle and hailed the victory of ‘people’s power’, after the government was forced to withdraw the provisions. Romania is a country where Adrian Nagase, a former Prime Minister, had been jailed in 2012 for corruption. Victor Ponta, former Prime Minister, too had been forced to resign in 2015 for alleged corruption. Furthermore, the Romanian Government had joined the European Union in 2007, subject to the condition that the governments would ensure strict enforcement of the rule of law. It was, however, encouraging that Romanian President Johannis also joined the protestors and finally won the struggle because the government had announced that the laws would be rescinded.
It would be ideal if we could take the public sector to what it was under the Soulbury Constitution, to open it up and make it more transparent, with a totally independent Public Service Commission, with a cost effective, efficient, independent public administration network, together with an independent Judiciary. We also need to re-create a democratic Westminster-type political system and a strong provincial administration with more meaningful powers – the people’s power. Let me add that we shouldn’t forget that the public sector plays a critical role in taking the country forward. We should therefore urgently consider transforming the culture and modernize the practices so that a high-performing, flexible, forward-looking, relevant, resilient public sector could be created in an increasingly volatile domestic and global business environment– because these reforms aren’t about theory or ideology, they are all about people’s lives.