State sector appointments; ‘old wine in new bottles’| Lanka’s “neutral” diplomacy

Sunday Times Editorials

It was just too good to be true. The Presidential announcement that a committee would select the ‘right man or woman for the right job’ was, no doubt, taken with a pinch of salt by those who had heard this refrain before.

The previous Government, in fact, said about the same thing when it took office back in 2015. It said state sector top jobs would be selected on a ‘”scientific basis”. The highfalutin pronouncement came crashing down not long after it was made when the Ports Minister appointed his unqualified brother as Ports Authority chairman. The floodgates opened for similar appointments to other state institutions.

Now, after initially making some seemingly non-political appointments, this Government, too, has gone the way of its predecessors. This committee vetting applications and making appointments after asking gullible citizens to submit their CVs and apply for posts, has become another cruel joke and in the process become the butt of humour on the one side, and blistering criticism on the other, especially on social media.

The pressure on politicians to appoint their supporters, their financial backers and even their kith and kin to Government posts is understandable, to a point. This is more so in economically poorer countries, though not exclusively limited to them. There is the added ego trip involved in holding a ‘top Government job’, or ‘going as an ambassador’.

A politician in office would rather have a faithful loyalist even at the expense of efficiency and suitability because the appointee could be depended upon to do the bidding of the politician — right or wrong. It can be annoying for a political leader to be told “no, it cannot be done” or that some request is against the law.

The entire issue of Government officials carrying out illegal orders of the politicians surfaced during the tenure of the former Administration. Regrettably, a senior administrator got scapegoated for this and it sent a chill down the spine of the public service. They didn’t know how to, or how not to react to the diktats of their political masters.

In the past, a strong PSC (Public Service Commission) was capable of defending the interests of officialdom.  Politicians in turn respected the PSC. With the growth of the state sector within the confines of the economy and numerous corporations and state-financed ventures mushrooming — almost every one of them running at a loss — politicians used these to pack them with their choice of men and women.

There was hardly any ‘scouting’ around for the great and the good. Not only was the workforce in these state enterprises filled to over-capacity, but their directorates comprised largely incompetent misfits who might well have performed reasonably efficiently in some other venture, except that the Minister in charge of that subject had to fulfil the demands of his own relatives and constituents.

This ‘hire-and fire’ approach of politicians through the years is not limited to the domestic front. The recent recall of the country’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom with no official reason trotted out by anyone sends the wrong signals to what is a professional service.

Moves to de-politicise at least the Foreign Service have been short-lived. The eventual result is that the age-old saying that a “career” diplomat must be one who is a “carrier” of the politicians’ bags, seems to hold true even today.  It need not be so. How the Indian Foreign Service is treated by its politicians of whatever hue is worthy of emulation. Professionalism is given priority with political appointments having to be justified to the country, not based on the pure whim and fancy of the political masters of the day.

The formula for good governance is usually simple if the basic rules are followed. What is difficult is to keep it simple.

Lanka’s “neutral” diplomacy

Four senior leaders from four major powers including two Foreign Ministers descended on Colombo this week. It was a rare event. Somehow it seemed to give meaning to the expression that Non-alignment has been the “golden thread that runs through the fabric” of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.

The visits of the Foreign Ministers of Russia and China were shrouded in a veil of secrecy. The Japanese state minister came earlier in the week, but the visit of a US bureaucrat from the State Department seemed to be a virtual smoke-screen for the presence of a Deputy Assistant to President Donald Trump who is also senior Director at the White House and the US National Security Council, who seems to have led the delegation when meeting President Rajapaksa.

These visits, apart from the sheer coincidence of the timing, cannot signify nothing. Why they have been downplayed is anybody’s guess. Maybe there was nothing deliberate in it, and the host Government was not up to it to play these visits up. But it ended almost like when ambassadors accredited to this country are called up on one given day to present their credentials to the President of the Republic.

Yet there was nothing ceremonial about these visits. They were aimed to ‘touch base’ with the new dispensation in Sri Lanka. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa continues with his practice of meeting these foreign leaders without officials, and without note-takers. These are not mere courtesy calls after all, and Sri Lanka’s position during these talks does not make it to the public domain. Nor will it be available for the ‘institutional memory’ and the preservation of date for future reference.

It was only from the media releases of the Ministry of Foreign Relations that the public got to know at least of the usual sanitised version of the talks that were held between the Russian and Chinese Foreign Ministers and their Sri Lankan counterpart.

Furthermore, neither did the Chinese nor Russian Ministers meet the Leader of the Opposition. This is the usual protocol and courtesy in a democratic Sri Lanka. Not a whimper of protest has emanated from the Opposition over the snub to the Leader of the Opposition. The US officials managed to get a word in sideways just before they emplaned, meeting the media at the airport.