By Rajitha Ratwatte
There is an old joke that goes around regularly about Sri Lankans’ in hell. How absolutely no guards are needed to keep Lankans in hell because they do a very good job of pulling each other down into hell when anyone even looks like they will escape. When you extrapolate that into real life in the Pearl, the examples are plenty. All of us have personal experiences of neighbours, peers, relations and even our bosses “cutting us” as the popular phrase goes. It is mostly those who either realise and watch out for these pitfalls or those who clearly identify a powerful figure to “bum suck” for want of a better word that display pure unadulterated sycophancy to, that “progress” to propagate these trends in the future. This I believe is something that is triggered by the basest of all human emotions, jealousy, and probably egged on by a sense of insecurity as well.
One would expect that in a nation of devout Buddhists such reprehensible behaviour would be addressed and controlled. Alas it is not to be and looks like it never will be.
It is rather disconcerting to observe that this behaviour is ‘going strong’ among the Lankan community in this the land of the “long White Cloud” as well. The more I live here and mix with the community, the more I hear about people who try to start new projects or give fruition to new and possibly brilliant schemes who have been stymied by fellow citizens born in the Pearl. They indulge in the anonymous letter method (that dates back from time immemorial) made even easier by using false identities, and “one-off” e mail addresses on the web. They inform all government authorities of what they believe are attempts to break the law of their adopted country. If there are bilateral trade agreements, they diligently contact the other parties and try to cast aspersions on the people concerned. They even inform the management of any company that these people with the new ideas may be working at, that their employee may be breaking a sub clause in his contract and thinking of doing some other business while working for them. All triggered by a wonderful sense of self-righteousness from people who don’t think twice about breaking the law when it concerns their own affairs!
As a result, those who have had a measure of success, guard their positions very carefully and a few who have tried to include other Lankans in their operations have learned hard lessons from those who stole their trade secrets and started rival businesses on their own. I daresay this happens in other communities too, but among the Chinese and Indian communities that form similar minorities in Aotearoa, there are official networks formed to help new immigrants. There are schemes and methods in place to help their people do business, especially in the field of imports, to try and reach some sort of equilibrium with regard to the balance of trade between Aotearoa and their home countries. Sri Lanka imports so much milk from New Zealand but almost nothing of our spices, gems and jewellery, tourism products or even our tea that used to have a much larger share of the market, are imported.
In these desperate economic times, shouldn’t the government be looking at ways to improve our export trade? There are so many pockets and communities of Lankans in so many different countries who are doing well enough to be able to afford some luxuries from their home countries but have to pay exorbitant prices or do without. A recent import of ‘sweet meats’ for Sinhala New Year saw such a massive offtake that great plans for expansion were disrupted by Covid-19, before the Lankan rivals could put paid to it. Although such plans were in place!
Something that is rather obvious to those observing the antics in the Pearl from outside is that there seems to be no plan. Innovative thinking, especially in the field of ‘non-traditional’ exports does not exist. We have all seen how fickle tourism is. Using our fertile soil and the artistic skills of our people to build a reputation for quality exports has been totally neglected in recent times. I daresay the relevant ministries and export bodies exist, but it is a well-known fact that they simply serve as JOBS for political catchers, who do nothing except enjoy a foreign junket or two every year on account of the taxpayer.
That brilliant marketing idea of the Ceylon Tea Centers was so far ahead of its time that no one really understood it. We had the best retail locations in some of the greatest cities in Europe and the UK and were building up a great reputation for serving quality tea and promoting our cuisine. It should have been expanded to handle handicraft products on the lines of Laksala and even spices. Of course, promoting our culture, hospitality and tourism would have followed. There are two ways to handle a crisis. We can either put up our shutters and slide deeper and deeper into the mire of debt and economic ruin, or take some bold steps, make innovative investments and take a gamble on products and ideas that are endemic to our country.
Even if the latter method fails the end result couldn’t be much worse! Go down fighting I say! Rather than ask expatriates to come back and try to work in a totally corrupt and politician dominated society, approach expatriates with ideas in other countries and back them to promote those ideas if they show real economic benefits to our land. Not everything will work but even a 5% success rate is better than nothing at all.
It is also acknowledged that RANIL has been reappointed as leader of the UNP. Now then, what does this mean? Is it that the Uncle-Nephew party has stuck to tradition or does it mean that at least some people have realized that an experienced politician with world recognition and a certain amount of credibility in the first world, is useful to have around? Search your minds all you critics who blamed absolutely everything on Ranil. Have a dispassionate look at the Muppets in parliament and think for yourself what sort of account they would give of themselves on the world stage. After you do this, place Ranil on the world stage next to those morons and realize for yourself the DIFFERENCE!
From Jungle To International Five-Star
CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY
Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
Prime Minister’s Village Re-awakening
I first met Ranasinghe Premadasa, the ninth prime minister of Sri Lanka, in 1981. He was a unique man loved by many supporters and hated by many critics. At that time, I was at the John Keells head office as the Manager – Operations of their hotel management and marketing services company. We also managed Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister and his family. Managing Temple Trees was a demanding contract.
I visited Temple Trees occasionally to support Fazal Izzadeen, a manager whom I transferred from Hotel Swanee to be in charge of the Temple Trees operation. Given the personal friendship my boss, Bobby Adams had with the Prime Minister, the Director – Operation had to be personally involved in managing this prestigious property. A perfectionist, Mr. Premadasa did not tolerate any sub-standard quality in maintenance, upkeep and cleanliness. Fazal did a great job in keeping the second family of Sri Lanka content with the services we provided, and more importantly, off our backs.
Unlike any of his predecessors, Ranasinghe Premadasa came from a family of modest means. Politically a self-made man, he was the first ‘commoner’ to become Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, breaking a 30-year tradition of the top leadership of the country being controlled by the high caste aristocracy coming from affluent families. Educated in a Christian missionary college in Colombo, Mr. Premadasa initially opted for a career as a journalist. He was a prolific writer and an electrifying orator in Sinhala. He had been keenly interested in neighbourhood welfare affairs since his youth. He became increasingly involved in municipal politics, initially as a member of the leftist, Ceylon Labour Party which led to his election to the Colombo Municipal Council at a young age of 26.
One day in early 1986, Bobby Adams entrusted a special duty to me. He called to say, “the Honourable Prime Minister will be staying at the Village, Habarana for five days, while he is busy with the 1986 Gam Udawa (Village Re-awakening) project in nearby Hingurakgoda. As I cannot be there this time, please look after him and his team of 50, including the security detail.”
Between 1979 and until his gruesome assassination by a suicide bomber while organizing a May Day demonstration in 1993, when he was the President of Sri Lanka, Mr. Premadasa led 15 annual Gam Udawa projects in different districts in rural Sri Lanka. The festivals were part of a massive, public housing and development program envisioned by him. The festivals were implemented with great efficiency, for the benefit of poor villagers, and predominantly in Sinhala Buddhist areas. Gam Udawa helped consolidate state ideologies at a time when its political and moral authority was being challenged by insurrectionary and separatist groups.
As the General Manager of the Lodge and the Village, hosting the Prime Minister for five-days was an interesting assignment. It enabled me to see the different facets of a unique personality of our times. Our team did the outdoor catering whenever the Prime Minister went to Hingurakgoda to see the progress of the project. At times, he was ruthless in dealing with the government engineers, project managers and private contractors.
He had no patience for project delays and inefficiencies. Nor did he hesitate to take senior bureaucrats to task, in public, in the presence of their subordinates. Quoting one of his idols, Jawaharlal Nehru (the first Prime Minister of India, whose autobiography was translated into Sinhala by Premadasa), he emphasised that, “I am only interested in work done and not in excuses!”
During the evening at the Village, the Prime Minister was in a more relaxed mood, and I saw a different side of his personality. At times he played football with the resort staff. He was athletic and fit. He had his dinner around 6:00 pm and then walked with our management team on the bund of the Habarana tank. His loyal and influential valet, Mohideen walked behind him with a radio playing Buddhist pirith chanting.
One early evening, during our walk, the Prime Minister looked at my wife who was pregnant, and asked her, “Did you have your dinner?” When she replied that we eat around 9:00 pm, the Prime Minister was unhappy. “In your condition, you should ideally be eating five hours before bed time.” he lectured her.Mr. Premadasa was a hard-working man who commenced his day around 4:00 am. After his early breakfast (usually string hoppers made with healthy, kurakkan (millet) and red rice flour, he would call the cabinet ministers and senior officials. They all knew his early routine and had gotten used to getting up very early to respond to the boss’s calls.
Mr. Premadasa was a big fan of the Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew and his tough leadership style. He often spoke fondly about how effectively Lee Kuan Yew had developed Singapore to an unprecedented advanced level from a previously poor country which only obtained independence 14 years after Ceylon.On the last day of his visit, we were all waiting by the helipad of the Village Habarana to bid farewell to the Prime Minister. At 8:00 am sharp, he left his suite and said his goodbyes to managers and staff waiting in a long greeting line, before getting into an Air Force helicopter piloted by a squadron leader.
Mr. Premadasa was very observant. He paused for a moment and looking unhappy, picked a small, dry leaf from the floor of the helicopter. He then placed that leaf in the palm of the pilot without uttering a word. There was pin drop silence until the helicopter took off. “That’s something Lee Kuan Yew would have done too!” one of our managers told me.
My New Best Friend
From February 1, 1986, with the birth of our son, Marlon, my life changed. Our apartment in Habarana was Marlon’s first home. After my daily, lunch management meeting at the Village, I dropped in at our apartment to spend time with him. After playing a little, we both usually fell asleep for a short nap. When he started talking, Marlon commenced calling me his best friend.
In the later years, Marlon travelled to many countries with us and lived and studied in Iraq, United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, Guyana, Jamaica and Canada. He also lived in Vietnam for five years as a corporate executive of a large company. When he was in his mid-teens, I prompted him to pursue a career in hospitality, but he declined, saying that, “Thaththi, I never want to work as hard as you do in hotels!” Marlon was correct – hoteliering is certainly a demanding career, which often requires long hours of work, while sacrificing family life.
I was saddened to hear that the Chairman of the John Keells Group, Mark Bostock had decided to retire. He had led the company for over 17 years, since 1969. Under his remarkable leadership, the John Keells Group evolved from a traditional company focusing on commodity and share broking to become the largest and most diverse group of companies in Sri Lanka. Today, John Keells Holdings, PLC (JKH) is Sri Lanka’s largest, listed conglomerate on the Colombo Stock Exchange. It is also the undisputed leader of the tourism and hospitality industries in the country.
Having been associated with the group’s chairman since 1972, initially through rugby football and then as a hotel manager, I was an admirer of Mark Bostock. I was extremely grateful to him for fully sponsoring my first overseas trip and training in London in 1979. In 1980 when I got married, Mark Bostock was an attesting witness. My personal friendship with him continued in 1984 when my family was invited to visit his family in their home in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent, for an overnight stay. Later in 1985, he supported re-hiring me to John Keells to manage their two largest hotels (The Lodge and The Village) as the General Manager.
An emotional farewell to a visionary leader
During his last visit to Habarana as the Chairman, he kindly accepted my invitation for Mrs. Bostock and him to plant a tree and address the employees. He shared his vision for the future, and said that, “My Deputy Chairman, David Blackler will certainly continue our good work, as the new Chairman. We have developed a strong team of Sri Lankan directors, who will take the company to a new level,” he assured.
Unfortunately, my first meeting with the new Chairman did not go well. David Blackler, who was also a Britisher like Mark Bostock, wanted some changes done immediately. He also told me that spending time as the President of two trade associations was a waste of time in my busy schedule. I was unhappy, but did not comment as I realized that with leadership change, emphasis may change. Managers need to go with the flow.
Being the General Manager of the Habarana Resort Complex was a rewarding job, but it was not overly challenging. I enjoyed the opportunity to do new things, develop an amazing team and the free rein that I had been given, up to that point. Yet, it was not fully aligned with my mid-term career plan, which was to gain five-star international management experience. I decided to keep my options as well as, my eyes open. The last memo/letter Mark Bostock sent me was motivating and I was very touched with his kind words.
Last memo/letter to me from Mark Bostock
Mr. Steffan Pfeiffer, the General Manager of the 500-room five-star hotel, Galadari Meridien called me with another offer. It was the third time he was offering me a job in this hotel managed by the hotel company owned by Air France. “Chandana, after working here for three years, Meridien is transferring me as the General Manager of their hotel in Hong Kong. All other senior managers will continue, except four managers from one division – Food and Beverage, are leaving. I have identified you as the new lead for this division.” Steffan was trying to motivate me to make a career move.
Due to the popularity of nine food and beverage outlets and large banqueting facilities, the Food and Beverage Division of Galadari Meridian was generating over half the total revenue of the hotel. The offer was for me to be accountable for 230 employees including three expatriate managers, working in 13 departments, including kitchens.
The Food and Beverage Division of a large five-star hotel usually has four senior managers – Food & Beverage Manager, Executive Chef, Assistant Food & Beverage Manager, and the Banquet Manager. Two Frenchmen, who were the Food & Beverage Manager/Executive Assistant Manager and Executive Chef in the hotel opening team had left as well as the other two, who were senior Lankan hoteliers were about to leave Sri Lanka.
Steffan Pfeiffer offered me the opportunity to take over, and to re-organize the Food and Beverage Division. “I have recruited an excellent French Executive Chef to report to you. That is Chef Emile Castillo, who worked with me at Hotel Lanka Oberoi. You have a full control to fill the other two senior vacancies,” he explained. “I need you to meet the new Acting General Manager coming from the Meridien head office in Paris – Mr. Jean-Michel Varichon.”
“We will take you as the Acting Food & Beverage Manager and be confirmed in the position after six months, or once you have impressed the new General Manager, which I am sure that you will.” I agreed to join the Galadari Meridian on the day when Jean-Michel Varichon and Chef Emile Castillo were arriving – June 16, 1986. Steffan Pfeiffer said that he would work with me for two weeks prior to leaving for Hong Kong. I decided to leave John Keells to pursue a career with an international five-star hotel business.
On my last day at the Lodge and the Village, I decided to do something different. I had initiated many new things, but was not sure how the 18 managers in my teams viewed those. I developed a one-page questionnaire listing 12 general aspects of leadership and 18 other aspects we had initiated in 1985 and 1986. I requested the managers not to write their names on the questionnaires.
When I tabulated the results, I was happy to note that my team gave full marks for five elements – Planning, Delegation, Sales Promotion, Leadership Training and Statistical Analysis. The other side of the coin was that I was given poor marks for initiatives such as: Job Descriptions, Best Worker Awards, and surprisingly, the Management Trainee Program. Since 1986, every time I changed my job, I requested written feedback from the teams I managed.
Good Bye from the Lodge Team
David Blackler was surprised that I would leave the position of the General Manager of two of the best local hotels in the country to join a five-star hotel as an Acting Divisional Manager. Some of my friends were also surprised that I would leave the largest group of companies in the country, which was considered a great employer. At times, one has to follow the heart for career progress.
Over the next three years, until his retirement from John Keells in 1989, as a regular lunch customer of Colombo Club (one of the nine food and beverage outlets of Galadari Meridien), Mr David Blackler became very friendly with me. He often discussed my innovative initiatives at Galadari Meridien, especially when I mastered the art of show biz productions to increase hotel profits.
Progress with Le Meridien
Exciting new challenges awaiting me in Colombo…
Within six months of joining, I was confirmed as the Food & Beverage Manager of Galadari Meridien (from 1987, Le Meridien), and another six months later I was promoted Director of Food & Beverage, a job title unique at that time for any Lankan hotelier.
Le Meridien was very generous in developing my international hotel management career. During my two stints with them in 1980s and in 1990s, Le Meridien invested time and funds to send me as a Management Observer to their five-star hotels in Singapore, Changi Airport, Paris, Tours, London, Guadalupe, New Orleans, Toronto, and Dubai (the last two, on quality assurance mystery shopper assignments). They also sponsored my business management education with Institut International Meridien in France, where they developed promising divisional heads to become expatriate General Managers of five-star Le Meridien hotels.
In 1997, after gaining years of experience in managing seven hotels for different companies, I was chosen to convert the largest and the best hotel in the capital city of Jamaica, as Le Meridien Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. My team worked hard with the union to make this hotel become the first hotel in Americas to earn the ISO 9002 certification. In that rewarding assignment, on my request, the company sent two of Le Meridien experts to assist me with the opening – Jean-Michel Varichon from Paris and Chef Emile Castillo from New York. Small world!
In 1997, at the soft opening of Le Meridien Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. (L to R) Paddy Mitchell – MD of Le Meridien North America, John Issa – Chairman of Jamaica Pegasus Limited & SuperClubs, and P. J. Patterson – Prime Minister of Jamaica, listening to my welcome remarks.I will briefly narrate some related ‘fun’ stories in the future episodes of this column.
Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena
has been an Executive Chef, Food & Beverage Director, Hotel GM, MD, VP, President, Chairman, Professor, Dean, Leadership Coach and Consultant. He has published 22 text books. This weekly column narrates ‘fun’ stories from his 50-year career in South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, South America, the Caribbean and North America, and his travels to 98 countries and assignments in 44 countries.
Young Sri Lankans need to be up front; two such examples
“Templeton Freedom Award has been won by Advocata Institute Sri Lanka. The CEO is our Dhana. It is with great pride I send this message to you to celebrate our dear friend Dhananath’s leadership victory of Advocata. Horekale and St Sebastian’s College man has really shown class.”
That was Elmo Jayawardena’s email to me since I had written earlier in this column about Dhananath Fernando. Not one mention of him, Elmo, being a most effective mentor to the successful young man. In fact he phoned me later to insist Razeen Sally had been the most helpful. Elmo ended with his usual wish, or prophecy, of blue skies.
Capt Elmo J deserves acknowledgment and praise as he encouraged and enthused Dhananath, met when CandleAid started swimming lessons for the young including the blind, and Dhananath volunteered to help. It was Elmo who insisted on the importance of good English skills and introduced him to Prof Razeen Sally, Founder with Swedish Frederick Erixon the world economy think tank based in Brussels in 2006; and to Murtaza Jafferjee, co-founder of the Sri Lanka Institute. Dhananath took it on from there, followed a degree in Economics, in addition to his bioscience degree, diligently worked at his English and is now CEO of Advocata, Sri Lanka.
The Templeton Prize is an annual award granted to a living person, in the estimate of the judges, ‘whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.’
Sir John inaugurated the prize in 1972, funded by his Foundation. Originally the prize went to persons within religion – Mother Teresa was first winner – but in the 1980s it broadened to include people working at the intersection of science and religion. The monetary value is adjusted so it exceeds that of a Nobel Prize, which prizes Tenpleton thought ignored spirituality. In 2019 it was pounds sterling 1.1 million and had been presented each year by Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace.
This year Dhananath Fernando received it personally in New York at the Atlas Network Freedom Dinner and received one million dollars “to accelerate Advocata’s impactful efforts to guide the island nation out of a tragic economic crisis, which threatens the lives, livelihood and human dignity of millions of Sri Lankans.”
Dhananath was in New York concluding his visit on the Eisenhower Fellowship he won earlier. His acceptance speech was in flawless English and pronunciation, introducing just the correct proportion of simplicity, humour and gratitude along with the sincere promise and determination to fulfill the aims and objectives inherent in winning the prize.
Absolutely touching was Dhananath saying the tie he had on was the one he wore on his wedding day. He wore it on this red letter day as a tribute to his wife and helpmate who unfortunately was unable to be with him as she was not granted a visa to visit the USA. Here is evident a sharp contrast: the respect or rather disrespect the world justifiably has for Sri Lanka whose leaders have brought it down to bankruptcy by corruption and excessive spending of state funds as against determined and national minded achievers such as Dhananath.
The objective of this article
This article is about the youth of our country. Dhananath has been written about as he is a beacon among our youth and epitomizes great determination and effort, and national mindedness with humanness.
We have had our youth coming forwards, first in candle-lit protests, then at the Aragalaya. They succeeded to a considerable measure to wipe out anti-democratic policies of the government in thrusting out of power a couple of leaders of the Nation – two Rajapaksa brothers included. They sent shivers of apprehension down big wigs’ spines. Very unfortunately the effective peaceful protest at Gotagama was first invaded by marauders emerging from Temple Trees after being hosted by the then PM – Mahinda R. Then came infiltration by militant elements who crashed into vital state buildings. Thus my insistence, when I speak praiseworthily of the youth of this Nation I do NOT include Wasantha Mudalige and the monk with him, nor militant members of the IUSF and the JVP and its break away militant group led by a Gunaratnam.
I give you now an opinion expressed by a Sri Lankan living in New York who, with his wife, met Dhananath Fernando and were very impressed by him. He wrote an email to Dhananath, which I was privy to and quote a part below:
“The pleasure of meeting you was definitely more on our side. It was very encouraging to see people like yourself represent the future leaders of our beautiful motherland. I only hope you are allowed the chance to make the positive difference that you can, overcoming the self-interests and kleptocratic tendencies of those in power. It takes a special intellect to keep your feet on the ground while raising your head above the clouds to see things with clarity. You certainly have that. Develop upon it as all agents of positive change in the world need to have a core that is grounded in good.”
Fulsome, deserved praise; advice too. He wrote to another person living in Colombo from which I quote:
“Dhana embodies someone who had put in much effort into building himself be it improving his educational skills, and then being sufficiently humble and diligent to follow his mentors’ advice to make himself the polished individual he is, who can go toe-to-toe with anyone from the West.”
He mentioned another diligent young man: Sanmuganathan Prasanthan who has created a thriving web development business in SL. “When he started he was an O Level dropout who had to work in a ‘bothal kade’ to help support his family. He taught himself web coding and when I needed someone, he stepped up and delivered exceptional quality, trust and hard work that made him an instant millionaire by serving our business. However, this has not changed him one bit. He is now married, has two children, and a thriving business aside from what he does with us. He is, however, still the humble, dependable, trustworthy partner.”
Knowing I was writing this week about the youth of this country and needless to mention, our hope for the future, this person I quoted gave me some tips which I decided were well worth sharing.
“Today’s Sri Lankan young have grown up in a culture where they see wealth being created by taking ‘a piece from a stream of revenue’ be it a commission on a government deal, or a percentage of a private sale. The example of creating value, building something excellent and world class is missing.
“This is what the youth need to aim at gaining so they succeed: A hard skill, the humility to know what you need to develop, the diligence to always deliver value for whatever you are paid for, and never lose sight of the fact that unless you constantly strive to be the best, there will always be someone better than you.”
I add here that the young of our country must most definitely stop stretching begging hands out; stop protesting on each and every issue; give up the idea the government that gave them free education must also give them jobs. Most of them do not subscribe to the dignity of labour and ask for well paying desk jobs.
I needs must add that the President’s speech, threat really, in Parliament, as reported in TV news on Wednesday, November 23, was provocative and will be ill received by young persons who protest on genuine issues that are neglected or ignored by the present government. Threatening with army force of suppression is the worst move at this point. The youth of this country MUST be given their due place and permitted to criticize, even protest, and come in taking over responsibilities that they surely will fulfill without corruption, nepotism and all those evils of the previous two governments.
After me, no deluge! President sitting pretty after passing budget
by Rajan Philips
Ranil Wickremesinghe is the third President to sequester the finance portfolio instead of assigning it as an exclusive portfolio to a cabinet minister, but he is the first, perhaps after Ronnie de Mel, to prepare and author most or the entirety of the budget speech. He is also the first leader of a political party with only a single listed MP in parliament, to not only present a budget in parliament but also have it passed quite comfortably. In passing the Second Reading of the Budget with 121 MPs voting for and 37 against, parliament reverted to nearly the same division (134-82) it showed when it elected Ranil Wickremesinghe as President on July 20. The President now seems to be well positioned to assemble different majorities in parliament for different purposes.
The majorities for his election and now his budget are based mainly on the support of SLPP MPs acting in solidarity with the Rajapaksa family. The same pattern was seen for the vote on the Emergency Resolution (120-63) and the passage of the Petroleum Products Amendment Bill (77-17), two votes which were marked by disappointingly large absentees (41 and 134) – mostly from the Opposition.
On the other hand, there was rousing support for the passage of the 21st Amendment – 179 for, only one against, and the rest being overseas or no shows. The division on 21A involved the punishing isolation of the Rajapaksas, especially Basil Rajapaksa whose apparent efforts to call the shots from the US were spurned by his own MPs including some family members. Basil returned on Sunday (Nov. 20th) and may have had a hand in securing the majority on Monday.
So, the President with only one MP belonging to his Party (UNP) in parliament, would appear to have gotten into a groove in creating different majority vote blocks for different legislative initiatives. That is the way a legislature is supposed to work in a presidential system – through principled compromises, as well as trading in favours, between legislators. It has taken 45 years for this to come to pass, but more by circumstances and opportunism than by conviction or persuasion. How long can the President keep this going?
After me, no deluge
Put another way, the President would seem to have been able to stabilize himself politically far more than he and his government have been able to stabilize the country’s economy. He is keeping his detractors guessing on the timing of the local government elections, and more so about dissolving parliament and calling for a general election soon after March next year (2023). He also seems to be testing the waters through inspired rumours that a presidential election (which could not be before November 16, 2023) might be held before the next parliamentary election (which could be as early as April 2023, or as late as August or September 2025). He could even call for the two elections to be held concurrently any time after November 16, 2023.
That would throw the cat among the opposition pigeons, and Mr. Wickremesinghe will have more than a fair chance of becoming an elected President, finally fulfilling his 45 year old ambition. There will be the small rub about abolishing the presidency, but Mr. Wickremesinghe can stand tall and handsomely promise that as elected President he would preside over the amendment to the constitution to end the system of having an elected President. “After me, no deluge,” he could deadpan. The matter itself could be put to the people as a referendum question as they go to vote to elect simultaneously a new President and a new Parliament.
All of this seems too fanciful to be likely, but not at all impossible. As well, November 2023 is an eternity in politics and anything can happen between now and then. For now, the President seems to be sitting on a deck of opportunities, holding all the cards he needs to finesse MPs into voting in ways he wants them to vote. There is one political caveat to all this, and that is the President would be well advised not to use the goodwill circumstances he is enjoying now to try to resurrect the UNP as an electoral force. And worse would be to strike an electoral alliance with the Rajapaksas in a local government or parliamentary elections. A presidential election would be a different battlefield where all manner of alliances has become common.
The President’s ambidexterity is on full display. He is coming on both sides of the law and order fence and can have enough MPs to support any of his opposing positions. He has declared in parliament during the current Committee stage debate on the budget, that “he would not allow another Aragalaya and that he would use security forces to prevent such a move.” He has been quoted as saying – “I will declare even emergency and call in security forces to thwart any such move.” He seems to be confident that he can rely on Basil Rajapaksa to get a majority in parliament for cracking down on protesters.
At the same time, he is executively dissociating himself from the actions of the Defence Ministry officials under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The President is reported to have refused to sign on new Detention Orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), even though he did not stop previous orders being signed by the Defence Secretary, a retired Army Major General. The PTA was adopted in 1979 as a “temporary” measure has survived through many government changes and promises to repeal it. As Prime Minister in 2015, now President Wickremesinghe was committed to repealing it but nothing happened.
The official position now is that the government has placed a “de facto moratorium on arrests being made under the PTA.” With convenient exceptions for deeming protesters terrorists and arresting them under PTA. Aragalaya protesters have been so arrested and the President seems to be on both sides of the fence. He is running with the Human Rights hare and hunting with the National security hound. Under pressure from both local rights groups and international agencies, the government is reportedly drafting a new counter-terrorism law to replace the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). And the President might be able to assemble a different majority in parliament, similar to the one that passed the 21st Amendment. He could also get the Foreign Minister to drop the IMF scare in parliament as he did for 21A – that there would be no IMF help if PTA is either not repealed or drastically defanged.
More than dealing with PTA, the President is looking for a bigger fish to fry, one that was also left unaccomplished during the yahapalana government. That is the ever elusive project of national reconciliation. He seems to have all the Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil parties on board for this initiative, of course with varying shades of interest, commitment and engagement. The President has proposed yet another All Party Conference and managed to prise out a public affirmation from Sajith Premadasa that he and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) will not only participate in the All Party Conference (APC), but “will (also) lead from the front and finalise a solution to the ethnic problem by the time Sri Lanka celebrates its 75th Independence Day” through a system of power devolution based on the 13th Amendment.
If the President is able to maintain the current trend of voting permutations in parliament, he should have no difficulty in getting a parliamentary majority for a legislative approval if one is required for whatever reconciliation package that the President might be having in mind. It is too early to anticipate how the new reconciliation initiative will unfold, except to say that the dubious devise of an All Party Conference is always fraught with uncertainties, if not unwelcome developments. The first of them after July 1983 was convened in January 1984, but as it turned out it was not for the purpose of finding a solution but for avoiding one. Hopefully, the intentions behind the newest initiative now are not devious as they were then.
It’s the Economy
Any or all of the above political possibilities happening or not happening will of course depend on how the country’s economy turns and, along with it, how people’s economic circumstances change. The fundamentals of the economy are not going to improve any time soon. The government’s, really the President’s, challenge is to keep them from worsening and to keep the people’s living conditions from further deteriorating. All bets are off if essential supplies are not maintained, prices are not contained or subsidized, and scarcities and lineups return. Such deterioration will take away the President’s options and flexibility that I am speculating here.
Far from having the luxury of not holding parliamentary elections before November 2023, he could be forced to hold them as soon as possible after March 2023. If frustrated and angered, the people will find ways of forcing his hand to dissolve parliament without giving him the excuse to draw out the army or declare emergency. On the other hand, if the economy starts ticking as he seems convinced it would as a result of his new budget, he will have the luxury of playing his cards the way he wants. But it will likely succeed only if he aligns his game with advancing the public good and not for restoring the electoral fortunes of the UNP.
As a ‘crisis’ President, as he has been calling himself, the President could have taken a different route and facilitated a ‘consociational budget’ by nominating/appointing an outside technical expert as Finance Minister to build parliamentary consensus on details while providing overarching leadership as President. Such an exercise would have won broad political support at home and significant credibility abroad. But that has never been his wont. So, the President made his own budget and now has got his own majority in parliament.
That said, the President’s budget is a politically clever piece of work in the most trying circumstances. It straddles, rather than balance, the restructuring demands of the IMF and the livelihood requisites of Sri Lanka’s growing poor. It even placates the army by downsizing through retirement. The budget is also clever in totally avoiding any mention of the Rajapaksas and their contributions to Sri Lanka’s debt and economic distress. He could not have blamed them in the budget and expected them to vote for it at the same time.
Instead, the President picked on SWRD Bandaranaike using a quote from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew that has been a longstanding table talk topic among Colombo middle classes. He even adds a measure of self-deprecation by alluding to the shortcomings, if not failures, of the 1977 economic changes under JR Jayewardene and calling for a new direction defined by the so called Social Market Economy. The President made a point in repeatedly emphasizing that it was time for governments in Sri Lanka to move away from making ‘popular’ decisions to making ‘right’ decisions. To make a different point, it is time political leaders moved away from blaming the people for their so called popular decisions.
The President deftly sidestepped the issue to say whether the decision of the Gota-regime to do away with taxes was meant to be popular among the people who are now being called upon to pay the price for it with interest. Or was the decision on organic fertilizer meant to be politically unpopular and economically right? Welfare economists are familiar with the false dichotomy between equity and efficiency in economics. Equity with efficiency is amply possible, and efficiency without equity is socially unsustainable. Ranilonomics appears to be expressing the same falsehood using common vocabulary.
The budget is also strikingly optimistic both in regard to economic expectations and in its assumptions about Sri Lanka’s factor endowments – of land, labour and capital. And there are significant omissions of details on the pressing issues of the day: timelines for, and even the likelihood of, securing IMF assistance and debt restructuring; stock and price status of food supplies and backup plans to deal with current and future scarcities; the state of affairs in the petroleum sector which is becoming a costly circus under a runaway cabinet minister; and lastly, no mention of what he plans to do deal with corruption, let alone eliminate it.
A not so curious omission is the deafening silence on the utilization of Port City in the new economic order that the President is assiduously promoting. It is no longer curious because after nearly two decades of political gestation, environmental fudging and oceanic landfilling, the vaunted Port City is virtually dead on arrival. Then there is this singular gem in the budget to feed one’s curiosity – the President’s proposal “to establish an Institution to undertake and facilitate research on the history of Sri Lanka. Accordingly, I propose to allocate Rs. 50 million for this purpose.” Go, figure.
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