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Fixing cockpit off nation right is need of the hour

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By Lacille de Silva

Our constitution is a written instrument of the state. It embodies the fundamental principles and laws that determine the powers and duties of the government. It guarantees specific rights, privileges of the citizens. It lays down the role of the Executive President, the executive government and the composition of the legislature. It also defines how the Provincial Councils share power and the functions of the judiciary, including the nine independent commissions.

The fundamental characteristic of a constitutional government is the rule of law. The Constitution is considered to be the supreme law of the land. It outlines the make-up of government and spells out the powers, authority and the duties of government. It also spells out the distribution of power among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

J.R. Jayewardene, the architect of the present Constitution, said, “I can do anything except make man a woman or a woman a man”. After four decades, having promulgated the 2nd Republican Constitution, the Constitution is simply a bundle of papers of little value for the politicians in our country. As electors, we only have to elect Presidents, Parliament, Provincial Councils and local government bodies at an exorbitant cost.

Ours is the oldest democracy in Asia, having achieved universal franchise in 1931. We became one of the first countries to hold elections, in Asia, to run a constitutional government. A Cabinet of Ministers, made up of members of the Parliament, which is answerable to the Parliament, had also been established under the Donoughmore Constitution.

The Cabinet is an important element of the government. It is usually made up of the senior members of the ruling party. It is the highest decision-making body that approves policies with collective responsibility.  After decisions are accordingly approved, by the Cabinet, every single member is required to stand by the decisions, without any reservation.

Ministers are required to achieve coherent long term policies, plans and procedures.  The Cabinet is chaired by the President. Constitutionally, the Cabinet cannot exceed 30 Ministers at present. Their powers derive from Parliament through the Constitution and other laws. All such powers are subject to limits and constraints. Abuse of such powers could be challenged in courts. Ministers are allowed to spend public money, only for the purpose authorised by Parliament.

The Westminster system requires that the ministers are chosen only if they have the capacity, ability, expertise, knowledge, including the skills, to give directions to run the government machinery.

Ministers are also expected to carry out their duties in such a way that they uphold the highest standards of propriety, while ensuring that no conflict of interest would arise between their official functions and their private interests. They are also required to abide by all laws and have a duty to be accountable and answerable to Parliament for the policies, decisions and actions taken in their Ministries and all departments and other institutions coming under them.

 It is also necessary to ensure ‘individual responsibility’, which implies that each minister is individually responsible and answerable for lapses, departures from policies and procedures in all the institutions under the purview of the relevant minister.  In New Zealand, Health Minister David Clark, under similar circumstances, during the coronavirus pandemic, resigned from his portfolio.

The ministers are expected to accept responsibility for any failure in administration. Ministerial responsibility specifies, under the constitutional doctrine of responsible government, that they are totally answerable to the Parliament. It must be emphasized that there are both legal and conventional obligations attached to the performance of ministers. It is also the practice to give accurate and truthful information to the Parliament. Making a deliberate untruth is considered a contempt of Parliament. Ministers who deliberately mislead Parliament are expected to resign from their Cabinet portfolio.

If in case, a minister does not agree to abide by collective decisions, it is a tradition that the relevant minister tenders resignation from the Cabinet. All ministers are, therefore, required to carry out their duties, based on the guiding principles of integrity, honesty, objectivity, and impartiality with a long term vision for the betterment of the citizens.

In Sri Lanka, when the ministers who had acted contrary to the public trust had subsequently  been given appointments again without being dealt with by the law. Ministers in the UK are not allowed to accept any gifts or  hospitality which could compromise their judgement or which could place them under an improper obligation. There are also specific guidelines issued that they should not use government resources, too, for political purposes in their political campaigns.

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the UK, in a letter addressed to his Cabinet colleagues, having enclosed a MINISTERIAL CODE, has stated, “We will make our country the greatest place to invest or set up business, the greatest place to send your kids to school, and greatest place in the world to live and bring up a family.  To fulfil this mission… we must uphold the highest standards of propriety…. Time has come to act, to take decisions, and to give strong leadership to change this country for the better”.

In Sri Lanka, politicians think lying and dishonesty work. It is a tragedy that they have lied for decades to gain power. It is integrity which is the most valuable and respected quality of leadership.  We need honest hardworking leaders in our Cabinet. Because it is a global phenomena that a Cabinet of Ministers is essentially a small one in size. We need Cabinet Ministers who can produce more leaders. Such leaders should help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help  those who are doing well to do even better. Such a Cabinet could enable better policy outcomes and efficient and effective decision making.  It is the ‘cockpit of the nation’.  We need that fixed very well.

In Sri Lankan context,  these considerations have been disregarded. All we need is a change of direction. We need a serious change in our thought process. That is the required paradigm  shift at this juncture. Ministers are expected to uphold political impartiality and neutrality and allow public servants to act in the best interest of the citizens in accordance with the Constitution and other laws.

Nevertheless, our political leaders have always catered to the demands of self-centred politicians. They hold onto power  and leadership greedily while enjoying the privileges and rewards of a leadership role without meaningful involvement with their juniors. They are only keen to make the best use of the organization without putting value in. As such, they practice a leadership style where the leader allows the group members to take decisions. Researchers have proved that this leadership style leads to  the lowest productivity among such group members.

We have similar political leaders in our country in abundance. They do not follow the norms practiced globally in the best interest of the citizens. After being elected, they totally forget that they had been elected based on party manifestos they had presented. They do not take the trouble to run a legitimate government. The role of junior party members is also such that they do not support their elected leader to implement the manifesto presented to people.

Such political party leaders do not insist that the government Ministers must attend Parliament, particularly at the question time, to answer questions without fail. It is also vital to keep the Parliament always informed of any important decisions they have taken in the Government. Constitutionally, Government is required to seek Parliamentary approval for all executive actions.

The government is answerable to the Parliament and through it to the electors.  In this lies the distinctiveness of the Westminster model – the interrelation of the executive government and the Parliament. It is the essence of what in Westminster terms is called ‘parliamentary government’.

It is noteworthy, that the Civil Service, established by the colonial rulers, were able to perform their duties satisfactorily. The best proof for the purpose is Bradman Weerakoon, M. D. D. Peries had served as Secretaries to different Prime Ministers. They were competent to meet the heavy demands of their political leaders.

There had been several others who had served as Permanent Secretaries under different governments. They too had won the confidence of the Ministers in the past though the duties of the then Civil servants have been immensely numerous. They, too, had to assist various Ministers in different governments to perform their parliamentary duties.

They assist in preparation of necessary legislation. They also assist the relevant ministers during its passage through Parliament.  They produce briefs, drafts rules, regulations to strengthen accountability and constitutionality to run legitimate governance. All these need a thorough knowledge of the subject matter and practical judgement.

Top public Servants, in the past, were afforded with the opportunity to rise up and develop the necessary skills as they go up the ladder. They were therefore equipped to handle political, economic, social, scientific and technical problems with competence at the time. They were fully well aware of the needs, aspirations and even in regard to the developments overseas. They were able to  keep up with the rapid growth of new knowledge and had acquired the necessary skills etc to apply them in their day to day work.

The public service was not a place for the amateur. It was staffed by men and women who were truly professional. What went wrong? Since the promulgation of the 1978 Constitution,  appointments of Secretaries to Ministries have been assigned to the President under Article 52.  The appointments, transfers, disciplinary control of other top public officers have been entrusted to the Cabinet of Ministers under Article 55. The whole public service has therefore become totally politicised.

Being professional means two fundamental attributes, which in my view are extremely important in varying combinations to be a good public servant. One is being suitably skilled to perform his/her job, which usually is acquired with sustained experience and good training. The other is the possession of the necessary knowledge and the familiarity and the scrupulousness with the particular subject.

The work of government demands these qualities from the elected representatives and also from all types of appointed employees at all levels and in every public institution in the entire Island.  Sadly, this kind of professionalism is presently not found in the public service in most places at different levels.

However, it must be placed on record that in certain sectors such as medical, academic and other fields we have plenty of them, who have acquired specific qualifications and skills in the relevant fields. It is unfortunate that such valuable professionals too due to political instability, poor quality of life, lack of economic and other benefits leave Sri Lanka in search of greener pastures, where they have greater opportunities.

Owing to political appointments, there are obstacles in all areas where they cannot reach the top without political support which should be removed. Steps should be taken to empower men and women with wide experience, ability and necessary qualifications in running the government machinery to become the fully professional advisers of Ministers and other elected officials.

Recruitment to the public service should be totally independent. Reports published the world over had condemned nepotism, the incompetence and other similar defects in  the Public Service. We have experienced excessive politicization of the public service.

We now understand that the role of public service and the goals of a government have changed. The government is now compelled to take on vast new responsibilities. It is expected to achieve such general economic aims such as creation of  employment opportunities, a satisfactory rate of growth, stable food prices including a healthy balance of payments. If it is a government genuinely concerned about fullest possible development of human potential, all that involves a massive increase in public expenditure.

We do not handle public expenditure as desired. Extravagant and unnecessary expenditure have not been avoided. Public money has been wastefully invested for corrupt purposes other than public good. All successive governments have failed to keep its budget well-balanced. There had been ever-recurring deficits in the budgets for decades and decades.  Shouldn’t we put a stop to all that?

 



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Features

Why record export earnings may not be good news

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By Gomi Senadhira

The press release by the Central Bank on the external sector performance ,in June 2022, perhaps was the first piece of good news we had received for a long time. According to the press release, “Earnings from merchandise exports, in June 2022, increased by 23.9 percent over the corresponding month, in 2021, recording US dollars 1,248 million, which is the highest ever monthly export earnings recorded. An increase in earnings of both industrial and agricultural exports contributed to this favourable outcome, …. Cumulative export earnings, from January to June 2022, also increased by 14.3 percent, over the same period in the last year, amounting to US dollars 6,514 million.” So, most of us would think we have enough dollars to cover our essential imports. But, apparently, that is not the case.

Earlier, the Central Bank Governor, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, had said that exporters only converted about 20% of their export earnings into Sri Lankan Rupees and the rest was not brought back to Sri Lanka. That amounts to the US $800 million a month! The Governor had also said “… At least 40% of the total export earnings should be added to the formal financial system of the country. So exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system, and if that happens, then we can resolve the fuel crisis comfortably.”

(Diesel shipment that arrived in Colombo, on 16 July, still not paid for want of dollars – The Island July 30th) It appears as if the Governor is pleading with the exporters to bring back at least 40% of their export earnings. More notably, from Dr Weerasinghe’s statement, it is clear that the exporter had only converted 20% of their export earnings to rupees during the last five months. Did they convert their export earnings to rupees during the last year, or in the previous years? For how long has this been going on? When the Central Bank says “… exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system,” does that mean the foreign exchange earned, with the exports, is brought through the hawala network, or other similar arrangements?

Exporters deserve credit for the great service they provide and should be rewarded, appropriately. But not disproportionately. The export earnings are not earned by the exporters alone. These earnings are earned by all those who contribute to manufacturing the export products. All of them should be getting their fair share of the export proceeds. If not, there is something terribly wrong with the system. Is this normal in international trade?

During the last few years, some of the studies by Indian scholars, including Utsa Patnaik and Shashi Tharoor, have placed in the public domain some of the less known facts on the effects of the British colonial rule on India. They explain how the British seized India, “… one of the richest countries in the world – accounting for 27% of global GDP in 1700 – and, over 200 years of colonial rule, reduced it to one of the world’s poorest,” and how during the period British Raj siphoned out $45 trillion from India.

How was this done? Patnaik explains, “In the colonial era, most of India’s sizeable foreign exchange earnings went straight to London—severely hampering the country’s ability to import machinery and technology in order to embark on a modernisation path, similar to what Japan did in the 1870s. …, a third of India’s budgetary revenues was … set aside as ‘expenditure abroad’. The secretary of state (SoS) for India, based in London, invited foreign importers to deposit with him the payment (in gold and sterling) for their net imports from India, which disappeared into the SoS’s account in the Bank of England. Against these Indian earnings he issued bills… to an equivalent rupee value—which was paid out of the budget, from the part called ‘expenditure abroad’.” Patnaik underlines that this was “something you’d never find in any independent country,”

But it appears something very similar is happening in Sri Lanka, many years after the independence! If the exporters do not “bring back their foreign exchange ,through the banking system,” or only bring back 20% of it, then how do they pay for goods and services obtained locally? The local value addition for most of our exports is 70% to 80% or higher! The only major exception is cut and polished diamonds. Tea exporters buy tea with rupees. Some of the imported inputs, like fertiliser, or diesel, are sourced locally! The garment industry had moved up the value chain during the last 40 years and provide many value-added services, like designing, locally.

How do the exporters pay for all these goods and services, if they keep more than 60% of their export earnings outside the country? Do they get it through “hawala” or similar arrangements? During the British Raj, payments to local producers were done with the taxes collected by the Raj. In present-day Sri Lanka, how does one manage to raise a large amount of cash to operate such a system?

If a sizeable chunk of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings goes straight to banks in London, New York, Zurich, or elsewhere, severely hampering the country’s ability to import essential items, doesn’t that mean, Sri Lanka’s wealth is getting siphoned out through our exports? And there is not much of a difference between what happened during the colonial period and the post independent Sri Lanka!

So, June’s record export earnings also mean nearly US$ billion was siphoned off during the month! A new record for the month of June! And that means Patnaik was wrong when she said this was not “something you’d never find in any independent country”

That is not good news.

(The writer is a specialist on trade and development issues and can be contacted at senadhiragomi@gmail.com)

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Improving trend needs to be sustained on multiple fronts

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by Jehan Perera

The government appears to have secured political stability in the short term.  So far President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts to restore stability appear to be working. Political stability is necessary for decisions to be made and kept.  It is a necessary element for international support to come in.  One of the IMF’s conditions to provide the country with the multi-billion-dollar loan it seeks is political stability that would ensure that commitments that are made will be kept.  The protest movement has not mobilised public demonstrations on the very large scale of the past after the appearance of Ranil Wickremesinghe in leadership positions, initially as prime minister and subsequently as president. This would be seen as an achievement by the government.  The present governmental line that protests should be within the law is difficult, and also frightening, to challenge when a state of emergency is in force.

The government has shown its ability to wield the emergency law with deterrent effect. Under the state of emergency that President Wickremesinghe declared on July 18, the period that a person may be detained before being brought before a magistrate has been increased from 24 to 72 hours. The authorities have been granted additional powers of search and arrest, and the military has been empowered to detain people for up to a day without disclosing their detention. The state of emergency also gives the president and the police broad powers to ban public gatherings, allows the police or military to order anyone to leave any public place or face arrest, and makes it an offense to cause “disaffection” or to spread “rumours.” However, in a sign that Sri Lanka’s system of checks and balances is still working, the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court has rejected a request by the police to ban a public protest planned by political parties and multiple organisations on September 9.

Human Rights watch has pointed out that “these provisions are vague, overly broad, and disproportionate in violation of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and movement.”  The midnight strike on the protestors who had camped for over three months at the main protest site at Galle Face would make any reasonable person think twice before getting into physical confrontation with the government.  The social media coverage of events that night showed men in black uniform and wearing masks, attacking the unarmed protestors.  As these men did not wear identification badges, there is a question whether they were part of the official security forces or drawn from other groups that work with them.  This response brought discredit to the perpetrators and disturbed both Sri Lankan people and the international community that have the welfare of Sri Lanka at heart.

The government has also used the full power of the draconian law to ensure that the leadership of the protest movement is neutralised. Several of them have been arrested, some of them given bail, others remanded, which would send a chilling message to the others.  The government has also shown its willingness to offer high positions to those who are prepared to join it.  This has led to a situation where two trade union leaders active in the protest movement have been treated very differently.  One has been offered a high post while the other has been put into prison, although he has now been given bail.  In a signal that he is sensitive to public pressure and human rights concerns, President Wickremesinghe had spoken to leader of the Ceylon Teachers Union, Joseph Stalin, after he was remanded and reportedly said he admires the members of the protest movement who talk of a system change.

ECONOMIC STABILISATION

Apart from the appearance of political stability there is also the appearance of economic stabilisation.  The shortages of cooking gas, petrol and diesel, and the 13-hour power cuts were among the main catalysts of the protest movement.  It was during the period of long power cuts, when staying at home became unbearable, that neigbourhood groups began to converge in urban centres to hold candlelight protests.  However, at this time the supply of gas, petrol and diesel has improved significantly and the kilomere-long lines in front of fuel stations are much less common.  Credit has gone to the QR code system put in place that gives to each vehicle a weekly quota.

The challenge for the government is to ensure that the economic situation continues to be stable without experiencing the acute shortages of key items that causes distress to the general population.  The QR code system can only work if there is petrol and diesel to be distributed.  The current imports of cooking gas, petrol and diesel appear to have been made possible by a World Bank loan which was re-purposed to the purchase of essential items.  However, these funds will dry up soon.  The question is what will happen after that.  There is apprehension that the country will fall once again into a situation of severe shortage.  The government needs to take the people into its confidence regarding the future.  The government also needs to be trusted if it is to be believed.

The World Bank has given an indication that they are still to be convinced regarding the provision of further assistance to Sri Lanka.  Earlier this month, the World Bank issued a statement “expressing deep concern about the dire economic situation and its impact on the people of Sri Lanka yesterday said it does not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework is in place.  Issuing a statement, the World Bank Group said it is repurposing resources under existing loans in its portfolio to help alleviate severe shortages of essential items such as medicines, cooking gas, fertiliser, meals for school children and cash transfers for poor and vulnerable households.  To date, the World Bank has disbursed about US$160 million of these funds to meet urgent needs.”  This is extremely concerning as the World Bank is closely connected to the IMF on which Sri Lanka is pinning its hopes for a big loan.

POLITICAL STABILITY

The issue of political stability is highlighted by the government as being necessary to obtain international assistance and also as a justification for quelling the protest movement through emergency laws.  There is explicit blame being apportioned to the protest movement for creating instability in the polity that is deterring the influx of foreign assistance and investments.  However, the fuller picture needs to be seen.  The IMF as much as the World Bank, and indeed other potential sources of donor support, want their resources to be used for the intended purpose and not be squandered or siphoned away corrupt practices and in sustaining loss-making state institutions.

The hoped-for IMF-supported programme to provide assistance to Sri Lanka is being developed to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting the poor and vulnerable, safeguarding financial stability, and stepping up structural reforms to address corruption vulnerabilities and unlock the country’s growth potential. IMF mission team to Sri Lanka last month specifically mentioned the need to reduce corruption stating that “Other challenges that need addressing include containing rising levels of inflation, addressing the severe balance of payments pressures, reducing corruption vulnerabilities and embarking on growth-enhancing reforms.”

Both the international funding agencies and the protest movement are on the same page when it comes to opposing corrupt practices.  The main slogans of the protest movement during their heyday was the ouster of the then president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers, and indeed the entire parliament, on account of the corruption that they believed was responsible for having denuded the country of its foreign exchange reserves. This was not simply the replacement of one set of corrupt leaders by another. There are disturbing signs that some of those accused of corruption are once again on the ascendant.

The underlying demand of the protest movement was and continues to be the very “systems change” that the president has said he admires in his reported discussion with remanded trade union leader Joseph Stalin. Civil disobedience to obtain a government that is transparent and law abiding, that does not steal the wealth of the country, is a noble goal, no less sacred than the civil disobedience struggles engaged in by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States.  The ingredients for a rebound of the protest movement continue to be in place and hopefully the evidence of a systems change will become more convincing.

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Brenda Mendis… ‘Gindara Kellek’

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I first got to know Brenda Mendis when she was very much a part of the group Aquarius, before joining Mirage..

With Aquarius, her dynamism bloomed, on stage, when she partnered two other female vocalists – from the Philippines.

And…yes, they certainly did rock the scene; the three girls were the talk-of the-town and they were featured at some of the best venues in the city.

She was also, at one time, associated with the band 2Forty2.

Brenda now operates with an outfit called C Plus Band, and with whatever free time, that comes her way, the talented artiste is now working on originals.

The latest is the song ‘Gindara Kellek’ and this is what Brenda has to say:

“I have known this guy Chathurangana de Silva for a very time and he has been involved in composing certain songs for the C Plus Band.

“We then got down to discussing about putting together a song which could be classified as a fast genre in music, and Chathurangana, along with Sampath Fernandopulle, came up with the suggestion for the lyrics, and they did so, based upon a proper observation of my lifestyle and the personality portrayal of myself, and that’s how “Gindara Kellek’ came into the scene.”

Brenda went on to say that the composing was done during a tight schedule.

“As I am the female vocalist, on a full time basis, with the C Plus Band, it took us more time than what is usual spent at a recording session, because of our public performances.”

‘Gindara Kellek’ is not Brenda’s maiden effort. She has been involved in quite a few other originals, including ‘Tharu Peedena Seethale,’ ‘Obai Mage Thaththe,’ ‘Mage Raththaran,’ ‘Kaprinna (Chooty),’ ‘You Never Know,’ ‘Mea Nilwan Nimnaye, and ‘Sitha Igilee Gihin.’ And, they are all uniquely different to each other, she says.

With the country going through a tough period, Brenda, spends her free time working out and reading.

“I would take this opportunity, through your very popular music page, to thank all those who helped me throughout my journey in this wonderful field of music.

“I shall continue to keep music lovers happy, with my music, and I would also thank my followers for supporting me and for being with me throughout my career in showbiz.”

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