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Midweek Review

How public sector corruption withers national economy: RJ’s insight

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June 29, 2001: The late Rajeewa Jayaweera with the then CEO Peter Hill in Chennai where he was SriLankan Airlines Manager, Southern India. Pic was taken the night before Rajeewa left for France to take over as Manager, France (pic courtesy Sanjeewa Jayaweera)

 

By Shamindra Ferdinando

One-time SriLankan Airlines senior management employee, the late Rajeewa Jayaweera (RJ), in a series of articles, dealt mercilessly with the national carrier. The series of articles, published in The Island and The Sunday Island, reflected what can be easily described as the pathetic state of affairs in public finance.

The explosive reportage of the deterioration of SriLankan Airlines, between Feb 2015 and March 2020, underscored the overall failure on the part of the country’s supreme legislature, Parliament, to ensure financial discipline, not only at the national carrier, but the entire public sector, as well. The Colombo Telegraph, too, carried quite a number of RJ’s articles during this period.

Having perused the 143 page e-book, comprising 41 articles, recently, the writer asked COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Prof. Charitha Herath whether the national carrier came under the purview of his outfit, COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) or COPF (Committee on Public Finance). Lawmaker Herath responded: “Yes. Under the parliamentary watchdog COPE. We are going to summon them soon.”

Perhaps, RJ’s series of articles can be quite helpful to the parliamentary watchdog committees, if they are genuinely interested in taking remedial measures, in respect of the national carrier. RJ’s brother, Sanjeewa Jayaweera (SJ), himself a contributor to The Island, and other media outlets, as well, hadn’t been successful in publishing the series of articles on the national carrier, as a book, to coincide with the first death anniversary of his brother RJ.

SJ’s attributed his failure to secure consent of a leading publisher as he didn’t own the intellectual property rights. SJ’s efforts to publish RJ’s articles on foreign relations, too, has met with a similar fate.

RJ’s body was found at Independence Square, on the morning of June 12, last year. He was 64 years at the time of his death.

At the inquest into the death of RJ, before the Colombo Chief Magistrate, Lanka Jayaratne, on June 22, 2020, it transpired that it was a suicide. RJ committed suicide on the night of June 11. SJ assured court that he was certain RJ committed suicide. When the writer inquired about the circumstances leading to RJ’s suicide, SJ reiterated he never had any suspicions about quite the unexpected, but meticulously planned suicide.

In a country where the Central Bank has been ‘raided’ not once but twice and every public sector enterprise brazenly ‘raped’ by successive governments, a set of published articles cannot be launched, in book form, in the absence of intellectual property rights.

 

Focus on national carrier

Of over 300 articles, authored by RJ, only a section dealt with the national carrier. RJ’s relentless campaign against those who had been responsible for waste, corruption and irregularities at SriLankan must have angered many of those wrongdoers for being exposed after having got everything swept under the carpet, as happens so often in this country.

Having served SriLankan Airlines for over 15 years, RJ had been in a much better position, than many, to comment on the ruination of the national carrier.

However, thick-skinned politicians, and top officials, didn’t publicly react to RJ’s comments. If they really understood the implications of the continuing disclosures, RJ would have earned their wrath. In his first piece on the national carrier, titled ‘SriLankan Airlines: Parliament reveals UL loss is over Rs. 100 bn’ on Feb 6, 2015, RJ in one sentence explained what went wrong with the public enterprise. Referring to the launch of, what he called, the ‘Gulf Carrier of Dubai,’ with USD 10 mn investment made by the then Ruler there, in 1985, RJ declared; “The secret of their success was the Ruler never appointed relatives, his minions, civil servants, ex-army generals nor businessmen to run the airline.”

Having joined the national carrier, as a Marketing Executive, in June 1989, he received a promotion as Manager (Advertising and Promotions) and subsequently served as Manager Oman and Yemen, Manager Southern India, Manager France, Benelux, Scandinavia and Southern Europe before quitting in July 1995. Thereafter, RJ served Qatar Airlines (August 2005 to October 2009) as Regional Manager Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives and Myanmar. RJ rejoined Sri Lankan Airlines and served as Manager Germany from October 2010 till May 2011 (during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term as President)

RJ had been in touch with the writer, though the national carrier was never the subject of discussions. The focus had always been on the conflict and post-war issues, particularly Sri Lanka’s failure to address accountability issues. RJ had been severely critical of the way the yahapalana lot responded to the growing Western threat and, essentially, there was consensus that the then administration deliberately discarded Lord Naseby’s strategy which could have been quite useful, if properly used. RJ took his life three months after the incumbent government withdrew from the 2015 Geneva Resolution. If RJ was alive today, he would have been quite disturbed over how the incumbent administration, too, handled the Geneva issue. RJ used to call the writer at the latter’s home. On many occasions, the writer’s wife, Dilhani, overheard our noisy exchanges and used to inquire as to what was wrong. We used to disagree on the response of the UNP-led government and Joint Opposition/SLPP as regards foreign policy and accountability issues.

Let me get back to the plight of the national carrier. In a follow-up piece, dated Feb 11, 2015, RJ stated that: “The general perception is that Air Lanka/SriLankan Airlines is an expensive toy of the rulers of the day, and a few of the elite – all at the expense of the taxpayer.” Having said so, RJ stated: “Even though there is some truth in it, it is indeed not the whole truth. Contrary to general perception, the national carrier has played a pivotal role, both in helping the nation’s economy and welfare of its people by bringing the world to Sri Lanka and taking Sri Lanka to the world.”

The writer is of the view that RJ made a futile attempt (Feb 11, 2015 piece) to restore the much tarnished image of the national carrier. One cannot find fault with RJ for being lenient in a way immediately after he initiated the onslaught on the national carrier. Subsequently, RJ meticulously addressed issues at hand, thereby exposed ‘white-collar crime.’

RJ exposed both the SLFP and UNP administrations. Catchy titles attracted, both print and online readers, including the writer, though going through all 41 articles at a stretch provided an entirely different insight. RJ didn’t mince his words when he zealously hammered those who undermined the national carrier, through waste, corruption, irregularities and outright mismanagement.

If RJ didn’t take his own life, perhaps he wouldn’t have ever thought of launching a book, at least on an e-form. Thanks to SJ, now the entire set of articles is available online and this writer believes, in addition to lawmakers, especially heads of the watchdogs (Prof. Charitha Herath/COPE, Prof. Tissa Vitharana/COPA and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa/COPF), leaders of the major political parties (the writer wants to consider the UNP a major political party though being reduced to one National List slot) and the media should access the material. Let me reproduce the catchy titles given to RJ’s articles (1) SriLankan Airlines: Parliament reveals loss is over Rs 100 bn (2) SriLankan Airlines: Parliament reveals loss is over Rs 100 bn: The unknown (3) What ails our national carrier (4) What ails our national carrier-continued (5) What ails our national carrier-iii (6) The passing of an aviation legend and lessons to be learnt (7) What ails out national carrier IV (8) National carrier’s Airbus story-going down the memory lane (9) All is not well @ SriLankan Airlines (10) SriLankan Airlines – a tale of state abuse and mismanagement, the ‘games’ Directors and VIPs played (11) SriLankan Airlines – exit strategy the need of the hour (12) Other side of the coin on Emirates deal – a comment (13) SriLankan Airlines – expensive toy of our politicians (14) A tale of two national carriers (15) Paris exit and Frankfurt exit by Airlines (16) Business Class divide at SriLankan Airlines (17) Independent Inquiry at SriLankan Airlines goes awry (18) Independent Inquiry at SriLankan Airlines goes awry-ii (19) What’s with 2015-16 annual report of SriLankan Airlines (20) Full time CEO to Part time CEO-pilot (21) No significant savings in procurement and fees paid to service providers (22) Brighter or darker skies over SriLankan Airlines (23) Total privatization only solution for SriLankan Airlines (24) SriLankan Airlines continues downward spiral (25) SriLankan Airlines total privatization or liquidation (26) More on SriLankan back on track (27) Saving the national carrier – a rejoinder (28) Minister Kabir Hashim’s hogwash (29) New brooms @ SriLankan Airlines (30) Who is managing SriLankan Airlines (31) Emirates remembers, the world remembers (32) More facts to remember on Emirates (33) India’s failed bid to disinvest Air India (34) Presidential air travel and the nut episode (35) Fleecing SriLankan Airlines (36) SriLankan violates Companies Act (37) Srilankan Airlines long overdue AGM (38) tale of woe continues @ SriLankan Airlines (39) SriLankan Airlines deal (40) USD 16.8 mn bribe at SriLankan Airlines and (41) Evidence given before Presidential Commission of Inquiry

 

Absence of accountability

RJ’s series of articles highlighted a bleak picture not only at the national carrier but the entire public sector. In a way, the parliamentary committee system had pathetically failed in its responsibilities. The accumulated losses suffered by the national airline now stands at a staggering Rs. 326 Bn with the two-state banks – BOC and People’s Bank – continuing to bear the losses. A year after RJ’s suicide, the national economy is in tatters. The country would have been in a much stronger position, to weather the Covid-19 fallout, if not for waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence. Both former major political parties – the UNP and the SLFP – mercilessly abused the national carrier to their hearts’ content. Articles titled ‘SriLankan Airlines deal’ and USD 16.8 mn bribe at SriLankan Airlines discussed how the Rajapaksa and Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration ruined the national carrier. The accountability on the part of President Maithripala Sirisena, as he was the head of the cabinet, cannot be ignored.

RJ alleged: “The Rajapaksas appointed relatives (This is not the reality). The Yahapalanites appointed friends from their alma mater and party hacks. The following are the Directors appointed by the Yahapalana government in February 2015 and their connections.

Chairman Ajith Dias (Prime Minister’s friend and ex-Royal College). Chanaka de Silva and Mahinda Haradasa, (PM’s friends, ex-Royal College, and members of UNP Working Committee), Rajan Brito (former President CBK’s friend), Hadindra Balapatabandi (former President Sirisena’s friend), Rakhitha Jayawardena (PM’s relative and old Thomian), Lt. Col. (Retd.) Sunil Peiris (Ravi Jayawardene’s friend and old Thomian), and N. De Silva Deva Aditya (PM’s friend and MP in European Parliament).

CEO Suren Ratwatte, a pilot by profession, was the younger brother of the PM’s financial advisor. Ratwatte’s ill-advised appointment had far-reaching consequences. At the end of six months, some directors wished to extend his probation period and assign Key Performance Indicators for evaluation in a few months. However, both the Prime Minister and Minister Kabir Hashim instructed the directors to confirm him in his post without delay (Board Minute 2.6 dated April 28, 2016)”.

RJ meticulously addressed contentious issues pertaining to the national carrier. Controversial SriLankan CEO Kapila Chandrasena received RJ’s attention. The expose of Chandrasena before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry should be re-examined against the backdrop of the arrest and the subsequent bail out of Kapila Chandrasena and his wife, Priyanka Niyomali Wijenayake over receiving USD 2 mn commission from Airbus Industrie in a deal that had been discussed in the official residence of the then Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa on March 1, 2013. RJ quite aptly compared Speaker Rajapaksa’s initial denial of any knowledge of the meeting with that of Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayke’s performance before CoI on Treasury Bond scams.

The government owed a public explanation as regards the status of the bankrupt national carrier. The ruination of the national carrier can be easily blamed on the top leaderships of the UNP and the SLFP. There cannot be any dispute over that or for anyone to be offended by the revelation of that fact. The then President’s brother-in-law Nishantha Wickremesinghe conduct/misconduct received wide media coverage after the change of government. The Presidential CoI exposed the sorry state of affairs at the national carrier and how those at the helm caused irrevocable losses.

 

The shock return of Chandrasena

RJ, however, missed a crucial development in the national carrier close on the heels of President Sirisena sacking Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government.

Only a section of the media, including The Island, reported the unbelievable development pertaining to the national carrier. The change of government paved the way for the return of Kapila Chandrasena, though the shocking revelations made in the Presidential CoI were still fresh in public minds. In fact, Chandrasena was one of the first appointments made by the 50-day government.

Civil society activist Gamani Viyangoda was one of the few people to publicly question the appointment. In a brief interview with the writer, Viyangoda alleged that Chandrasena’s appointment as Chairman of the debt-ridden SriLankan, in spite of an ongoing investigation, indicated that those who had exercised executive power previously were back in business (Civil society seeks explanation on top Sri Lanka appointment made amidst probe, The Island, Nov 14, 2018).

In the wake of the growing storm created by his shock reappointment, the government removed Chandrasena. The question is whether Chandrasena acted alone?

Subsequently, a high profile criminal investigation undertaken by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO), too, implicated top SriLankan management in the bribery scandal. In the wake of media revelations pertaining to Priyanka Niyomali Chandrasena, nee Wijenayake, being offered up to USD 16 mn in bribes to pave the way for a massive deal involving a dozen new Airbus planes, President

Gotabaya Rajapaksa called for an investigation. This was in the first week of Feb 2020.

“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has ordered a comprehensive investigation into reports of allegations over financial irregularities said to have been committed during the deal between SriLankan Airlines and Airbus SE for the purchase of aircraft,” his office said.

Of the amount offered, at least USD 2 mn had been received by Chandrasena’s wife. Nothing has been heard of that investigation since then. In fact, examination of COPE, COPA and COPF proceedings reveal that greater the fraud/corruption/irregularity/negligence the chance in suppressing the wrongdoing is guaranteed.

SJ should ensure that even though the intellectual property rights law has deprived him of an opportunity to publish a book comprising an entire set of articles on the ruination caused to SriLankan Airlines, as many people as possible receive the 41 e-articles. If not for RJ, there wouldn’t have been such a collection of articles on the national carrier. It should be compulsory reading for lawmakers and the past and the incumbent presidents. Those who wielded political power should be ashamed of the way they allowed the deterioration of the once proud national carrier.

The top management, as well as a section of utterly corrupt employees, brought the national carrier to disrepute. Proper investigation would reveal how many SriLankan employees, past and present, lived well beyond their means.

RJ cleverly used his coverage of the SriLankan Airlines to expose the depth of corruption not only in the ‘land like no other’ but the public and private sectors as well. Such mega waste, corruption and irregularities cannot take place without the public and private sectors working together. Robber barons and their minions lived in luxury whereas the vast majority of people struggled to make ends meet. The Covid-19 virus has now made the situation even worse. Having sort of compared investigations into Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in 2015 and 2016, and SriLankan Airlines, at different levels, RJ quite rightly asserted that they were ‘AN UTTER WASTE OF PUBLIC FUNDS.’ If proper investigations are conducted into waste, corruption and irregularities in public and private sectors, political parties will have to be disbanded.

Let me end this piece by repeating what one-time Justice Minister and BASL President Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, said, in June 2019, at a media briefing at the Sri Lanka Foundation. In response to a query raised by the writer, the lawmaker said: “Yes. Parliament is the most corrupt institution in the country.”

Having switched his allegiance to the SLPP, from the UNP, Dr. Rajapakse remains a member of the most corrupt institution in the country.



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Midweek Review

Shades of Beddegama in teeming Hong Kong

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By GEORGE BRAINE

Even after being closely connected to Hong Kong for 26 years, I am still amazed by the contrasts there. Professionals earn the highest salaries in the world while destitute old women scavenge for cardboard boxes. Tycoons live in the world’s most expensive mansions while the poorest live in tiny subdivided flats. Perhaps the most striking contrast is the crowded urban areas of Central, Kowloon, and Mong Kok, and the deserted villages in the rural parts of the New Territories, where I lived.

Hong Kong is barely 500 square miles, and only half of that is inhabited; the rest is given over to hillsides and country parks. They are seven million tightly packed people. Then, how does one explain deserted villages?

 

Wong Chuk Yeung

Leonard Woolf’s classic Village in the Jungle, set in colonial Ceylon, narrates the slow decline of a small, isolated village, Beddegama. As the people leave or die out, the jungle gradually covers the crumbling, miserable huts. The last survivor is Punchi Menika. In the final scene, as Punchi Menika lies in her dilapidated hut, a giant wild boar glides in like a mythical devil to gore her. This scene came to mind when, during a hike, I stumbled upon the village of Wong Chuk Yeung. Located about 3 km uphill from the lovely seaside town of Sai Kung, the village lies within a country park, at the end of a narrow, twisting road. On the way up, the road winds through a steep slope on the left and a forest to the right. Uphill, trees press on the road from either side, forming a canopy.

At its first appearance, the village gave the idea of being inhabited, with strands of electricity, street lights, and a functioning water service. The one mailbox overflowed with recently delivered mail, mainly electric and water bills. However, the lichen-covered houses and the trash-strewn, weed-choked alleyways indicated a lack of life. Rice fields and fruit trees long abandoned and overgrown with weeds surrounded the village. Butterflies and dragonflies fluttered. Signs of rooting by wild boars was everywhere, and the fragile barking deer scampered off at my approach. Five-meter long Burmese pythons had been seen nearby. Old graves stood sentinel.

Long ago, the village was occupied by rice and vegetable farmers of the Li clan. They lacked proper roads, schools, electricity, or water service, but this simple life style suited the villagers. Then, imported rice became much cheaper. Rice also became hard to grow because a nearby iron mine caused a drop in the water table. Lacking even public transport, the younger generation preferred the comforts of urban Hong Kong or emigrated to Britain.

The last survivor Since that first encounter, I visited the village, on and off, over a number of years. An elderly man dressed smartly in a jacket and trousers, carrying a rolled-up umbrella, would pass me by on his way to town. I would also see him in town, chatting with people his age or doing a little shopping.

Later, I also noticed a younger man from the village, laboriously pushing his bicycle uphill, laden with plastic shopping bags. He would pause often on the way, squatting on the ground to rest before attempting a further stretch of the steep road. He did not make eye contact or return my greetings.

Then, I stopped seeing the elderly gentleman. He had died. I also learned that his wife used to carry home-made cakes on a shoulder pole for sale in Sai Kung. She had passed away before my time. The younger man, the last survivor of the village, was their son. The family had emigrated to Britain but returned to Hong Kong and to Wong Chuk Yeung for some reason.

As the years went by, the last survivor no longer had his bicycle. Instead, three dogs with matted fur would accompany him all the way to town and back. I would sometimes see him in town, feeding the dogs with scraps of bread, and reading crumpled racing sheets that he may have found in trash cans. At the village, I had noticed a ramshackle house with garbage strewn outside, the dogs loitering at the door barking fiercely at my approach. That’s perhaps where he lived.

Eventually, only one dog was left. For the last survivor, life must have been horrendous. The eerily quiet nights would have been fearsomely lonely, perhaps the ghosts of departed ancestors his only company. Occasionally, a police vehicle would pass me on the way to the village, so they must have been keeping an eye on his safety.

On my way down to Sai Kung town, splendid views of the island-studded bay, a golf course, and of a distant reservoir opened up. Although other hikers appeared on weekends, the road was mainly deserted during weekdays. Domestic helpers walking their employers’ dogs could be seen, but they too become fewer when the heat of summer set in. On some mornings, paragliders would be floating down towards Sai Kung town, adding colour to the clear blue sky.

Driving home from Sai Kung on a blisteringly hot afternoon, I saw the last survivor struggling home and stopped to give him a ride, going out of my way to the village. As my car struggled up the steep climb on first gear, we drove in silence. When he opened the door to get down, I extended my hand and said “George”. He repeated “Georgie” in the Cantonese style that I find so affectionate. Pointing to himself, he said “Li”. He had finally spoken.

Nasty” Developers

The front page banner headline in the South China Morning Post came like a bolt from the blue. Forgotten Wong Chuk Yeung was in the news, with a bang, for illegal deals between developers and villagers domiciled in Britain.

 

Villagers profit in secret land deals

Indigenous residents sign away small housing rights in exchange for HK$500,000 or a new flat at the site, which helps developers avoid rezoning and premiums

Cheung Chi-faiNov 04, 2011

The article mentioned that the village was 350-years old, and once contained 96 houses. Obviously a substantial village, although I had not seen that many ruins; some crumbling structures may have been covered by weeds, or dissolved into the ground. But, every plot had an owner, and the developers were methodically buying up all the plots.

I had been writing-up my visits to the village on a blogsite, along with photos, and former villagers now in Britain had been reading my entries. In the comments section of the blog, the following message appeared:

Hi George, found your blog and found it fascinating. Great pictures. This is my family’s village, it is a lovely village, though very run down I still like to go and visit it whenever I am in HK – with much sadness all the villagers involved have now signed the papers for the land to be sold off to a development company. Not everyone wanted this but the majority won and it is now in process of exchange. I am extremely sad about this as the land has a lot of history. The buildings, the wildlife (the numerous beautiful butterflies!) in the land all needs to be preserved – Hong Kong needs to preserve old ancestral lands such as Wong Chuk Yeung before it’s too late.

Another villager in Britain, fiercely proud of his heritage, commented that he “will do everything it takes for Wong Chuk Yeung to stay in the Li family name”. He, and the last survivor, Mr. Li, may be what stood between the village and “development” that would erase all traces of a bygone-era.

 

Last days

I stopped visiting the village, but would see Mr. Li in Sai Kung town, sitting at McDonalds, engrossed in a newspaper that appears to have been salvaged from the garbage. He held the paper very close to his face, which probably meant he was nearsighted. That may have also accounted for his shyness and avoidance of people, because he couldn’t see well.

Over the years, his favourite place in town had been the Hong Kong Jockey Club betting centre. Even in the last days I saw him, he would be squatting on the pavement near the betting centre, carefully reading the racing sheet. He had shirtless, shoeless, the bicycle and the dogs long gone. He was become much scrawnier and unkempt over the years. Even when I said “Hello Mr. Li”, he would not look up or return my greeting.

I left Sai Kung in 2015. Recently, I saw that the following message had been left on my blogsite:

I’m sorry to announce that the lone survivor died at the beginning of this year (2015) and within weeks the developers moved in and put up 10 foot high corrugated hoardings fencing off the land from the public access road. This is a major eyesore and even worse is the bulldozing of the trees and wildlife areas (lush green grasslands that covered former paddy fields that were farmed by the villagers in the 50s and 60s).

I wonder about Mr. Li’s last days. Were they as wretched as Punchi Menika’s in Beddegama? Did he die alone, and discovered days later, or did someone find him before it was too late?

As for Wong Chuk Yeung, I have no wish to return. I prefer to remember it from all those years ago.

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Midweek Review

The trust deficit

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Nelum Kuluna: “It’s the folly of such investments that has created the debt problem.”

 

by Usvatte-aratchi

 

‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

George Orwell

 

When this government was elected to office, there was wild jubilation, almost countrywide. People danced in the streets. But totally unexpectedly that ecstasy lasted a short time. This was no more strongly revealed than when the Cardinal, the leader of the Roman Catholic community in the country, publicly prayed to God that as he and his community could not get justice from secular authority. May God mete out justice to those who destroyed the lives of many members of his community! It was a pitiful cry of desperation (crie de coeur) that touched many people, no matter their religious faith or lack thereof. There were several well-known members of the Bhikkhu Sangha, who spoke most unhappily about the government for betraying the undertakings that had been given to them, when the now government sought election to office. The betrayal was bitter to a large sections of the population when the saubhagyaya (plentifulness), so prominently promised by the winning political party in 2019, turned out to be simply its opposite in 2021. The impending economic austerity, after the yahapalanaya government, glared in the face of all thoughtful people in 2019 but the winning party impressed upon the electorate that the party had worked out strategies and policies that would bring in prosperity which the opponents failed to achieve. The public were not shown the strategies and policies. When something is too good to believe, it is either not genuine or not true. It was sheer stupidity on the part of the electorate to believe that the key to El Dorado was in the hands of one individual or even the few who were on the path of wisdom (viyath maga); perhaps, inevitable given the alternative. It took three serious unexpected disasters to persuade two ministers of the government to explain in Parliament the dire economic situation in the country and their lack of policies to meet those perilous challenges. The first was the invasion of the SARS-CoV-2 infection that came along with tourists. After a promising start, the government floundered helplessly in 2021, failing to use effectively a fine public health structure that had many victories to its credit, including control of malaria, elimination of polio, typhoid and DPT. In mid-2021, the death rate among those infected rose above 1 percent, double that which prevailed in May 2021 and yet better than in most parts of the world. The government could not make use of the work of government servants who had information on the location and the age of people who lived there (Electoral lists in the offices of grama niladhari). The disaster that the Ministry of Shipping cluelessly invited into our seas destroyed not merely the eco system but with it the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, not necessarily only along the coast. The claim by a government minister that deaths on a large scale of sea creatures, both large and small, soon after the shipping disaster, was a regular feature in the stormy season (varakan) was shockingly disingenuous. The government handled both these disasters so incompetently that the electorate lost whatever trust they had about the government’s capacity to govern the country. The ill-timed policy to eliminate the use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture (which itself is not a bad idea in an ideal world) raised the ire of the mass of peasants and farmers and threatened the supply of food in the country and the continued production of tea and rubber. The persistent assertion by the Minister of Agriculture that there was plentiful fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides flew in the face of demonstrations by thousands of cultivators all around the country. Are these protestors true hirelings of fertiliser importers? The threat to import organic fertiliser is fraught with untold dangers, because that fertilizer carries organisms that could be dangerous to human, animal and plant health, here. More directly, that policy openly contradicted the pledges given in the manifesto of the party that fertiliser would be given to peasants free and freely.

In liberal democracies, governance is a matter of trust between the government and the governed. Governments are elected by the people periodically on the basis of manifestoes issued by political parties in which the parties lay out the policies that they would implement, if elected to office. Some unexpected emergencies inevitably arise and the policies they adopt to meet those emergencies must be governed by approaches to policy announced in their manifesto. The governed expect that government has spoken honestly in their manifestoes and would implement them in the people’s interest and not for the pecuniary gains of those that govern. When parties seeking office (not power, as we commonly say) systematically lie to seek election and the voters are either not sharp enough to see through the falsehoods or are swayed by other propaganda, (e.g. finding a small ethnic or religious group in the country whose electoral strength is petty, against whom a political party can whip up a frenzy) governments have a problem retaining the trust of the governed. ‘These leaders might invoke a lost imperial grandeur …. (Rajarata, in our case). They adopt sophisticated propaganda techniques (which may include events of spectacular destruction) in which to demolish adversaries and bolster their own egos… This charisma is leveraged to project an aura of virility that is supposed to protect a helpless citizenry against lawlessness and an endangered nation against the invasive impurities of alien and internal enemies.’ (Ariel Dorfman, 2021.) When lying came to light, the governed lost trust in government.

A fortnight ago, two Ministers who spoke in Parliament to defend the decision of the government to raise the prices of petroleum products (which itself is reasonable) laid out clearly, for the first time, the economic plight of the nation and the impecuniosity of the government. One was the redoubtable Bandula Gunawardana; the other, the lawyer Gammanpila. Later the new Minister of finance, whilst taking office, spoke about the ‘grave situation (bararum thatvaya)’ of the economy and the finances. We wish him well, in a difficult job. Why did it take 21 months for the government to take the people into confidence and explain the dire situation of the economy and the finances when they took over from the yahapalanaya government? There was, then, the added advantage of an escape goat ready for slaughter, a second time.

 

The government was so keen on standing by their propaganda that the president, soon after taking office, abolished the PAYE scheme, drastically reduced both direct and indirect taxes and renewed his promise to give new employment to hundreds of thousands of university graduates, which promise he fulfilled later under pressure. (The public were told, very late, that tax revenue had fallen sharply in 2020.) Independent observers were taken aback by these decisions which may have been so enthusiastically adopted only by a government, with an economy with strong sinews and a Treasury with bottomless reserves. The public awaited a miracle. They should not have, because the horn of plenty is only a fairy tale for toddlers not economics for adults. In government, one should have ‘soft hearts and hard heads’ and not the other way around, which seems to be partly the problem with the new government.

Now that some members of the government have given expression to the true nature of the economic situation and the financial imbroglio of the government, what about the way out of these predicaments? There was widespread antipathy to the idea of seeking assistance from IMF on account of the eventual necessity to agree to conditions they would lay down to come to the assistance of the economy. The IMF lays down those conditions because it wants to ensure that the objectives it sets out to achieve, require countries to follow those policies. The IMF conditions that the government disapproved of included austerity measures to ensure that the economy has a surplus with which to service debt. (It is the obverse of more resources than we produced when we borrowed from abroad.) There is no escape from seeking such drop in the domestic use of domestical output to pay back debts incurred. In addition, there was an equally widespread objection to seeking assistance from abroad and much enthusiasm for working out our own solutions. These strategies and policies now on display feature the following. There is widespread austerity in the country, fulfilling the first condition that could have been demanded by the IMF. The supply of goods of all kinds has fallen. That scarcity has resulted from many measures that government implemented. The direct reduction of imports is the most visible. Any shopper in a supermarket can observe empty shelves. Fertiliser and agrochemicals are scarce. The Covid epidemic, the shipping disaster and the scarcity of fertiliser and agrochemicals will reduce incomes cutting down total demand and demand for imports. The other means of enforcing austerity is to raise prices to make goods and services beyond the budget of most people. Fortuitously, the fall in employment has reduced levels of income and cut down living conditions. Printing money large scale brought about the rise in prices. Whether the government wished it or not, austerity which IMF would have recommended is here with us. No matter which party formed the government, this austerity was inevitable, not because we borrowed but because we invested foolishly. The public are in austerity. What is absent is a programme to reschedule debt repayment.

Individuals, corporations and governments all borrow and prosper out of debt. The secret is in the uses made of the loan proceedings. Large scale borrowing was resorted to in the years 2010-2015. We had been impoverished by a long drawn out civil war. Borrowing was welcomed by society because there were large scale projects, employment in construction ran high and the rate of economic growth was elevated. By 2015, the rate of growth had come down and the government was voted out of office. Among other reasons, the poor performance of the economy was of major importance. With large investments in the early years which helped raise the growth of the economy, the failure of the investments to raise output (summarily, high incremental capital/output ratios – ICOR) dampened the rate of growth. The failure of investments to earn a return on it was all too clear to see: Hambantota Port still does not make an adequate return; the International Conference Hall lies idle; Mattala airport receives an occasional flight; Nelum Pokuna has a more attractive garden than audiences shouting acclaim for plays on its fine stage; and the Nelum Kuluna stands solitary guard over the Colombo Port City. It is the folly of these investments that created the debt problem, not borrowing itself. Yahapalanaya government failed to realise that unless they explained to the public the dire situation in the country and imposed austerity to pay back the loans, that they would hand over to the successor government a debt burden impossible to bear. That is exactly what has happened. Saubhagya government that succeeded the Yahapalanaya government completely failed to read the economy correctly or imagined that they could hoodwink the public to believe that they had strategies and policies to meet these exigencies. The public evidently took in the latter, hook, line and sinker. That the same strategist who promoted the infrastructure programmes in 2010-2015 was appointed today to manage the economy and that his first project was an infrastructure project is cause for deep concern.

We need to put in place a programme to restructure debt service payments so that the government can manage to avoid a catastrophic further fall in living standards of the people. To agree to reschedule debt repayment, creditors need an organization, in which they have faith, that it will enforce an agreed upon reschedule. Most of the time that organization has been the IMF. Interest rates in international capital markets have begun to rise with widespread fears of incipient inflation in developed countries. The prices of materials like aluminum, copper and rare minerals have been rising for several months. The tendency for interest rates to rise is further strengthened by the initiative of central banks to disgorge their bursting portfolios of financial assets. The cheap credit regime may have come to an end. A reschedule itself may be now more expensive than earlier.

If the government does not wish to use the IMF, they will have to find a substitute. There are no other solutions.

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Midweek Review

From ‘multi-ethnicity’ to multiculturalism

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by Susantha Hewa

Being able to speak only one language (monolingualism) is becoming the exception rather than the rule. More and more Sri Lankans whose home language is either Sinhala or Tamil are learning English as their second language (L2). Not many Sinhala speakers or Tamil speakers select each other’s language, namely, Tamil or Sinhala as their L2 for a few obvious reasons.

With due respect to both Sinhala and Tamil, neither of them has the social recognition that English commands in this country. Secondly, being perhaps the widest read and spoken global language, English has a utility value far exceeding that of Sinhala or Tamil, for all those who engage in higher studies, research, preparing for private sector employment, administrative work, translation, journalism and diplomatic service, among others. Many graduates realise at job interviews that a good command of English can often eclipse academic excellence, which has resulted in English becoming a major ingredient in all recipes for gainful ‘employability.’ In short, proficiency in English can be a big bonus for anybody aspiring to move ahead in any chosen path. That monolingualism among Sinhala or Tamil speakers is now appearing to be an anomaly and a deprivation needs little persuasion. However, opinions differ on how early a child should start learning English as his L2 to reap all its benefits. Is early exposure to an L2 harmful? Will it make him culturally rootless?

Let’s take an example from the Sri Lankan context. It’s not news that if a child’s parents spoke two languages, say, Sinhala and Tamil, the child would learn to speak both almost equally fluently provided that they were spoken often enough at home. So quite reasonably, she will have two mother tongues – Sinhala and Tamil, and thus be a bilingual if she were to continue speaking both languages into her adulthood. Alternatively, if only one language was spoken to the exclusion of the other at home she would be monolingual, which could be described as an instance of a lost opportunity given the time and difficulty involved in learning the other language at a later stage. What’s more, the former who acquires both languages simultaneously will have an edge over the latter in more ways than being fluent in two languages.

For instance, she would develop a better empathy with the speakers of either language and an increased awareness of their respective cultures, language being the most pervasive and fluid transmitter of the shared values of a community. Surely, it would be a better option than being excluded from one ethos depending on which of the two languages is to be her home language. Further, the exposure to two cultures would be an excellent opportunity for her to take a balanced view of both and grow up to be more unbiased about each. Such a child is unlikely to be overemotional about one culture and will find herself at home with either community as a grownup. Thirdly, as linguists point out, a bilingual is better adapted than a monolingual to learn a new language. Thus, early bilinguals in general will be more versatile than monolinguals in socialising, language learning and more open-minded about and less susceptible to synthetic divisions based on imagined/self-imposed identities. In other words, multilingualism may significantly bring down the volatility inherent in the so-called “multi-ethnic” societies.

Our longstanding tradition of being moulded by a single culture with only one home language may urge us to cast doubts about the soundness of being multilingual/multicultural from childhood, prompting us to consider it a denial of the right to have firm roots in a single culture. However, those who entertain this view may perhaps be ardent believers of “uniqueness” and “sanctity” of each culture- those who rely on “purity of stock” to be the mainstay of best human behaviour. Just take the above example of the bilingual child. If her Tamil speaking father or Sinhala speaking mother was adamant that only his or her language would be spoken at home wouldn’t it lead to a serious crisis? Can anyone determine with any justification whether mother or father’s decision should carry the day? On what grounds can anyone say that one linguistic/cultural environment is better than or superior to the other? If the parents had saner heads they would let the language mix be a blessing in disguise instead of making it a recipe for disaster. Surely, it would apply with equal validity on the broad canvas of society.

Come to think of it, it is usually our cultural seclusion that makes us feel rootless when we are placed in an unfamiliar social milieu as a grown up, which is more likely than not in the modern world where many cannot afford to stick to one job or place for long. Young children who migrate find it easier to adapt to the new setting than their parents do. As we have seen, children living in multicultural settings don’t seem to suffer any “rootlessness” whatsoever; on the contrary, they are often more confident and skilled in socializing. A bicultural is unlikely to be feeling any more estranged than an amphibian in water. It is often the insularity resulting from our cultural segregation in childhood that seems to prompt us to demonize cultural intermixing as a dangerous dilution, or worse, an out and out contamination of “inherited” values.

As such, linguistic “isolation” in childhood may contribute in no small measure to the emergence and hardening of divisive feelings continually attributed to “ethnicity” – a label which has always proved to be more harmful than useful. If bilingualism or, better still, multilingualism can dilute this unserviceable sense of segregation, why thwart it? Can we think of any instance where humans have run in to a crisis for not knowing who belonged to what “ethnicity?”

However, being a bilingual from the cradle is too good to be true. In most families, children have to be content with one home language, often, Tamil or Sinhala. Thus, to compensate for this customary language seclusion in early childhood, the L2 has to be made available to children as early as possible. As linguists claim, changes in brain plasticity make delayed L2 learning more taxing- the older you get the more laborious it becomes. In the L2 learning continuum, the earlier you start, the closer you are to the natural L1 acquisition process, which gradually shifts from its “acquisition mode” to a more artificial “learning mode” as you age, and the latter is far less effective than the former notwithstanding the extra time and effort it requires. Furthermore, while early acquisition of an L2 tends to be more comprehensive and enriching, late learning is often narrowly focused and inhibited. Many adult learners, for example, a good number of undergraduates grudgingly learn it to fulfill a necessary condition to get their degree certificate and “be employable.”

A child’s growing inhibition towards learning a second language with the passing of years is nowhere more manifest than in universities where students wanting in English language skills are conspicuous in their absence in kaduwa classes. Thus, undoubtedly, the most prudent, scientific and result-oriented approach to teaching English, or any L2 for that matter, is to focus on primary and secondary level students without delaying it until their language learning mechanisms have risen to their, so to speak, “level of incompetence.”

Surely, university entrants aren’t at their best age to contend with English because they are in an age category in which their L2 assimilation mechanism is shifting gear from acquisition to learning. The most affected by this change are those whose medium of instruction happens to be English. Their lack of proficiency in English, which is the result of inadequate exposure to it during their primary and secondary education, makes them pay a heavy price now, at least in three ways. Firstly, it makes them cut kaduwa classes to avoid looking “foolish” in the presence of their more privileged colleagues. It also drastically reduces their grasp of academic lectures, which directly affects their performance at exams, especially, in the first semester. What is most unfair is that in a system in which the first semester grades of the academic subjects determine their eligibility for field selection, those who get lower grades due to their lack of English language skills but with no deficiency in cognitive skills, are often denied of getting into their desired field. This is just one undesirable outcome of prolonged monolingualism, which can be easily avoided by placing more emphasis on early bilingualism.

Therefore, the most prudent, profitable and scientific approach to teaching English as an L2 is to focus on the young students in primary and secondary grades which will ease the pressure exerted on undergraduates who are compelled to mug up English for passing exams and be “employable.” A good command of the English language can help create a level playing for all new entrants. Only a few of them enter university to study English as a subject and all those who learn other subjects – particularly, those who study in the English medium must not be penalized for being deficient in it. After all they belong to the brightest bulbs of our youth. That English is given an excessive importance in higher studies amounts to making those who lack kaduwa pay for the “sins” of a flawed L2 teaching system, which is made absurdly top-heavy to compensate for the lack of sufficient attention given to English in early years.

With so much evidence in support of early bilingualism, ‘better late than never’ policy would only be a good joke when it comes to teaching English as an L2 in our country. In a broader sense, making English accessible to all young students may help reduce the ills of an unproductive and costly “multi-ethnic” system, which should have long been upgraded to a truly multilingual and multicultural system sans “ethnic” fault lines. Bilinguals will outdo monolinguals even if we are forced to learn another language- let it be any language from China to Peru.

 

 

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